Saturday, August 20, 2011

Marriage ~ Gleanings in Genesis 24

I love weddings, and I love this chapter because it's one long marriage ceremony.

First, it's quite public. Biblically marriage is a public institution in a lot of ways, not merely private. Both families are very involved in the process, not to mention household servants. We can see that God is ordering all the events in His providence in fulfillment of the covenant that He made to Abraham. Also, the public exchange of good's in a dowry and bride-price took place (Gen. 24:22, 53; 34:12; Exod. 22:16-17). One other way that it was public was that their communities would have been aware of what was going on, being able to observe Rebekah travel with Abraham's servant, and possibly seeing her with her veil. Not only was it visibly public, but it was felt to be public by both the community and the family in an economic sense. It would have been easy to observe that the caravan that set out originally came back home with less goods and with women they didn't have before. Not only that Bethuel, Rebekah's father, now had more means, but also this economic reality would have been felt in the community. Further, Rebekah's family all the sudden had costly jewelry, goods, and clothes that they may not have had before. All of this would have made this arrangement of a marriage covenant public knowledge to at least two communities. Further, both Isaac and Rebekah were willing to marry each other, but their families also gave them into the marriage. They were given into marriage, not merely taken (e.g. Matt. 24:38; Luke 17:27). We see that Rebekah was given in marriage by her family, and we also see that Isaac is given in marriage by his father's intentions for his servant to find him a bride.

Second, it is clearly covenantal in line with the first marriage we observed in Genesis 2:23-24. Rebekah is leaving her parents and cleaving to Isaac. It is not primarily a public legal agreement; rather, it is primarily relational. It is a relational, ontological covenant that also has all the public and legal hallmarks of marriage as the rest of the Bible outlines about a marriage. Two are being fused from their current families to become one in uniting in a marriage covenant.

Third, the covenantal aspect can be seen also by the covenant sign of marriage, knowing each other intimately. We see the marriage sealed with the conjugal act of consummation. Isaac "takes" Rebekah in sexual union. We see that sexual relations here does not have the power to effectually create their marriage, rather that sex is a physical sealing, binding, and consummating of the marriage agreed to in the events prior to this intimacy. Notice that this aspect of marriage is quite private; however, it is public in some ways. First, sex is an indicator that the marriage is healthy. A marriage that does not include intimacy may not be as strong as it could be. In fact, a lack of intimacy in a marriage may be a symptom of problems inter-personally that may be observed by others. Second, sexual intimacy in marriage normally produces children. This is also a public affect of the covenant sign of sexual intimacy.

Does Sex Equate to Marriage Here?
From what I've written so far you can probably anticipate that I'm going to argue that the answer is, "No!" One may try to make an argument from Genesis 24:62-67 that it does, but to come to that conclusion would be to ignore not only the context of the chapter, but also what Genesis teaches about what marriage is. Further, it would ignore what all of Scripture has to say. I remember hearing this argument before from friends when I was in college. Marriage includes sex, but marriage is always more than just sex. Let's look at the passage again:
Genesis 24:62-67
"62 Now Isaac had returned from Beer-lahai-roi and was dwelling in the Negeb. 63 And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. And he lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, there were camels coming. 64 And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she dismounted from the camel 65 and said to the servant, 'Who is that man, walking in the field to meet us?' The servant said, 'It is my master.' So she took her veil and covered herself. 66 And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. 67 Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother's death."
Can you feel the build up and anticipation for their meeting? This is a really romantic description. The journey that Abraham's servant took to find Rebekah would have taken approximately a month. The journey from Beersheba of Canaan (Gen. 24:10) to Nahor (Gen. 24:11) would have been approximately a month (Hamilton, 145; Speiser, 183). So it was about a month since Araham's servant was sent out with the bride price and having made an oath to Abraham. He had orders to bring a bride home to Isaac and everyone knew it.

The text then sets the scene. It was probably a beautiful evening, and Isaac had gone out into the field in the evening to meditate. Then as he lifted his eyes he saw the caravan coming along. Then the attention of the narrator (Moses) quickly turns to Rebekah, she lifted her eyes up as well and when she saw Isaac she quickly jumped off of the camel and asked who the man was that was coming. Abraham's servant said, "My master," regarding Isaac. She quickly veiled herself. Hebrew women were not normally veiled (Gen. 12:14; 38:14-15), so the veil symbolized that she was in fact the bride that he had been anticipating. It was a custom for Hebrew brides to veil themselves in a marriage ceremony (Waltke, 333). The servant's journey had been prospered because of God's grace.

It's as if the servant's retrieving Isaac's bride and then bringing her back over the course of a month was one long wedding procession. Then they meet, but she quickly veils herself as if to say, "You cannot see me yet, because at this time I am not fully yours; your eyes cannot behold my beauty at this time, but the time will be soon." This is romance! Then Abraham's servant tells everything he did to Isaac. It's as if Isaac observes from this that all the details of the covenant had been properly taken care of and that they were indeed husband and wife.

Then we are given a high level sparse commentary of Isaac and Rebekah's consummating the marriage covenant, "Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother's death." (Gen. 24:66-67) This passage shows how Rebekah assumes the role that the recently deceased Sarah had in salvation history as the new mother of the chosen seed of God. It is through Rebekah now that the covenant God made with Abraham will be propagated. This isn't just saying, "Isaac took her to the bedroom that Sarah used to have." This is part of what can be drawn out from this, but it is much more than this too. Then it says that Isaac took her and she became his wife. The consummating seal of the marriage covenant that was in the works between the two families over the course of the last month finally took place. They became united as one. He took her and she fully became his wife. To make a spiritual analogy, this is similar to the marriage of the church to Christ. The covenant has already been made, His blood has already been shed for His bride, the price has already been paid. So we are already His church, His bride. But one day at the "marriage supper of the Lamb" the full consummation of the marriage will take place.

This event in Genesis 24 and the circumstances surrounding it couldn't be further from the context of two consenting adults becoming inflamed in lustful passions for each other and justifying their sleeping together because there's a simple drawn out description of a marriage here in Genesis 24. I'm not defending all the pomp and ceremony surrounding many weddings these days. In the United States many weddings are more materialistic than covenantal. Many weddings don't consider the sobriety of a vow before God that they will be bound to this man or woman for the rest of their life. Too many weddings forget the typological and metaphorical function of marriage as representing the union of Christ with His church. That said, one cannot appeal to this text or any text in Scripture to legitimately argue that a marriage can be created by the act of sex. Sex never comes first, and it's never given the power to generate a marriage covenant (Consider these texts if you'd like to tease out this topic a little more: Exod. 20:14; Deut. 5:18; John 4:17-18; 1 Cor. 6:15-16; Matt. 1:18-25; 1 Cor. 7:2-5; Song of Songs 2:7; 3:5).

Marrying Within the Family
How should we think about Abraham's making his servant swear an oath to find a wife for Isaac from his family? John Sailhamer has spoken to this a little in his commentary:
"First, they were not to be mixed with the inhabitants of Canaan (v. 3). Though no explanation is given, Abraham's desire that Isaac not take a wife from the Canaanites appears to be a further expression of the notion of the two lines of blessing and curse seen in Genesis 9:25-27: 'Cursed be Canaan!' but 'Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem.' As has been the case throughout the narratives thus far, the inhabitants of Canaan are considered to be under a divine curse for their iniquity (e.g., 15:16). The seed of Abrahan is to be kept separate from the seed of Canaan. Second, the point is made in this section that Abraham's descendants are not to return to the land of their fathers. The Promised Land is their home, and Abraham is careful to ensure that Isaac not be taken back to the place of his father." (
Abraham's limiting of Isaac's bride to be taken from his family is meant to serve a very specific purpose in redemptive history. You can't argue from this text that we must forbid inter-ethnic marriages. Further, this text is not a justification for incestuous relationships. Isaac and Rebekah were cousins, and in God's plan it was through this family that all nations would be blessed. God had a plan to begin all nations through them, and the trajectory of this was more of beginning a marriage within God's chosen people. This would be a charge for the nation of Israel (Deut. 7:3, 4; 1 Kings 11:4; Ezra 9), but also for God's new covenant people who are forbidden to marry unbelievers (1 Cor. 7:39). (Kidner, 157)

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