Connections 07.09.2017: The Rube Goldberg Matchmaking Machine

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Rube Goldberg was born in 1883. A University of California at Berkley-educated engineer, he laid out sewer lines and water mains in San Francisco in the early years of the twentieth century. He was also a cartoonist whose work became nationally syndicated. He specialized in drawing machines that went through many convoluted steps to accomplish a simple task. Such contraptions became known as Rube Goldberg machines. The Purdue University chapter of the Theta Tau national engineering fraternity sponsors an annual Rube Goldberg machine contest. One winning machine went through 125 steps to turn on a flashlight.

Abraham’s servant didn’t build a literal Rube Goldberg matchmaking machine to find a wife for Isaac, but he sure went through a Rube Goldberg kind of process to identify a prospective bride. He prayed that particular things would happen in particular ways so that, when they did, he’d know he was on the right track. And everything happened just the way he had laid it out, which is the story’s way of saying that God was working God’s purposes out.

We should note a few things about Rube Goldberg machines. First, if you set them up right, they’re going to work. Second, you can put them through some practice runs before using them for real. Third, while people design and build them, people aren’t involved in the actual performance.

Abraham’s servant couldn’t know for sure that his plan would work, although his trust that God would guide the process is admirable. He also didn’t get to make any practice runs.

The most important way in which the servant’s convoluted plan wasn’t like a Rube Goldberg machine, though, is that it couldn’t count solely on the laws of physics. It had to allow for the human element.

Rebekah and her family could have said “No” (see v. 49).

But they didn’t, and it all worked out because, in this case, God’s purposes and people’s decisions seem to coalesce nicely.

There’s a part of the story that gives us some good guidance on how to think about how God’s will and people’s choices work together. As Abraham sends his servant off to find a wife for Isaac, he says, “The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. 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” (vv. 7-8).

“The Lord will.”

“But if.”

Active faith lives in the space between those two statements. We live with realistic confidence that God is working God’s purposes out. We trust that it will work out as the life we have lived under God to this point indicates it should. But we also know that it might not because people are wild cards.

Ah, but if it doesn’t, it still will. Somehow, someway, some day—it will.


1. Why was it so important that a wife be found for Isaac?
2. Our marriage customs are much different than they were in Abraham’s day. How do we think about applying lessons from this story to our time?
3. What do you make of the servant’s prayer? Would you pray such a prayer? Why or why not?
4. Why do you think Rebekah was ready to go with Abraham’s servant right away?
5. What sense do you get of the character of the main actors in this story? What kinds of people do they seem to be?

Reference Shelf

24:1-67. Betrothal of Isaac and Rebekah.

This lovely story from the J source speaks for itself and requires little explanation. A wife for Isaac is not to be found not among the Canaanites, viewed as corrupt and idolatrous, but from Abraham’s country and kindred (vv. 3-4). Abraham (and later Isaac; 28:1-2) remains oriented to the Mesopotamian lands of his origin even as he consolidates residence in the land of Canaan.

Consistent with tradition, it will be an arranged marriage—Isaac takes no part in the mission of Abraham’s steward, who brings negotiation with Rebekah’s family successfully to conclusion. Before the betrothal is finally agreed to by the family, however, Rebekah is asked whether she is willing to go with Abraham’s servant. Her response, “I will,” (24:58), matches in both its faith and its brevity of expression Abraham’s own ready response (and he went; 12:4) when called to leave his country and . . . kindred to go to Canaan (12:1).

The story thus marks the transition between the generation of Abraham and Sarah and the generation of Isaac and Rebekah. At the story’s beginning, Abraham inaugurates the action; at its consummation, with the servant’s return, having carried out Abraham’s wishes, Isaac and Rebekah are in the foreground, and Abraham is not mentioned (24:62-67). The name Rebekah in Hebrew may mean “link” or “connection” between people (Noth 1966, 10).

The phrase describing the servant’s oath-taking—he put his hand under the thigh of Abraham (v. 9)—is a euphemism meaning that he touched Abraham’s genitals. Such a gesture was apparently a traditional sign signifying that the person’s life will be served faithfully by the oath-taker’s fulfilment of the oath. The sign in this case underscores the importance of finding a wife for Isaac (cf. 47:29).

The home of Rebekah and her father, Bethuel and brother, Laban is Aram-naharaim (v. 10). The name means “Aram of the two rivers”; the region would therefore appear to be somewhere in northern Mesopotamia. It is apparently synonymous with Paddan-Aram (25:20).

Bruce T. Dahlberg, “Genesis,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 111.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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