The Butler Did It!

Genesis 24:34-67
© Stacey Steck

There is an old joke, or maybe it’s really a parable, which you may have heard in a variety of forms, but I’d like to tell it again this morning because it speaks to our Genesis passage in a contemporary way. It seems that the flood waters were rising in a certain low lying area and the townspeople were getting nervous. They packed up their treasured belongings in case they had to evacuate and sure enough the evacuation order was given. The streets and bridges heading out of town were jammed with station wagons and minivans and there was a great sense of urgency and desperation in the town. Well, everywhere but at Mr. Smith’s house. You see, Mr. Smith trusted in the Lord and was sure that God would see him safely through this crisis. So Mr. Smith stayed in his home and when the waters began to rise, he said to himself, “The Lord won’t fail me,” and off he went up to the second floor of his house to wait out the flood. When one of his neighbors floated by in a canoe and offered him a lift out of town, he replied, “I’m trusting in the Lord, God will save me.” And as he sat on his roof when a Coast Guard rescue team came by, he told them the same thing, “I’m trusting in the Lord, God will save me.” Finally, the Navy sent a helicopter to Mr. Smith’s house and lowered down a rope ladder. “Climb up the ladder, Mr. Smith. We’ll get you out of here.” “No, I’m trusting in the Lord, God will save me.” And he remained on his roof as the waters swirled around his feet. A little while later, the waters rose still further and Mr. Smith was carried off his perch yelling, “I’m trusting in the Lord, God will save me.” But alas, poor Mr. Smith drowned.

Now, Mr. Smith was a God-fearing man and so the next thing he knew he was standing before St. Peter at the gates of heaven. Mr. Smith was understandably upset because he had trusted in the Lord so when Peter asked him if there was anything he wanted to add before he passed through into the great beyond, Mr. Smith let loose. “I trusted in the Lord and the Lord failed me. What kind of God would do such a thing.” And St. Peter calmly replied, “Well, Mr. Smith. I don’t know how many more opportunities we could have given you. I mean, we sent you a canoe, a Coast Guard rescue vessel, and a Navy helicopter. What more could we have done?”

I like to call that story “the parable of the trusting fool.” Mr. Smith can hardly be condemned for his faith and trust in God, but he surely can be considered foolish for his mindless myopia. Did he really believe that God would provide only for him and not for the rest of the town? Did he really think that his faith in God was superior to everyone else’s? Or did he just overlook the fact that God works in our lives in a multitude of ways, one of which is giving us a role to play in our own lives?

Perhaps Mr. Smith never read the twenty-fourth chapter of Genesis, as we have this morning. If he had, he might have climbed right into that canoe when it floated by his second story window. For this story about a dying man’s last wish, an arranged marriage, and a faithful butler tells us a lot about God’s design for human agency, about how faith and action intersect, and about how God trusts us while we are trusting God.

The portion of chapter 24 we heard this morning is about half the chapter, and it retells most of the first half. However, what is left out is significant for understanding the part of the story we have as our text. It seems that old Abraham has not fulfilled his patriarchal duty of finding a wife for his son, the miracle child, Isaac. As his last wish, he summons his servant, his trusted, loyal servant, to undertake this exceedingly important mission. There are three distinct parts of the mission. First, Isaac’s bride-to-be absolutely, positively, must not come from the Canaanites with whom Abraham is living. Second, the bride must come from Abraham’s own family — not just any family will do. And finally, the part that is not among our verses today, under no circumstances is Isaac to return to the land of Ur, to Abraham’s family, to get a wife should the servant fail in his mission to return with one. Isaac has to stay put in Canaan. Abraham even tells his servant that it would be better that Isaac did not have a wife at all than that he should go back to the place which Abraham has left to follow the call of God.

We must go back even further in Genesis to grasp the full import of what transpires in this passage. Abraham has been the recipient of a threefold promise: He will possess the land to be known as Israel, he will have offspring as numerous as the stars or the grains of sand on the seashore, and he will have the blessing of the Lord. But this promise is predicated on Abraham leaving the land of his family and becoming a sojourner, a pilgrim. Were Isaac to go back to the land from which his father had come, he would be doing the reverse of all that God had commanded, and risk nullifying the agreement between God and Abraham. Isaac simply cannot turn around and go back to the beginning.

But back to the story at hand. Abraham and Sarah have endured the anxiety of Sarah’s infertility and been rewarded with the birth of Isaac. Sarah has died, Abraham is near death, and Isaac has no wife. Abraham is desperate to make sure his line is continued through his son Isaac, rather than his son Ishmael, but he is unable to make the journey which is necessary to bring this off. So he calls in the trusty servant who goes off to find Rebekah and saves the day.

But why does Abraham need to send the servant on this mission? Why doesn’t he just trust God to provide a wife for Isaac? After all, it was God, not Abraham, who promised land, progeny, and blessing. In fact, isn’t Abraham’s commissioning of the servant essentially not trusting in God and taking matters into his own hands? Abraham has been repeatedly chastised by God for doing just that — taking matters into his own hands. The whole episode about Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman and her son Ishmael, is Abraham’s vain attempt at forcing the issue with God. And don’t forget Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister so that he wouldn’t get killed. Abraham has a long history of not trusting God. But we know from chapter 22 that Abraham has been cured of this little problem when he takes Isaac up the mountain and is willing to sacrifice him. From that point on, Abraham knows what it means to trust God. Abraham has learned to trust God and so it seems has God learned to trust Abraham for it is Abraham’s plan, unassisted, that results in a wife for Isaac.

This is why this story is so significant. It tells us the difference between trusting God and trying to control God. The promise has been given and Abraham recognizes that it cannot be taken away. He has come to realize that Isaac, who never should have been born in the first place, is ready to continue the story. But it is up to him to ensure that Isaac maintains the human part of the covenant. The English language Bible calls our hero a servant, but it is clear from the context that he is more than your average, run-of-the-mill lackey. What’s more, the Hebrew word used here indicates a servant of high standing, loyal and trustworthy, a confidant of the master. A comparable term from our recent past might be, of course, the butler, who maintains the household and is intensely faithful, often serving the entirety of his life with the same employer. I have to say that I have never really met a butler, but I’ve seen a lot of movies and for the sake of the story, let’s say that Hollywood portrays a pretty accurate picture of the butler — the faithful butler who is the pillar of the house and the person the master can turn to for good, sound advice.

It is safe to say then that “the butler did it.” Not, of course, in the cinematic sense where the crime is finally pinned on the smarmy servant, but in the sense that even without the angel that was promised him, he successfully completes his task. In fact, everything in this story points to the fact that the humans, not God, are responsible for continuing Abraham’s line. The outcome is uncertain until the servant tells Isaac what has transpired in his absence. But there is no divine dictation, according to the narrator, no magic or meddling, just the everyday affairs of a dying pilgrim, his faithful servant, a beautiful woman, her opportunistic brother and a mourning son who is the inheritor of a promise. Unlike so many other narratives, God is not active in this drama, even when the butler prays to him, which he does more than once. No, the crux of this story seems to be that human actions work in partnership with God’s actions when they are in synch with God’s plans. The agency of humans, seeking the aims of God, is to be retold through the ages, glorified, and celebrated.

God’s great promises to Abraham are the broad backdrop to the history of Israel. But it’s not the backdrop to a puppet show, after all. We are not God’s puppets. We are God’s children. We’ve got a role to play in the story. Indeed, God has given us the minds and hearts to mold our histories. God has given us the technology and the power to shape our surroundings. God has given us the capacity to love and to do justice and to demonstrate mercy. The human actions undertaken using these gifts of God are to be made responsibly, to the glory of God, not for our own aggrandizement. And as the ever-faithful but ultimately drowned Mr. Smith reminds us, to take no action would be irresponsible, and perhaps even foolish. So go ahead, be the butler. Rely on the promises of God, but don’t expect God to do everything for you. God’s got plenty for you to do. Amen.