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IsaacThe next patriarch in the book of Genesis is Isaac, although in many ways his wife Rebekah is more important in Scripture. And this despite the fact that Isaac was the chosen descendent of Abraham through whom God would bless the nations.
Genesis 24 details how Rebekah became Isaac’s wife. Abraham wanted his son to have a wife from his own people, not from amongst the Canaanites. But he also didn’t want to send Isaac back to their original people since Abraham wanted Isaac to stay in the land that had been promised by God to him. So he sent his servant back to his homeland to search for a wife for Isaac. Thankfully, this lets us learn about the nature of how man’s will and God’s determinism interact.
The first aspect of this combination (man’s will) can be seen clearly in Abraham’s charge to the servant. He told him: “But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there” (Genesis 24:8, ESV). So Abraham wanted the wife for Isaac to be willing to return. He was not going to force anyone to marry his son.
Keep that in mind as we read what happened after the servant went on the journey. When he got to his destination, he prayed the following:
“O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).Did you catch how, while Abraham had stipulated that the woman must be willing to return, the servant prayed: “let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac”? In some sense, the servant believes that God has actually appointed a wife for Isaac, that there is a specific woman in the LORD’s mind, not just a random woman the servant might run into.
Obviously, it is possible that the servant is mistaken and believes that God has appointed someone when, in reality, God might leave up who marries whom to the individuals involved. Except that the rest of the story doesn’t allow for that interpretation.
Because the servant believes that God has appointed a specific woman to marry Isaac, he prays for a specific sign. While mere hospitality might have led someone to give a drink to a stranger, it is above and beyond the norm for someone to also offer to water the animals. Therefore, what the servant requests is not likely to be the result of a chance encounter. But it is also the behavior of the type of woman who would go out of her way to do good to another, thus demonstrating her strong character too. And because of that, he takes confidence that if he finds such a woman then he has found God’s choice for Isaac’s wife.
And we read:
Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water to drink from your jar.” She said, “Drink, my lord.” And she quickly let down her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking” (Genesis 24:15-19).Even before the servant had finished speaking his request for an unusual sign, Rebekah appeared…and then proceeded to fulfill the very sign that the servant had asked! It bears repeating that the fact that Rebekah fulfilled the sign is only amazing because the request was so unusual it would guarantee that God was guiding the servant to the right person. This isn’t like someone praying, “LORD, please let the first woman I meet when I go into Starbucks this morning be my future wife.” This is a request the servant had no expectation to be fulfilled without divine intervention.
And here’s where we get into the second aspect. Look carefully at the text. There was no angel that arrived to tell the servant what to pray. The text indicates that the request for the sign was generated from the servant himself. If you asked the servant, “Why did you ask for that particular sign?” he would not have said, “Because God told me to.”
Likewise, Rebekah’s behavior is not said to have been directed by God; she acts fully on her own initiative. And if someone had asked Rebekah, “Why did you choose to water the camels too?” she probably would have said, “Because I wanted to” or something similar. There was no outside compelling force making her do it.
And lest someone think that she had perhaps overheard the servant praying, the passage also states that the servant “ran to meet her”, which indicates she was almost certainly too far away to have heard his prayer, unless he had shouted it. And really, why would you shout out the fulfillment of a sign you are using to try to figure out God’s will?
We have to consider all of this together now. How is it that the servant just happened to ask, without any external influences, for a sign that was the exact behavior that Rebekah would just happen to do? The odds of this happening by a random fluke are so outrageous as to render it inconceivable. That is, after all, the entire reason why this functioned as a sign in the first place! And since Rebekah did indeed end up going to Isaac and becoming his wife, it is clear that she was the one whom God had chosen for Isaac.
Again, it’s important to see all the implications here for Libertarian Free Will systems. There are only a few options available. Either when the servant asked God for the sign, God worked in Rebekah so that she would do exactly what was requested (which would seem contrary to Rebekah’s free will), or God knew what Rebekah was going to do and then interfered with the will of the servant so that the servant would ask for the exact sign that Rebekah was going to do. Either way, someone’s free will is “violated” under the typical definitions used by those who hold to LFW. Could the servant have asked for anything other than he asked for? And if so, could Rebekah have acted in any way other than she acted?
Yet simultaneously, at no point do either the servant or Rebekah appear to have noticed that they really had no choice at all in how events unfolded. The servant never said he felt compelled to ask a specific request, and Rebekah never said she felt compelled to act a certain way. Both of them appear, for all intents and purposes, to be acting completely 100% on their own free choices.
While we will delve into this in more detail after our Biblical survey is complete, it is clear that the Bible presents as truth both that God is sovereign over everything that will happen and that men and women freely choose to do what they do. This sort of view is commonly known as compatibilism, because it states that human freedom is compatible with determinism and divine sovereignty. I’ve already mentioned it several times, and there will be several more times as we continue. After all, compatibilism is the default stance the Bible takes on the subject of free will.
For now, let us continue looking at Isaac. In Genesis 25, we learn that he was forty years old when he married Rebekah, and as with the case of her mother-in-law Sarah, Rebekah was barren. In verse 21, Isaac prays for a child and the LORD grants his request—doubly! For Rebekah conceived twins, who struggled mightily in her womb. She asked the LORD why this was happening and was told (Genesis 25:23, reformatted here as prose): “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”
In the ANE culture, the firstborn would have the entire birthright, but here God declares that the normal order of events will be overturned. And while it was not unusual nor infrequent that the second-born would take over the birthright due to the death of the firstborn, the LORD specifically tells Rebekah “the older shall serve the younger” which requires both to be living.
When Rebekah gave birth, the first son was named Esau. Her second son was born clasping Esau’s heel with his hand (verse 26), and he was named Jacob. Jacob means “he takes by the heel” or “he cheats”, which not only described how he came from the womb, but also foreshadows his character very well. The fact that it is the heel that he grasped likewise brings to mind the curse against the serpent in the Garden of Eden—“you shall strike his heel, but he shall crush your head.”
It is easy to gloss over the implications of what God said regarding the future of Jacob and Esau. God declares what will happen before it happens. We can again ask the question we asked in the previous chapter: how did God know what would happen? Again, we have two choices: either God passively knows what will happen by virtue of the fact that He is outside of time and can see all things, or God is an active God who ensures that history goes along a particular course as He desires.
We have already seen God use active language when He spoke with Abraham in the previous chapter, but we can also ask a correlating question. What was the impact of God’s statement? After all, the very fact that God gave a prophecy altered the way that history would have gone. Think of it this way. Imagine the events of history on a timeline. Events would have proceeded in a specific way had God not made the prophetic declaration to Rebekah; but because He did make the prophetic declaration, then Rebekah had information that she would not have otherwise known. That information ended up altering the way that history came about. For a trivial proof of that, this very paragraph would not exist as it is written had God not made the pronouncement!
But a more weighty effect of how God’s prophetic declaration may have influenced events is found in verse 28: “Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” The Bible doesn’t state why Rebekah loves Jacob, so I don’t want to push this too far. But it seems to me that if God said, “The older will serve the younger” then that provides a reason why Rebekah would have loved Jacob more than Esau. The prophecy was not given to Isaac, so he would have naturally loved the firstborn more. We do not wish to press speculation too far, but I have to imagine that being given that prophecy had to have some effect on how Rebekah treated Jacob and Esau.
Regardless of why the parents loved their children differently, I still find it interesting which parent loved which child more. At the end of our chapter on Abraham, we saw how Isaac was presented as a sacrifice and God spared him because he is the chosen descendant of Abraham. But even though he is chosen, he loves the child that God did not choose more than the child that God did choose. It is a stunning display of how God does what He wants, and it’s not always what we would anticipate it to be.
As we continue, in chapter 26 of Genesis, God restates the promise He made with Abraham and gives it to Isaac too, declaring “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands” (Genesis 26:4). This is the same covenant that God gave to Abraham, now reconfirmed with Isaac.
The final episode we will examine in Isaac’s life occurred when he was advanced in age and his eyesight had failed. He wanted to bless Esau, and sent his son to hunt food so they could have a meal and he could pass on the blessing to Esau. Rebekah overheard this request and immediately cooked a meal that she gave to Jacob.
Jacob then went to his father and pretended to be Esau, stealing the blessing which included the statement: “Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you” (Genesis 27:29). When Esau returned and the deceit was uncovered, Isaac declared to the older brother: “By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restless you shall break his yoke from your neck” (verse 40). And thus was fulfilled the promise God had made that the older would serve the younger.
It is striking that what God had promised regarding Jacob came about because of deceit. This does not justify Jacob’s (or Rebekah’s) scheming, but it does show how God can sovereignly use wicked events for His own means.