Friday of Week 13 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 23:1-4, 19; 24:1-8, 62-67

We come to the end of the story of Abraham. The reading consists of selected paragraphs from chapters 23 and 24. As the reading opens we learn that Abraham’s wife Sarah has died at Hebron, a place also known as Kiriath-arba (Hebron). She was 127 years old. He is plunged into mourning with grief for his wife and the mother of his only son.

Leaving her bedside he went to the “people of Heth”, a term for pre-Israelite and non-Semitic inhabitants of Palestine. As he was an outsider and a settler in the land of Canaan, he asked for a burial plot where his wife could be laid. He still “lived in tents”, the most temporary of dwellings, but he looked forward to the more permanent home promised to him, which the author of Hebrews calls “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10). Ownership of burial land was a crucial step in establishing legal residence. In the culture, people had a strong desire to be buried “with their fathers” in their native land. By purchasing a burial place in Canaan, Abraham indicated his unswerving commitment to the Lord’s promise: Canaan was his new homeland.

The New American Bible states:

“A resident alien would normally not have the right to own property. The importance of Abraham’s purchase of the field, which is worded in technical legal terms, lies in the fact that it gave his descendants their first, though small, land rights in the country that God had promised the patriarch they would one day inherit as their own. Abraham therefore insists on purchasing the field and not receiving it as a gift.”

The Hittite leader was happy to give Abraham a burial place as a gift, but Abraham insisted on buying it so that he had full rights over it. It gave him a legal standing in Canaan which he did not have before. He then buried his wife in the cave “of the field of Machpelah” which he had bought and which was opposite to Mamre, in Canaan.

Abraham himself was also well advanced in years and had been blessed by God in many ways. He knows that death cannot be far away. His main concern is for his son and his future descendants. The elaborate story of acquiring a wife for Isaac marks the last, decisive step toward fulfilment of the promise of progeny through Isaac.

First, Abraham calls his senior servant, the steward of all his vast possessions (perhaps the Eliezer we met previously), and makes him take an oath:

Place your hand under my thigh, I would have you swear by the Lord of heaven and God of earth, that you will not choose a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live.

The descendants of Abraham must come from his own people. Putting the hand under the thigh means placing them near the genital organs to signify the solemnity of the oath which follows. The symbolism of this act was apparently connected with the Hebrew concept of children issuing from their father’s ‘thigh’ (Gen 46:26; Exod 1:5). Perhaps the man who took such an oath was thought to bring the curse of sterility on himself if he did not fulfil his sworn promise. Jacob made Joseph swear in the same way (Gen 47:29). In both these instances, the oath was taken to carry out the last request of a man upon his deathbed.

The servant is to go Abraham’s land, Mesopotamia, and to choose a wife for Isaac from among his kinsfolk. The steward has one problem. What if the future wife does not want to leave her country and go to Canaan? Is Isaac to go back and live there with her? Abraham rules out that suggestion altogether:

The Lord, God of heaven and God of earth, took me from my father’s home, and from the land of my kinsfolk, and he swore to me that he would give this country to my descendants.

So Abraham is torn between loyalty to his own people, the ‘purity’ of his family line and his mandate to take possession of his adopted home.

Abraham promises his steward that God will send an angel ahead of him to choose a suitable wife for his son. However, if the woman chosen is not willing to come back to Canaan, the steward will be released from the oath he is now being asked to make. The steward then put his hand under Abraham’s thigh and made the oath.

We now move to the end of chapter 24 for the last part of the reading. In between, there is the long account of how the steward went to Mesopotamia and came across the beautiful Rebekah coming to a well to draw water (Jacob – later called ‘Israel’ – will meet his future wife, Rachel, at a well also). Is there an echo of these scenes in John’s gospel where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at a well, symbolic of the Old Testament, and takes her as his ‘spiritual’ bride into the New Covenant? (see John 4).

Rebekah turns out to be a niece of Abraham, the daughter of his brother Nahor, and is a virgin. She fulfils all the requirements. The steward meets her family, showers them with gifts from his master and then takes Rebekah back to Canaan (see Gen 24:10-61).

We are then told that Isaac, who lived in the Negeb, had come into the wilderness of the well of Lahai Roi (another well!). This was the site of the annunciation of Ishmael’s birth to Hagar. Isaac’s emergence from there has a symbolic resonance – henceforth he will have his own posterity. As he walked in the evening light, Isaac saw a caravan of camels approaching. With it was Rebekah (Rebecca). She looked up and saw Isaac, her future husband, for the first time. Getting down from her camel she asked who was the man she saw walking towards them. Abraham’s servant replied:

That is my master.

Rebekah immediately veiled her face, perhaps indicating that she was unmarried. Up to now the steward’s master had been Abraham; from now on it is Isaac, the new patriarch of the family. The servant then told Isaac all that had happened in his search for a bride. Isaac, without more ado, led Rebekah into his tent and made her his wife. “And he loved her.” In other words, they had intercourse as man and wife. And, the reading says in conclusion,

Isaac was consoled for the loss of his mother.

Isaac is now head of the family, but we will not spend too much time with him. In fact, there will be just one more reading on him.

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