Sermon for November 8th, 2020
Today's scripture reading is a rather long one, so it will be interspersed throughout the sermon. I invite you to follow along in your Bibles, or do a Google search to follow along on your smart-phone.
Counting Camels: Rebekah and the Servant
Our story begins with the Father of the Jewish faith, Abraham, and his desire to fulfill God's promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. 2 Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh 3 and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, 4 but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.” 5 The servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land; must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?” 6 Abraham said to him, “See to it that you do not take my son back there. 7 The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. 8 But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.” 9 So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.
Now, it may seem to you, from the opening lines of this story, that the star of the show is Abraham. Or possibly his son, Isaac, upon whom all of his hopes rested. Or maybe even the faithful servant who must now seek a wife for Isaac back in the old country among Abraham's people. But I don't think so. The real star (or stars) are about to be introduced in the very next verse:
10 Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor.
And now we meet the real heroes, the real driving force behind our story: The ten camels. Yes, camels. Why? I'm so glad you asked. Let me take a moment to talk about camels in the ancient middle east.
We'll start with the word camel itself. It's a rare word, in English, that comes to us directly from the ancient Hebrew language. The word for camel in Hebrew was גָּמָל. Sounds like "camel," right? When the Ancient Greeks conquered all of the Middle East, they took the name for this strange animal into their language and גָּמָל became κάμηλον. Later, the Romans conquered the Middle East, and κάμηλον became camelus in Latin, which then found its way into English as camel. So today, we still call the this ancient animal the very same thing that Abraham called it.
There's more. In ancient Hebrew, and the Middle Eastern languages that preceded it, letters were originally pictograms (like Egyptian hieroglyphics) where each picture represented a sound, but also an important thing in the culture. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is א (aleph) which is a pictogram that resembles an ox (or cattle), the primary form of currency in the ancient world. The next letter is ב (bet), a pictogram representing a house (and the Hebrew word for house is בֵּית (beth). These first two letters are where we get our modern word "alphabet." But the THIRD letter in the Hebrew alphabet is ג (gimel) or... camel. The pictogram even looks like the profile of a camel. Eventually, this letter morphs in to the Roman (and therefore English) letters C, G, and K. We use a lot of camels in our language.
The first three letters in this ancient alphabet also represent the three most important things in the ancient world: Money, Shelter, and Transportation. This is true even today: Money, houses, and cars are among the most important signs of status, security, and prosperity in our own culture.
All of this is to say that camels were a pretty big deal in Biblical times. The word "camel" shows up 65 times in the Bible, and in most of those places where the word occurs, it's a show of power or wealth. In the book of Judges, when an army of invaders threatens Israel, they are described in this way: "The Midianites and the Amalekites and all the people of the east lay along the valley as thick as locusts; and their camels were without number, countless as the sand on the seashore."
Job, who is described by the Bible as the wealthiest man in all the East, had 3,000 camels (we'll talk more about him next week). If you're poor in the Old Testament, you have a donkey. If you're middle class, you might have a cow or two. But if you're really someone...you have a camel.
And so Abraham, when he sends his servant to find a wife for his son, sends him with no less than ten camels. There is no practical need for ten camels to carry back one servant, one bride, and maybe another servant or two. This is more like pulling into a small town with a stretch limousine, or a fleet of Ferraris. It's what you do if you want to be noticed, if you want to show off.
11 He (the servant) made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water. 12 And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. 13 I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
I said earlier that the servant is not the hero of the story (that's the camels) but he's still a pretty amazing guy. He just rode into town on ten camels. No one knows that he's just a servant, and he could have played this up--why yes, I am a pretty big deal. He *knows* that he will get the attention of every eligible young woman in the town, and from there it would be a simple matter to just choose the best one, the prettiest one, the most elegantly dressed one, or maybe the one who rode up on a camel of her own. Abraham didn't give him any particular instructions, other than it had to be a woman from this town. Beyond that, Abraham doesn't seem to care much about what kind of woman.
But the servant does. And here, before he speaks a single word to anyone, he does two pretty amazing things:
First, he commits the whole enterprise to God in prayer. And he does this out of love for Abraham, and a desire to see Abraham's wish come true--not just true, actually, but even better. He wants the very best, and for this he realizes the need for divine assistance.
The second amazing thing he does is establish one, sole criteria. A criteria that has nothing to do with beauty or wealth or power, but rather kindness and generosity. And not just to him, (because that would have been obvious--of course you give a drink to the wealthy guy with all the camels) but kindness and generosity to the animals, the camels themselves. He says, in effect, "Lord, the one who offers a drink not just to me, but to these camels...she's the only one who will do.
15 Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, coming out with her water jar on her shoulder. 16 The girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. 17 Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.” 18 “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. 19 When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” 20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. 21 The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.
This is where our scripture portion today ends, but the story goes on, and I'm sure you can guess the ending: Rebekah, with the blessing of her family, goes home with the servant to become the wife of Isaac. Their children are Jacob and Esau, and Jacob's children become the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel. The descendants of Rebekah and Isaac (and thus of Abraham) become the people of Israel, and numbered among them are Moses, Elijah, King David, King Solomon, and in time, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.
Thank God for ten camels, a faithful servant, and one small act of kindness from a young girl.
So what can we learn from this story today, especially as we count the camels (or valuable resources) that have been entrusted to us in our own lives? Three principles:
We'll start with Abraham. The camels, after all, were his resources. He didn't really need to send ten of them--that was a big risk. One or two could probably have accomplished the same result. Moreover, the servant could easily have taken the camels, sold them all, and retired wealthy in a foreign land, never to see Abraham again.
Here's the first principle: Invest your camels most heavily, most generously, in the things that really matter most. For Abraham, that meant his family, his future, and most of all, in God's promises. When God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars, it would have been easy for him to sit back and say, Okay God, go for it. I'll wait and see. But instead he springs into action, becomes a partner with God to accomplish God's purposes.
I believe God has a purpose and a plan for each one of you. It may be different than your plan for yourself--it's probably a whole lot bigger. How will you partner with God to see it through? How will you invest your camels?
Next, consider the faithful servant. These were not his camels, but a borrowed resource, given to him for a purpose. We all have been entrusted with things that do not truly or permanently belong to us--in our workplace, or in our community. Our children are this kind of resource, too--they belong to us only for a season, and for a purpose.
The faithful servant is a great example: With humility (seeking God first), ingenuity, and genuine love for his master, he goes beyond what is expected of him. He brings back all ten camels, AND a bride beyond compare. Here's the second principle: When you deal with other people's camels, give back more than you were given. This will make people love you, and it will make your Father in heaven proud of you, too.
Finally, consider the young girl, Rebekah. She had no idea who the camels even belonged to, but because of her generosity and thoughtfulness, those camels (and ALL of Abraham's camels) would someday belong to her, and to her children. The third principle is my favorite: If you want more camels--or even if you don't--be kind. Be nice. Take care of the needs of others, and your Father in heaven will take care of your needs, too.
So, just to recap:
- Invest your camels in the things that matter most.
- When dealing with other people's camels, give back more than you were given.
- Be nice...to the camels, to the people who bring them, and to the strangers in your midst.
And may you be blessed with all the camels you can count, all the people you can share them with, all the days of your life.