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A Slave Owner – Counted as Righteous

(A sermon preached at St. Margaret’s church, Winnipeg)
(Proper 14, Year “A” – 5 July, 2020)

The Rev’d Canon Tony Harwood-Jones


A preacher such as I am tries always to preach from the scriptures that are selected for the day.  Sometimes the experience is very difficult because the material is obscure, and it is difficult to find something sensible to say; and then there the Sundays where the Scriptures are a gold mine.  This is one of them.

The Gospel reading has the wonderful saying by Jesus, “Come unto me all that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will refresh you.”

The Epistle reading, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans gives of the most heart-warming of all Paul’s writings, because he admits to his own frailty: “The things that I really believe in doing, I don’t do, and the things that I know I shouldn’t do, I do!  And, God help me!”  This is not the Paul that everyone thinks of, as being bossy and opinionated and wrong-headed about many things!  This is the gentle, and utterly human Paul.

The psalm was selected to tie into the first reading – the story of locating Rebecca prior to her wedding to Isaac.  The psalm is a wedding psalm – actually, a Royal Wedding for which the author was writing – and the beginning of the psalm basically admires the wonders of the Groom!  He’s probably the monarch, and he’s very handsome, very strong, very wealthy, and all the things that people can admire in this world.  The psalm then goes on to celebrate the bride as she enters in procession, and it says, “Hear, O daughter!  Forget your family, because from henceforth you’re going to obey your husband.”

Way back in 1978, the Anglican Church began to admit women to the order of priesthood, and, not too long after that, I was chatting with a friend and colleague – one of the first women priests, who was an avowed feminist.  She said to me that she would never, ever, allow Psalm 45 (this Royal wedding psalm) to be read in any church of which she was the Rector, because of its sense of the inferiority of women, and its assumption that wives be totally subjected to their husbands.  But the psalm can be preached on with the understanding that the bride of the Royal Wedding is, in fact, the Bride of Christ – which is one of the descriptions of the Church.  And, heaven help the Church if it doesn’t obey Christ!  Obviously, there is plenty of sermon material in the psalm.

But, in fact my choice for the sermon this evening is the reading from Genesis – the story of the selection of a bride for Isaac, the son of Abraham.

The text that was read to us consisted of a speech, made by a “servant” of Abraham – more accurately, a slave of Abraham’s, because one of the things he says early in his remarks is, “My master, Abraham, is really quite a successful man.  He’s got lots of money, and lots of slaves, and he’s sent me on this mission.”  This fellow explains that he’s come on a mission to find a bride for his master’s son, Isaac.

He then proceeds to negotiate an “arranged marriage.”  At this point, there are some verses of the Bible passage that are skipped over – verses that could really get in your face, if you have any kind of concern about modern issues.  Because, the omitted verses tell us that the men decide, and arrange, the marriage and the dowry, or “bride price.”  Because those verses are skipped, it sounds like Rebekah was consulted in the matter, but she wasn’t.  Abraham’s slave, with Rebekah’s father, and her brother, had already agreed that she was going to go off and marry Isaac, and now, all that was of concern was whether or not she could remain there with her family for ten more days, to say good-bye.  After all, she was going to be moving four hundred miles away – like moving from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay – and when you do that on camels, you can’t run back for a weekend visit very easily.  So, they were going to say good-bye to her.  But the slave of Abraham said, “No way!  I’ve got this mission, and I’ve got to get back to my boss with a bride!”  So they said, “Let’s ask Rebekah.”  That’s what she was asked – not whether she would consent to entering into an arranged marriage, but whether or not she was willing to leave home immediately. 

“Do you want to go with this guy, right now?”
“Yup.  I do,” she replied.

So, she went.  Along with her nurse.  And I often think about that, too.  The nurse would be a woman who had probably breast-fed Rebekah as a baby, and did much of the mothering for her as she grew.  It never says so, in the scripture passage, but my imagination supposes that Rebekah is a post-adolescent young woman – maybe fifteen or sixteen years old, possibly more – but her “nurse” is really her closest human – virtually a mother to her.  But the nurse is merely an employee of the household!  And suddenly the nurse is told,

“You’re moving to Thunder Bay!”

Did they mention the woman’s children, or other family members?  No they didn’t.  She’s just going with Rebekah and that’s it!  So, off they go.

As you can see, with a 21st Century lens, there certainly are issues that can make you sit up and take notice – in reading this passage from the scriptures.

At the centre of the narrative is an arranged marriage.  Now, there are some cultures in this 21st Century world, which have arranged marriages, but certainly not in North America!  And it would cause many people to rise up like fried bacon at the thought of an arranged marriage as a Biblical truth!

And then?  Human rights! How about human rights!?  The right to make decisions for oneself?  Denied!  Neither Isaac, nor Rebekah, have any say in the matter of their marriage.

Then there are several signs of the second-rate status of women.  Fetching water was women’s work.  This guy comes from far away with a bunch of camels and an entourage of men, and… uh oh!  We need some water!  Well, we have to wait until a female comes along, carrying her jar, and then we can get some water!

So, Rebekah comes to fetch water, and the rest is history.

As I have already mentioned, it was the men who made the decision about the marriage, but then there is this other little piece, which is: at the end of the narrative, when Rebekah first catches sight of the man who was to become her husband, she jumps off her camel, and covers her face with her veil!

Anyone who remembers the Niqab controversy in one of the recent Canadian elections, would know that this gesture would not sit well with some people in our present culture.  But, she did it.  To meet the husband, she covers herself.

There is also the matter of “inbreeding.”  It was considered advantageous – indeed, blessed by God – that Abraham should find a wife for his son from relatives.  Inbreeding.

And there is racism!  Abraham had said to his slave: “You’re not going to go and get a wife from these Canaanites!  These awful people!  Nope.  We’ve got to get somebody from the pure-blood human beings – my relatives!”  So the slave must go far away to get the proper kind of wife for Isaac.

Finally, as I’ve already mentioned, Abraham is a slave-owner.  Slavery is very much in the news these days, as we’ve talked about the fall-out from the use of African people as slaves in the United States.  So, here we have a Biblical figure who is a slave owner.  What is he?  A plantation owner from the 19th Century U.S. South?  There is no comment about this in the text, merely an indication that God has “blessed” Abraham with “male and female slaves.” 1

Now, there are two unacceptable approaches to this material: one is the “literalist,” and the other is the “denial” approach.

The “Literalist” approach is found among many good Christian people who feel that the Bible is the source of all God’s instructions to us, and they take the marriage of Rebekah and Isaac so intensely literally, that they would feel it important to keep wives subjected to husbands and women subjected to men.  There was also, in the 19th Century, a literalist view of scripture, which saw there that God endorsed slavery.  I am certain that Abraham’s slaves, and certain slavery-related passages in the New Testament were brought forward by U.S. slave owners to justify the practice.

Pushed to the extreme, the literalist approach to Scripture can end up supporting things that really ought to be questioned, and indeed, rejected.

Frequently, the choice of people who favour a literalist approach, is to simply gloss over, and decline to think about.  “Read that bit quickly, so that we can get on to the important part, where Rebekah is found with the help of Divine guidance!”  Simply gloss over, and not “notice” the slave ownership, the subjugation of women, the lack of free choice, and all the rest of those things.

The other unacceptable approach, is “denial.”

The more “liberated” the mindset, the more “21st Century” the outlook, basically inclines people to say, “Don’t bother with that stuff.  It’s stupid; it’s dated; it’s culturally inappropriate.  Just leave it.”  We saw that approach when I referred to one of my friends who refused to have Psalm 45 read in church.  “Just leave it out!  Don’t use it!”

Both those who “gloss over,” and those who simply reject the Old Testament, end up with a simplistic form of Christian faith; one that is reduced, pretty much, to moral prescriptions.  Love and Inclusiveness and the “preferential option for the poor” are commended, and that is often a summary of the faith in its entirety.

However, I suggest that we should not in any way be ignoring the passage that was read today.  Indeed – thanks be to God – for all its problematic elements, it continues to be prescribed as a public reading, at a service of worship, on a Sunday, in a vast number of Christian churches.

Why should it be read?

For one reason – and this has been known since the passage was first identified as God’s revealed word, the Torah – this passage has been identified as one of the key moments in the formation of the People of God, the People of Israel.  Rebekah became the mother of Jacob, and Jacob is the first human being to have the name, “Israel.”  She is, therefore, the “mother” of Israel, the grandmother of the “Twelve Tribes of Israel.”

For Christians, the nation, the community, and the race of Jewish people is central to God’s plan for the redeeming of the entire world.  For it is in Israel that the Incarnation – the birth of Jesus – happened.  And, one of the central facts of the Christian message about Jesus, is that, in Jesus, God became a human with no unfair advantage.  He got born, like you and I got born; he had to be taught to hold his knife and fork, to “look both ways before you cross the street,” to say “please” and “thank-you,” and to go to Synagogue, where he would hear the Scriptures read – all of which was the environment that nurtured the Son of God, the Messiah of the Jews and the Saviour of the world.  God’s plan was to set up the community in which the Messiah could be born.

We therefore read such passages as the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, because this is one of the big moments in God’s working-out of His plan for the saving of the world.

Once we accept that the passage is important to be retained, and read, we can find some wonderful little vignettes about God’s Providence.

We have the slave of Abraham, with a bunch of retainers and camels, making a very long and arduous trip, and he knows that he’s supposed to go to this town, where he doesn’t know anybody, where he’s got to find a bride for the boss’ son!  How is he going to do that?  Would he go to the market place and go, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe?”

So, he stops for water, and he has an idea.  How did this idea get into his head?  Who knows?  But he prays, and asks God for guidance, and then says to himself, “I know!  If a girl comes to fetch water, I’ll ask her for some, and if she says ‘Yes, and I’ll water your camels, too!’ then that’ll be the one!”  How did he get that idea?

Meanwhile, over there at the house, Rebekah says, “I really ought to go and get some water – it’s a good time of day to do so.”  So, she goes.  And there’s this guy standing there with a bunch of camels – some foreigner – and he asks for water.  Ahh, poor guy!  He must be tired!  And his camels (she’s probably an animal lover!)!  So she says, “Yeah, and I’ll water your camels too.”

What made that happen?

The reader of this sees God working out God’s plan in a very subtle way: a guy needs water; a girl is the one who fetches water and decides to water his camels.  And the rest is history.

With that, Rebekah goes on to be the mother of the People of Israel.  Just because she decided to go and get water on that day at that time.

Which brings us to: Human Failings and God’s Plan.

I have spent a lot of time listing all the ways that we can turn up our noses at Abraham and his family, because they did all these unacceptable things.  And yet, the message is: “God was working out a plan.”

Now, in most of the things that I’ve named – the slave ownership, the arranged marriages, the racial purity – it was more or less culturally appropriate for the time.  Abraham didn’t think that he was doing things in violation of cultural norms – in fact, he was completely congruent with the culture around him.  It just happens that some of those things would make a 21st Century head spin!  We would say they are wrong, but he didn’t know that.

All the same, even by anyone’s Christian standards, Abraham was no saint.

There is an awful story, earlier in Genesis, where Abraham lies!  He lies about his wife!  Apparently, he was nervous because he was in the Kingdom ruled by Abimelech, so he said, of Sarah, “She’s my sister.”  This was because, by saying she was his sister, he could lend her out as a kind of a sex companion for the king, for a while.  King Abimelech took the bait and invited her to his residence!  But the Scripture goes on to say that God told him, in a dream, “Don’t touch that girl!  She’s important to my divine plan!”  That is how Genesis describes it, but I’m merely pointing to the fact that Abraham was a liar. 2 

Incidentally, the story about the lie – about the wife being a “sister” – is repeated in the Genesis life-story of Isaac!  Isaac did it to Rebekah!

Speaking of Rebekah, regardless of our sympathy for her, she was no saint, herself!  She played favourites with her kids.  She had twins, but she really liked the second one better than the first one.  Really!???  What good mother would do that!?

Then her son Jacob cheated on his twin brother, Esau, with Rebecca’s collusion!

Joseph, Rebekah’s grandson, was sold, by her other grandsons, into slavery!  But that fit into God’s plan, because after Joseph became the leader of all Egypt, all the “children of Israel” moved to Egypt, too, and grew, and prospered, until we get “Moses in the bulrushes,” and the princess of Egypt, and Moses becoming the leader of the People of God and the one who brought the world the Ten Commandments.

There’s more, so much more, in the Bible…

King David: he committed adultery, and then murdered the woman’s husband.  But she became the mother of King Solomon.  And, according to Matthew’s Gospel, Solomon was the ancestor of Jesus.  Now, this last assertion is arguable, because Luke’s Gospel has a different list for the ancestry of Jesus – tracing the lineage through a half-brother of Solomon, someone named Nathan.

The followers of Jesus weren’t much better!  Not only did Peter – the appointed leader of the Twelve Disciples – lie about being connected to Jesus, during Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, but after the resurrection, and after he had apologized to the risen Lord, we find Paul taking him down!  In the letter to the Galatians, he calls Peter a “hypocrite,” accusing him of being two-faced – for he, Peter, had been all in favour of Gentile inclusion until some of the stricter “Jewish-only” people came along, whereupon he acted “Jewish-only” and wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles.  Paul, at a church meeting, said to Peter, “You hypocrite!”  Humph.  And Peter is the reputed leader of the Church, chosen by Jesus!

So, how do we deal with all this!??

Well, the primary message is: God can, and does, work on His plan – and works it out despite our failings.

We are feeble, mortal humans.  We are immersed in our culture, and we do things in our generation that the next generation would consider appalling.  And we also know what we ought to do – like Paul said in the Epistle – yet we don’t do it.  But God works out God’s plan, with us, and through us, despite these characteristics of our nature.

Now, there are two things that I draw out of all this:

(1) all these characteristics of Abraham – the slave-owning, and the arranged marriages – tend to muddy an idealized picture of Abraham, who is the founder of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Which makes me think of all the statue-tossing going on in our generation.  We find out that someone who has been respected, and for whom statues have been erected, was a sinner!  “DOWN with that statue!!!” shouts the demonstrating crowd.

So, do we do that to Abraham?  Do we say, “Down with Abraham?”  Do we try to “cancel” him out of the Scriptures?

I have just given you a long list of how many people we’d have to tear down!

Now, I know that it is a complicated issue, and I don’t really want to examine it in terms of statue-destruction, because there are some statues that really ought to go down.  There are some others, however....

Well, I am going to tell you a personal anecdote:

We know that Residential Schools in Canada created enormous problems for the Indigenous people of our country.  But I was privileged to sit beside a man on his deathbed, who had been the Principal of a residential school.  It was about twenty-five or thirty years ago that I with him in his last days.  He knew that he was dying, but he was still very lucid, and we chatted about all kinds of things in his life, and his priorities.  Now, this was the time when a movement had emerged to say that Residential Schools were a destructive thing, requiring punitive repayment to its victims.  He was beginning to hear this about his life’s work.  He said to me, “But I loved those children!”  And he started to cry.  I will never forget that moment.  “I loved those children!”

Do we shout, “Down with his statue!!!”???  Or what?  Residential schools were a well-meaning but mistaken attempt to integrate Indigenous people into the culture of the invaders.  The system was wrong, and did harm, but within it there were people who were acting by the best lights that they had.

So… that’s a perspective on statue destruction, but the main point of this sermon comes now:

We read of these Biblical characters, and we find that God did not mess with their heads, God did not give them a personality transplant, in order for them to be the “founders” and first exemplars of our faith.  They were regular, ordinary people like you and me.

Oh yes, and one more personal anecdote:

It came at roughly the same time as that deathbed scene.  This was a case where I was just doing the “Rector” thing, wherein we had finished a Sunday service, and there had been a fairly full church.  I was standing at the back, greeting people as they exited the church, and this really fine-looking, well-dressed lady came and shook my hand.  She said, “You don’t remember me, do you!”

“Uh… no!  I’m glad you can be here, today, but I don’t recall our having met.”

“You visited me in hospital, about fifteen years ago, when I was sick, and you were doing some rounds in the Misericordia!  You came into my room, and we said some prayers, and we chatted.  I never forgot that, and it helped me turn my life around.”

I was just like Rebekah, going out for water.  I was working in a congregation where the young, beginning priest was expected to go and make rounds in the nearest hospital.  I had gone into the Pastoral Care room, where I looked up “Anglican” (this was a long time ago, when such information was recorded and made available to visiting clergy).  I then went to visit “Anglicans,” one of whom was this lady!

And I can’t remember it!  But, she does, because God did something for her, when that young priest said some prayers at her hospital bedside.

All of us have that possibility.  Like Rebekah, we just go out to get the water, and end up doing something that will bring a change to the world around us.

Thus it is that we read the story of Abraham’s servant going to find a bride for Isaac.  People doing what was normal in their day.  And we end up being the “Rebekah” of the piece: we innocently make a decision about where to go and what to do.  If we are faithful, as Abraham was faithful, then “righteousness” erupts.  Or, as St. Paul said (and as Genesis says) about Abraham: “He trusted in the Lord, and the Lord imputed that to him as ‘righteousness.’”

He was no saint.  But his trust in the Lord was all that was needed.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Even though we are just regular humans.

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© 2020, Tony Harwood-Jones

You are expected to contact me for permission to reproduce this sermon in whole or in part.


FOOTNOTES

(These footnotes were not read as part of the sermon, but are here to assist with discussion and reflection)

1  Genesis 24:35 – “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.”
(Click here to return to the text)

2   The sermon had already covered the subjugation of women, which is quite glaring in this encounter with Abimelech; so your preacher didn’t go back to it, at this point.
(Click here to return to the text)