Have you noticed that February’s red hearts are followed by March Madness and April Fools’ Day? Often love stories seem to follow a similar route. They begin as riveting and inspiring moments, then passionately turn a corner toward madness, and ultimately result in pain and loss and, often, foolish behavior. That’s, at least, how current culture seems to portray love relationships. Any Hollywood production with a romantic theme somewhat illustrates this sequence. Our twenty-first-century yearning for instant intimacy, companionship, and, yes, a sensitive soul mate with the capabilities of Superman or Wonder Woman doesn’t allow much space for gentle approaches and natural growth. Online dating services, using artificial intelligence and elaborate algorithms to match two strangers and guarantee eternal bliss and happiness, represent the logical path for all those too busy to meet people in the real world, yet who are at home in many virtual realities.
So how did people living in the world of the Bible find their soul mates? Were they actually looking for a soul mate, or did they value other criteria than red hearts and creative proposals? What criteria and priorities informed their dating customs?
When we look at the few biblical love stories available to us, we immediately notice a number of differences. Families were highly involved in finding life partners for their daughters and sons. Fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and older siblings all participated in the symphonic composition resulting in “Here comes the bride.” That comes as a shock to most of us living in the West. Readers in the East can relate to this more easily, as family continues to play a significant role when it comes to finding a life partner.
We also realize that biblical love stories are as marred by sin as twenty-first-century love stories. Genesis 1 and 2 describe God’s ideal for marriage and sexuality. These chapters tell us about an intimate relationship between a man and a woman who were both made in God’s image; both enjoyed unrestricted fellowship with their Creator; both were blessed by the Giver of all blessings; both were to be stewards of God’s creation.
1 God made Adam for Eve and Eve for Adam. He didn’t think that Adam needed Eve, Jane, and Sandra or that Eve wanted Adam and John. Polygamy was a direct result of the entrance of sin, as was the increasing inequality between the sexes, resulting in the exploitation, denigration, and abuse of (mostly) women throughout millennia.
So when we look back at biblical love stories, we won’t do it with the ill-informed desire to wish for the “good old days.” Rather, a close reading of the Word should result in the discovery of important principles that governed “the search for Mr. or Mrs. Right”—and may also inform our search for a God-fearing partner.
One of the longest love stories of Scripture can be found in Genesis 24. The chapter details how Isaac finds his Rebekah, the love of his life (verse 67), yet Isaac, although a central figure, plays only a minor role in the story.
Imagine the opening scene: Abraham, slightly bent over and rather tired looking, speaks to another old man. We learn that it’s the “oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he had” (verse 2).2 He is not named in the story, but based on Genesis 15:2, we assume that this must be Eliezer of Damascus, who, prior to the birth of Isaac, was Abraham’s heir. Eliezer has been with Abraham right from the beginning. He was with him in Egypt at Pharaoh’s court (Gen. 12:10-20); he pursued with Abraham the marauding armies of Chedorlaomer of Elam and liberated Lot and his family (Gen. 14:1-17); hewitnessed the birth of Ishmael by Hagar (Gen. 16:15); and, finally, rejoiced with Abraham and Sarah in the birth of Isaac (Gen. 21:1-7). Years later Eliezer saw Abraham and Isaac walk away early one morning toward Moriah (Gen. 22). when they returned, something profound had changed.
Eliezer knew the God of Abraham. In fact, this God became his God as well. His very name means “my God is help.” Abraham’s charge to Eliezer is straightforward: go to my country and my people and find a wife for my son Isaac (Gen. 24:4). Abraham realized that the fulfillment of God’s blessing of a future for his family required a faithful wife for his son, a wife who would share in his commitment to Yahweh, the Creator God. No Canaanite wife would do. This was priority number one, and it was so important that Abraham made his servant swear an oath using a rare and intimate symbolic legal act by putting Eliezer’s hand under his thigh (verse 9). There are only two occurrences of this symbolic act in Scripture: here and in Genesis 47:29, when Jacob extracts the promise of being buried in Canaan.
Here is takeaway number one from our story: Finding a life partner is serious business and centers on a shared covenant loyalty to our Creator God. Loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul seems to be a prerequisite for finding marital happiness. The New Testament applies this principle by using the imagery of being unequally yoked (2 Cor. 6:14).
The next part of the narrative focuses upon the approach taken by Abraham’s servant. He immediately sets out with a large camel train and a number of men carrying many gifts. We know little about his trip to Mesopotamia, but we know that prayer played an important role as he tackled a tough assignment. Genesis 24 includes three prayers by Eliezer (verses 12-14; 26, 27; and 52). His faithfulness and trust in God shine through. He prays for a very specific sign (verses 12-14); he praises God when he realizes that the young woman he has just met at the well is part of Abraham’s clan (verses 26, 27); and, finally, when all is done and said, he again praises God for His providence (verse 52).
It’s worth our while to take a closer look at Eliezer’s first prayer, asking for a specific sign. Eliezer doesn’t pray for the right looks or a particular eye color. He prays for somebody who is kind and caring. What he gets is even more: Rebekah is beautiful, unmarried, and compassionate (verses 16-20). The reader is also told that she is family (even though Eliezer doesn’t yet know that, thus heightening the tension). Rebekah must also have been strong and extremely committed. Watering ten thirsty camels required drawing and pitching at least 265 gallons (1,000 liters) of water. I am sure Rebekah knew that she had worked hard that evening!
Strong, godly women yearn for faith-affirming, godly men and listen carefully to godly counsel.
That brings me to takeaway number two. God is intimately concerned about our yearning for a life partner. Genesis 24 suggests that He hears and answers these kinds of prayers. We may not always get an answer immediately, or we may not always like what we are hearing, but He does answer. He knows that this decision can make or break individuals, couples, and entire families. So He is on it!
Following the warm welcome at the well, Abraham’s emissary receives an even warmer welcome in Bethuel’s home. This may also have been because of the costly gifts Eliezer had given Rebekah (verses 30, 31). Laban, Rebekah’s brother, is practically gushing with goodness and, perhaps, a bit of greed: “Come in, O blessed of the Lord!”
Eliezer, however, is not going to be sidetracked by small talk and tradition. Before he is ready to enjoy the hospitality of his hosts, he describes, in broad strokes, the reason for his presence. God is present at every juncture in the story he tells. God is ultimately responsible for this incredible encounter. And if God moves in the world, He is also moving in the hearts of his hosts. “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you either bad or good,” exclaimed Laban and Bethuel. “Here is Rebekah before you; take her and go, and let her be your master’s son’s wife, as the Lord has spoken” (verses 50, 51).
One could get the impression that Rebekah plays a very passive role in this narrative, allowing others to push her around like a chess piece. A closer look, however, will quickly invalidate such a notion. When Eliezer announces the next morning that he intends to return to Canaan and Abraham’s camp immediately, Rebekah’s family does not receive the news joyfully. “Let the young woman stay with us a few days, at least ten” is Laban’s response (verse 55). The Hebrew idiomatic expression literally means “days or ten.” The plural form of “day” can refer to years (cf. Lev. 25:29; Num. 9:22). That’s the reason why the Aramaic Targum and the Jewish Midrash Rabbah suggest here the meaning “one year and ten months.”3 This was all just too fast.
Rebekah is called, and the question is put to her. “Will you go with this man?” (verse 58). Her answer reflects her strength of character and echoes Abraham’s earlier response to God’s “go.” “I will go” speaks of independence and convictions that are not determined by others—even in her inner family circle. It also anticipates Rebekah’s future inquiry of the Lord as she experiences the two twins struggling in her womb (Gen. 25:22). The biblical text emphasizes the fact that God answers Rebekah personally (verse 23). No, Rebekah was no pushover. She had heard God’s whisper in Eliezer’s story, and she was ready to move.
It’s time for takeaway number three: Strong, godly women yearn for faith-affirming, godly men and listen carefully to godly counsel. When that counsel aligns with God’s providence, they will go.
For weeks Rebekah and her maids traveled on camels toward Canaan. Anybody who has ever ridden on a camel would agree that this must have been extremely jarring. I imagine that Rebekah must have peppered Eliezer with questions about Isaac and Abraham and God’s workings in their lives. The landscape becomes more familiar, and Eliezer and the other servants ride more purposefully. Home is just around the corner. Rebekah’s first glimpse of her future husband finds him meditating in the fields surrounding the camp (Gen. 24:63, 64). Culturally appropriately, Rebekah covers her face with a veil. After hearing Eliezer’s report, Isaac brings her as part of the formal wedding ceremony into his mother’s tent. Rebekah becomes Isaac’s wife—and the new matriarch.
The narrative, however, is not yet complete. A summary statement concludes this unconventional love story by telling us that Isaac loved Rebekah. This is one of the few occasions in Scripture that describes marital love. It was this love that comforted Isaac after the death of his mother, Sarah (verse 67).
Here comes the final takeaway of this unconventional love story: Love grows strong
in safe, godly marriages. It’s a response to shared faith commitments and often involves a long journey of ups and downs, of failures and victories. While Isaac’s and Rebekah’s marriage may have been made in heaven, it required consistent commitment, constant communication, and careful character molding to protect it from failure and fiasco. As the next chapters of Genesis demonstrate, both Isaac and Rebekah struggled to keep their marriage afloat. Looking over their shoulders and seeing their challenges can help us keep first things first as we look for our individual love stories.
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of Adventist Review and the proud father of three teenage daughters who are about to begin their own journey into godly love relationships.