To place the story of Rebekah within the narrative arc of Genesis, let’s go back a generation: You remember that Abraham and Sarah (originally Abram and Sarai) left their homeland because God called Abraham to settle in a new place. Abraham and God had a covenant between them — a promise that Abraham would follow God and that God would be Abraham’s God. The consequential perks of this covenant would be family, fame and fortune for Abraham (that is, a large family with generations multiplying like the stars, a good name that all people would know, and land to claim as his own).
There was some drama about the “family” part of God’s promise. When Sarah couldn’t conceive, Sarah’s servant Hagar gave birth to Abraham’s first son instead, a strong boy whose name was Ishmael. In the long run, Hagar and Ishmael were sent away because they attracted Sarah’s ire, and Sarah gave birth to her first son — Abraham’s legally-recognized heir — Isaac. Rebekah’s story begins in Genesis 24, when Abraham sends a servant back to his homeland in search of a bride for Isaac who has grown old enough to have a wife.
The servant wants to find the right bride, so he arranges a sign with God: whichever young woman lets him borrow her jar at the local well for a drink of water and offers to water his camels too will be the right woman for Isaac. Sure enough, a young woman named Rebekah shares her jar and waters the servant’s camels. The servant asks to meet this girl’s family, and — wonder of wonders — Rebekah’s grandfather is Abraham’s brother Nahor! (While the close blood relationship may strike us as odd, in ancient times kinship was an assurance that these were good people.) The servant offers gifts of jewelry and clothing to Rebekah, kicks back a beer with Rebekah’s father Bethuel and brother Laban, then travels with Rebekah back to the new lands of Abraham where Isaac falls in love with his bride-to-be.
Rebekah and Isaac have twin sons, Esau and Jacob, who fight together even before they are born. Esau, the firstborn, becomes his father’s favorite; Jacob becomes his mother’s favorite. The boys grow up trying to best one another at every turn. Esau is stronger, but Jacob is more clever. One day when Esau returns to the tent from hunting and working in the field, he asks Jacob to share the stew he is making. Always trying to gain a leg up, Jacob barters: “Give me your birthright in exchange for the soup; I want your privileges as a firstborn son.” Esau agrees so that he can eat … and maybe Jacob wins a day of playing firstborn, but technically only the patriarch Isaac can bestow the birthright on one of his sons.
So Rebekah hatches a plan [Genesis 27] to ensure that Isaac does give the birthright to Jacob instead of Esau. On the day when Isaac decides to officially pass the inheritance to Esau, to make his firstborn son the new head and leader of all Isaac’s property and servants and family, Rebekah intervenes. She dresses up Jacob like Esau (because Isaac is nearly blind and has learned to recognize his sons by touch and smell), covering Jacob with furs and goat skins to imitate Esau’s rough and hairy skin, and Jacob goes before Isaac to receive his older brother’s blessing.
Just like that, by the quickness of Rebekah’s switcharoo, the younger Jacob — instead of firstborn Esau — receives the blessing and inheritance of his father Isaac: all of Isaac’s property, his wealth, all of the sheep and goats, all of the land that was passed on to Isaac from his father Abraham now belongs to Jacob. Even the covenant with God, the distinguishing relationship first established between God and Abraham, that sacred trust with its promise of fame, family and fortune, even those promises now go to Jacob! Esau is entirely cut out of the faith lineage, out of the whole inheritance, because Rebekah deceives Isaac to obtain the blessing for Jacob.
So then: what faith lessons are we meant to learn from Rebekah? What do we think of Rebekah and of her deception? Was she faithfully playing her role in God’s plan (because God did tell her when she was pregnant that the elder twin would serve the younger)? Or do we fault Rebekah for playing favorites between her sons? Was her deception part of God’s working, or was she wrong to connive against Isaac? Was she doing good? Was she being manipulative?
Or was she simply human, very much like any one of us, assessing her life situation (as a woman without authority in a patriarchal society, whose well-being was at the mercy of her husband’s and then her sons’ familial & financial & political planning), and deciding to do what was needed to squeeze out of life the best that she could hope to get?
Because even though Rebekah didn’t have authority over her own life, it didn’t mean that she lacked the power to do what was needed. Right or wrong, what Rebekah needed was for Jacob to be the head of household when Isaac died. Maybe it was because Jacob was her favorite, maybe it was because she saw in Jacob better management skills or a more caring spirit. For one reason or another, Rebekah trusted that Jacob would take care of her as she got older, Jacob would make sure the family’s wealth and holdings grew, Jacob would make wise decisions for the whole family … while Esau was just good at chasing rabbits.
So Rebekah did what was needed. Given her best estimate of how life would unfold along its traditional course, she imagined a possibility that was outside of the norms, and she made it happen.
We do what is needed. Given our assessments of relationships & finances & health, given our experiences of life & death & pain & hope, weighing the ways in which life’s systems are stacked for or against us, we do what is needed to work the best out of life that we can hope for. We do what we need to do to keep life going. Sometimes we’re proactive. Sometimes we’re defensive. But we’re all Rebekah: working to get the best out of life that we can, whether we’re improving upon a life situation that is already comfortable or we’re fighting for basic food-and-home stability.
I appreciate Rebekah saying to herself, “Life’s not going to be handed to me on a silver platter, so I’m going to work it out as best I can.” I believe that’s true of life, and so often it’s true of our behavior…
…but I wrestle with whether it’s true of faith, whether it holds true for living with faith. Without moralizing “right” or “wrong” about our actions of necessity, I wonder whether it’s faithful to approach life saying “I’m going to do what it takes.” While I think that’s how Rebekah was responding to her crisis (because Isaac’s approaching death was a crisis) … and I know that’s how I respond to crisis … still I wonder, how are we relating to God when we assert, “I’m going to do what is needed to get the best out of this situation”?
Maybe Rebekah’s story doesn’t provide a clear-cut moral lesson for our lives, but certainly her story gives us helpful clues for how to wrestle with life in hard times, through faith:
1. Doing what we need to do — within the life of faith — requires a “big picture” perspective. It requires asking not just “What do I need?” but also “What do those around me need?” (like Rebekah asked not only what was best for her own life but also what was best for the collective life of Isaac’s whole clan). It means having the presence of mind to ask not only “What do I/we need?” but also to assess “What are the options?” (because options in life or in crisis can indicate privilege, and remembering our privilege should helpfully and critically inform our understanding of need).
2. Especially when life knocks the wind out of us, it can feel like the world is barreling along its course in one direction — with or without us, but certainly without much opportunity for changing direction. Living with faith means living with the deep confidence that life holds creative possibilities, no matter how hard or fast the world’s barreling begins to spin! And yes, it takes some conniving to change courses and shift perspective … but we follow a God who is the biggest conniver of all! God connived with the waters and the winds to shift the Red Sea out of its place so the Israelites could cross to safety as they fled from Egypt. God connived around the systems of economics, food and power in order to feed five thousand (plus!) people on a hillside without spending a dime. God even connived to undermine and upset the natural laws of death! There are creative possibilities in life for us to see and seize when we need them most.
3. But regardless of how well you are able to shift perspective and connive for new possibilities, when you hit that rock-bottom place of worrying “What’s needed to keep this life of mine together?” know that God knows that the air has been knocked out of you. Know that God knows how much you need a salve for your wounds, an unexpected option to meet your needs, a new way where there seems to be no way. God knows, and God is there, and God’s conniving is surely greater than your greatest need.
Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 6/25/2012.