“The camels are coming! The camels are coming!”
There is a passage I have been waiting to preach on for more than 40 years since I first heard a sermon on it. I can’t remember who the preacher was. The passage is Genesis chapter 24 and the only thing I can actually remember of that original sermon is the punchline from the end of the chapter in verse 63, as I heard it then in the old King James Version.
“And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide: and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, the camels were coming.”
“The camels are coming!” That was the best sermon title I have ever heard, and the happy ending to the story which begins much earlier. The chapter is very long so I am going to read it as we go along.
GENESIS 24:1 Abraham was now very old, and the LORD had blessed him in every way. 2 He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, ‘Put your hand under my thigh. 3 I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, 4 but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.’
5 The servant asked him, ‘What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?’
6 ‘Make sure that you do not take my son back there,’ Abraham said. 7 ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, “To your offspring I will give this land”—he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there.
Abraham, the friend of God, was now very old. God had given him his miracle son Isaac and promised that all the blessings of the covenant to Abraham’s descendants and to the whole world would come through Isaac. But Abraham was worried that if Isaac married a Canaanite woman from the land they were living in, then Isaac and his family would be led away from following the one and only true God. And we know how wise Abraham was in that, when we remember what we learned before the summer about all the kings of Israel a thousand years later who married foreign wives who led them into worshipping the false pagan gods of the Canaanites, and all the trouble that caused.
So Abraham sent his most important servant, the manager of his household, on this most important mission, to find a suitable wife for Isaac, the heir to all God’s promises. The servant would take a couple of weeks to make the 500-mile journey from Beersheba to Paddan Aram to try to find one of Abraham’s relatives to marry Isaac.
Preachers through the ages have waxed eloquently on this story. Many have seen it as a form of allegory called typology. Some people understand many Old Testament narratives as foreshadowing New Testament events. The Old Testament story reveals a type, or a pattern, of the way God acts, which is fulfilled in the New Testament. We thought about this last week although we didn’t use the word typology then. Genesis 22 tells the story of God testing Abraham’s faith by calling him to sacrifice his beloved Son Isaac. And this gives us a picture of the love of God the Father being willing to sacrifice His Son Jesus for us. So Abraham is described as the “type” for the God the Father and Isaac is the “type” for the Son Jesus.
Some preachers look at Genesis 24 in the same way as a story about Abraham the Patriarch as a Type for God the Father and Isaac as a Type for his beloved Son Jesus Christ. And this story is understood to be fulfilled much later as the Father God sends his servant to find a Bride for his Son. So preachers see Isaac’s bride as a Type for the Bride of Christ which is the Church. And the servant Abraham sends is a Type for the Holy Spirit who God sends to find the church. So some preachers will use this whole story as an allegory for the work of the Holy Spirit drawing Christians into the wonderful Bride of Christ, the Church.
That has been the traditional way that very many preachers have understood Genesis 24. But I don’t buy it. Apart from anything else, the Old Testament is Scripture as much for the Jews as for the Christians. Abraham and Isaac are their Patriarchs. So this story must have things to say to Jews as much as to Christians about their God and our God. Which is why I want us to look at this Old Testament story in its own terms instead of leaping to Christianise and allegorise it. And for me it is a story about great faith. But not the faith of Abraham or of Isaac the great heroes of faith, but of a man so humble that we don’t even know his name. The man who left his place as the most important servant in Abraham’s household to obey his master’s wish.
10 Then the servant left, taking with him ten of his master’s camels loaded with all kinds of good things from his master. He set out for Aram Naharaim and made his way to the town of Nahor. 11 He made the camels kneel down near the well outside the town; it was towards evening, the time the women go out to draw water.
12 Then he prayed, ‘LORD, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13 See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 May it be that when I say to a young woman, “Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,” and she says, “Drink, and I’ll water your camels too”—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.’
This man was only a servant. But he had served Abraham long enough to share his master’s faith in the LORD, Yahweh, the God of Abraham. So he prays. He commits his search to God. He sets out in faith. The simple lesson from Genesis 24 for us four thousand years later is obvious. Whatever tasks we face this week, and every week, we also should approach them with faith. We also should pray. Whether the job seems large or small, we also should seek God’s strength and guidance and blessing on our endeavours.
Proverbs 3 5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
Abraham’s servant committed his task to God and relied on God to guide him. We should do the same. And at the same time the servant created a simple “test”, if you like, to help him discover God’s will. A test involving camels.
15 Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor. 16 The woman was very beautiful, a virgin; no man had ever slept with her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again.
17 The servant hurried to meet her and said, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar.’
18 ‘Drink, my lord,’ she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink.
19 After she had given him a drink, she said, ‘I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have had enough to drink.’ 20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels. 21 Without saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful.
The man had prayed. He had set a test by which God could reveal which woman should become Isaac’s bride. And Rebekah had passed the test. She not only gave the men a drink, but also watered the camels.
Many preachers spend a long time talking about Rebekah as Isaac’s future bride. She was a beautiful young woman and still a virgin, which those preachers tell us gives us a lovely picture of the holiness and purity of the Bride of Christ, the Church. Rebekah does get a dozen mentions in this chapter. But the focus of the chapter is elsewhere. There are others which are mentioned even more times. Indeed, out of their 62 appearances in the whole bible, SEVENTEEN of their occurrences are in Genesis chapter 24. I’m talking, of course, about the camels!
20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels.
One of the things I had not really appreciated before our trip to Africa this summer is just how much hard work it is to draw a bucket of water up out of a well. Lifting 10 kilograms of water 20 or 30 feet up. And would you like to guess how many buckets of water a camel can drink at a sitting? A really thirsty camel can drink 30% of its bodyweight in just 3 minutes! 200 litres of water – 44 gallons! That is 20 buckets of water. For each camel. Did anybody happen to notice in verse 10 how many camels Abraham’s servant brought with him? TEN camels. TWENTY buckets of water each. That would be 200 buckets of water out of the well. 200 buckets is 2 tonnes of water! If it were possible to draw a bucket of water every minute, watering ten very thirsty camels would take 3 hours and 20 minutes. A bucket only every two minutes – seven hours. Lifting the combined weight of three camels out of that well! I’ll leave it as homework for you to calculate how much energy that would take and how much food a person would need to eat to do that much physical work of lifting. But I’ll give you a clue. That’s a lot of Mars Bars!
20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels.
Perhaps I have overestimated. Perhaps the camels were not that thirsty. Perhaps they only drank half a dozen buckets each. That would only take an hour. Or two. But Abraham’s servant was no fool. The little test he had created to help him to identify Isaac’s future bride would not only reveal her generous and hospitable nature. It would not only show that she was a very healthy and very strong and very determined young lady. Drawing enough water for 10 camels would be a job for Samson, an almost superhuman, supernatural accomplishment. That is what the servant asked God for, and that was the “almost a miracle” which Rebekah delivered.
22 When the camels had finished drinking, the man took out a gold nose ring weighing a beka and two gold bracelets weighing ten shekels. 23 Then he asked, ‘Whose daughter are you? Please tell me, is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?’
24 She answered him, ‘I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son that Milkah bore to Nahor.’ 25 And she added, ‘We have plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.’
26 Then the man bowed down and worshipped the LORD, 27 saying, ‘Praise be to the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.’
There’s our second simple lesson for today. The servant had prayed. God had answered. So the man bowed down and worshipped the Lord. He praised God and gave thanks for God’s blessing. Not many Christians are good at praying and asking God’s help in the things we are doing. And even fewer of us are good at remembering to thank God and praise him when he does help us. Don’t forget to thank God when he answers your prayers!
Abraham’s servant man prayed, and then he gave thanks. For God had indeed led him quite remarkably to the household of Abraham’s brother and to Rebekah who was Abraham’s great niece. Actually her grandfather Nahor was Abraham’s brother but her grandmother Milkah was also the sister of Abraham’s wife Sarah so this was all very much in the family. Not only Abraham, but God Himself was evidently concerned that Isaac should marry the perfect wife.
28 The young woman ran and told her mother’s household about these things. 29 Now Rebekah had a brother named Laban, and he hurried out to the man at the spring. 30 As soon as he had seen the nose ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and had heard Rebekah tell what the man said to her, he went out to the man and found him standing by the camels near the spring. 31 ‘Come, you who are blessed by the LORD,’ he said. ‘Why are you standing out here? I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.’
32 So the man went to the house, and the camels were unloaded. Straw and fodder were brought for the camels, and water for him and his men to wash their feet. 33 Then food was set before him, but he said, ‘I will not eat until I have told you what I have to say.’
‘Then tell us,’ Laban said.
God had led Abraham’s servant to a very hospitable family. Opening their doors to a bunch of strangers, and not forgetting all those camels! But even after the long and exhausting journey, the servant’s mission was more urgent and important than dinner. There’s a lesson for some of us. When God gives you a job to do – get on and do it. Don’t flap around. Don’t prevaricate. Don’t delay. The work of God is important and urgent. Don’t get sidetracked!
34 So he said, ‘I am Abraham’s servant. 35 The LORD has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy. He has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, male and female servants, and camels and donkeys. 36 My master’s wife Sarah has borne him a son in her old age, and he has given him everything he owns. 37 And my master made me swear an oath, and said, “You must not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live, 38 but go to my father’s family and to my own clan, and get a wife for my son.”
Everybody understood that finding the right bride was important, and family loyalty was important. But the servant made it very clear that the real reason Abraham wanted to find the best bride for Isaac was to honour God.
40 ‘(My Master) replied, “The LORD, before whom I have walked faithfully, will send his angel with you and make your journey a success, so that you can get a wife for my son from my own clan and from my father’s family.’
God had led the servant to find Rebekah. So he explains to the whole family the test he had created, and how Rebekah had revealed that she was God’s choice by offering to water the camels. All along he is testifying to the guidance of God. Our next lesson. Don’t be afraid to testify about what God has done in our lives. When some venture is successful, when things go well at work, when God blesses your family, remember to give God the praise and the glory by bearing witness to the good things God has done. Don’t keep the credit for yourself. Give the glory to God who answered your prayers and led you and gave you the strength.
‘Then I put the ring in her nose and the bracelets on her arms, 48 and I bowed down and worshipped the LORD. I praised the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me on the right road to get the granddaughter of my master’s brother for his son. 49 Now if you will show kindness and faithfulness to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so I may know which way to turn.’
50 Laban and Bethuel answered, ‘This is from the LORD; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. 51 Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has directed.’
Rebekah’s family recognized the hand of God in what was happening. Of course Isaac as heir to Abraham’s riches would be a good catch. That was a lot of gold and silver jewellery! And a lot of camels! But the family also knew about the LORD, Yahweh, the God Abraham served. That is why they were very happy to follow God’s will.
52 When Abraham’s servant heard what they said, he bowed down to the ground before the LORD.
… When they got up the next morning, he said, ‘Send me on my way to my master.’
55 But her brother and her mother replied, ‘Let the young woman remain with us ten days or so; then you may go.’
s56 But he said to them, ‘Do not detain me, now that the LORD has granted success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master.’
It was understandable that Rebekah’s family would want to spend a bit of time with her before she left. But the servant of God knew his mission was urgent. Abraham was already very old – who could know if he would still be alive when they got back. The servant wanted to get on the road as soon as he could. It’s the same lesson a second time. Is there something God has been calling you to do? Some task in the church? Some act of service or witness in the world? If God has given you something to do – get on and do it! Don’t delay.
Normally in those days, the men would just have made the decision. But in this case her family actually wanted to know what Rebekah herself wanted.
57 Then they said, ‘Let’s call the young woman and ask her about it.’ 58 So they called Rebekah and asked her, ‘Will you go with this man?’
‘I will go,’ she said.
59 So they sent their sister Rebekah on her way, along with her nurse and Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah.
61 Then Rebekah and her attendants got ready and mounted the camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebekah and left.
And so we come to the happy ending of this romance.
62 Now Isaac had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. 63 He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching.
“and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, the camels were coming.” KJV
The camels are coming! The camels are coming!
66 Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. 67 Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her.
“And they all lived happily ever after.” Well, not really. But there is the story of how Isaac the Patriarch found his wonderful bride Rebekah. All because an un-named servant did his job. But not in his own strength. The servant prayed and followed God’s guidance and worshipped and gave thanks and praise when God blessed his venture. The servant would not let himself distracted from doing God’s will. And he wasn’t afraid to tell everybody about the great things God was doing in his life. A wonderful example of faith and obedience and of how all of us should all be serving and honouring God. The servant is the real hero of faith in this story.
And, of course, the camels 😊
“The camels are coming! The camels are coming!”