Abide: Genesis 24-27

  • As Genesis marches on we are introduced to new people, whose lives are in some ways different than our own, but in many ways are similar. In this episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast,” we meet Isaac and Rebekah, who push us to think about what our responsibilities are in our families, and how we can understand people and their faith in all their complexity.

    My name is Joseph Stuart, I’m the public communications specialist at the Maxwell Institute. Kristian Heal is a Research Fellow at the Institute, and each week we will be discussing the week’s block of reading from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ “Come, Follow Me” curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block, so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to “inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints in their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas.”

    Today we are joined by one of our research assistants, Carolyn Lowman, an Ancient Near East History, Hebrew Bible major here at BYU from Southern California. After Carolyn graduates she plans to be a seminary teacher.

  • As Genesis marches on, we are introduced to new people, patriarchs and matriarchs whose lives are in some ways very different from our own, but in other ways are similar. In this episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast, we meet Isaac and Rebecca who push us to think about what our responsibilities are in our families and how we can understand people and their faith in all their complexity. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communication Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Institute and each week we will be discussing the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter Day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and engage the world of religious ideas. Today, we are joined by one of our research assistants, Carolyn Lowman, an Ancient Near Eastern History and Hebrew Bible major here at BYU from Southern California. After Carolyn graduates, she plans to be a seminary teacher.


    Joseph Stuart: Welcome, Carolyn to Abide.


    Carolyn Lowman: Thanks for having me.


    Joseph Stuart: It is our pleasure. Now Kristian, we’re looking at Genesis 24 to 27 today. What’s going on in these chapters?


    Kristian Heal: Abraham, who’s been our companion for the last few episodes recedes into the background in this week’s reading. Yes, we learned that he remarries and has a large family with his new wife Ketura, presumably a daughter of the Canaanites, and we also hear briefly about Ishmael’s posterity but this is now the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham is certainly generous to the other sons sired by concubines, but he ultimately sends them away as they grow up, and willed all that he owned to Isaac. Perhaps he wanted to avoid the kind of infighting over position and power that will shape the stories of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Abraham’s last act is to ensure that his chosen bloodline stays within the clan. So he commissions his faithful servant by covenant to get a wife for his son from the land of Abraham’s birth. The story that follows is a beautiful and exemplary illustration of the faithfulness of this unnamed servant. It may seem odd that Abraham and his immediate posterity keep returning to this land that he had been told to leave in order to find wives for their children. Abraham seemed to be aware of the dangers involved in returning, at least he made it clear that his servants should not let his son Isaac go there for any reason. Nonetheless, this little corner of Mesopotamia where his extended family lived, produced four remarkable women, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah who are mothers and examples to the house of Israel forevermore. We do them a disservice, however, if we recast them according to our own expectations of exemplary. Instead, there may be value in letting their stories teach us about the virtues of remarkable women, Isaac and Rebecca’s life interactions and prosperity are described in Genesis 26. The cycle of life repeats itself as they negotiate barrenness, famine, family, fear of being murdered, for having a too beautiful wife, and the real politic of living peaceably in a world of competing clans and interests. Importantly, Isaac is visited at least once by the Lord, who reassures him and then promises to bless him and his offspring for the sake of my servant Abraham. In chapter 27, the drama that began in Rebecca’s womb and that was foreshadowed in the revelation that she received from God about her twins, is now played out in one urgent moment. In this compelling episode, the covenant and promise of Abraham’s posterity hangs in the balance.


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that summary, Kristian. I’m really intrigued by the unnamed but faithful servant. I confess this isn’t something I had picked up before. What do we know about this servant?


    Kristian Heal: This is a character who has really struck me this time round as I’ve read through the stories again and again. Genesis 24 is one of three famous Old Testament stories in which a future spouse is first met at a well, the other two of the stories of Jacob and Rachel and Genesis 29 and the story of Moses and Zipporah in Exodus 2: 15 through 22. This is a type scene to use Robert Alter’s useful phrase and as such as certain features, which he describes as “…traveled to a foreign land encounter there with the future bride at a well, drawing of water, hurrying or running to bring the news of the strangers arrival and a feast at which the betrothal is concluded.” The version that we find in Genesis 24 is the most elaborate with its slow, stately progress with extensive use of dialogue and above all, its very elaborate use of the device of verbatim repetition.” to quote Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. One scholar has called this chapter the wooing of Rebecca, but that seems somehow inapposite. For starters, one thing that’s special about this chapter is that the wooing is done vicariously. But the story is not really about wooing at all, it seems to me. Rather, the purpose of the story seems to be in large part to introduce us to Rebecca, who Alan Davis, a brilliant scholar of the Old Testament at Duke University, considers, “the most developed character among Israel’s matriarchs.” The story also celebrates the character of Abraham’s faithful servant. Carolyn is going to talk about Rebecca in just a moment. So I’m going to focus in this episode on Abraham’s servant. What an intriguing character we have here.


    Joseph Stuart: I’m intrigued in general, that Abraham has servants. We know that he has land and that he has wealth, but what his servant had been considered part of his household or part of his responsibility in an ancient Near Eastern context?


    Kristian Heal: Servant is a word that we use I think, to make slightly more palatable, the what is the reality that these were slaves. And these are all part of we know from descriptions of Abraham’s wealth, they had an abundance of livestock, but he also had male and female slaves in his household. And these slaves, as we’ll think about when we look at Joseph in the future, we’re often given great responsibility in the house. So Eliezer, who we’ve learned about previously, was Abraham steward. This slave, the servant is the chiefest, the most responsible of all of Abraham’s, the senior servant as it were. And so I think in an ancient context, servants, slaves were given enormous responsibility in the running of the household. And this is one of those examples where a faithful servant is given responsibility that has kind of covenant significance.


    Joseph Stuart: That’s really interesting to hear, because that’s something that we see in American history with patriarchs like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as well, that they’re giving responsibility to these enslaved or at least unfree, to use the academic term, men and women within their households. I can see why you recognize that this unnamed servant is so intriguing.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think that the promise of this character and I think that we, as the story sort of continues, we start to see the character of the servant demonstrated again and again. His wisdom, his wiliness, his faithfulness and all of that is at work I think. And the servant didn’t really have a lot to work with. Abraham told him to go to a place and find a wife for his son. He didn’t tell him to go to his family in particular. He was also given negative counsel, don’t let my son go there. And so this isn’t a great— it’s not really a specific commission. Go to this place and pick up this. This is the kind of commission where the servant has to be able to show initiative and has to be able to show his faithfulness both to his master but also as we’ll see, to the God of his master. And so the promise of divine aid that Abraham gives to this servant in Genesis 24:7, “The Lord will send his angel before you.” is something that clearly runs through this story, this promise of divine aid. The servant knew that God was in the work and that propelled him forward, made it possible for him to do his assignment. So when he arrives at the well, when he arrives at the land and the well would have been a natural kind of meeting place. I think this is why these type scenes happen there. This is a place to gather information, to meet people. When he arrives at the well, the first thing he does is offer a prayer to God. “Oh Lord,” he says, “God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day and deal graciously with my master Abraham.” So we notice here the servant negotiating with God, praying with God, but invoking Abraham’s faith. And so there’s this interesting kind of vicarious relationship. On the one hand, he’s acting on his own behalf using his initiative. But in appealing to God, it’s Abraham’s faithfulness and God’s relationship with Abraham which has been proven time and time again, that is invoked in this moment.


    Joseph Stuart: That seems really important to me that God doesn’t only answer the prayers that we offer because of our own faith, but because of those who are also praying on our behalf, those whose service we are serving. I really liked the idea too of meeting at the well to test, to find a companion for Isaac, to find a wife for Isaac that matches up to what the Lord wants, not just the most attractive or the most capable, but the one that is best for Isaac in the unfolding narrative of God’s creation.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, it’s interesting. This test seems to be oriented around a value that we’ve already seen demonstrated by Abraham, the value of hospitality. We want the servant to view it as a test, which in some ways is an almost impossible test. But he is able to stand and see this test being fulfilled and as he does he again, he’s thinking of his relationship. He’s not thinking of his own success. He’s thinking of his relationship with God. He wonders whether the Lord has made his errand successful. When it is successful. His first thought is to turn to God and say, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not withheld his steadfast faithfulness from my master. For I have been guided on my errand from the Lord.” And one biblical scholar, commenting on this verse observes success, which inflates the natural man, humbles the man of God. We see that in action here with this unnamed servant who was immediately turned to God in praise and thanks.


    Joseph Stuart: I’m struck too in the text that it says his steadfast faithfulness, not merely His faithfulness, because we are at a premium for space, because it’s difficult to get these records down, every word matters. What do you see in the word “steadfast” that we can learn from this?


    Kristian Heal: Now I really this, this really kind of struck me as a kind of an interesting way to describe God’s relationship with Abraham, that he is treated with hesed and with emet. In the King James Version, this is mercy and truth, a sort of a literal translation. In the Jewish Publication Society that I’m sort of using, the translation that I’m using in this episode, its God’s steadfastness and faithfulness. Other people translate it, Robert Alter as steadfast kindness, Gordon Wenham as faithful loving kindness, John Goldingay as committed truthfulness. We find this combination in the Psalms for example, in Psalms 40:11 and 12, and Psalm 57:4 suggesting perhaps that the servant’s prayer is echoing a liturgical phrase. But I think what is important is these attributes of hesed, loving kindness and emet, faithfulness are ones that God shows to all those with whom he has a covenant relationship.


    Joseph Stuart: I like that you use the phrase liturgical, but for those who may have forgotten what we explained a few episodes ago, how would you explain what liturgical phrase is?


    Kristian Heal: So what I mean by a liturgical phrase is something that would have been heard in Sabbath worship or in temple worship. This is the language and we find it in our own tradition, where the language of prayer or the language of rituals or the language of our hymns come in and kind of invest and become part of our speech. And so that’s what I think, is possibly one of the things that’s happening here.


    Joseph Stuart: Now in retelling this commission, this faithful servant approaches Rebecca’s family, as would have been the customer of the time, and we’ll learn more about Abraham’s promise of divine aid. Abraham promised the servant that, “the Lord whose ways I have followed will send his angel with you and make your errand successful.” As he’s telling Rebecca’s family this, he’s able to convince the family of the righteousness of their proposal. Is there a significance to this meeting of the servant with the family? Or what else can we learn from this episode?


    Kristian Heal: I think what we see here is a lovely pattern of seeking the Lord’s aid, experiencing the Lord’s beneficence, and then wanting to tell other people about that experience. I think that we see that happen. We also see in this moment with Rebecca’s family, that part of the reason that he is doing this, I think, is to help them understand that God is at work in this moment. Now there’s another dynamic happening here, which we haven’t really spoken about and we have to be kind of mindful of, and that is the dynamic of Abraham’s prosperity which clearly seems to pique the interest of perhaps Laban most, and Laban is going to come into the story. So we’re sort of thinking in the future about Laban’s potential greed that seems to be motivating and his wiliness that seems to be motivating some of his actions. But I think it’s worth focusing on this fact that the servant is emphasizing that God is in the world. And so ultimately, what we’ve seen here in Genesis 24 is a beautiful and complex story. Its narrative artists brilliantly explicated in Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative for those who want to sort of understand it more fully. But from this service perspective, there was difficulty, there were problematic characters to negotiate, there were chances for failure. But what maintained this servant on his errand was his confidence in the steadfast faithfulness of the God of Abraham. He knew that God was in the work and that God would work through him in that moment and that that is the thing that would make all the difference.


    Joseph Stuart: I find it really beautiful too to recall that the servant repeatedly says or at least it stuck out to me repeatedly that God is in the work. And that’s something that can reassure me, when I’m not totally sure that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, I find sort of personal solace I think in the principles that come out of a story like this. We often sort of wrestle with difficulties in our faith and especially in our faith communities, problems in the church, problems in our ward and the thing that I come back to and find myself sort of falling back to remind me of where the ground is, is my conviction that God is in the work here in my own sort of religious community in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And nothing is more important to me than that. And there are lots of things that are contending to be more important than that, right? Problems, these kinds of things that are dealt with in the Gospel topics essays. But for me, this grounding belief is that I’ve seen God in action in my life and that he really does send his angels before us to make our errand successful. So I mean, to give one example, when Vicki and I moved here with our four children, and in 2000, we were invited to come to BYU for work. But we didn’t know we had our plane tickets. We were coming to work. We had no idea where we were going to live. We had no idea where we should be looking to live. We had no idea what schools we should be looking at, who’s going to teach our children music, what’s going to happen? And we didn’t even know how to answer those questions and we were worried about this. And Vicki was worried about sort of moving to America in the first place. And a couple of weeks before we were due to leave, we went to Oxford to visit some friends. And Vicki shared her testimony and shared her concerns in Relief Society and a wonderful sister came up to her whose husband was there in Oxford on a sabbatical and said, “Talk to me afterwards.” And she then said come and stay in our house when you arrive. Use that as a base. Go and look for accommodation in this area. Send your children to this school. These are the music teachers that we’ve found to be sort of most awesome. And my wife came away from that moment reassured. We had some sense of where we were actually going to be. One of their children came in and sort of helped us staying in the house, kind of helped us negotiate, get food and negotiate sort of things when we first arrived. And this was just a wonderful moment that we retell in our family of God preparing the way before us, and showing us that kind of God was in this work in this moment in us moving and coming here. And that something—which I really, it’s those kinds of experiences, and we don’t need to have too many of them in our lives to be reminded that God is all the way in our lives. And I find that to be and that’s why this chapter is sort of particularly poignant for me. I think, increasingly.


    Joseph Stuart: Another person like Vicki, who showed her faith and bearing testimony and finding answers from the Lord comes in the complex character of Rebecca. Thank you so much for sharing that Kristian. And I love the example of your dear wife, Vicki acting as a righteous woman and sharing her testimony and then another righteous woman being so generous with what she has to offer. And another faithful and generous woman that we learn of in the book of Genesis is Rebecca. Carolyn, what should we know about Rebecca?


    Carolyn Lowman: What stuck out to me about her is that the second that she promised to go with the righteous servant, she got the Abrahamic Covenant promised to her as well which I think is very beautiful. She’s awesome because she gets direct and personal revelation from the Lord when discussing things about twins struggling within her. Something that does stick out to me, that does stand out to me is that she is human. She is very imperfect and just like we all are, even though she is righteous and chosen. She does something that maybe shocked me and seemed a little bit dishonest in the end of these chapters and I kind of struggled with it for a little bit. I was like, wow, this wonderful matriarch that we look up to and revere and love did something kind of underhanded. She told her son Jacob, who she loved more, who she favored more than Esau, to basically lie to her husband and get the blessings of the firstborn pronounced upon him. So I wrestled with this a little bit and I read a lot of commentaries and I came across a really good quote from the commentary by Ed J. Pinegar and Richard J. Allen from their book Unlocking the Old Testament. It says, “The Lord knew of Esau’s weakness as did his mother. Hence, her strategy to ensure that the commission of the Abrahamic Covenant would devolve upon her more faithful son, Jacob. Such was the design of the Almighty. Rebecca was not acting out of cunning or deception, but an accommodation with the will of the Lord.” That stood out to me a lot. It made me think differently about Rebecca. It made me think that maybe she wasn’t being dishonest. Maybe she was doing what she thought she needed to do to further the will of the Lord.


    Joseph Stuart: I think that we can also think about Rebecca, she’s not going through this in some sort of Machiavellian way to accumulate power, it’s that she knows what is best and has received revelation that that’s what it’s for. Speaking from experience, just because something is right doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come with personal fallout or that it doesn’t, or that it’s not accompanied by feeling uncomfortable with what you’re being asked to do. And that was something I was struck by in reading this, as what was Rebecca’s relationship with Esau like after this experience? Isaac and Jacob, maybe the narrative focuses more on them. But I can only imagine how much work it took to rebuild a relationship with Esau. And I think that this is something that we see is common with many women in the scriptures especially in the Old Testament. They’re righteous, but they’re given difficult decisions to make and then difficult actions to go forward with.


    Carolyn Lowman: I think about that a lot with Eve partaking of the fruit, obviously something that the Lord commanded her not to do. But she did what she needed to do to further the will of the Lord. And it was a sin. It was the number one, the first sin, right? I also think about Esther who needed to save for people but it had to come with a great personal sacrifice. She even says, “If I perish, I perish.” I think about that a lot with these incredibly righteous women who are willing to do anything to be obedient. I think a lot of the Abrahamic covenant is with a unity of a man and a woman being righteous together. And it couldn’t just be Isaac. It couldn’t just be him with the Abrahamic covenant, he needed Rebecca to help him to further the work of the Lord.


    Joseph Stuart: I think that it points to a certain order of things that we are never able to accomplish or receive the greatest blessings that we can by ourselves. We’re reliant upon our relationships with others. And it seems important to me that Abraham sending his servant out, isn’t just choosing a spouse for his son which of course, is serious. But it’s also furthering the covenant that is made to him and his family.


    Kristian Heal: I think another interesting aspect to these stories is the way that God uses people’s talents and personalities without expecting them to sort of conform to some sort of impossible standard or some sort of impossible persona. He’s taking them where they are. And I love the fact in chapter 25:27 onwards it says, “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors. But Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.” So we have these two very different characters, right? Very different people kind of working out in the story, Isaac favored Esau because he had good taste for the game that the father ate. Isaac is sort of, he has a preference, right? I mean he knows who he is, the kind of person he is. But Rebecca favored Jacob. And so we have this lovely context of the story in which we’re able to allow these kinds of individual personalities to work in concert, sometimes to be in conflict, some to make sacrifices, but ultimately to bring about the purposes of God. And Rebecca is such a profound example of somebody, I mean you know, thinking about the cost to her of this. When you think about her willingness to take upon the cursor example. I mean, Jacob is, you know, maybe I’ll get cursed for this thing that I do if I get caught. Rebecca is like, I’ll take the curse. What does that make you think of when you think of the, you know, the cost? One of the in the notes to the Jewish Study Bible it says, “It seems possible that following this event, Rebecca never saw her son again.” I mean, that just sort of struck me as this is a foreseen— so that’s a really interesting aspect of Rebecca’s character.


    Carolyn Lowman: I think we also see that things aren’t necessarily always black and white and she had to make a very difficult decision, a great personal sacrifice. I don’t think it was selfish. It feels selfish when you first read it. It feels like oh, she likes Jacob more. But I think it’s very selfless that she was doing what she needed to do to accomplish the Lord.


    Joseph Stuart: I think that’s the perfect place for us to end this episode. Have a blessed week, y’all.


    Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate, review, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast? And follow us on social media at @byumaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu/edu. Thank you and have a great week.