Abraham 15: The good and faithful servant

Twickenham URC 7 April 2002

The good and faithful servant  (Genesis 24)

On the thirteen previous occasions I’ve stood here, I’ve introduced the next of our passages from Genesis in a number of ways: there have been passages that are delight to preach on, others that are hard to understand, one at least where one struggles to find something of interest and others one might have wished were not part of the narrative and might have been tempted to skip. Today I stand here with a different problem. This story, Genesis 24, is so beautifully told – I hope you think I did the right thing by choosing to have it read in full – that I feel like someone standing with a box of paints next to an old master, conscious that whatever I add to the canvas can only detract from the original work. Fifteen minutes of silent meditation might or might not beat what I have to say.

This is the last part but one of this sixteen part series. If you wanted a theme for a series of sermons that could last for one hundred and sixteen parts and more, you could choose to preach on the lesser known characters of the Bible narrative. The focus of today’s reading is an unnamed servant. ‘Servant’ may be a good legal definition of what he was, but he enjoyed an exalted position in Abraham’s household, trusted by his master, and privy to his business dealings. You saw in the Queen Mother’s funeral parade on Friday, the long standing and trusted members of her staff, people who were privy to her private life and thoughts, people who enjoyed her total confidence. So it was with Abraham and this servant.

Back in part 5 we read Genesis 15 where God speaks to Abraham. His response is “Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?“. And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir“. It is generally assumed that the subject of today’s reading is the same person, Eliezer of Damascus.

Imagine yourself being middle-aged, either being the heir to the Dukedom held by your bachelor second cousin of mature years, or the wife of said heir. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, at 75 the Duke marries a society girl, within a year produces a son, and you know that for the rest of your life you will be plain Mr or Mrs Jones. You of course send the new baby congratulation card, but perhaps with slightly mixed feelings.

Eliezer was a man who might have felt let down, bitter even. He had given his life to working for Abraham and for many a year had expected to be the heir to his wealth. But then, to his astonishment, a son had come along and any material ambitions he may have had were dashed. Perhaps you’ve known someone whose hopes in life have taken a tumble: the promotion they worked for and expected didn’t happen, the business venture didn’t work out, a relationship went nowhere. Perhaps you’ve been in this position yourself. You can handle situations like this is one of two ways: allow them to cast a shadow over the rest of your life, your friends never being allowed to forget how unfair life has been to you; or you can pick yourself up, perhaps learn from what has happened and stride forward ready to meet what lies ahead. As Kipling puts it, “If you can deal with triumph and disaster …”.

Eliezer hadn’t been swayed by thoughts of riches, or by the disappearance of said thoughts. He had stuck by his master over fifty or more years. Given his long and faithful service it’s not surprising that his master had absolute confidence in him, but even so was he prepared for the assignment he was about to be given?

Abraham senses that he is nearing the end of his life and is conscious that Isaac needs a wife, so that the promises of continuing generations can be fulfilled. But it cannot any wife; it must be the right wife, someone from his own people. We read at the end of Genesis 22 that Abraham knew of his brother Nahor’s children, so this family line is the likely place to look for a daughter-in-law. The task is explained to the servant and he is asked to makes the a vow to carry it out, which he does, taking care not to commit himself to something he cannot do.

Then, with others to help him, and with ten camels loaded with provisions and gifts, he sets off on a journey of about 400 miles north and in due course arrives at the well at Nahor – the town having taken its name from Abraham’s brother. Here he again commits his mission to prayer. He asks for a sign: that the person he asks for a drink will also offer to water his camels. No sooner had he finished his prayer than Rebekah came along.

We have learned much in the earlier parts of this series as to how our sense of time is not always God’s, and how we must be willing to wait, but this time there is no waiting. We would all like to have our prayers answered as soon as we finish them, but perhaps sometimes this can only happen when we are ready to make the long and possibly difficult journey to the place where they can be answered?

Rebekah – Lovely to look at, a willing worker, a girl who could have had the pick of any man in Nahor. A girl with her own maidservants who did not think it beneath her to make her own visit to the well. If she was surprised, as was the Samaritan woman at the well so many years later, to be approached by a stranger and asked for a drink, her response was quick and ready, reflecting Abraham’s response when three strangers had turned up as his tent so many years before.

“Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink. (18) Then there must have been one of those times of life that was really a matter of seconds, but seemed like hours. Would her offer of a drink for him be all? No. He had asked for a sign and got it:

After she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have finished drinking.” (19)

I don’t know too much about camels – I did go to a camel farm in Alice Springs once – but I do know that ten camels will drink an awful lot more water than one man. It must have been hard work raising all that water. The tired traveller looks on at the attractive, hard working girl, so generous of spirit – and is left in no doubt that she was the answer to his prayers and those of his master. He offers her gifts as a token of appreciation and asks who she is – she tells him that her grandfather was Abraham’s brother, Nahor. For the genealogists amongst you, her unseen husband-to-be is her second cousin once removed. This answer could not be better. He explains his mission and asks whether the party might stay at her house.

They go back to her house, to be met by her mother and brother Laban, who willingness to provide hospitality is perhaps due to the display of wealth. ‘Sit down and eat’, they say, but the servant refuses, saying that he must first tell what has brought him here. My master’s business comes before my personal comfort – a challenge to us today. How often do we say this, and how often the opposite?

And now we hear the story of Eliezer telling his story. Not quite the same story: he changes it slightly to suit the listeners: when he first meets Rebekah he is so sure that she is the answer to prayer that he produces the gifts, then enquires who she is. On retelling he decides that it would perhaps be a little more tactful to say that he checked her out first then offered the gifts. The listeners cannot help but be moved by the response to his tale: “This is from the LORD; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has directed.” (50,51). More gifts are exchanged.

After a night’s sleep her mother and brother are not so sure. Stay here ten days, they say. Perhaps the display of wealth has turned their heads a little. But the good and faithful servant will not be waylaid: “Do not detain me, now that the LORD has granted success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master.” Then they said, “Let’s call the girl and ask her about it.” So they called Rebekah and asked her, “Will you go with this man?” “I will go,” she said. (56-58)

I will go“. No doubt. Absolute faith in the call of the master which comes through this aged retainer. Off they set, Rebekah accompanied by her childhood nurse, Deborah, of whom we know nothing save that she has the honour of an obituary notice in Genesis 35. Rebekah’s family bless her as she sets off.

We then come to the marriage itself. As they get near Rebekah veils herself in accordance with the custom of the time – a custom not unknown to us today. They are united as man and wife.

Not many of you know that I once went to marriage guidance. Many years ago, when I was in holiday in Southend, the Southend Marriage Guidance Council had a public meeting with the Christian psychologist, Dr Jack Dominian, as the guest speaker. I would like to tell you about my encounter with the organiser’s lovely daughter who was handing out the tea after the talk and would, I am sure, have provided for my camel, had I had one, but within a minute or two the caretaker marched in, announced that the hall had only been booked to 9.30 and threw everyone out, tea left un-drunk. Such is life!

Anyway, Jack Dominian’s specialist subject is marriage and he talks and writes about it in terms of sustaining, healing and growth. Under the heading of ‘healing’ he suggests that a good marriage helps people overcome and move beyond the quote, ‘wounds’, unquote that they have picked up in their childhood and growing up – lack of self-worth, lack of self-confidence, insecurity, inferiority complexes and so on, or in the case of Isaac an emptiness and loneliness. The right partner can help one get beyond these feelings. Of course the same can be true of other relationships – they too can sustain and heal us, help us to grow. Isaac had, we are told, felt the loss of his mother very greatly and now Rebekah was to be a source of comfort and healing.

Returning to Isaac and Rebekah, is it just a story to be passed on from generation to generation? No, there is more to it. Let’s not just read it as a beautifully told story, but as a series of challenges for us. In our last hymn we will declare “O Jesus I have promised to serve you to the end”. Are we always at our master’s service, ready to do what he asks of us, even if it involves personal sacrifice and discomfort? Are the promises we make to him and to others carefully thought about or carelessly offered. As we make decisions do we seek God’s will? Do we look for answers to our prayers? Are we ready to put the claims of our master to others? Are we sometimes tempted to put our personal comfort before doing what is right? When the call comes, will our unambiguous response be “I will go”?

When I started this sermon I suggested that it was hard to know whether you would get more from what I have said than from your own quiet meditative reading of this lovely story. But you don’t have to choose – take time to read it again in your own time and reflect.

– – –

R&S 536: New every morning is the love;
O loving Lord, you are for ever seeking;
Deep in the shadows of the past (Brian Wren);
Leave your country and your people, [leave your family and your friends. Travel to the land he’ll show you; God will bless the ones he sends.] (Willard F Jabusch)^;
538: O Jesus I have promised

In art: Eliezer and Rebecca, Poussin, 1648