The cycles of the generations and the struggles of the soul are promised rest at the end of the journey.
The Torah reading is selected verses from the story of the finding of Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife. The last chapters of Abraham’s life (Genesis 22:20-25:11, introduced by “Now after these things…”) are occupied with the final life-tasks of the elderly head of the household. He keeps in touch with his close relatives in the old country (Genesis 22:20-24), he procures a proper burial place in the new country for his wife (Genesis 23), he finds an appropriate wife for his main son and heir (Genesis 24), and he provides for other wives and their offspring (Genesis 25:1-6), after which he dies and is honorably buried by his sons Isaac and Ishmael (25:7-11).
The story of the finding of Rebekah is an unusual narrative in Genesis. This is an actual narrative, told at length, not just a brief statement of the essentials needed for a story-teller’s repertoire, as are most of the episodes told about Abraham and Jacob. This narrative takes an entire chapter of 67 verses to relate an episode that could have been told much more briefly. After all, all that happens here is that the old faithful servant of Abraham (whose name we never learn!) goes to the old country and, after appropriate tests for God’s guidance, finds a beautiful girl from a related family who is willing to go to Canaan and marry her distant cousin Isaac. There is not even any space taken up with the marriage itself!
(In the long-term structuring of the scroll of Genesis, the story of the finding of Rebekah is prolonged in order to balance the long story of Jacob getting his wives from these same Aramean relatives, though there we have many episodes and not just a single narrative, Genesis 29-31.)
This story is told with careful elaborateness. One must read the entire story and not just the Lectionary’s selections, to get the full force of this. In the opening of the story Abraham gives careful instructions to the servant, making him swear an oath not to allow Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman (verses 2-4). The servant discusses the options he might have to deal with but sets out to do as he is told. The whole exchange is marked by formality and courtesy, and this style and mood will be preserved throughout. There is great dignity and propriety pervading the life of these ancestors of Israel.
An essential piece of the story takes place before the first Lectionary selection. That is the servant’s commitment of the entire enterprise to God’s providence. The servant specifies that the woman that God designates for Isaac’s wife will be the one who offers to give water not only to the traveling man, but also to his camels. (Realistically, that would not be a minor item. The camels would require many more jars of water from the well than the man.)
As the selected readings begin we have already had all the introductions and the servant is making his offer—an offer that can’t be refused—to Rebekah’s brother and family. He explains Abraham’s great wealth and his determination to avoid intermarriage with the Canaanites. He also explains God’s providential guidance identifying Rebekah. What can the family say? They bless Rebekah and send her on her way. When she is approaching Isaac, the husband-to-be, she discretely veils herself and is received by him to comfort him after the death of his mother. That is, she becomes the matron of the nomadic clan.
The immigrants observe all the proper addresses and courtesies in arranging a marriage for the boy of the promising future with the proper girl from the old country. Abraham’s seniority is also blessed as a new bride enters the clan, promising another generation to inherit the promise.
The psalm reading is the last half of an ode to the king and queen at a royal wedding in Jerusalem. It reflects the days of glory and wealth when the marriage of the Davidic king to the daughter of another ruler or of a great noble was an event of major importance in the diplomatic and political world.
Our verses are the poet’s address to and description of the bride. She is charged to forget her past identity as a daughter and devote herself to her future as queen mother, whose favor will be sought by the wealthiest and most influential powers of their world (verses 10-12). Her fantastically rich wedding garments are celebrated (verses 13-15).
In the conclusion, the king too is called upon to look toward the future rather than the past. “In the place of ancestors …you shall have sons, / you will make them princes in all the earth” (verse 16). The psalm celebrates the fulfillment of what was only a promise in the time of Isaac and Rebekah, though it was anticipated in the blessing given her by her family (Genesis 24:60).
The Epistle reading is a complete contrast to the irenic providence of God described in the Rebekah story and the joyful celebration of the royal wedding of the psalm. Paul’s long description of the plight of the sinner before salvation, which really began in chapter 5 of the letter, here reaches the nadir of despair.
He graphically describes the divided self, the self that wants desperately to do the good but only finds itself caught in the bondage of sin, which is exacerbated by the law of God itself. “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” (verses 22-23). Though Paul may have meant it more inclusively, how many young people, awakening to the rampant power of adolescent sexuality, have found their agonized experience written here?
C.H. Dodd argued that in this chapter Paul was reading his own experience—and the typical human experience—in terms of the story of the fall of Adam in Genesis 3.
Paul read in Genesis how Adam at first lived in innocence. A command was given to him, intended to prevent him from forfeiting his immortality, according to the rabbinic interpretation. The serpent, subtly turning this command to his own ends, seduced Adam (through his wife—but, for Paul here, that is not significant). He transgressed the command, and death was the result… Translated into terms of individual experience, the story runs: “I lived at one time without law myself, but when the command came home to me, sin sprang to life and I died; the command that meant life proved death for me. The command gave an impulse to sin, sin beguiled me, and used the command to kill me.” [quoting Romans 7:9-11 in the Moffatt translation] It fits like a glove; and there are enough verbal echoes of the Greek translation of Gen. iii to make it likely that Paul actually had the passage in mind. (Romans [“The Moffatt New Testament Commentary”], Harper, 1932, pp. 105-106.)
The apostle concluded his description, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (verse 24, NRSV). When he confessed this, he knew that there was an answer. There was a union available that would both rescue him from lonely struggle and complete his life as the good Lord had intended it. His soul waited for the union that would deliver and comfort it. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verse 25).
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.
The Gospel reading has two contrasting parts. The first is a despairing judgment on the present generation that will not respond to God’s summons, and the second is a declaration of the availability of intimate knowledge and comfort through the Lord.
The previous parts of the chapter have talked about John the Baptist, the one bringing God’s word in preparation for the Messiah. The common folks will not respond to John’s call for rigorous self-restraint, and the learned religious leaders condemn Jesus because he associates with the ordinary folks of the rude and crude world. “We played you a wedding tune, but you would not dance; we sang a funeral dirge, but you would not mourn.” Such is the meaning of the saying about the children playing in the market-place (verse 17). People at large want their religious leaders to dance to the tune that they play—not to learn new songs and lessons.
The last part of the reading begins, “At that time…,” as if emphasizing that Jesus’ words of revelation and comfort were spoken just when the hopeless resistance of the people had become absolutely clear. In the face of such stubborn opposition from people and leaders alike (expressed even more intensely in the verses omitted from the reading, the condemnation of the Galilean cities, verses 20-24), Jesus speaks this “bolt from the Gospel of John” that appears in the middle of the Gospel According to Matthew.
“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” (verse 27, NRSV). There is only one route to an intimate communion with the heavenly parent, and it is assumed that such intimate communion is the supreme good for all human living.
But there IS one route—the Son who, speaking in the voice of Wisdom, says to the simple and uneducated folks, “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” (verses 28-29). In the face of all opposition and rejection by the worldly folks, there is a comfort and a rest available to the truly humble who wait upon the Lord.
At the end of the journey for a new union, at the end of the struggle against the bondage of divided selves, there is comfort, there is rest.