[Isaac] went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac.Genesis 24:63-64 (NIV)
It’s like a scene from a classic Hollywood movie. A restless young man, exhausted from a day’s work, stares across the desert at dusk. He sees a group of people on camels make their way toward his camp. A certain young woman catches his eye.
An ideal promise
When Isaac sees Rebekah, can we imagine what he’s thinking? After all, it’s no secret that Isaac’s father has been playing matchmaker. Abraham seeks a wife for his son. Abraham even sent a faithful servant to the distant town of his relatives. If the servant can find a willing wife for Isaac, they’ll be returning anytime. Isaac half-expects to see her every time he looks up.
Abraham is vigilant about following God’s will for his son Issac.
For Isaac, it’s an exhilarating, if awkward, situation. He lives in a remote region and is kept apart from the local population. His father once compromised on God’s plan with disastrous results. After the mistake of Ishmael, Abraham is vigilant about following God’s will for his son Issac. After all, God has promised that a holy nation will come from the line of Abraham.
Isaac isn’t thinking about any of this. He’s a young man with little experience. Has he ever been on a date? What does Isaac imagine he’ll find when his future wife appears? Likely what most of us look for in marriage, our relationship ideal.
Rebekah is the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother. Her selfless behavior before Abraham’s servant indicates she is intended for Isaac. Given the adventurous choice to go to Abraham’s land, Rebekah says yes. Soon, Isaac and Rebekah are face to face. They have never seen each other before. Arranged marriage was accepted in those times, and yet, it must not have been any easier at the start.
At this very moment, had Isaac been granted a vision decades into the future, what would he have done? If Isaac could see where their marriage would head, would he go through with it? Would he instead return to his tent and leave Rebekah standing there? Would Isaac dismiss Rebekah’s youthful beauty and focus on the bad times to come? If Rebekah had this same foresight, would she agree to marry? Their relationship would take a contentious turn.
Their relationship would take a contentious turn.
We know what happens. Issac and Rebekah will have fraternal twins, Esau and Jacob. Isaac will favor Esau, a huntsman. Rebekah will prefer the crafty, domesticated Jacob. Esau and Jacob will fight over who should get the family birthright. Esau is older. However, the Lord has warned Rebekah, “the older will serve the younger.” Isaac and Rebekah will play roles in a family war. A dangerous falling out will ensure, including a vow of murder.
Betrayal, not ideal
The Bible offers us the view of an entire relationship from beginning to end. When Isaac and Rebekah see each other’s shy, unassuming smiles in Genesis 24, we know the problems to come in Genesis 27. Rebekah encourages her younger son to deceive his aged father. It’s a calculated act. Jacob impersonates Esau and succeeds in stealing the birthright. It’s all Rebekah’s idea. She carries out the plan. Jacob does exactly what his mother says.
Isaac finds out soon enough. After he finishes blessing Jacob thinking he’s Esau, the real Esau appears. Isaac learns of his mistake. He’s struck with anguish for his older son. It’s hard to imagine how Isaac feels about his wife’s ploy. Rebekah has made a fool out of the head of the Biblical household, a husband frail and almost blind. She clearly felt Isaac had lost the ability to lead.
It’s hard to imagine how Isaac feels about his wife’s ploy … She clearly felt Isaac had lost the ability to lead.
In our own busy lives, we try to overlook the chasm between marriage’s promises and disappointments. This Bible story lays out an uncomfortable outcome. Marriage often doesn’t offer us our relationship ideal. It presents a challenge. Did we do it wrong?
From examining these passages, we can conclude the answer is no. We aren’t necessarily doing wrong when we face marriage troubles. It was God Himself who told Rebekah, “the older will serve the younger.” It was God’s plan that Jacob claim, perhaps even steal the birthright. It’s hard to fathom, but God stops at nothing to enact His plan of redemption, even by enabling family conflict. The line of Isaac leads all the way to Jesus Christ. Through the Bible, we’re shown that God uses the conflict of a fallen world as an agent of change. God’s plan even led to Jesus’ crucifixion.
God not only allows conflict within a marriage but enables it when it suits His plan.
Marriage is a sacred space for us, a place of intimacy and vulnerability. It’s a surprising idea: God not only allows conflict within a marriage but enables it when it suits His plan. Would a couple enter into such a union willingly? Perhaps not. And so, God takes our ideals about marriage and uses them to enable our cooperation. The cynic might say, God uses our romantic notions against us. Only God knows the course that the relationship will go. The Isaac and Rebekah who married happily are far from the people they became in later years.
We can see, God honors fulfilled marriages and unfulfilled ones. It was God who taught the writer of Genesis to say, “and they shall become one flesh.” We enter marriage unaware of the trials to come. We say “I do” with a selfless attitude mixed with an unexpressed self-interest. We want to honor our spouse. We also want a benefit from marriage that will likely add to our lack of something, whether it be love, honor, respect, security. We ask a spouse to do the work of God, a role our spouse can’t fulfill.
Lured into maturity
We are meant to receive all of our needs in Christ. Philippians 4 says, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Christians know this verse, and yet marriage seems to be a confusing exception. Isn’t our spouse there to build us up, if not outright cater to our needs?
It’s God’s expectation that we’ll focus on giving.
The answer is antithetical to the modern way. It’s God’s expectation that we’ll focus on giving. We’ll share out of the supply we receive from Christ. It’s what makes God’s design for marriage holy. It’s not a materialistic contract of quid pro quo. Marriage is part of God’s redemptive plan, which always involves selflessness and sacrifice. When we find ourselves in an unfulfilled marriage, we don’t realize a sacrifice is expected.
Let’s be honest. This definition of marriage doesn’t sound as pleasant as the secular one. You didn’t necessarily find someone who exists to celebrate you. It isn’t your turn to shine. God’s purpose for marriage is to grow a selfish person into maturity. If both spouses allow God to lead them through the difficult stages of marriage, then a celebration of the other spouse will naturally happen. However, by then, you may no longer need it.
For a long time, society acted as a Godly policeman to pressure couples to marry. It was sink or swim. The divorce rate steadily rose as the religious aspect of marriage declined. Today, the divorce rate is at a 50-year low. The reason isn’t a good sign for marriage, however. Many aren’t getting married at all.
The government has also helped to disincentivize marriage with domestic partnership laws. They confer legal benefits on an unmarried couple, so there’s little financial benefit to marriage.
Everyone wins. Except, nobody does. Unmarried people avoid growth.
All of this adds up to marriage being easily avoidable. The culture hails it as progress. People can have relationships outside of a Godly covenant. They’re free to leave when things get difficult. There’s no guilt. They can also save face since the failed relationship isn’t a failed marriage. Everyone wins. Except, nobody does. Unmarried people avoid growth. By refusing the call to a confining commitment, they stay spiritual infants.
The thrill of being chosen by another person is unlike any other feeling. In the church, we’re cautioned not to act rashly but find out God’s will. We believe we enter into a marriage with eyes wide open. Christians may date for an extended time, pray frequently, and seek wise counsel. We’re determined not to make the mistakes of a secular culture that emotionalizes marriage.
[I]t’s quite likely they would have married anyway. They were aware of their roles in God’s redemptive story.
And yet, the One who brings together a man and a woman is in charge. However long a relationship is studied, God’s plan involves hardship. Isaac and Rebekah knew this. Their marriage was clearly arranged, which meant they accepted the covenant of God. They didn’t know the trials that would come, and yet, it’s quite likely they would have married anyway. They were aware of their roles in God’s redemptive story. Their union was important. Their offspring led to the Savior and to humanity’s redemption.
God uses marriage as a bait and switch only for those who need it. Couples who enter into marriage knowing maturity is the goal will not feel duped. They’ll be prepared. Their flesh may cry out at times, but they will receive all their needs in Christ. They’ll find that giving to their spouse is what they wanted all along. The question is will we allow God to be this kind of matchmaker?
Heavenly Father, please give us the desire to serve in a marriage rather than be served. Give us a bigger sense of what marriage is about, the maturing of two people, and the furthering of a divine story you’ve placed us in. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
This post first appeared at Kneeling Low.