St. Paul’s – Proper 9 – 7/9/2023
The story of the search for and discovery of a bride for Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, is one of the mostfascinating stories in all of literature. It is, perhaps, not only is the earliest account of an arranged marriage, but it is also a touching account of how God providentially brought Isaac and Rebekah together. But before we tell that story, let’s go to a more contemporary account of how marriage changed the course of history. The two stories are vastly different — and therein lie some important lessons — but equally powerful.
About 50 years ago (September 5, 1972), the worst tragedy in Olympic history jolted the world. At the Munich Olympics, Arab terrorists wearing workout sweats scaled the walls of the Olympic Village, broke into one of the team apartments and seized nine Israeli athletes after killing their wrestling coach and a weight lifter. The terrorists, from a group called Black September, demanded the release of their comrades in prison, but their main intent involved bringing the Palestinian plight and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the forefront of international attention. It worked.
Although their comrades were not released from prison, Black September forced the world to take notice of Palestinian grievances. Arafat was eventually invited to address the U.N. General Assembly, and the Palestine Liberation Organization was granted United Nations special observer status.
Suddenly, with objectives met and a worldwide platform secured, Arafat and the PLO had a problem. They no longer needed young assassins to carry out further acts of terror. They no longer needed a band of bloodthirsty fighters eagerly willing to die for The Cause. What were they going to do with all the young men of Black September?
Arafat ordered his intelligence chief, Abu Iyad to turn Black September off, but how do you transform trained terrorists from being killing machines, hungry for another assignment, to being upstanding Palestinian citizens? Abu Iyad passed this arduous assignment on to one of his deputies, and that unnamed man — later became a brigadier general in the PLO — came up with an ingenious plan.
What happened next sounds like a Semitic remake of the classic movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The intelligence chief and his deputy brainstormed all the possibilities and came up with this ridiculous idea: Why not marry off all the terrorists? Why not counter vile-spitting hate with heart-softening love? Why not give these men — the fiercest fighters in the PLO — a reason to live rather than a reason to die? Just maybe it could work! All other alternatives seemed even riskier.
Arafat’s staff traveled to Palestinian refugee camps, to PLO strongholds, to Palestinian neighbors in all the major Middle Eastern cities in search of the most attractive, available young Palestinian women they could find, offering them the once in a lifetime opportunity to serve their country. Without disclosing any details, the women were asked to accept this mission that had been sanctioned by none other than Chairman Yasser Arafat himself. Who could refuse this call to become true patriots? About 100 lovely young women agreed to accept and were fetched from their homes across the expanse of the Middle East to Beirut, where they attended what can only be described as a PLO version of a college mixer. A little mingling. Soft music. Flirty looks from across the dance floor.
Sudden romances evolved into long-term commitments. Incentives to marry were generous. Each tough young Black September member and his blushing bride would receive $3,000 plus bonus gifts including a nonviolent job with the PLO and an apartment in Beirut equipped with gas stove, refrigerator and television.
Each couple adding a baby to the family within a year would be granted an additional $5,000. Not bad for a band of trained assassins used to living in tents. Amazingly, every single member of Black September found Ms. Right and married her. And almost every member immediately started a family.
But what about that ingrained thirst for blood? The intelligence chief and the future brigadier general instituted a plan to periodically test the former terrorists.
Occasionally the men were given PLO assignments in Geneva or Paris with genuine passports and nonviolent duties. But without exception, the men refused to accept the international assignments, fearing arrest for past crimes. They had too much to lose now with wives and children at home.
So, the moral of this story is that while hate terrorizes, love tenderizes — even the most hardened heart. This is a classic account of how marriage is often seen as an institution that will socialize a young man and settle him down. If wildness and irresponsibility are the disease, marriage is the cure.
But this is not the case in a second story that comes from the Middle East. This story, much older than the first, begins with the father of both Arab and Jew, Abraham.
Abraham understood that his son, Isaac needed a wife. His own wife Sarah had abandoned a prosperous life in Haran in order to follow Abraham to places unknown after God issued the call. And off they went with all their possessions and nephew Lot in tow, traipsing across the Fertile Crescent and down through the Negev and finally back up to Hebron, where Sarah died at the astounding age of 125.
Isaac was broken after the death of his mother, who had given birth to him late in life, and yet Abraham knew that the best cure for heartbreak back then was, as it is today, love. Isaac needed a new reason to live (24:67).
Abraham sent an unnamed servant out to fetch a wife for his son, and the instructions for locating Ms. Right indicated some travel. No Canaanite woman would suffice as Abraham’s future daughter-in-law.
Just as Arafat’s servants searched in Palestinian camps for proper wives for their Palestinian boys, Abraham’s servant ventured back home to Haran, specifically to the local hot spot where young women regularly ventured: the village watering hole.
The servant’s assignment was carried out prayerfully. In fact, this servant first laid eyes on the winsome Rebekah while in the middle of a conversation with the Lord. We pick up the play-by-play as it happened:
O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, Please offer your jar that I may drink, and who shall say, Drink, and I will
water your camels — let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.
While the servant was speaking, Rebekah showed up, said all the right words, offered the stranger a place to sleep that night and then ran home to tell the folks her news wearing a newly acquired nose ring and bracelets on her arms.
Would Rebekah accept the mission this servant proposed? Incentives certainly caught her attention. Flocks and herds. Silver and gold. Slaves, camels and donkeys. All this and more would be hers if she accepted this once in-a-lifetime opportunity.
But Rebekah knew very few details. Sure, this deal offered her a husband plus a signing bonus. But she could not have known that her acceptance would make her a crucial figure in God’s great plan. She would have twin sons. The name of one of those sons would become Israel. Her grandchildren would become the 12 tribes of Israel. She knew none of this, but said Yes anyway.
This chapter is one of the Bible’s great love stories, but not so much because of the love of Rebekah for Isaac, or Isaac for Rebekah. Their marriage was a blind date and a life sentence. Some argue that the marriage itself left a lot to be desired. But it is a great story because it demonstrates God’s abiding interest in our personal lives. God understands our needs and desires. Isaac, depressed and in mourning, and without a life’s companion, was in desperate need of a reason to live. And God gave that to him.
In this story, as well as in the story of our own lives, we see that God knows our needs before we are even able to articulate them ourselves.
God was also in Isaac’s life bringing together God’s plan for Isaac’s future. Isaac could not have known the prayers, the time and effort, the sacrifice, the concern, the negotiating and bargaining that went on to bring the plan of God into reality.
God was also faithful to Rebekah, one of the great women of the Bible. How innocent that trip to the well must have appeared that morning. What if she had not been faithful in her daily responsibilities? God saw in her someone to whom he could entrust the fate of an entire nation.
God was also faithful and loving in the life of Abraham’s servant, traditionally thought to be Eliezer. His mandate was enormous. Bearing a pack-train of gifts, he headed out to find a wife for the son of his lord. It was an earthly assignment as well as a heavenly mission.
No one stands beyond the sweep of God’s providence: man, woman, child, master, servant, husband, wife, son or daughter. God takes care of his own.
In this case, God brought to Isaac the object of his love’s affection. Love is one of God’s sweet gifts, and by grace it reveals itself in many ways. In marriage we discover God’s design for two people to share their lives, to support each other through whatever great plan God has created for them.
When Isaac looked up and saw camels coming, he could not know that what was also coming was his future, his destiny, his great love. When Rebekah looked up and caught a glimpse of the one she had heard about, she prepared to meet him face to face. In Sarah’s tent, Rebekah was loved. Isaac was comforted. God had given them new reasons to live.
Love overcomes whatever terrorizes us, whether it is loneliness and deep sorrow or self-doubt and bitter regret.
Love gives us a reason to live.
I close with a blessing from the Black Rock Prayerbook:
The world now is too dangerous and too beautiful
for anything but love.
May your eyes be so blessed you see God in everyone.
Your ears, so you hear the cry of the poor.
May your hands be so blessed
that everything you touch is a sacrament.
Your lips, so you speak nothing but the truth with love.
May your feet be so blessed you run to those who need you.
And may your heart be so opened, so set on fire,
that your love, your love, changes everything.