WRITTEN FOR THE AMERICAN SUNDAY-SCHOOL UNION.
PHILADELPHIA: AMERICAN SUNDAY-SCHOOL UNION, 1122 CHESTNUT STREET.
Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1852, by the AMERICAN SUNDAY-SCHOOL UNION, in the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
No books are published by the AMERICAN SUNDAY-SCHOOL UNION without the sanction of the Committee of Publication, consisting of fourteen members, from the following denominations of Christians, viz. Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Reformed Dutch. Not more than three of the members can be of the same denomination, and no book can be published to which any member of the Committee shall object.
THE WIFE—(SARAH) 7
THE WIFE UNLOVED—(HAGAR) 35
THE PARTIAL AND INTRIGUING MOTHER—(REBEKAH) 63
THE RIVAL SISTERS—(LEAH AND RACHEL) 89
THE AFFECTIONATE SISTER—(MIRIAM) 119
THE PROPHETESS—(DEBORAH) 171
THE ARTFUL WOMAN—(JEZEBEL) 187
THE AMBITIOUS WOMAN—(ATHALIAH) 205
THE ORPHAN QUEEN—(ESTHER) 231
Within a few centuries after the flood, while some who had witnessed the sin and the destruction of the antediluvian world were still living, Jehovah saw fit, in accordance with his designs of eternal wisdom, to separate Abraham from his brethren, calling upon him to leave the land of his birth and go out into a strange land, to dwell in a far country. He was to pass the rest of his days as a sojourner in a land which should be thereafter given to a people yet unborn,—to a nation which was to descend from him.
Abraham was a lineal descendant of Shem, who was doubtless still living while "the father of Abraham yet abode with his kindred in the land of the Chaldees;" and from the lips of his venerable progenitor, Abraham himself may have first received the knowledge of the true God, and have learned lessons of wisdom and obedience, as he sat at his feet. Shem may have conversed with Methuselah; and Methuselah must have known Adam; and from Adam, Methuselah may have heard that history of the creation and fall, which he narrated to Shem, and which Shem may have transmitted to Abraham; and the history of the world would be thus remembered as the traditional recollections of a family, and repeated as the familiar remembrances of a single household.
Tales of the loveliness of Eden,—of the glories of the creation,—of the blessedness of the primeval state,—of the days before the fall; remembrances of the "mother of all living" in the days of her holiness, when she was as beautiful as the world created for her home, in all the dewy sweetness of the morning of its existence,—of the wisdom of man before he yielded to the voice of temptation, when authority was enthroned upon his brow, and all the tribes of the lower creation did him homage;—of the good spirits who watched over to minister unto and bless them;—of those dark, unholy and accursed ones, who came to tempt, betray and destroy them,—were recounted as events of which those who described them had been the witnesses. And from the remembrances thus preserved and transmitted by tradition, each generation obscuring or exaggerating them, have descended what we call fables of antiquity,—great facts, now dimly remembered and darkly presented, as shadowed over by the mists of long ages.
How must the hearts of the descendants of Shem have thrilled as they heard from him the history of by-gone times—of a world which had passed away! How much had the great patriarch of his race, himself, beheld? He had seen the glory and the beauty of the world before the flood. It was cursed for the sin of man, in the day of his fall—but slowly, as we measure time, do the woes denounced by God often take effect, and, though excluded from Eden, the first pair may have seen little change pass over the face of the earth. The consummation of this curse may have been the deluge; and those who dwelt on the earth, before this calamity swept it with its destroying wing, may have seen it in much of its original beauty; while those who outlived that event witnessed a wonderful change.
From that frail fabric, the ark, which proved the second cradle of the race, Shem had beheld a world submerged,—a race swept off by the floods of Almighty wrath. He had heard the shrieks of the drowning, the vain prayer of those who had scoffed the threatened vengeance, the fruitless appeal of those who had long rejected mercy. As the waves bore up his frail vessel, he had seen the black and sullen waters settle over temples, cities and palaces; and he had gazed until he could behold but one dark expanse of water, in whose turbid depths were buried all the families of the earth—save one.
Those he had loved and honoured, and much which, perhaps, he had envied and coveted—the pride, the glory, the beauty of earth—all had passed away. And after the waters subsided, and the ark had found a resting-place, what a deep and sad solemnity must have mingled with the joy for their preservation.
How strange the aspect the world presented! How must the survivors have recalled past scenes and faces, to be seen no more! How much they must have longed to recognise old familiar places,—the Eden of Adam and Eve,—the graves in which they had been laid! For doubtless Seth and his descendants still remained with their first parents, while Cain went out from their presence and built a city in some place remote. The earth which Noah and his descendants repeopled was one vast grave; and what wonder that those who built above a race entombed, should mingle fancy with tradition, and imagine that the buried cities and habitations were yet inhabited by the accursed and unholy. Such have been the fancies of those who darkly remembered the flood; and as the wind swept through the caverns of the earth, the superstitious might still imagine that they heard the voices or the shrieks of the spirits imprisoned within.
Shem seems to have far exceeded his brothers in true piety, and the knowledge of Jehovah was for many generations preserved among his descendants, while few or none of them ever sank into those deep superstitions which debased the children of Ham. And it is beautiful to remark, that the filial piety which so pre-eminently marked him has ever been a prominent trait among all nations descended from him. Thus receiving his impressions of the power, the truth, the awful justice of Jehovah, from one well fitted to convey them,—and taught the certain fulfilment of promises and of threats,—Abraham was early inspired with that deep reverential and yet filial love, that entire confidence, which led to the trusting obedience which distinguished his character.
Yet, from his very piety, sad must it have been when the command came to leave the plains of Mesopotamia, and go out a stranger and a pilgrim into distant lands, to become a dweller among those who were fast apostatizing from the true faith. "But by faith he obeyed," and by his obedience he has given us an example and illustration of faith, which has been held forth through all succeeding ages. To be the child of Abraham, to walk as he walked, is, after the lapse of thousands of years, the characteristic of the true worshipper of God.
Guided by an Omniscient hand, trusting in an Almighty power, cheered by that mysterious promise, which, as a star of hope shining in the hour of deepest darkness, still rose to higher brightness as it guided the long line of patriarchs, kings, and prophets, until it settled over the manger of Bethlehem, and was lost in the full glory of the Sun of righteousness,—Abraham girded his loins and prepared for a departure to far distant lands.
At first, attended by his father and brother, he sojourned with them in Haran; and the family pitched their tents in that spot which was to become in future ages the battle-ground of nations, when the proud eagle of imperial Rome was trailed in the dust, and her warriors and her nobles fell before their fiercer foes. Long ages have intervened since the tents of this Syrian family were pitched by the side of the waters of Charan; and midway between their days and ours, were these waters discoloured with the blood of those who fell in the battle of Charae, so disastrous to Rome, ever haughty, and then exulting in the height of her prosperity. A few wandering shepherds now lead their flocks in the plain in which Sarah and Abraham dwelt, and where Cassius and his legions fell. But a short sojourn was permitted Abraham here. "Arise and depart, for this is not your rest"—and again he listened to the command from above, and gathered his flocks and servants, and girded his loins, and set his face towards the land promised to him, and to his seed after him. And now he left his father and his brethren, and went with his own family, the head of his house, the future patriarch of his race.
Yet he was not alone. The wife of his youth was by his side. In all his wanderings, in all his cares, there was one with him to participate in his joys and to alleviate his sorrows. With him and for him, his wife forsook home, kindred and country. We doubt not that she too shared the faith of Abraham; that she too trusted and loved and worshipped the God of Abraham, and of Shem, and of Noah. Like Abraham, a descendant of Shem,—like him too, she had been trained in the worship of Jehovah. Yet to the faith of the true believer, there was added the strong affection of the wife; and while Abraham went out obeying God, Sarah followed, trusting God indeed, but leaning still upon her husband. In all her future life, she is presented to us the wife; devoted, affectionate, submissive; loving her husband with a true affection, and honouring him by a due deference.
With a beauty that fascinated kings, preserving the charms of youth to the advanced period of her life, she still lived but for her husband; and when even the faith of Abraham failed, and he withdrew from the wife the protection of the husband, and said, "She is my sister," Sarah appears to have acquiesced in a deceit so unworthy of her husband and of herself, merely to insure his safety among the lawless tribes around them.
As we read the story of Abraham's wife, we catch glimpses of ages and nations that were hoar with antiquity, and had passed away when our ancient historians began the record of the past. Nation after nation had perished and been forgotten before the profane historian began his annals. Yet childless, still trusting in the promise of Jehovah, Abraham wandered for many years through the land which was to be given to him, and his seed after him. Now pitching his tent in Moreh; then building his altar at Bethel; then driven by famine into Egypt; then returning to his altar at Bethel,—and there separating from his nephew Lot, because "the land could not bear" both, he fixes his abode in Hebron.
No pictures of pastoral life are more beautiful than those presented in Genesis; and while we contemplate the character of Abraham, we catch occasional glimpses of his household, and of the manners of his age. We see him exercising forbearance and relinquishing the rights of a superior, that there might be no strife between him and his too worldly relative. We see him leading out his own band as a prince, to rescue that same relative,—who, tempted by the promise of large wealth, had chosen a location full of dangers,—and, in the hour of victory, refusing all spoil and showing all honour to the priest of the most high God.
Again he is before us, sitting in his tent in the heat of the day, and hastening to receive strangers,—"thus entertaining angels unawares,"—and then interceding for that city doomed to destruction for the wickedness of the dwellers therein.
And again he appears as the prince, the patriarch, the head of his own family, and high in honour with those around him, ever observing all the decorum and proprieties of oriental life. We see him, too, as one who walked with God; as the priest of his household, presenting the morning and the evening sacrifice; as holding high communion with God in the hours of darkness; entering into that covenant which is still pleaded by those who claim the promise, "I will be a God to thee, and to thy seed after thee."
This promise of a seed, from which was to spring a great nation, "like to the stars of heaven in number," was frequently repeated, yet still deferred. Youth, manhood, middle age, all had passed, and still no child blest the tents of Sarah; and while Abraham still believed, and it "was accounted to him for righteousness," Sarah seems to have felt that not upon her was to be conferred the distinction of becoming the mother of the promised seed. With the warm impulse of the woman, she sacrificed the feelings of the wife and the instincts of the heart, to promote what she doubtless believed to be the plan of God and the happiness of Abraham. There is a deficiency of faith as much to be manifested in the forestalling the plans of Providence as in the denial of the promises of God: and while Abraham still trusted and waited the fulfilment of the promise, Sarah sought, by her own device, to accomplish prophecy and insure the blessing.
In accordance with the usages of those around her, she gave her handmaid to her husband to be his wife, "that their children might bless her age." She doubtless felt herself strong enough in love to Abraham and to Hagar to believe that her affection would embrace their children. But when the trial came, and all the instincts of the heart, all the feelings of the wife revolted, she proved that this violation of a heaven-appointed institution brings only sorrow and strife. Yet there was no alienation between Sarah and Abraham. The wife of his youth was ever dearer to him than the mother of his child.
At length, however, the promise was fulfilled. Sarah became a mother. Many years had passed since she had left the home of her fathers. The days of man were now much abridged, and she was fast approaching the ordinary limit of human life; but we may suppose her cheek was still fair and her brow smooth, and that she still retained much of the beauty of youth.
With a wondering joy, Sarah gazed upon the child so long desired—the child in whose seed "all the nations of the earth" were to be "blessed." And she said, "God hath made me to laugh, so that all who hear shall laugh;" and while those that heard that Sarah "had borne Abraham a son in his old age," wondered at an event so strange, Abraham must have pondered the prophecy which had revealed to him the destiny of his race,—perhaps foreseeing that Star which was to rise in a still distant age, and apprehending, however dimly and faintly, something of the mysterious connection between the birth of the child and the promise given in the hour of the curse—the blending of the fate of his race with the eternal plan of mercy and redemption.
There is an instinct in our natures which leads us to rejoice at a birth; but, could Sarah have foreseen the destiny of her race, tears would have mingled with her smiles. Wonderful has been the past history of that people, strange their present condition, while the future may develop mysteries still more incomprehensible.
In the hour of rejoicing over the new-born babe, past transgression brought forth its legitimate fruits. Sullenness and strife were brooding in the bosoms of the Egyptian bond-woman and her son; and the quiet eye of the mother saw all the danger arising from the jealous hate and rivalry of the first-born of Abraham.
If the decision was stern, it was needful. "Cast out the bond-woman and her child, for her son shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac." Harsh words,—but it is better to dwell peacefully asunder, than together in strife and bitterness. The malignant passions which led Ishmael to mock, might soon be stimulated by the mother to murder,—chafed and irritated as she was by the constant presence of the child who had supplanted her own. From the time of the departure of Hagar from the household of Abraham, peace seems to have rested upon it. Prosperity attended him. He no longer wandered from place to place. He remained in Hebron, sojourning with Sarah and her child.
Many years passed,—years of peaceful quiet and happiness seldom allotted to such an age,—while they trained their child in the nurture of the true God, and were honoured by the princes around him, who sought to enter into league with him, for they saw that "God blessed him in all that he did."
Once again God saw fit to test the faith of Abraham by calling upon him to offer his son—his only son Isaac, whom he loved—as a sacrifice; and Abraham obeyed the divine command, and thus doing, uttered that prophecy which has thrilled so many souls, "God will himself provide a sacrifice." In this trial, Sarah seems not to have been called to participate. The mother was spared the agony of feeling that her only child was to be offered as a sacrifice—that the hope of her life was to perish.
"Sarah was an hundred and twenty years old, and she died." The dark shadow of death is, sooner or later, to fall upon each household. Abraham seems to have been at a distance—perhaps in the charge of some of his numerous flocks—when he was recalled to Hebron by news of Sarah's death. And he came to mourn over her. The remembrance of her maiden beauty and modesty, the grateful recollection of all her conjugal devotedness, filled his soul. If light and immortality were brought to light in the gospel, still the divine rays were faintly reflected in the former dispensation, and the eye of faith even then penetrated the thick darkness of the grave.
And now, after these long years of promise and waiting, Abraham takes possession of the land which God had given to him and to his seed. He asks, however, but a small portion,—a tomb, a place for his dead,—and a more beautiful description of a scene of mutual deference, of regard for rights and respect for character and position, was never penned than that which records the negotiation between the bereaved patriarch and the children of Heth. With the touch of magic, the whole scene is before us. The bereaved patriarch, courteous in grief, bowing in the presence of the sons of Heth,—the deep respect, the kindly sympathy, manifested by those who, strangers to his religion, felt the claims of his character,—mingled with that deep awe which the visitation of death ever inspires.
The last scene was now over, and Sarah has first taken possession of that home to which she was to be followed by her husband and their descendants. One by one they take their places by her side,—unwelcomed, unquestioned,—
"Where none have saluted and none have replied,"—
and yet where all are gathered at last. We see her not as a sister or a daughter. She is not known to us in the house of her father. Sarah is only presented to us as the wife of Abraham. And as a wife the apostle has held her up to her own sex as a model and example. "Even as Sarah obeyed her husband, calling him lord,"—exclaims the apostle, exhorting the wife to due deference. The deep, fervent affection of the heart led to that outward manifestation of honour so beautiful and becoming; and as the only love which can be enduring is that which is founded on respect, so it is the highest happiness of the wife to be able truly to honour him whom she is bound to love and obey.
When the heads of a household are thus united in warm affection and mutual respect, the influence will pervade the whole circle, and the family of Abraham presented a beautiful picture of such a household. The numerous members composing a large family were governed by one who provided for their sustenance, led them forth for the defence of rights, or the redress of injuries, or the rescue of the captive; and who officiated as the priest as well as ruler of his household. In such a community, the character of the head would be impressed upon the whole people; and it was with obvious meaning that Jehovah exclaimed, "I know him that he will command his household after him." It was by example that admonition was made availing. And the wife was ever ready, with her ardent and trusting love, to aid and co-operate. Hastening, when he welcomed the stranger, to prepare the feast, she was ever ready to receive his guests and add her efforts to his hospitality.
Hatred, strife, and mutual alienation so often cloud over the unison of wedded life, and cause its sun to set in darkness, that few spectacles can be presented more beautiful or more delightful than the old age of wedded life, soothed by true affection and mutual kindness. It is more touching than the glow of youthful passion. It proclaims the presence of high moral worth. It is never found in the habitations of the unholy. The love which thus survives the glow of youth, which bears the storms and the trials of life, must be founded on truth, on unimpassioned esteem, on approved integrity; and those alone who love God supremely, love each other unselfishly.
While Sarah honoured her husband, she too was treated with proper deference. Her counsels were ever heeded, her voice had its due influence, and he still deferred to her wishes. It is beautiful to note the increasing estimation in which she is held. Sarai, "the mistress," betokened her station as the head of a household; and as years brought honours, and an enlarged sphere of duty, and a more elevated position among the people around them, Sarai was changed into Sarah—my lady. Her husband, in addressing the former Sarai as Sarah, "my lady," gracefully returned the honour she bestowed when she called him "lord." By such manifestation of mutual respect and love, the chain of family affection is kept bright.
As the household of Abraham was the household of faith, ordained as the model for all ages, it is well to analyze the elements which composed it, and to trace their combined influence. There was the conjugal union of the true worshippers of Jehovah, animated by the same hopes, governed by the same principles, whose hearts were united in the strong bonds of natural affection. There was the confiding, unfailing affection, the deep, reverential respect, and due obedience of the wife. There was the tender love, protecting care, the unwavering faith, the honourable deference of the husband. The religion of this household was the religion of faith and of obedience,—a religion which led them to forsake all at the command of God, which taught them to rely upon his promises, to fear his threatenings, to plead his grace, to trust his mercy, while it was a religion which led to a due observance of all the relative duties of life, which taught the exercise of that impartial justice, careful benevolence, disinterested kindness, and ready hospitality to those without the family; and of steady love, of affectionate kindness, of sympathetic forbearance to the members of the household within. The family of faith, where faith is pure, will ever be a family of love; and as true piety is the best security for family happiness, so family love is the best nurse for family piety.
There are many families among us who aim at being families of faith, who profess to walk in the steps of Abraham, to imitate his example. Let such not confine themselves to the manifestation of his peculiar faith, to his trust and dependence alone. Let them walk as he walked before his household, in the fear of God and the love of man, in the careful fulfilment of every relative and social duty, in the daily exemplification of a tender and loving spirit, carefully avoiding or removing all sources of division. Let that piety which unites them to God, be a bond, encircling all and drawing them near to each other.
By the cultivation of the simple domestic virtues, by the daily, quiet, self-denying trials, by the observance of the thousand decencies, the unaffected proprieties, the unostentatious efforts to bless and comfort,—by the elevating influence of personal example,—by the breathing atmosphere of a holy spirit,—the family is to be made the household of faith, the nursery of the church.
Direct instruction and formal efforts and stated observances are neither to be forgotten nor to be remitted; but these can only be made effectual by the living exemplification of a spirit of love, a life of holiness. It will ever be found true that he who prays most loves most.
HAGAR—THE WIFE UNLOVED.
The Hebrew patriarch led his flocks and herds, surrounded by his large household, from Haran to the land of the Canaanites; from thence to that of the Philistines, down into Egypt; wherever so numerous a family and such large flocks could find sustenance—water and herbage. And as he thus sojourned, many of the poor of these lands flocked to him for employment and support; and while he bought the services of the parents, the children born in his house became members of his family, were trained as his servants, and were subject to his authority as the master of the household, the prince among his people, the patriarch of his tribe.
And among these was Hagar, the Egyptian. We are not told whether she was born in the house of Abraham, or rescued from those who may have stolen her from her home, or given by her parents to the wealthy and childless Sarai. She was Sarah's handmaid—a relation, according to the customs of the East (almost immutable) nearly as dear as that of a child. She was the personal attendant, the constant companion of her mistress; and by her was doubtless instructed in the principles of the true religion, while she was thus accustomed to the accomplishments and occupations of the age. The tasks of the favourite handmaids of Eastern families are still light. To sit at the feet of her mistress with her embroidery; to cheer her with the simple music of the shepherd's tent; to aid her in those domestic duties to which Sarah gave her own superintendence; to assist in preparing the wool of the flocks for the garments of the family; to watch her tent as she reposed by day, and keep by her side as the camels slowly wandered through the valleys in search of pure streams or more abundant herbage, were probably the occupations and duties of Hagar.
Years thus passed on—and the dark-browed and dark-eyed Egyptian maiden had grown into womanhood, and the freshness of youth, the joyousness of health and early life were her's, while her mistress was passing into age. Sarah no longer hoped to become a mother, and, believing that the promise was not intended for her, she urged Abraham to take another wife, offering for his acceptance her own handmaid, the Egyptian Hagar.
The authority of the mistress of the East over her own establishment is so absolute, the husband so interdicted from all interference, that, although Hagar had passed her youth with Sarah, she may have been hardly noticed by Abraham until Sarah proffered her. According to the usage of the east, Sarah had a right (the right then claimed by the parent) thus to dispose of her handmaid; and a marriage with her master was the highest honour which could be bestowed on Hagar. She was given to Abraham to be his wife, and, the relation was—according to the usage then prevailing—as legal as that sustained by Sarah, although the station was inferior. No injury was intended to Hagar. No higher distinction could have been conferred upon her, and, strong in love to both Hagar and Abraham, Sarah doubtless supposed she might be able to welcome and love their children, though denied offspring of her own.
But such departure from the law, precept, or institution of God, involves a long train of sin and sorrow, no matter what the intention—and the union of Abraham with Hagar was a direct violation of the institution of marriage in all its principles and intentions, and it could not but bring confusion and strife to the tent of the patriarch.
It was merely a marriage of interest and convenience, unhallowed by love. The heart of Abraham never departed from the wife of his youth, nor could Sarah ever have intended to relinquish her hold upon his affection. It is the last claim a woman foregoes. And on the other hand, Hagar could have felt no love for her master, so much her superior in age and station. Unholy pride and rank ambition were all the feelings which such an alliance could awaken in the heart of Hagar. Yet Hagar was the least blameworthy, and, perhaps, not eventually the greatest sufferer. By the customs of society, she had no voice in the disposal of herself. Her heart was never consulted. She was only allowed to receive the husband allotted to her—to acquiesce in the decision of others.
The natural results of such a union followed. The exaltation of Hagar excited her pride and led to arrogance; and when she knew that she should become a mother, her childless mistress was despised.
It is hard to bear contempt from those upon whom we have lavished kindness; to feel that we have exalted those who despise us: and all the indignation of Sarah was roused by the assumption and ingratitude of Hagar; and, with the quick instinct of the woman, she retorted upon her husband, "My wrong be upon thee."
A stranger indifference could not have been manifested than that showed by Abraham towards the youthful wife who should have now received his protection and kindness. "Behold thy handmaid is in thy hands." He recognised no tie—he felt no obligation. What was Hagar, that she should occasion strife between him and the wife of his youth, the partner of his life, the daughter of his own people!
Hagar was from this hour abandoned by Abraham to her mistress. When Sarah resumed the authority belonging to her station, she assumed with it a power never before exercised. Forgetting all the love of past years, all the claims of the present hour upon her kindness and forbearance, she treated the unhappy Hagar with such intolerable harshness, that the wretched woman fled from the face of her mistress and from the tents of her master, and sought refuge in the wilderness.
We can conceive what bitter, despairing thoughts, what a keen sense of injustice and injury may have pressed upon her, as she sat alone by the fountain in the desert. Probably a little spot of green herbage denoted the presence of water, while, all around, lay the sandy, rocky desert. The stars, in the brightness of an oriental night, were looking down on her as she sat alone, her face buried in her hands, unheeded, there to die. Then came the visions of her youth, the remembrances of her childhood, the sound of her mother's voice, the dream of her smile—then the tent of Sarah—then the alliance with her master, the excitement of her pride, the flush of hope, the exultation of a fancied triumph over the childless, but still honoured wife; succeeded by the cold withdrawal of all the kindness of the patriarch, and the entire abandonment of her whom he had taken to his bosom, to the implacable resentment of her former mistress!
The temper of Hagar, the feelings thus excited—dark, sullen, bitter, revengeful—when she fled from all, may have been impressed upon her offspring, and thus marked the future character of her race.
Still, Hagar was not alone. The wanderer was not forgotten. In the hour of darkness and of desolation, there is One nigh even to those who forget him. "And the angel of the Lord found her by the fountain in the wilderness, and he said: Hagar, Sarah's maid, whence camest thou? And whither wouldst thou go?"
She was not addressed as the wife of Abraham. The conventional usage, so opposed to the positive institution, was not recognised and thus hallowed by Him who had established marriage; and while Hagar was pitied, she was reminded of her real condition. "And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress, Sarah. And the angel of the Lord said unto her, Return unto thy mistress and submit thyself under her hands. And the angel of the Lord said, Thou shalt have a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has heard thy affliction. He shall be a wild man. His hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him—and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren. And she called the name of the Lord that spake unto her, Thou God seest me, for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me?" implying a recognition of the unexpected interference, protection and blessing of God.
The promises of God are always preceded by his commands, and the faith which clings to the promises is to be tested by the obedience which alone can make them availing. And when the words of the angel came to the desolate soul of the woman in the desert, there were admonition, reproof, and command mingled with promise and blessing. "Return to thy mistress." Return to thy duty, is the first requirement made of those God seeks out.
And Hagar humbled herself and obeyed the voice of the Lord. She returned to her mistress. Trying as it must have been to one so aggrieved, she submitted to her authority, and again became a member of the household of Abraham. Had she disobeyed the angel, she and her child had doubtless perished in the wilderness; but in yielding her proud and arrogant temper, she secured the future blessing to her race, and insured the safety of her child, while her submission and gentleness must have won back Sarah to a kinder temper, to a more forbearing treatment.
After the birth of Ishmael, there intervened years—long years—in which Hagar tasted the bitterest cup ever presented to the lips of woman. A wife unloved, neglected—a mother disregarded—a woman held in bondage by one who had made her a rival—dwelling in the presence of him who had put her from him! Her very presence brought reproach and sorrow to Sarah and Abraham—the violation of the divine institution ever entailing its penalty.
The wife deserted, neglected, whose hopes have been crushed, ever turns to her offspring for comfort and sympathy; and ardent was the love, strong were the ties, which bound the Egyptian mother to the son of the patriarch; and in Ishmael must all the hopes and affections of Hagar have centred. Could she, indeed, have penetrated the future, could she have seen her race, the seed of her son, filling the desert and dwelling as princes; while the seed of Sarah and of Abraham were held, as if in retribution of her own sufferings, in bondage in her own native land,—could she have passed through the intervening ages and seen the children of Ishmael issuing from their desert and setting their feet upon the necks of the proudest and mightiest, imposing their faith upon a world, while they marched forth conquering and to conquer—could she have contrasted the triumphant warriors of Arabia, the caliphs of the east and the west, with the wandering, desolate, persecuted, trodden-down tribes of Israel—the proudest expectations of the woman and the mother would have been all answered. Could she have penetrated the meaning of the words she must have so often pondered, she would have found that the loftiest dreams of the rankest ambition were to be more than realized.
But dimly and faintly must she have apprehended the meaning of the mysterious prophecy, even while she trusted the accompanying promise. As she saw Ishmael, the only child in the tent of the patriarch, and loved by the father, she perhaps allowed herself to hope that he was yet to be the heir, and that in his future honours she was to find a full recompense for all the trials of her blighted youth.
After long years of waiting, Sarah embraced a son, and the event, so joyous to the parents, awoke afresh the bitter remembrances of Hagar, while it roused her to the consciousness of her present lot and of all the injuries inflicted upon her.
In all the trials and sorrows through which she had passed, she had had none to sustain or sympathize with her. Her child remained her only earthly hope; and now she felt that another was to supplant him, and thus disappoint all her expectations.
Her spirit rose in pride and wrath, and she infused her own bitter feelings into the heart of her child. When Isaac was hailed as the heir, while all rejoiced, Hagar and Ishmael mocked both the infant and the aged parents.
Forbearance was no longer safe, and the decision of Sarah was wise, though harsh—yet it was sad to Abraham. Ishmael was still his son—his first-born. He had been ever dear to him; and when the angel of the Lord had again confirmed the promise of a seed in whom all the nations of the earth were to be blessed, he had almost seemed to overlook it as he pleaded for the son of the bond-woman, "Oh that Ishmael might live before thee!" while to Abraham was then confirmed the promise given before the birth of her child to Hagar. There was sorrow and perplexity in the heart of Abraham, but a message from heaven confirmed the decree of Sarah.
The patriarch arose, after a night of conflict and prayer, while the stars were still shining in the heavens, while the flocks lay in stillness around the tents, and before those who had revelled and rejoiced were awake, and called Hagar and her child. Can we not see them in the gray of the morning? The father, the mother, the child,—the patriarch, aged, but not bowed by age, still retaining the vigour of manhood—the boy shy, yet half-defying—the mother! In such an hour, all distinctions of rank and station would be forgotten, and all the feelings of the woman be roused. Then and there Hagar might well forget that she was Sarah's bondmaid, and only remember that she had been Abraham's wife—that she was still Ishmael's mother.
In that hour must have risen the memory of her wrongs, of her saddened youth, her darkened womanhood—of the selfishness with which he had wedded her; of the heartlessness with which he had deserted her; of her long years of trial and contempt. And her eye might speak reproach, although the lips were closed and there was no voice. Should we not rejoice to believe that the patriarch whispered some regret for the past, and spoke of sorrow and repentance to her whose happiness he had so selfishly sacrificed, even as he consummated his work by casting her out, a homeless exile. Such is the enslaving power of custom, so easily do we blind ourselves to our own delinquencies, that Abraham probably aggravated Hagar's faults while he overlooked her injuries. He saw in her but the despiteful, revengeful handmaid; he forgot that she was an injured wife—a neglected mother.
Yet no words of reproach, of entreaty, or explanation of the past, or promise for the future, are recorded as having passed between them. He pronounced the decree, and laid upon the bondmaid, and not upon his noble boy, the provision for the journey. She turned from the tents, and thus they parted!
But the connection of Abraham and Hagar had woven a thread into the destiny of nations, still to be traced. She left the patriarch in sorrow, in bitterness of soul; but she went out to found nations, to punish rulers, to establish a long line who should transmit the name of her son and the influence of her character to remotest ages—even to the end of time.
Accustomed to the wandering life of the desert, and provided for the journey, Abraham probably deemed Hagar competent to guide her steps to a place of safety. But sorrow may have blinded her eyes, or despair made her reckless, and she was lost in the desert. The water was spent in the bottle—tons of gold could not open a fountain in the desert—and she saw her child parched with thirst, "faint and ready to die; and she cast him under one of the shrubs, and went and sat a good way off, as it were a bow-shot, for she said, Let me not see the death of the child; and as she sat over against him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad, and the angel of God called to her out of heaven and said unto her, What aileth thee Hagar? Fear not! For God hath heard the voice of the child where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thy hand, for I will make of him a great nation. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water, and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad to drink." What an inimitable description of a mother's love! What a display of the watchful benevolence of Jehovah!
In this hour of desolation, when no human aid was near, there was again the Divine interposition, while there was no reproach, no allusion even to that sinful temper which had led to the banishment of both mother and child, and caused them to come here to perish in the wilderness. Blessed be God that he does not suffer the unworthiness of his children to separate them from his love; that in the hour of extremity he is still nigh; that his ear is ever open to hear and his arm ready to save.
"And God was with the lad: and he grew and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer; and he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran." And his mother still dwelt with him; and in all his wanderings, wherever his footsteps were turned, there was her home. There is a touching remembrance of her early life, in the fact that Hagar chose a wife for her son from among the daughters of her own people: "She took him a wife out of the land of Egypt." And from this union have sprung the tribes who still fill the deserts where Hagar sought a refuge. A wild race, dwelling in the presence of all their brethren, whose hand is against every man, while every man's hand is against them.
Ishmael rose rapidly to rank, and Hagar lived to rejoice in his prosperity. The life which commenced in want, privation and wandering in the wilderness, conducted her to wealth and honour. So dark and inscrutable are the ways of Providence, that at each step we are taught but to seek the path of duty and obey the direction of Heaven.
The children of Ishmael seem to have long preserved the knowledge of Jehovah. Hagar, who had received so many proofs of the being, power, and providence of the God of Abraham, might well instruct her descendants in the principles of the true faith. The race of Ishmael have still preserved the rite which Abraham received as the seal of faith. Often may Hagar have recounted the providences of God—the account she had heard, in the tent of Abraham, of the creation, the fall, the deluge, the re-peopling of the world; and often, in the course of their wandering lives, she may have led her descendants to those deep waters which covered the guilty cities of the plain, and then described them as she knew them before the wrath of God fell upon them.
The tribes of Ishmael have ever recognised their descent from Abraham; and the instructions of Hagar are preserved as national traditions to this very day, though exaggerated by Eastern fancy, and mingled with wilder romance, as they have been transmitted from one generation to another by the children of Ishmael, who still lead their flocks in the same valleys, and pitch their tents by the same fountains to which Hagar resorted with Ishmael.
Hagar and Ishmael were no more members of Abraham's household, yet the relationship of father and son was ever recognised. Doubtless Abraham imparted of his wealth to his first-born; and as Abraham often sojourned afterwards in Beer-sheba, probably not far from the spot where Hagar and Ishmael so nearly perished, the father and son may have often met; and Isaac and Ishmael may have held kindly intercourse, when the bitter feelings of rivalry and of conscious wrong had subsided. The ties of kindred were still allowed, and Esau sought a wife from the family of his own kindred, as a means of conciliating his father and mother; thus showing that a purer morality and a higher religious feeling were cherished than those among surrounding tribes. And when Abraham died, having attained a full age, his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, both far advanced in years, buried him. The strifes, the bitterness, the hate of early life seem to have been forgotten, and they united in the last offices of filial love and duty.
The son of the bondmaid had attained, during the life of Abraham, a distinction beyond that of the son of the wife; and his immediate descendant rose to wealth and honour, while, if one branch of Isaac's family tasted prosperity, those recognised as the heirs of that mysterious blessing were long known as wanderers, and then despised as slaves. Their long line of descent has run parallel, side by side, distinct, unmingled; recognising a common origin, but never acknowledging a common brotherhood. The oldest nations of the earth,—the one exiled from the land given them, dwelling as outcasts and strangers among all the nations of the earth, yet still separate, apart, a peculiar people; the other living at this day in the deserts where Hagar wandered, and where she fainted—a never-conquered people. And while Assyrian, Greek, and Roman have swept the world and exacted tribute of the nations around them, and other tribes have been swept with the besom of destruction, the sons of Ishmael have still dwelt in the presence of their brethren, ever enforcing, but still refusing to pay tribute—free and wild as the lad who first became an archer in the wilderness. Unconsciously confirming prophecy, and still attesting the truth of a revelation which they contemn and deny,—thus strangely dwelling so different from all other nations,—preserving the initiatory rites and the mystic symbols of the faith of Abraham, the customs and traditions of the age of the patriarch,—these nations dwell distinct, separate from each other and from all other nations, awaiting the day when blindness shall be removed from the eyes of the children of promise, and the descendants of Sarah and of Hagar shall be both gathered with the fold of Christ.
There are Hagars of modern, as well as of ancient days,—of western as of eastern lands. She who is wedded from interest and convenience; she who forms a heartless union from pride and ambition; she who awakes from her dreams of bliss to find herself an unloved, and perhaps to become a deserted wife—all these prove the bitterness of the lot of the Egyptian Hagar. He who has ordained marriage has graciously implanted the affections which are to make it a source of happiness; and those who form this union under other motives and influences run fearful risks. There are many Hagars in the highest ranks of life, and even where the artificial distinctions of society are most highly regarded and carefully recognised.
When youth is wedded to age or sacrificed to decrepitude to promote some State policy, though the victims are not clothed in the garb of the Egyptian slave, but arrayed in the pomp of regal vestments, yet the diamond often rests upon an aching brow, and the pearls press a saddened bosom; and when the holiest of earthly institutions is thus violated, each relation of life is profaned; and polluted streams descend from the highest sources and diffuse their poison through all the ranks of life—through all the gradations of society.
There will still be Hagars—women who marry for a home, or a support; and especially while woman is educated to be helpless—unable to provide for her own wants; or while that prejudice is cherished which leads her to deem useful employment a degradation.
* * * * *
She fled, with one reproachful look On him who bade her go, And scarcely could the patriarch brook That glance of voiceless wo: In vain her quivering lips essay'd His mercy to implore; Silent the mandate she obey'd, And then was seen no more.
The burning waste and lonely wild Received her as she went; Hopeless, she clasp'd her fainting child, With thirst and sorrow spent. And in the wilderness so drear, She raised her voice on high, And sent forth that heart-stricken prayer "Let me not see him die!"
Her beautiful, her only boy, Her all of hope below; So long his father's pride and joy, And yet—from him the blow! Alone she must his head sustain, And watch his sinking breath, And on his bright brow mark the stain Of the destroyer, Death.
"Let me not see him die," and lo! The messenger of peace! Once more her tears forget to flow, Once more her sorrows cease. Life, strength, and freedom now are given With mighty power to one Who from his father's roof was driven, And he—the outcast's son.
How often we, like Hagar, mourn, When some unlook'd for blight Drives us away, no more to turn To joys we fancied bright! Forced from our idols to retreat, And seek the Almighty's care, Perchance we are sent forth to meet A desert-angel there.
THE PARTIAL AND INTRIGUING MOTHER—REBEKAH.
After the departure of Hagar and her son from the tents of Abraham, peace seems to have returned, and it became the abode of filial and parental as well as of conjugal affection. Sarah's days were still prolonged, that she might exercise the duties and enjoy the pleasures of a mother.
The heir of wealth, and the child of love and indulgence, the character of Isaac seems to have been the reverse of his brother, the restless, wandering Ishmael. The one, cast off from the care of the father and taught to rely upon his own energies, early distinguished himself, and became the leader of a band, and a prince among the nations around; while the other, cherished and cared for, was content to dwell in the peaceful enjoyment of wealth and prosperity. Thus do we find that trials are necessary to develope the higher qualities and to call them into action. The truly great and noble, the eminent in talent or usefulness, are never nursed in the bosom of ease.
Sarah died; and while the bereaved husband felt his loss, the son could not have been insensible. There was a dreary void in the home of the patriarch when the wife and the mother had been laid in the sepulchre. There was no one to fill the place of Sarah—no one to bless their simple meals. She no longer appears to welcome them as they returned from the field or the flock. The tribe is without a mother, the household without a mistress. Many considerations led Abraham to desire the marriage of his son, and he cast around his thoughts for a wife worthy of being the mother of the promised seed, and one who could well fulfil the duties which must devolve upon her as the head of his large household. The people around him would have courted his alliance, and as yet no command from God forbade his forming family ties with the inhabitants of the land. But Abraham too well knew the influence of the wife and the mother, to choose a wife for the child of promise from a race apostate from the religion of Jehovah. He knew the ensnaring influence which would there be brought to bear upon his family, and he resolved to seek a wife for Isaac among his far-distant kindred—those who yet retained the knowledge and clung to the worship of the God of Shem, of Noah, and of Adam. Though far separated from his brethren, yet communications seem to have passed, and Abraham had been told of the enlargement of the family of his brother; and he resolved, not only to seek a wife for his son from among his own kindred, but, while making arrangements for such a marriage, he solemnly guarded against the return of his descendants to the land from whence he had been called.
Trying as might be the long journey, and uncertain as seemed the issue, no inferior motives were allowed to be put in competition with the perpetuity of the worship and knowledge of God. A connection with any of the families of the Canaanites would have been at once ensnaring to the household of Abraham and injurious in its influence upon the heart of Isaac. Had Isaac married the daughter of an idolater, irreligion and immorality would soon have pervaded the family of the patriarch, and the knowledge of the true God have departed from the earth. Thus the beacon light of nations had been extinguished, and the last altar erected to Jehovah had been broken down: for the other descendants of Shem were fast departing from the God of their fathers,—and if the children of Keturah and Ishmael for a period retained the faith of Abraham, the torch which kindled the fire on their altars was lighted at that which was kept burning on those of Isaac and Jacob, and the example of their families preserved alive the remembrance and the acts of the living God in the nations around them.
With a train which became the suitor of a prince, with costly presents of gold and ornaments according to the custom of both ancient and modern days, but more particularly conforming to Eastern usage, the confidential servant of Abraham was sent on his embassy to the kindred of his master, there to receive a bride for the son of the patriarch. We gain a delightful impression both of the piety and intelligence of the household of Abraham from the account of the messenger to whom this important transaction was intrusted. The faith of the patriarch animated the other members of his household, and a strong chain of love encircled all. After a long journey, the train reached the plains of Mesopotamia, and then the tents of Nahor appeared in view; and then, in the prospect of the immediate discharge of his commission, the messenger of the patriarch sought explicit direction from the God of Abraham.
While the description of the interview at the fountain, "without the gate of the city," gives a most beautiful view of the manners of the age and the people, and an unsurpassed picture of the freshness and simplicity of pastoral life, it proves at once the piety and the clear discrimination of the agent employed. The beauty of the youthful Rebekah caught his eye, while the test he devised afforded a safe criterion of the character of the woman. Weary with the labours of the sultry day, after tending her own flocks, had she been indolent or inactive, selfish or sullen, she had turned from his request, and suffered his attendants to administer to his wants. But as she looked upon them—dusty, weary, parched by thirst, worn down by long travel—the sympathies of a kind nature were awakened, as the servant ran to meet her, saying, "Let me, I pray thee, drink a little water from thy pitcher." She said, "Drink, my lord," and she let down the pitcher upon her hand and gave him to drink; and when he had done drinking, she said, "I will draw water for thy camels also, until they have done drinking." Thus did the maiden clearly prove that she possessed some of the qualities most necessary for a wife—that ready self-forgetfulness, that kindness, cheerfulness, and desire to promote the happiness of others, that sunshine of the heart which sheds its brightening beams over all the clouds that darken domestic life. Through all the ages of the world, in all the circumstances in which mankind are placed, the wife has ever need of them, and wisely may the suitor look for them. But the servant of the patriarch, "still wondering, held his peace." Not until assured that she was of the race of the true worshippers of the God of Abraham, that she had been trained in the fear of the Lord, did he feel assured that the fair and kind Syrian damsel was to be chosen for the wife of his master's son. He had felt that the prayer was answered. He had taken out the rich gifts intended for her, but he seems to hesitate as he says, "Whose daughter art thou! Tell me, I pray thee, is there room in thy father's house for us to lodge in?" And she answered, "I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah, whom she bore unto Nahor."
"And the man bowed down and worshipped the Lord, and he said, Blessed be the Lord God of my master Abraham, who hath not left destitute my master of his mercy and his truth. I being in the way, the Lord hath led me to the house of my master's brethren."
The negotiation between the servant of Abraham and the father and brothers of Rebekah was soon concluded. They deferred not the answer to be given, when the messenger had laid before them his errand, and told them of the wealth and honour of his master; and the whole transaction impresses us with an idea of the piety and kindness of the family of Bethuel.
The thing is from the Lord—while the rich gifts, made to all the members of the family, proved the truth of the statements of the messenger, and perhaps enforced his plea. Yet, when he urged the immediate departure of the bride for the tent of her husband, the hearts of the mother and of the brothers yet clung to the youthful maiden. They shrank from a separation so sudden, so complete—and they said, Let the damsel stay with us a few days—at least ten. Oh, do not snatch her away from us so suddenly. But after that, she shall go.
And he said, "Hinder me not. Seeing that the Lord hath prospered me, send me away that I may go to my master." And they said, "We will call the maiden, and inquire at her mouth." And they called Rebekah, and said unto her, "Wilt thou go with this man?" And she said, "I will go."
Are we not, even at this period, taught lessons of parental wisdom, in the care displayed by the ancient patriarch respecting the choice of a wife for his son? In the care taken to secure an unstained parentage in one who had been early trained in the habits of piety and godly principles of action? The character of the family is often stamped upon each member, and the marked features are transmitted from generation to generation, even where the character of the woman may be modified by her new relations. As she advances in years she often returns to the habits of her youth, while she almost invariably adopts the practice of her own mother in the early nurture and training of her children.
He who would have reformed France was taught that he must begin his work by training mothers. And thus the ancient patriarch foresaw that the great nation that was to descend from him, like to the stars of heaven for multitude, would long bear the impress of the character of the mother who rocked it in the first cradle of its existence, and his wisdom was manifested in the pains which he took to secure a good lineage and right habits and principles. The foresight of the father could go no farther. Time must test the individual character.
After they left the tents of Bethuel, the train, now augmented by the presence of the bride and her immediate attendants, her nurse and handmaids, slowly wended its way back to the tents of the patriarch, pursuing the natural highways of the country,—now by the stream, then across the plain, then through the desert, sandy, barren, trackless; then winding through the mountain pass, encamping during the heat of the day by the fountain and under the shade, and pursuing their journey in the cool of the evening and of the morning.
Love or devotion, or the mingling of both, led Isaac out into the fields at eventide to meditate, and his feet turned towards the route by which his messengers might be expected, and the eye of his servant descried him afar off, and he pointed him out to the stranger. And while the messenger seems to have hasted to meet his master and give an account of his mission, Rebekah descended from her lofty seat and covered herself with a veil.
Henry the Fourth, of France, met his bride soon after she entered his kingdom, and mingled with her attendants, that he might watch her unobserved; and when his presence was announced she kneeled, and he gracefully raised her up. Napoleon entered the carriage of his Austrian bride, and announced himself, while she gazed with wondering eyes upon one, long only known as the enemy of her father's house and the terror of his kingdom. The meeting of the heir of the patriarch and his youthful bride is quite as interesting a scene as any of those recorded of more modern days.
And Isaac went out to meditate in the fields at eventide, and he lifted up his eyes, and, behold! the camels were coming. And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she lighted off the camel. For she had said unto the servant, "What man is this that walketh in the field to meet us?" And the servant said, "It is my master;" therefore she took a veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all things that he had done. And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her.
Rebekah seems to have made an affectionate, happy wife. Many years passed before children were born to Isaac; and when the twin boys, Esau and Jacob, were in childhood, there was evidently a marked difference in their characters. Esau was active, restless, and enterprising, He grew up a hunter,—daring and bold,—loving a life of change and adventure; while Jacob was a "plain man, dwelling in tents." Blindness was stealing over Isaac and unfitting him for the cares which rested upon him, for the supervision of his numerous servants and his many flocks and herds. During the frequent absences of Esau upon his hunting expeditions, these cares must have devolved upon Rebekah and Jacob. Her heart clung to the child who was ever with her in sympathy; while the tales of peril and adventure with which Esau enlivened the wearisome days of his father, were as acceptable to blindness and loneliness, as were the presents of the game he so frequently brought. "And Isaac loved Esau." Thus the injudicious fondness of the parents sowed the seeds of bitterness and alienation between the two brothers, and led to their mutual estrangement. The birth-right, which implied the inheriting of the blessing promised to the seed of Abraham, was despised by Esau, who, doubtless, in his prolonged wanderings from home, and his frequent associations with the inhabitants of the land, had been led to feel contempt for the worship and the promises of God, and in his reckless levity he transferred it to Jacob for "a mess of pottage," while he further alienated himself from his parents and brother by marrying the daughter of a Hittite. "This was a grief and sorrow of mind to Isaac and Rebekah." Forgetting the respect due to them as his parents; forgetting his own position as the eldest son of the heir of the promise; heedless of the example of filial deference shown by Isaac, and of all the care that preserved the family free from the corruption around them, he formed an union with those who were strangers to the faith of Abraham and of a race apostate from the worship of Jehovah. Yet, while mourning the perverseness of his favourite child, the father, aged and blind, did not propose to withdraw his favour from him; and, feeling that his infirmities increased, Isaac bade Esau with his own hands prepare him a favourite dish, that he might eat and bless him before his death. Did we better understand the customs of that age, we might find that Isaac was not merely influenced by bodily appetite, but that there might be a peculiar significance in the act.
We do not love to dwell upon Rebekah's deceit and the lessons of falsehood she taught her son—and the prophecy uttered before the birth of the children, neither justifies nor extenuates her guilt; for God has never taught his people, that to promote his plans they are to violate his laws.
Alienated from her elder son, we see Rebekah, by intrigue and treachery, seeking to advance the interests of the younger at the expense of the rights of his brother. As we read the sacred narrative, every sympathy is awakened in favour of the injured Esau, and we hear, with burning indignation against the author of his wrong, his pathetic cry, "Hast thou no blessing for me! Bless me, even me, my father!" But the artifice of the mother and wife was successful. She secured all she sought—and her success brought its own punishment. Dark clouds of hate settled over the household, and Esau waited only for the death of his father that he might destroy the life of his brother; and to save the life of her son, the mother was forced to send him into banishment. Again the intriguing, managing character of the mother appears. She assigned what might be a reason, but not the true reason, to Isaac. "I am weary of my life, because of the daughters of Heth. If Jacob takes a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these which are of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life do me?" The plea of the mother prevailed, and Isaac blessed Jacob, and he left the land of his father, ostensibly to seek a wife, but in truth to flee from the vengeance of his brother.
The son of the wealthy patriarch went not out like an Eastern suitor—not with a train such as Abraham sent when he wooed Rebekah for his son. To avoid the hate of Esau, he stole like a fugitive from the tents of Isaac; and, a foot-worn pilgrim, unattended, he sought the kindred of his mother. And here the mother and her favourite child parted. She had alienated his brother to promote his interests. She had sacrificed her integrity to secure his fortune, and her plan had succeeded. She had secured the object at which she had aimed, and yet in the result she had been forced to send forth her darling child—a homeless wanderer.
There is no reason to believe that the mother and the son ever met again. From this time she disappears. Surrounded by the alienated Esau's hated wives and ill-loved children, separated from the child of her affection, she may have sunk into a premature grave, or she may have lived many sorrowful years to feel the miseries she had drawn upon herself by her violations of the rules of rectitude, and an eager desire to promote the happiness of one child at the sacrifice of that of another.
There are still too many families involved in all the bitterness of domestic strife from the unjust partiality of one or both of the parents for favoured children. If, as children advance in life and their characters are formed, a calmer feeling succeeds the trembling tenderness which guarded their infant days, and our love to them (as to all other mortal beings) results from an appreciation of their characters, so that one may awaken a purer regard than another, this feeling is very different from that partial fondness which adopts one and gives him a place in our affection to the exclusion of another. That instinctive justice which compels a higher regard for the purer moral worth, will, of itself, prevent that parental partiality which leads to injustice or to an infringement of established rights and recognised principles. An unjust parent presents one of the most revolting pictures of human nature. The character involves a disregard of the most sacred ties and the tenderest relations. And whoever exhibits parental injustice, or that partial fondness which leads to injustice, at once destroys the affections and violates the moral sense. Families trained under such influences, still exhibit revolting scenes of human depravity—of bitterness, strife, alienation and revenge. Who can tell how much of the estrangement of Esau, and this early introduction of the worship of strange gods among his descendants, may have been induced by the conscious alienation of his mother, and the unjust preference of the interests of his brother? Had Rebekah, with a mother's love, striven to win her eldest son back to his father's tent and the altar of his God—had she still respected his rights and preserved his regard by undeviating truth and faithfulness, she would have retained a strong hold upon him, and her influence might have been long felt by her descendants, in restraining them from the sins of those around them.
We cannot yet part with the two principal actors in these sad scenes of treachery and deceit. We think of Rebekah, the companion of her blind husband—deprived of the son who had shared and alleviated her cares, and conscious of having awakened that bitter hate which would seek the blood of a brother—still following in her thoughts the footsteps of the wandering Jacob, feeling that by her own intrigues she had banished him from his home and her presence.
And we may follow Jacob, as he stole from the tents of Isaac, a wanderer like the first fugitive, with his brother's curse upon him. Until this hour all Jacob's views and feelings seem earthly and grovelling. Until now, there has been no indication of that trust and piety which afterwards marked his life. He had seemed worldly, cunning, ready to snatch any personal advantage. From this period he seems to awaken to a higher—a spiritual life. He seems to have comprehended the deeper meaning of promise and prophecy. We cannot tell what remorseful and despairing thoughts filled his soul as he left his home—how strange and inexplicable may have seemed all the ways of God toward him. Yet he must have felt that, in punishment of his deceit and falsehood, he was thus sent forth with but his scrip and staff, while he left Esau to inherit the possessions of his father.
He had wandered until he was faint and weary, and then he had lain himself down on the earth, with stones for his pillow and the heavens for the curtains of his tent. In the silence of the night his soul was opened to spiritual revealings—to those influences from heaven which marked the change in his future life. He saw the angels of God ascending and descending upon him. Often before this may they have visited him—constantly may they have hovered over him—but now he was made conscious of the presence, watch and interposition of the heavenly intelligences of the higher presence of the God of Abraham. From this hour we trace a different influence pervading the heart and life of Jacob. He was awakened to higher motives—and from this hour he entered into covenant with God, and took Him to be his God.
And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not;" and he was afraid, and said, "How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God—and this is the gate of heaven." And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillow, and set it for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. "And he called the name of that place Bethel." And Jacob vowed a vow, saying "If God will be with me, and will keep me in the way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house, and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee."
The future life of Jacob was not free from the infirmity of human purpose—the imperfection of human nature. Yet from this time he walked with God, and all his deportment was marked by deep and humble piety. We doubt not that at this period he passed through that transforming change by which, in every age, and under every dispensation, the human soul has been enabled to enter into the mysteries of the spiritual life and enjoy communion with the Author of its existence, through that Spirit which breathed the first breath of life by which man became a living soul.
THE RIVAL SISTERS—LEAH AND RACHEL.
There are two characters, which by some associations of memory, or caprice of fancy, are ever blended in our recollections—the one of ancient, the other of modern days—the one of sacred, the other of profane history. Catharine of Arragon, the unloved consort of the King of England, and Leah, the daughter of the Syrian shepherd, the hated wife of the Hebrew patriarch. There may seem to be as little assimilation of character and destiny, as there is of condition, between the daughter and the wife of a Syrian shepherd, and the daughter of one of the proudest monarchs of Spain and the wife of the haughtiest king of England; but they were both women, and both wives of those who loved them not; and this fact, whatever the condition of woman, stamps her lot as one of wretchedness. The wife neglected and despised is a woman sorrowful, whether she be the inmate of a tent or the dweller in a palace—whether she tend the flock or grace the throne.
Catharine of Arragon, the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, seems a truth-loving, devout woman, well prepared to welcome the great principles advanced by the Reformers, had she not been placed in circumstances most adverse to their influence. Had Henry embraced the doctrines and the principles of the Reformation from a conviction of their truth and importance—had he sought to regulate his own life by the pure precepts of the Bible, and thus striven to disseminate a pure faith among his people—had the conscientious Catharine been the patroness and the friend of the Reformers, instead of the trifling, if not guilty, Anne Boleyn—the English church and the state of religion in the English nation would doubtless have presented a different history for the past, and a different aspect for the future.
But these are vain speculations. Catharine lived and died in the Papal faith. From the circumstances in which she was placed, she clung to it as to her womanly honour, her queenly dignity—as she would preserve her name from blight, her child from shame. And when she saw herself supplanted, when she was disgraced, divorced, her child declared illegitimate, and she knew her death was desired by one to whom she had been a devoted, faithful wife, what words could be more touching than those the dramatist gives as her last message to the king! "Tell him, his long sorrow has passed away." Oh, none but a wife dying thus, with the bitter consciousness that her life was undesired and that her death would be unregretted, can feel their full import.
The bells which had tolled for Catharine of Arragon had hardly ceased to vibrate when the roar of the cannon announced the execution of Anne. The one died in January, the other was beheaded in May; and she who, by exciting and encouraging the unholy love of the king, had unchained his fierce passions and taught him to break through all restraints, was herself, full early, their victim.
Shall we pass from the palaces of England to the tents of Mesopotamia—from the last days of chivalry to those of the ancient patriarchs and shepherds of the earliest of recorded ages?
When the wandering Jacob reached the abode of his mother's kindred, the land of Haran, he met, at the same fountain at which Rebekah had watered the flocks of the messenger of Abraham, the daughter of her brother Laban. He had seated himself by the well, and when the maiden came, he aided her to water her flocks; and he was thus introduced to his kinsmen by Rachel; and he told them that he was the son of Rebekah, of whom, perhaps, they had long lost the recollection; and with all the hospitality of the East—that hospitality which ever prevails among a simple and pastoral people—he was welcomed by the kindred of the mother.
The brother of Rebekah had two daughters. Leah, the elder, was tender-eyed, but Rachel was beautiful; and both sisters loved their cousin, while the heart of Jacob clung to the younger, the fair damsel who first welcomed him; so that he overlooked the claims of the elder,—the plain, if not disfigured, Leah. He brought no offerings with him to conciliate the favour of the father, and, according to the custom of the East, to facilitate his marriage. But he offered his personal service as an equivalent. And the son of Isaac served seven years for the daughter of Laban. But this long period was passed; and dwelling, as Jacob did, in the presence of Rachel, a member of the household of her father, they seemed but as a few days, for the love he bore her.
But the time had now arrived when the marriage should be celebrated, and Jacob claimed his bride. But he who had wronged his brother, who had by disguise deceived his father, was now imposed upon by guile and treachery; and all the hopes and expectations of these long years were defeated. The customs of Eastern marriages favoured the deceit, and Jacob found that he was wedded to Leah, and not to the object of his affection. The deceit was most unjustifiable. The disappointment and the resentment must have been proportionally great; and miserable was the excuse of Laban, and wretched the device which was offered as an atonement. Yet Jacob must have bowed before the retributions of an avenging God, and the remembrance of his own treachery may have stayed his anger.
Thus commenced the family of Jacob, with all the elements of dissension, strife and bitterness incorporated into its very earliest existence. The daughters of Laban both became the wives of Jacob, and they were rivals as women, as sisters, as wives and as mothers—forced to dwell together, yet ever in sullen hatred or bitter strife. When the ties of natural affection are severed, the heart never ceases to bleed; and there is no hatred so deep, so implacable as that which springs up where hearts once knit are thus alienated and forced asunder: and the sorrows and evils which sprang up in the family of Jacob may have led to that command so explicitly given by Moses—"Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister to vex her, in her lifetime."
The heart of Jacob never departed from Rachel. She was the chosen bride. He loved her with a deep and true affection, while the forced claims of Leah awoke only the remembrance of the deceit. In the emphatic language of the Bible, "he loved Rachel, but he hated Leah," and it was in accordance with the constant exhibitions of human nature that it should be thus. He had never sought her love. No love, no devotedness, could efface the remembrance of her connivance at that deep-laid plot which had imposed her upon him as a wife. Yet the lot of Leah was peculiarly a lot of reproach and trial—and as we behold her wretchedness, we are led, not to extenuate her fault, nor to palliate her sin, but to forgive and pity her sorrows.
In early youth the sympathies are all awakened for the beautiful and the beloved Rachel, the only chosen, the betrothed bride. As we advance in years, in deeper acquaintance with human hearts, in truer fellowship in human suffering, we learn to feel for the plain and hated Leah. There is something deeply touching in the quiet sorrow which marks her lot; in her deep consciousness of her husband's alienation and her sister's hate. We feel how difficult it might have seemed to resist the authority of the father, when it was aided by the pleadings of her own affection and the customs of her people. We glance into the tents of Jacob, and contrast Leah with the beautiful, the loved, the indulged, the self-willed Rachel. There we see her, plain and unattractive in person, broken in spirit, bowed down by the consciousness of her own sin and her husband's hate—her sister's bitter contempt—striving, though scarce hoping, to win the love of her husband; and welcoming the anguish of a mother, with the fond assurance, "Now will my husband love me, for I have borne him a son."
We follow the sisters, as, still side by side, but with alienated hearts and estranged affections, they depart from the tents of their father to follow the footsteps of their husband,—Rachel and her offspring are the first objects of the care, as of the affection, of the patriarch. Yet we find Rachel, the loved and indulged wife, more murmuring, more repining, more fault-finding than Leah. By sorrow and trial, Leah may have learned submission; and the dearest earthly hopes disappointed—all her affections as a wife crushed and despised—in her hour of grief, and in the desolation of a widowhood of hate, she may have sought and found that love which never faileth, which giveth liberally and upbraideth not.
And He whose ear is ever open to the cry of his creatures, who forgives even while he punishes their iniquities, pitied Leah, and, without upbraiding her for that deceit by which she became a wife, gave her the joys of a mother; and in all the names bestowed upon her children, Leah at once recognises the mercy of God, while she still remembers that she is hated of her husband—attesting at once her conscious sorrow and her trusting faith.
Rachel was childless—and when she saw Leah rejoicing as a mother, it awoke all the bitterness of envy. With the unreasonable pettishness of a wife ever indulged, she reproached her husband. For once, the anger of Jacob was kindled against the idolized Rachel. "Am I in God's stead?" said he. The consciousness of being the loved and the cherished one—the overflowing tenderness and the ready indulgence which Rachel received, made her only more exacting and imperious; and while Leah seemed softened by trials and sorrows, her sister grew more unreasonable by indulgence, and was at once haughty and insolent. So corrupt is human nature, that the gratification of our desires too often merely excites the pride and haughtiness of the human heart, and the prosperous claim the blessings of Heaven as a matter of right; while it is mercifully ordained that the very sorrow which ever follows transgression, the evils which await all departures from duty and right, should, by their very tendency, awaken repentance and lead to a penitent and humble spirit.
When the daughters of Laban left the house of their father, either from a latent superstition, or from a family cupidity, Rachel stole the household gods of Laban and secreted them; and with an art worthy of the daughter of Laban, she prevented her father from reclaiming them; thus paving the way for the introduction of idolatry into the household of Jacob. He had already introduced polygamy by his marriage with her, and, to secure her, and thereby gratify her rivalry of her sister, he had multiplied his wives, and brought upon himself still heavier sorrows and trials. It was the beauty of Rachel which first captivated the eye, and then enthralled the heart of Jacob; and the wisest of men, thus ensnared, are still led into sin and folly. All the influences of Rachel upon his heart and life seem to have been unhappy; and the narrative shows that the strongest passion, gratified in defiance of prudence and previously imposed obligation, can only lead to disappointment and vexation. The two sisters both proved the love of the wife, in leaving all at the command of the husband; and the God in whom Jacob still trusted, guarded him against all the designs of Laban, averted the wrath of his brother, and guided him to the land of Isaac. He had passed Jordan with his staff and his scrip—he went out an outcast, and a fugitive; he returned with the train of a chief, the retinue of an Eastern prince; and his heart swelled with thanksgiving as he recounted the mercy and remembered the faithfulness of Jehovah. His father was still living—the nurse of Rebekah, who so long since had left the family of Bethuel, came to close her eyes in the tents of the grand-daughter of her former master; but the mother who had led her son into sin, who had taught him to practise that deceit which had recoiled upon himself, is not mentioned. She, doubtless, was laid by the side of Abraham and of Sarah, in the cave of Machpelah. She had anticipated a short absence, a transient separation from her son. She purposed to send for him to return to his father, that he might yet be heir of the estate; but when Jacob did return in wealth and honour—yet bearing that bitter burden of care and sorrow, from which no honour, no wealth are exempt,—she who would have assuredly exulted in the one, and sympathized with the other, was not in the tent of Isaac. She came not forth to welcome her son, to embrace her relatives and daughters or caress their children. Her place in the tent and at the board was vacant—her voice was hushed—her heart cold. The places that had known her, knew her no more. And thus it often is. Before man attains wealth or honour, those who had most rejoiced to witness it have passed away; while still, fair as is the outward lot, there are internal sorrows, imbittering every pleasant draught, and casting a shadow over all the brightness of human existence. Thus it is that the most prosperous are often followed by a cloud, reflecting glory and radiance upon such as are without, but covering with gloom and darkness those who fall within its shadow.
And soon followed the bitterest trial of Leah's life,—the shame, sorrow, and widowhood of her only daughter; avenged by those who neglected to guard her—while the husband, though indifferent to the sorrow and love of the wife, must have felt the anguish of the father.
And the rivalry and strife of the sisters was over. "Give me children or else I die," was the cry of the wife whose wishes had been laws—and the prayer prompted by hate and envy was answered. Yet Rachel died. And in that hour of mortal agony, of bitter suffering, Leah probably stood by her sister. With affections estranged, love turned into bitterness, with hearts alienated, but fates inseparably united, they had passed their days. Their tents had been pitched side by side,—the voices of their children had been mingled together as they fell upon their mothers' ears,—they had been called to worship at the same altar,—they had been members of the same household.
Forced thus to dwell together, constantly to meet, to be familiar with the same objects, to have the same interests, they were alienated, but not separated; and if their feelings were crushed, they were not all uprooted. As Leah saw her younger, her beautiful sister in the hour of extremity, in the agonies of a mother's sufferings, the sympathies of a woman must have risen with the love of a sister, and bitter tears of repentant sorrow must she have shed upon the pallid brow and quivering lips, as the hopes and the memories of youth and childhood gathered around, to reproach her for that deceit by which she had sown their path through mutual life with thorns, and made their joys to be but ashes. There are no tears so bitter as those which are shed by affection, too late revived, over those whom we have loved and yet injured,—over those from whom we have suffered ourselves to be estranged.
Rachel was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. She was not laid in the sepulchre of Abraham. The children were left to the fostering care of her hated sister. Her sons passed through trials from which she could not guard them, and they came to honours while she knew it not. At this distance, her life seems to us a dream—a few years of pleasant childhood, a short vision of youthful love,—then comes the strife of life, its stern discipline, its bitter trials, its disappointed hopes, and its termination in the grave.
As we dwell upon the characters so truthfully delineated in the word of God, and follow the record of human pride, passion and infirmity, we are taught at once to magnify and adore the patience, the forbearance and the mercy of Jehovah. And let us remember that it is because these characters are reflected in the pure mirror of truth that the dark shades so plainly appear. In every age the heart of man is the same; but the temptations which especially evince this depravity may be peculiar to some particular age or condition.
We know not how long Leah survived her sister. Her advancing years were not exempt from affliction, and age brings its own trials; yet prosperity rested upon Jacob—and in the decline of life she may have known happiness desired, but not realized, in youth.
After the death of his beloved Rachel, the heart of Jacob may have turned to Leah, and a peaceful friendship have succeeded the storm and the conflicts of youthful passion. Sorrow may have knit hearts softened by the mutual consciousness of error and by the tears of repentance, and strengthened by the hopes of pardon, and drawn to each other by the strong ties of parental love for their mutual offspring. When the patriarch was called into Egypt, Leah went not with him. He had laid her in the gathering-place of his sons, in the tent of his fathers. From the touching expression of the dying patriarch—himself far from the land of his fathers' sepulchres—"And there I buried Leah," we feel that, in age and bereavement, the heart of Jacob turned to Leah. The repudiated wife of his youth became the solace of his age, and her memory awoke the last tender recollections in the dying patriarch. As we have read the book of God, we have been taught that good, inordinately coveted, or obtained by injustice and deceit, ever brings a curse. The principal actors in the events recorded in these chapters of Genesis, may have secured the object which they sought, yet the attainment did not avert or mitigate the punishment of the treachery by which it was secured.
Rebekah obtained the birth-right and the coveted blessing for her favourite child, and by that act separated him from herself and doomed him to a banishment from his father's house, and from that hour she saw his face no more. Laban secured by his deceit the marriage of his unattractive daughter and the establishment of the beautiful Rachel, but he thus alienated the children he still seems to have loved, and that wealth which he so coveted.
Leah, by her connivance at her father's deceit, married the man she loved, but it was to lead a life of bitter, of heart-consuming sorrow. Jacob, departing from the institution of marriage that he might yet possess Rachel, entailed upon himself a career of strife, bitterness and disappointment; and introduced into his family an example that became a fruitful source of individual depravity and national corruption; while he first witnessed the evil effects of his complicated domestic relations in the conduct of his eldest son, and felt at once his shame as a husband and his reproach as a father. And are not these things written for our edification? Are we not, in every page of God's word, taught explicitly that for man there is neither safety nor happiness save in the path of duty and of literal obedience? That each departure from the rule of right, whatever be the motive, and crowned as it may seem to be with success, draws a long succession of sin and sorrow in its train? Many have studied the word of God to justify sin, or palliate guilt, by the examples of the former dispensation. Let it be carefully studied, and it will show that the transgression which secured a positive object, still brought its punishment,—if delayed, never remitted—although successful, never justified. The word of God never justifies crimes, though in infinite wisdom He over-rules them to promote the designs of his eternal providence.
Modern days and Christian institutions allow no examples of the exact type of the strife and rivalry exhibited in the household of the patriarch of Israel. Yet, while human nature remains as it is, there will ever be the jealousies, the strifes, the bitterness arising from misplaced affection, or alienated hearts, or jarring interests. There is still to be found the coquetry which would win love from a sister or a friend, and the treachery that would supplant the rival—as there are still fathers who, for motives of interest, would sacrifice their daughters, regardless of their hearts or their happiness. Youthful beauty still attracts the eye and wins the heart, and the best and wisest of men are too often enthralled by mere personal attraction.