Many lovely words in Modern English vocabulary come from the veritable treasure-trove of the Old English lexicon. The speakers of Old English (Anglo-Saxons between the mid-fifth and mid-twelfth centuries) were especially fond of compound words, in which two distinct morphemes are wedded into a potent and resonant unit of meaning.
One such word is steward. The Old English stiward, stigweard “house guardian” is a combination of stig “hall, cattle pen, part of a house” (from which we derive the word sty) and weard “guard” or “ward.” By the late fourteenth century, the word had the meaning of “one who manages affairs of an estate on behalf of his employer.”
Basically, a steward is an exalted servant, one so capable and trustworthy that his master puts him in charge of all his property. We Americans tend to be mistrustful of servant/master relationships; we equate servanthood with slavery and assume there has to be abuse of some sort inherent in the system. But some stories of faithful servants and good masters are compelling enough to transcend even the cynicism of the democratically minded. Stewardship in particular is a fascinating concept. Who could fail to be stirred by the story of Denethor, twenty-sixth in a line of ruling stewards, sitting on his unadorned black chair in the shadow of the empty high throne of Gondor, faithfully superintending the kingdom while awaiting with dimming hope the return of the king? Or of Walter the Steward, who faithfully served King Robert the Bruce of Scotland, married Robert’s daughter Marjorie, and fathered a son, Robert II, who would become the first monarch in the royal House of Stewart? We are talking about a steward who became his lord’s son-in-law and sired a line of kings! This is truly romantic stuff.
Then there’s Eliezer of Damascus. He worked for Abraham.
Eliezer is first mentioned by name in Genesis 15. God appears in a vision to Abraham (still called Abram then), saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward (v.1). Earlier, back in Chapter 13, God had promised to multiply Abram’s descendants and grant them the land of Canaan. But Abram is an old man and childless. Remembering the earlier promise, he now says, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?…Behold, to me thou has given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir (vv. 2,3).
It was a common practice for wealthy childless couples of that time and place to leave their estate to a trusted and beloved servant. A steward is a natural choice; if you esteem a man enough to put him in charge of all you own, it would make sense to hand over the entire property to him one day, in the absence of a child of your own. But a servant, no matter how highly esteemed, is not the equal of a son.
And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own [loins] shall be thine heir.
Many years pass before this promise is fulfilled. In the meantime, at his wife’s direction, Abraham forces the matter of offspring by fathering a child by an Egyptian servant. This, of course, was not what God meant at all. The promised heir is to be the son of Sarah, Abraham’s lawful wife. Fourteen years later, that son, long promised and hoped for and despaired of, Isaac, is born.
And with Isaac’s birth, Eliezer is displaced as Abraham’s heir. He could have resented the young master, but the account of him in Genesis depicts a truly loyal retainer zealous for the welfare and prosperity of his lord’s family. No doubt this is why Abraham chose him as steward to begin with.
More years pass. Isaac, the privileged only child of wealthy, elderly parents, reaches forty years of age. He hasn’t seen his half-brother since he was a toddler. Then his mother dies. Perhaps Abraham’s grief over the loss of his own beloved helpmeet is what causes him to desire for his son to finally experience the joy and intimacy of marriage. He makes his decision. It’s time to find Isaac a wife.
For most of his adult life Abraham has been something of an oddball—set apart, peculiar, perhaps lonely. He is neither one thing nor another. His blood ties are to Ur of the Chaldees, but he left there at God’s command decades ago and hasn’t been back. His geographic ties are to the land he’s living on, which God has promised to give his descendants, but he owns no property there except one field and a grave and mustn’t mix too closely with the idolatrous natives. For his son to marry a local woman would be disastrous. Isaac is the child of the promise, ancestor of the chosen seed, the line through which God will work his redemption for the entire world. The mother of Isaac’s children can’t be chosen too carefully. And Abraham is too elderly to be directly involved in the selection of a daughter-in-law. His traveling days are over.
So Abraham calls his eldest servant of his house, that ruled over all that he had (Genesis 24:2). Though the servant’s name is not given, it is commonly assumed that he is Eliezer, and I am assuming that here.
3 …I will make thee swear by the LORD, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell: 4 But thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife unto my son Isaac.
The pressure of this entreaty must have been intense. By now Eliezer has been with Abraham for decades: all forty years of Isaac’s life, plus the fourteen of Ishmael’s life before Isaac’s birth, plus however long it took him to rise to the position of steward in Abraham’s house before that. He knows about God’s promise to Abraham. He knows about God’s work in the household—not just the miracle of Isaac’s conception, but the fallout from times Abraham acted in ways God did not command: his ill-advised trips to Egypt, his cowardly lying, his bigamy with Hagar. These things had permanent and painful consequences. Now Eliezer has been tasked with finding a wife for the father of the future hope of the human race. The fate of the world is pretty much at stake.
And the servant said unto him, Peradventure the woman will not be willing to follow me unto this land: must I needs bring thy son again unto the land from whence thou camest?
I would totally ask this question in Eliezer’s place. In fact, before traveling out of the country with my monumentally important task, I would have a veritable flow chart plotting my course of action in every possible contingency. Or I would want to. But the truth is, there is no flow chart that big.
There are too many possibilities in life to all be covered by direct commands. That’s why when you have a big, complex job to delegate, in which any of a number of unforeseen things might happen, you don’t just want someone who can take orders. You want someone whose judgment you can trust.
Eliezer is that man.
Important as it is to entrust the job to the right servant, Abraham has more than Eliezer’s competence and loyalty to rely on here. He has the sovereignty of God.
6 And Abraham said unto him, Beware thou that thou bring not my son thither again. 7 The LORD God of heaven, which took me from my father’s house, and from the land of my kindred, and which spake unto me, and that sware unto me, saying, Unto thy seed will I give this land; he shall send his angel before thee, and thou shalt take a wife unto my son from thence. 8 And if the woman will not be willing to follow thee, then thou shalt be clear from this my oath: only bring not my son thither again.
So Eliezer swears.
In twenty-first century America, arranged marriage is usually not a thing, in spite of the terrifying efforts in some ultra-conservative homeschooling circles to bring it back. But in the ancient world, it was a common occurrence. It’s likely that in at least some cases, future mates knew each other and might hope to have their feelings taken into account to some degree. But in Isaac’s case this is not possible. He is not to travel to Ur. Everything is up to Eliezer.
And Eliezer shoulders the task. He takes ten of Abraham’s camels and departs. It’s a mark of his high standing in the household that the number of camels to take is left entirely up to him; all the goods of his master were in his hand (v. 10). Ten camels seems like a lot to me, but I have never made a journey like this one of Eliezer’s. Many or few, Abraham’s resources are at Eliezer’s disposal; he may use them as he thinks necessary to fulfill the task, because Abraham trusts him.
He travels to Mesopotamia, to the city of Nahor, his journey’s goal. He stops at the well at the time of the evening, even the time that women go out to draw water (v. 11).
And then Eliezer does a beautiful thing.
12 And he said, O LORD God of my master Abraham, I pray thee, send me good speed this day, and shew kindness unto my master Abraham. 13 Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water: 14 And let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say, Let down thy pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also: let the same be she that thou hast appointed for thy servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that thou hast shewed kindness unto my master.
No wonder Abraham trusts Eliezer. He isn’t just following orders; he believes God is truly at work here. And he doesn’t ask for a sign like the first girl who comes to the well or one who has something unusual about her headcovering or something arbitrary like that. He doesn’t even ask for a girl who’s related to Abraham, though Abraham has made it plain that that’s an essential requirement. He asks for a demonstration of character.
The internet tells me that a thirsty camel might consume somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty-five gallons of water at a go and that a gallon of water weighs more than eight pounds. Add the weight an earthenware pitcher and it’s safe to assume that Eliezer is imagining an active, enterprising young woman, physically strong and with a forward-thinking generosity of spirit, for the future wife of his future master.
He isn’t even done praying when a young woman comes out with a pitcher on her shoulder. He doesn’t know who she is; all he can tell is that she’s fair to look upon and ready to draw water. He says to her, Let me, I pray thee, drink a little water of thy pitcher (24:17).
This is a modest request, one that no reasonably well-brought-up girl would likely refuse. The girl agrees, and lowers her pitcher so he may drink. Perhaps it’s while he’s quenching his thirst that she looks around a bit and takes in the fact that the stranger has ten camels with him. A traveler, obviously, and one who has come from far off.
And when she had done giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for thy camels also, until they have done drinking.
She empties her pitcher into the trough, and then the text says that she runs back to the well to draw more water. Clearly the well is some distance from the trough. This is a big job.
And the man wondering at her held his peace, to wit whether the LORD had made his journey prosperous or not.
Eliezer is wise to hold his peace. Saying you will draw water for ten thirsty camels is one thing; actually doing it is another. He waits through the whole long, heavy, arduous job. Then he tells her who he is and finds out who she is—Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew. Then he praises God.
Later, Rebekah does indeed marry Isaac, becoming a partner in his unique blessing from God and in his peculiar isolation both from family in Chaldee and from local Canaanites. She becomes the mother of Esau and Jacob and a link in the lineage of Christ.
There is so much to take away from this passage, such as God’s honoring of a prayer that is a bit odd—a prayer born perhaps of uncertainty and anxiety but also of faith. I’m all about uncertainty and anxiety with a little faith, and I’ve prayed a great many oddly specific prayers myself. I’ve seen those prayers honored and have even at times seen a little into the mind of God, I think, when it pleased him to give me a hint as to what he was about, so God’s response to Eliezer is precious to me. A bruised reed will he not break. He honors faith, even the mustard seed variety. It doesn’t have to be big, only authentic.
But what chiefly strikes me is Eliezer’s assumption that the right wife for Isaac will be someone who will go above and beyond what is asked of her and do what is needed. This is what we call initiative, and it is a mark of maturity of character. As a trusted steward, Eliezer understands initiative, and he values it in other people enough to make it the primary proof of Isaac’s future wife, setting it above beauty and docility, charm and brains. Initiative involves the ability to see beyond the surface of a situation, determine what ought to be done, and do it all on your own without being prompted. This is a huge deal, and it can’t be taught, because it isn’t a set of behaviors—it’s a mindset. Imagine if some of the other girls of Haran, having learned of Rebekah’s good fortune in being selected as the wife of a wealthy man specially chosen by God, resented her and called the thing unfair. “Well! If watering camels was the deciding factor, I could have done that as well as Rebekah did, if only anybody had bothered to let me know.” But initiative isn’t about performing a specific action. It’s about being the sort of person who sees that an action is needful and performs it without external prompting, often at great cost of time, resources, or personal energy. There is all the difference in the world between doing something because you’re told to, and doing the same thing because your heart prompts you to.
1 Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; 2 But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. 3 Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: 4 But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, 5 To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. 6 And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. 7 Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
Isn’t this the truth? During childhood, the heir is functionally no better than a servant of the household. He is told what to do, and he had better do it. But when he comes to maturity, he rules the entire estate. This is the difference between law and grace. Young children are given rules: come when called, do this, don’t touch that, put your toys away, stop hitting your sister. And this is perfectly suitable for their abilities and situation. Their moral choices consist mainly in obeying their parents’ commands. We are responsible for controlling their environment, keeping them protected, and providing them with testing-grounds suitable for their maturity level; and this is the construct in which they function and build a character, growing in either self-discipline or self-indulgence, depending on how good a job we are doing. But as they grow older, they venture into the greater world. We aren’t always there to tell them what to do, and we can’t predict beforehand the exact spectrum of choices they might face. And like arrows shot from a bow, they eventually go places we’ve never been and enter into situations they understand more fully than we do. So gradually we give them more leeway, and eventually we tell them, “Just use your own judgment.” And this is a wonderful place to be with your child. It’s a delight to hear after the fact about a challenge faced and responded to, and to be able to say, “Yes, you handled that beautifully. I couldn’t have handled it better myself, or as well.” Of course they occasionally mess up, sometimes disastrously, because liberty wouldn’t be liberty without the potential for misuse, but the expected progress of a well-grounded grown son or daughter is toward increasing wisdom and competence.
And this is the difference between law and grace. Those under the law labor away, trying to win favor by performing the right actions, anxious to figure out what those actions might be. Those under grace have a liberty which those under the law can’t comprehend and often resent. Christ’s propitiation makes it possible for us to be sons and not servants, nor yet immature children who are functionally no better than servants. Those believers who fail to take advantage of their position as sons miss much in the way of joy and fulfillment. They work and fret and are never at rest; they feel a constant unease that more might be expected.
Eliezer is an excellent servant, a man of great initiative, integrity, loyalty, and ability, but ultimately he is just a servant. He doesn’t attain to sonship. How much greater is the excellence of those that have received the adoption of sons and have the Spirit of the only begotten Son living in our hearts!