excerpts from Genesis 24
Abraham and Sarah’s precious son Isaac, named for laughter because of the joy he brought into his parents’ life when he was born, has now hit puberty and his father has stopped laughing. To Abraham’s dismay, Isaac is showing all the signs of awakening hormones: he’s suddenly bathing regularly, he’s hanging around the local well for hours of the day, and his normal chatter at dinner has been reduced to terse mumblings. To add to Abraham’s distress, Sarah has died leaving Abraham to cope with Isaac’s emerging adolescence on his own and Abraham, remembering his own puberty, is quite concerned about just where Isaac’s hormones might lead him. Abraham has been given a promise by God that his descendants will become a mighty nation, and he knows the only route to the fulfillment of that promise is, to put it bluntly, through Isaac’s loins.
“You are the bearer of the promise,” Abraham has lectured his son, “and you must choose a mate thoughtfully,” yet as he watches Isaac moon over the shapely young women living nearby, he realizes that Isaac’s brain is no longer in control of his decision making and so if the promise is to continue, Abraham must act quickly, and in Abraham’s day, the typical solution to out-of-control hormones was early marriage.
Abraham wants to find a wife for Isaac from his kinfolk but they live far away up north and he doesn’t trust Isaac to stay away from the local girls while he is gone so he chooses his most trusted servant to send in his place. When the servant asks how he will know which girl to choose, Abraham tells him that God will send an angel ahead of him to pave the way. Abraham has trusted God to guide him throughout his own life and now Abraham will trust in God to decide on a wife for Isaac. When I was in college, I knew a young woman who took this story so seriously that she assumed that God always chooses the spouses of God’s faithful followers. Every night, this young woman prayed not only for the welfare of her family and friends but also for the welfare of her future husband, a man she had yet to meet but whom she assumed was known by God. She believed that God, in God’s own time, would one day bring the two of them together and all she had to do was wait and pray. Although it is not uncommon for people who are blessed with a good partner to offer thanks to God in retrospect, how many of us take God’s involvement in that decision to the extreme that my college classmate did, leaving the choice of a life partner completely in the hands of God? For those of you who have been married, what role do you think God played in the two of you finding one another? If your marriage didn’t work out, did you involve God in navigating your breakup? And what about other decisions you have faced? Who had the most influence on your career choice: your high school guidance counselor, your parents, the job market, your own feelings, or God? Did you consult God about your career, or about where to live, or how many children to have, or what car to buy, what to eat for dinner last night? When do you pray about a decision? How many decision do you turn over to God and how much do you decide on your own? Abraham assumed a high level of involvement by God in the decisions he and his family faced throughout the course of their lives and so today I want to ask, “Does God in fact, have an opinion on the choices we make in our lives, and if so, just how much into the nitty-gritty of our everyday decision making does God want to get?”
There was once a farmer married to a woman who believed that everything we do is predestined according to God’s plan. When the farmer told his wife that he was going into town to buy some seed, she admonished her husband, telling him, “It is dangerous to take so much on yourself. You might anger God with your presumption. You should say, ‘I’m going into town, the good Lord willing.” The farmer just laughed at his wife’s anxieties and said, “I’m going into town, God willing or not,” and headed out the door. When he got into his truck, however, he discovered to his irritation that the battery was dead.
“Must have left the lights on,” he muttered and he lost several minutes jumping the dead battery with his tractor. When he finally got the truck started, he headed down the road, only to have a deer leap in front of him and as he swerved to avoid it, he drove into the ditch and punctured his tire on a sharp rock. The farmer changed the flat tire and resumed his journey but when he got to town, he discovered a sign on the door of the store that said, ‘Gone fishing. Be Back Tomorrow.’ Swearing under his breath, the farmer jumped back in his truck and headed home in a fury, only to be stopped once more, this time by the flashing red lights of a police siren. The policeman asked for the farmer’s registration and driver’s license and as the farmer fished through his wallet, the policeman asked, “Just where are you heading in such a hurry, anyway?”
The farmer paused for a moment and then said, “I’m heading home… the good Lord willing!”
There are some people like the farmer’s wife who do believe that God has every moment of our lives laid out in a divine blueprint but for most of us, it’s hard to imagine that God has the time or the desire to make every tiny choice for us. (Which should it be, today, God? Oatmeal or cream of wheat for breakfast?) Most of us can’t believe that God has an opinion on every jot and tittle of our lives. Moreover, we are uncomfortable with the image this creates of God as the puppet master and each of us as merely wooden headed marionettes: God’s little blockheads incapable of thinking for ourselves.
And so some people have gone to the other extreme. Uncomfortable with such a controlling God, they declare that “God helps those who help themselves.” These people claim that God gave us moral guidelines through biblical teachings but is no longer involved in the day to day world in which we live. After creating the world, they say, God retired from active duty and it is now entirely up to us to make good choices about our lives. The problem with the “God helps those who help themselves” theology is that it isn’t biblical. In fact, the phrase comes from one of Aesop’s Fables called “Hercules and the Waggoner.” In this fable, a wagon driver gets his wagon stuck in some deep mud and prays to Hercules, saying, “O Hercules, help me in this my hour of distress” to which Hercules replies, ‘Tut, man, don’t sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel.” Aesop’s moral is, “The gods help them that help themselves.”
Unlike Aesop’s fable, God in the Bible does respond to people’s pleas for help, and is clearly involved at some level in their choices, so I go back to my original question: what does the story of Abraham’s search for a wife for his son teach us about God’s involvement in our decision making? On the one hand, Abraham assures his servant that an angel will lead him to the right woman for Isaac, but on the other hand, there are those camels.
Let’s go back to the story and listen to it more carefully.
“God will send his angel before you,” Abraham tells the servant, “and you shall take a wife for my son from there. …” Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to the city of Nahor. He made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water.
Abraham assures his servant that God will lead him to the woman who is to marry Isaac, and then he says, “And by the way, take the limo, the Ferrari, and a couple of the BMWs and make sure you park them where she can see them.” Abraham believes that God has a plan but he also believes that the success of the plan is not a foregone conclusion and a little grease on the divine wheels might not be a bad thing. Sure enough, when Rebekah eyes that massive line of camels and the wagons dripping with gold and expensive perfumes, who is know whether she offers water to the camels out of compassion for the servant or out of cold calculation for her future The gold bracelet and nose ring that she accepts from the servant, that are carefully assessed by the storyteller who provides us an exact accounting of their weight, are undoubtedly as just carefully assessed by Rebekah’s father and brother who quickly accept the betrothal offer.
The God that Abraham and the other stories of the Bible proclaim is not a God who is a puppet master controlling our every decision nor is our God a lackadaisical God who leaves us to our own devices but instead, the Bible says, God is a God in partnership with us. The theology of the Bible could best be described as “God helps those who help God.” God explains God’s hopes to Abraham, and lays out God’s goals for the future, but Abraham also understands that those goals are not foregone conclusions. There are so many things that can circumvent the intentions of God, and often do – human stubbornness, ignorance, self-interest. When King Saul failed to live up to God’s hopes for his rule, God anoints David in Saul’s place, switching horses mid-stream because the failings of the all too human Saul got in the way of God’s intentions for the people. Later, God uses the prophets to draw a vivid picture of Israel as God would have it be — a country where the hungry are fed, the stranger is welcomed, and the disenfranchised are protected *— but the people fail to listen to God’s plan, society becomes increasingly weak and corrupt, and eventually the nation falls into the hands of the Babylonians. God has to find a new way of working out the covenant and chooses Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah to forge a path forward. This partnership between God and the people traces its beginnings to Abraham where God tells Abraham what it is that God envisions for the future but then it is Abraham’s job to think about the best way to get from where he is now to where God wants them all to be. God is neither absent parent nor puppet master; rather God and Abraham are partners in this enterprise. They talk things over, they argue, they make plans and they change plans. Abraham trusts God but God also trusts Abraham.
So too it is with us. God says to you, for example, “I envision you working in a career that will not only feed your family and your spirit but will also provide a service to others,” and it is up to you to figure out exactly what that career will be. In fact, you may change jobs numerous times over the years of your work life and even retire but God’s goals for you may not change — feed your family, feed your spirit, and feed the world around you. So it is with all of our decisions whether it be decisions about how to raise our children, who we will marry, how we will vote, and how we will spend the lazy days of summer. God provides the parameters of the vision God has for you and the world, and God trusts you, through continuing prayer and conversation with God, to figure out the specifics that will fulfill that vision. To imagine God as a divine puppet master and ourselves as the puppets is to assume that God does not change but has a divine plan set in stone since the beginning of time, which also requires that we assume that people are ultimately predictable, but we know that humanity is a fickle race sometimes soaring to glory in our compassion and creativity and other times burning all of our bridges with our selfish ways. In the Bible, God constantly adapted to new circumstances, and God continues to call us in new ways toward a future of greater love and peace. God calls us, like God called Abraham, to be in constant partnership with God, using our brains, our hearts, our hands, and sometimes our wits to bring God’s vision into reality.
God helps those who help God. Let us become partners with God in advancing the promise.
* Because women and children only had rights through their husbands and fathers, the modern term “disenfranchised” could legitimately be used to describe widows and orphans.