The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, 6 July 2014
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:11-18 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13
St. Matthew11:16-19, 25-30
Background: Women and Marriage in Ancient Israel
With the continuance of the Abraham story, we come to the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. It is natural, as we read these verses to wonder about the status of women in the ancient world, especially in regard to marriage. It is also clear that we should not extrapolate the provisions of the Mesopotamian legal codes (say the Code of Hammurabi) to the customs of a non-urban and nomadic people. Some provisions might be the same, and some not thought of in the nomadic context. Here is what we do no from the models in the patriarchal history. Marriage was styled as “taking a wife”, and it always involved sexual intercourse (for that was the goal of marriage – the provision of descendants). Adultery was viewed as an offense worthy of death, but there was not provision for a death sentence in other property crimes. Women who could not have children, usually made a provision for providing that through the graces of a servant, such as Sarah did (see Genesis 16). Often a childless marriage resulted in divorce. Levirate marriage was not only permitted by encouraged (see Ruth) and polygyny was tolerated. A man could divorce his wife, but there was no provision for a woman to divorce her husband. The woman left her home and family and moved into the home and family of her husband. There was no “marriage contract” in Israelite practice, unlike their neighbors who used the protections of the marriage legal code, which required a contract. What was required, most specifically, was the consent of the bride.
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
The servant said to Laban, "I am Abraham's servant. The LORD has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master's wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. 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 live; but you shall go to my father's house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.'
"I came today to the spring, and said, `O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, "Please give me a little water from your jar to drink," and who will say to me, "Drink, and I will draw for your camels also" -- let her be the woman whom the LORD has appointed for my master's son.'
"Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, `Please let me drink.' She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, `Drink, and I will also water your camels.' So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, `Whose daughter are you?' She said, `The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor's son, whom Milcah bore to him.' So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshiped the LORD, and blessed the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master's kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left."
And they called Rebekah, and said to her, "Will you go with this man?" She said, "I will." So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham's servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, "May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes." Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way. Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, "Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?" The servant said, "It is my master." So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother's death.
We are not certain that Abraham is even living through the bulk of this story. Some commentators opine that the directions given to the servant may have been a deathbed request. The focus certainly shifts from Abraham to Isaac, and to some extent to Sarah as well. Although the initial verses are elided here because our reading repeats a great deal of the content, it would be good to read through it to glean another level of detail that is missing from the other. Abraham ties his request to two fundamental understandings of the transaction. The first is that Isaac is not to marry a woman from Canaan. Such a move would jeopardize the purity of Abraham’s line. The second is that Isaac is not to be taken back to Mesopotamia, for the covenantal promise given by God is tied to the land. This will become a fundamental concept as we leave the patriarchal stories and move into the Moses stories.
There is a parallel here that lies just below the surface. Presumably Isaac is fatherless, as is Rebekah (although the father, Bethuel is mentioned, no gifts or other obligations to him are mentioned. Laban is clearly acting in his father’s stead). We also meet her brother, Laban, whom we will meet again in stories about Jacob. Laban acts as the one who allows the marriage to happen, as was allowed under Hurrian law. Under those provisions, there would have been a marriage contract, here a “sistership agreement”, since the transaction was initiated in Haran. The provisions would have been: 1) the parties involved, 2) the nature of the transaction, 3) Any payments, 4) the bride’s consent “will you go to this man?” and 5) Blessings and Curses. Of special interest is the poem in which Rebekah’s mother and her brother Laban bless her (see verse 59).
“Our sister, may you grow
into thousands of myriads!
And may your offspring take over
The gates of their enemies.”
The sentiment is a common one, but when these sentiments are used as a blessing of Abraham by God, they take on a wider and broader meaning and understanding. It might be that the mouths of brother and mother speak again the blessings first given to Abraham and his descendants. The final verses of the story, which relay the trip to the place where Isaac is, are told with certain tenderness. It is in Rebekah that Isaac finds solace at the passing of his mother Sarah.
Breaking open Genesis:
- What are popular images of Biblical marriage?
- How has your knowledge of marriage in the Bible changed over the years?
- Where is love depicted in this story?
Psalm 45: 11-18 Eructavit cor meum
"Hear, O daughter; consider and listen closely; *
forget your people and your father's house.
The king will have pleasure in your beauty; *
he is your master; therefore do him honor.
The people of Tyre are here with a gift; *
the rich among the people seek your favor."
All glorious is the princess as she enters; *
her gown is cloth-of-gold.
In embroidered apparel she is brought to the king; *
after her the bridesmaids follow in procession.
With joy and gladness they are brought, *
and enter into the palace of the king.
"In place of fathers, O king, you shall have sons; *
you shall make them princes over all the earth.
I will make your name to be remembered
from one generation to another; *
therefore nations will praise you for ever and ever."
This psalm, as is evident in the early verses not included in our reading, is a royal psalm on the occasion of the marriage of the king to a foreign princess. Its inclusion here is to serve as a comment on the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. Whereas the first part of the psalm describes the king and his might, these verses direct our attention to the bride, the daughter of another king. What she brings to the situation is her beauty and the ability to provide pleasure to the king (her master.) Gifts are offered to her, and she is seen as having the power of access to the king. The human situation of having to have left her father’s household and family is commented on in the final verse. Sons will be given to replace the lost familial relationships.
Breaking open Psalm 45:
- What is your image of the woman depicted in the psalm?
- What do you think of her relationship to the king?
- What do you think of her “job description”?
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
"Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away."
Here we have an anthology of “love songs”, common in the ancient near east. Such verses were known in Egypt and in Mesopotamia. They are also known in other parts of the Bible, notably the “Song of the Vineyard”, Isaiah 5:1-7, and Psalm 45 (see above) or Ezekiel 33:32. These verses, in spite of the title that names a presumed author, were probably written in the second century BCE. Although these are truly love songs, later Jewish and Christian commentators would use the tools of allegory to wrest some kind of theological meaning from the lovely text.
Breaking open the Jeremiah:
- Which images describe love for you?
- Which images seem to match your life?
- How do you define love?
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.
Zechariah, the prophet, wrote in that period that immediately followed the return from exile, and like Ezekiel, he relished the Holiness Code (cf. Leviticus 17-26) which described the obligations of the returnees to the cult of YHWH. The later chapters of this book (9-14) are from a later pen writing in the style and theology of Zechariah. Centered in the cult of the temple, and of its priestly theology, these writers have visions of a land united under YHWH. They wrote at a time when the world was indeed being shaken by Greeks and would result in a world, far different than the one they had imagined.
Our reading looks forward to a messianic figure who comes back to Zion, victorious and triumphant, but riding no warhorse. What this figure engenders is peace, and a wide geography is described as his realm: Ephraim (the North), Jerusalem (the South), the River (the Euphrates) and the Sea (the Mediterranean.) In an image worthy of the Greek icon depicting the harrowing of hell by Jesus, these prophets describe, “I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.” The restoration that Zechariah intimately new is reimaged by his disciples as a wider world of peace and reconciliation.
Breaking open the Jeremiah:
- What does the word “Messiah” mean to you?
- What other images other than Jesus are suggested to you?
- What would it be like to live in a messianic age?
Psalm 145:8-15 Exaltabo te, Deus
The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is loving to everyone *
and his compassion is over all his works.
All your works praise you, O LORD, *
and your faithful servants bless you.
They make known the glory of your kingdom *
and speak of your power;
That the peoples may know of your power *
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; *
your dominion endures throughout all ages.
The LORD is faithful in all his words *
and merciful in all his deeds.
The LORD upholds all those who fall; *
he lifts up those who are bowed down.
In a collection of six psalms that close the collection of the Psalter, all are psalms of praise (Hallel) in spite of the preponderance of psalms of supplication. The final psalms are the response to a God who has answered the needs put forth in the supplications of earlier writers. These lines mimic the sentiments of the writers in Zechariah. Here, however, it is not an anointed one, but YHWH who provides for a kingdom of peace and splendor. It is a good commentary to the Zechariah reading, for it forms a dialogue of deed and pronouncement, people and Lord.
Breaking open the Psalm 145:
- For what might you praise God?
- For what might you offer thanksgiving?
- What would your thanksgiving be?
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
If the concept of Angst has been described well, it certainly is in these verses where Paul revels (is that the right word) in his on psychological conflict over sin. Luther certainly followed in Paul’s train. Paul sees himself as condemned, and has a vision of two different laws. The first law is given by God, and “I agree that the law is good,” and later, “I delight in the Law of God.” There is another law, however, a law drawn of sin and condemning of his every act, “but I see in my members another law…making me captive to the law of sin.” Some commentators see this “captivity” to be representational of Paul’s existence before his encounter with the living Christ. Others, however, see it as the everyday experience of anyone of faith. Was this Paul’s actual psychology, or was he making evident the Angst that could and would affect anyone?
Breaking open Romans:
- Do you identify with Paul’s dilemma?
- What are the aspects of your own conundrum?
- What offers you comfort in these situations?
St. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Jesus said to the crowd, "To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
`We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.'
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."
At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
Unfortunately the introductory material to Jesus’ comments to the crowd is lopped off and we lose the context of the scene. These are the closing lines of the pericope that begins with the question John the Baptist bids his disciples ask Jesus, “Are you the Coming One, or are we to look for someone else?” The reading consists of the end of one pericope, “John’s question and Jesus’ testimony” (11:2-19), skips over another pericope, “Denunciations” (11:20-24), and ends with “The Son’s Prayer” (11:25-30). This last pericope a very difficult reading, for it really is an amalgam of several sayings. The Anchor Bible’s commentaryunderscores the difficulty of the text. Verses 25 and 26 are seen as coming from a very early tradition of Jesus sayings. Verse 27 is rejected as “on the a priori grounds that this could not possibly have been uttered by Jesus.” And the final verses are seen as a borrowing from Ecclesiasticus 51:23-27.
What is the casual reader, the lector, or the preacher to do? I suspect it is best to revel in the dilemma of knowing and understanding whom it is that Jesus is. The material related to the John the Baptist seems to deal with both faith and disappointment. Jesus seems to paint John as a child who is not getting his way, a way of judgment and repentance, rather than a pronouncement of the kingdom of heaven. There is the dilemma for those who live in Matthew’s community as well, and perhaps we can understand this pastiche of sayings from this community’s point of view. What does it mean to recognize Jesus? What has been hidden? What has been revealed? How will it affect our families and us if we truly follow Jesus? If we are honest with ourselves, we can see our own participation in John’s frustration and Jesus’ determination that we should “know the Father.”
Breaking open the Gospel:
- How is Jesus the prophet?
- How is Jesus the righteous one?
- How are you the one who offers a cup of water?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller