Listening to the Silenced

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. Yahweh has greatly blessed my master and he has become wealthy; he has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, male and female slaves, and camels and donkeys. And Sarah, my master’s wife, bore a son to my master after she had become old, and he has given to him all that is his. And my master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I dwell; but instead go to the house of my father and to my family and take a wife for my son.’…So I came today to the spring and I said, ‘Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, if you are indeed prospering the way upon which I am going, behold, I am standing by the spring of water; let the maiden who comes out to draw and to whom I say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ and she says to me, ‘You may drink, and I will also draw for your camels’ – she is the wife which Yahweh has appointed for my master’s son.’ I was not yet finished speaking in my heart and behold, Rebekah came out with her jar upon her shoulder, and she went down to the spring and drew. And I said to her, ‘Please give me a drink.’ And she hurried and lowered her jar from upon her shoulder and she said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ And I drank, and she also watered the camels. And I asked her, saying, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ And she said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, son of Nahor, whom Milcah bore to him.’ And I put the ring on her nose and the bracelets on her wrists. And I bowed down and prostrated myself before Yahweh, and I blessed Yahweh, the God of my master Abraham, who led me on the path of truth to take the daughter of my master’s nephew for his son. And now, if you are to show faithfulness and loyalty to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, and I will turn to the right hand or to the left.”…So they called Rebekah and they said to her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will go.” And they sent their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and they said to her, “May you, our sister, become thousands of multitudes, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate them.” And Rebekah and her young women rose and mounted the camels, and they followed the man. So the servant took Rebekah and went. Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and he was dwelling in the land of the Negeb. And Isaac went out to walk in the field before evening, and he raised his eyes and saw, and behold: camels approaching. And Rebekah raised her eyes and she saw Isaac, and she fell from the camel. And she said to the servant, “Who is this man walking in the field to meet us?” And the servant said, “That is my master.” So she took her veil and she covered herself. The servant reported to Isaac all the things that he had done. And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebekah and she became his for a wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

 

Some of us may be rather familiar with this story; and for some of us, this is our first time hearing it. Before we go any further, I’d like to run through the whole thing from the beginning, since we only get an excerpt in our reading today, and note all the relevant details.

 

So, Abraham is very old; we understand that he is close to death. And his wife, Sarah, has just died. He is concerned with holding on to the promise God made to him, that he and his many descendants would inherit the land of Canaan, so he tells his must trusted servant to go and obtain a wife for his son Isaac. Now, this wife cannot be one of the locals – we can only speculate as to why Abraham didn’t want his son marrying a local. Instead, she must come from Abraham’s family, who live about a month’s journey away. Abraham makes the servant swear that he will get a wife for Isaac from his family, as long as the woman agrees to return with him. The one thing he is absolutely not allowed to do is bring Isaac along. Isaac has to stay in Canaan. Can you imagine how hard it would be to arrange a marriage when none of the bride’s family have ever met the groom? So, the servant travels to the city of Nahor, and that is where this whole scene that we just read takes place. The servant prays to God; Rebekah comes and fulfills the servant’s prayer; the servant is invited into Rebekah’s father’s house, the marriage contract is arranged, Rebekah agrees to leave with the servant and return to Canaan to marry Isaac, and she does.

 

Now, there are a couple of interesting things to note, here. The first is that the narrator tells the story of the servant’s meeting with Rebekah, and then, in our text today, the servant himself recounts the meeting to Rebekah’s family. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the servant changes some details. For example, the narrator says that he places the gold ring and bracelets on Rebekah before he finds out who she is. The servant, however, says that he first inquired about Rebekah’s family, and then gave her the gifts. This is important because we see the servant is making his case – he wants to be successful in his mission to bring Rebekah back as a wife for Isaac, and so he is going to try and sell the marriage hard. The second thing to note is that Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, is probably not in the picture anymore. Scholars point out that the one time he is mentioned, it is relatively late in the story and his name comes after Rebekah’s brother, Laban, in negotiating the marriage. This one mention is probably a gloss or a scribal error, and it is likely that Bethuel has already passed away by the time the servant arrives on the scene. The final thing is that Rebekah shows up to the spring almost immediately after the servant finishes his prayer. There is nothing to indicate that he has seen any of the other women, and when he sees Rebekah, we are told that, actually, she’s pretty easy on the eyes. So, is it a coincidence that she happens to be the one who fulfills the servant’s prayer? Could be, could be…

 

Now, with all of this background in mind, I’d like to share with you another story, and, if you will, imagine with me that this is an excerpt from a scroll recently-discovered in the Middle East. It reads as follows:

 

“My name is Rivkah. I was born in Nahor, in the land named after my grandfather. My father, Bethuel, died when I was very young, and I was raised by my mother and brother. I don’t remember much of my childhood, except that it was simple and I always got into a little too much mischief with my brother and sisters. As I got older, I began to take on more responsibilities, as is proper for a woman in Nahor. One of these daily tasks was to go and fetch water from the spring near evening. It was a time I looked forward to; I would always go a little earlier than the rest of the women so I could spend some time alone beside the calming waters. And so I was a little annoyed one day to find a stranger standing beside the spring with his camels and servants, watching me far too closely as I came down the hill. My plan was to draw my water and leave as quickly as possible, but as I stood up again, my jar full, he asked me for a drink. Of course, I could not refuse, but as I tipped my jar to give him a drink, I noticed that the camels he brought with him looked exhausted and very thirsty. Since this man, who apparently could not draw water for himself, probably wouldn’t draw water for his camels, either, I took it upon myself to water the poor beasts. After I had done this, the stranger gave me gifts – a gold nose ring, and two gold bracelets. I was taken aback by this amazing display of wealth, and I answered him freely when he asked whose daughter I was, and whether there was enough room in my father’s house for him and his men to stay the night. We pride ourselves on hospitality here in Nahor, and I could not refuse this man. On top of that, when my brother saw the gold ring and bracelets, he welcomed the stranger in immediately with open arms.

 

That’s how it happened; how I came to be where I am now. It all happened so fast. After the stranger came into our home, he explained that he was out to find a wife for his master, and that his god had chosen me. Me. I found myself unable to breathe as my brother – either unwilling to argue with this stranger’s god or, more likely, enticed by the promises of wealth the stranger brought – negotiated my own marriage contract. Too fast. It was all too fast. This man, Yitzac, my husband, sounded good on paper, but I had never met him before in person. Instead, he sends his servant to collect me. Well, after everything had been decided and the dowry paid, the man said he wanted to leave immediately. No time to stay and say goodbye to my family and friends; no time to relish one more moment alone by the spring of water. It almost seemed funny that they asked me then whether I would go with the man, as though I had any choice in the matter. Leave right then, or leave in a few days – what difference did it make? My family had already sold me to this Yitzac, and so I left.”

 

The story I just told is, as I imagine it, Rebekah’s version of the events surrounding her and Isaac’s marriage. We don’t often think about that when we read a text, do we? We don’t often ask whose voice seems to be missing. For example, in an argumentative essay, it is the opponent’s voice that is missing. In a story, especially a 1st person or close-3rd person story, it is the voices of the other characters. In history textbooks, it is often the losing side whose voice is missing. See, stories change based on who tells them; even stories where we would expect complete objectivity, stories about what actually happened. We’ve all experienced this, I imagine. Something happens, some misunderstanding, between us and a sibling or a friend, and we have our own version of the events that precipitated the misunderstanding and they have theirs. There are two sides to every story, as they say, although I would argue there are a lot more than that.

 

Consider this story from Laban’s perspective, for example – a brother, whose father has passed away too soon, struggling to take care of his mother and sisters in their patriarchal society. Suddenly his actions and his preoccupation with the wealth of Abraham’s servant make more sense. Or think about it from the perspective of Isaac – did he have any idea whatsoever that his father had sent his servant off to find him a wife? What does he think about his dad’s forwardness, or how does he feel about not being consulted on this arguably huge life decision?

 

Things do seem to turn out well for Isaac. He loves Rebekah, and she comforts him in the absence of his mother, Sarah. But we don’t quite get any information on how Rebekah feels about the marriage. We have to sort of imagine it. And while it may be easy to imagine marital bliss and mutual love and affection – indeed, this is most likely how the author intended us to imagine it, and, sure, it is definitely a possibility we can’t rule out – I think it is always helpful for us to imagine the less-easy, sometimes even difficult, alternative reading of a text. In this case, perhaps Rebekah wasn’t so thrilled to marry Isaac. In fact, perhaps she was downright terrified.

 

It seems I’m not the only one to notice this, either. I think it is interesting, and quite telling, that we see this tension between marital bliss and something a little more dark and sinister in Fanny Alexander’s 1854 poem, “Isaac and Rebekah.” In recounting the encounter between Rebekah and Abraham’s servant, she writes:

 

The desert’s burning breath I felt,
I heard the camel’s tinkling bell;
And when the faithful servant knelt
At even by the city well,
I saw his young lord’s destined bride –
A damsel very fair, and young –
Come tripping to the water side,
Her pitcher on her shoulder slung.

I marked his wonder, as the dew
She scattered round the fountain’s brink,
While in her courteous haste she drew
And gave the weary camels drink.
I watched what blushes bright and warm
To cheek and brow did instant spring,
When on the maiden’s delicate arm
He hung the heavy golden ring.

I saw the feast of welcome spread,
While loud he praised his master’s Lord;
I heard how well the wooing sped,
How gentle was the kinsman’s word,
Content – since God had willed it so,
That hand and heart the maid hath given,
And when she whispered, “I will go,”
They blessed her with the wealth of heaven.

Another eve – and Hebron lay
All flooded with a tender light –
The last tints of a rosy ray
That lingers somewhere out of sight, –
What time, the long day’s labour done,
Came Isaac from the green well-side
Out in the quiet fields alone
To meditate at eventide.

He saw afar the dust uprise,
The camel-driver’s song he heard;
But who is she that lifts her eyes
Then hides them, like a frightened bird?
A trembling thing with covered face
Into his mother’s tent he led,
And set her there, in Sarah’s place,
And loved her, and was comforted.

Sure such a tale, so sweet, so fair,
Around our hearts should linger long,
Familiar as a household air,
And soothing as a cradle song.
And we may learn of their meek ways,
Their trustful faith in heaven above,
Their calm of unambitious days,
Their simple truth, and modest love.*

 

Now, I cannot pretend to know exactly what Alexander intended when she wrote this poem – poems are funny like that. Nobody really knows what the author intended the poem to mean, often not even the author. The poem is meant to speak for itself. What I do see in this poem is a struggle between trying to feel what one issupposed to feel about this story and what nineteenth-century women – or, at least, Fanny Alexander – feel about Rebekah’s situation. Notice that in the poem Rebekah whispers her assent, and when she goes to meet Isaac she is described as a “frightened bird,” and “trembling.” Isaac is the one who loves her. Isaac is the one who is comforted. Is this really a “sweet, fair tale?” It could be. But without Rebekah’s voice, we will never know.

 

This, then, begs the question: what other voices are we missing? Who else has been silenced? Or who have we not been listening to? How many times have we, like Abraham’s servant, been deafened by our own mission or our conviction that God ordained that mission; that God is behind us in everything we do; and as a result we fail to listen to the very people we thought we were trying to help in the first place?

 

A few days ago, we celebrated our country’s Independence Day. We commemorated the day that the founding fathers of our country stuck it to the man, so to speak, that man being King George III. To us this day represents our country’s most highly treasured and esteemed ideal – freedom. A wonderful ideal, to be sure, and one that I believe God champions as well. But, like the Israelites, after we obtained our freedom from tyranny, we turned around and subjected others to the very same tyranny we despised so much, enslaving some and slaughtering quite a few others. Sadly, this is largely forgotten on Independence Day. We like to forget the mistakes that we have made; we tend to forget the voices that have been silenced – are currently being silenced – in the name of freedom. Now, I’m not saying the United States is a bad nation, or that we shouldn’t celebrate and be proud of our nation – please don’t hear that from me today. We live in a great nation, and we should be proud of that. I do think, however, that we would be a better nation if we remembered those voices, and listened to them. Rather than telling others what we think is best for them, perhaps it would be best to listen to what they have to say, really listen. Because when we start listening to each other instead of talking past each other; when we start thinking less about “what do I want – for me, for you, for them” and more about “what do they want for themselves;” that’s when we create space for the Spirit to work in us and to grow us, as individuals, as Christians, and yes, even as a nation.

 

Many of you may have noticed, about a month ago we got the opportunity to listen to some of those silenced voices. In the wake of the devastating UC Santa Barbara massacre, the YesAllWomen hashtag was born, and the digital world witnessed a great and powerful storytelling campaign. If you were not aware of this campaign and have no idea what I’m talking about, I sincerely encourage you to look it up when you get home. Essentially, thousands upon thousands of women opened up online to tell their stories of fear and frustration in the face of harassment and assault, reminding men everywhere that yes, all women undergo these kinds of experiences, regardless of whether or not all men harass or assault women. Today I would like to respectfully add one more story to the YesAllWomen campaign – Rebekah’s story. You see, in her time, yes, all women could potentially be whisked off to a strange land to marry a strange man, never to see their families again. Yes, all women were subject to the decisions of the men in their household – father, brothers, and husband. In sharing her story, I hope that we may add Rebekah’s to the long list of voices that, once forgotten, are now beginning to re-emerge. For it is only when we listen to these voices that we move forward as a society. Not when we get defensive. Not when we argue against them. Not when we just shut them out completely. Because God is not looking to protect our interests. God is looking to liberate the captives. God is looking to give voices to the silenced. Are we willing to listen?

 

 

*Alexander, Cecil Frances. “Isaac and Rebekah.” In Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on Women in Genesis, edited by Marion Ann Taylor and Heather E. Weir, 281-82. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006.

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