The Faith of Rebekah (Genesis 24:1-67)

So we arrive now, finally, where we thought we were going to arrive back in Chapter 22: it is time for Isaac to get married, like his brother Ishmael did back in Chapter 21.

And you may have noticed, during the scripture reading, that this felt like a very, very long chapter. And there is a reason for that: it felt like a very long chapter because it is a very long chapter!

This is the longest chapter in Genesis, by far! Which is funny, right? Because it’s the story of a servant who goes looking for a bride for his master. It’s a nice story, it’s a happy story, but it’s not generally the kind of thing we think the bible is supposed to be about. The bible is supposed to be about God and his relationship with mankind, it’s supposed to be about sin and sacrifice and forgiveness and holiness and all that. It’s supposed to be about covenants —

— though, when we pause to think about it, marriage is a kind of covenant.

But, then again, Ishmael got married in one verse. Why does it take 67 verses for Isaac to get married?

Well, let’s take a look at the story in a little more detail and find out why Moses thought this was such an important episode to include…

It opens with Abraham, who is feeling his age, and thinking that it is time for him to draw up his Last Will and Testament.

He has just buried his wife in a tomb in the mountains, signalling his total break from his ancestral lands and his ancestral gods. This is now Abraham’s new ancestral land, under the blessing and protection of Abraham’s new ancestral God. And Abraham is thinking that, pretty soon, he is going to be buried alongside his wife.

But Abraham still has one problem to solve before he goes: who is his son Isaac going to marry?

He just spent a lot of money to avoid burying his wife in a local cemetary, because he does not want to join his household to any of the local nations in this life or the next.

But all that money and effort will be wasted if he allows his son to marry a local girl! — because, inevitably, when men and women marry, their households are joined together.

But Abraham is remembering a report he received a while back about how his brother Nahor has at least eight sons — and by this point, who knows how many grandsons. And Abraham is hoping that, somewhere among those children and grandchildren, some daughters have been born into the family.

So Abraham calls in his most trusted servant, the one in charge of all that he had. And he says, “Put your hand under my thigh. [3] I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, [4] but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

Abraham knows that his relatives still worship the ancestral gods. But he is hoping they will still be willing to let one of their daughters leave their household and their gods and let her be joined to Abraham’s household and Abraham’s God.

The servant, however, is skeptical: “What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?”

The servant is thinking that he is not very likely to find a woman willing to leave the protection of her family and her gods just to marry some stranger in a faraway place.

So basically he is asking what is more important: for Isaac to find a wife, or for Isaac to stay in the land?

Abraham’s answer is clear: “Whatever you do, make sure that you do not take my son back there! We are looking for a woman who will join our household and our God. We are not wanting Isaac to go join her household and her gods!”

He does go on to say he is confident that God will lead his servant to the right woman. But if — for whatever reason — the servant cannot find a woman who is willing to leave her home…then, Abraham says, “Don’t worry about it. Better for Isaac to stay in God’s presence and not get married, than for him to leave God’s presence in order to get married.”

[9] So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore an oath to him concerning this matter.

And off he goes, taking with him ten of his master’s camels loaded with all kinds of good things. And a few weeks later he arrives in the town of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. [11] He had the camels kneel down near the well outside the town; it was toward evening, the time the women go out to draw water.

So then the servant prays, and asks God for guidance.

Because: he is in a hurry. When he left, Abraham was — for all intents and purposes — on his death-bed. The servant would like to finish his job and get back before his master dies. He does not want to spend days and days asking around for the right house, and then interviewing all the young women there until he finds the right one.

Instead, he asks God to help him short-cut the process.

All the eligible young women of the town are coming out to draw water for their households right now! Wouldn’t it be great if God just guided him directly to the right woman? “May it be,” he says, “that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen.”

And it happens! Just as he finishes praying, Rebekah shows up. She is beautiful, and the right age for marriage: somewhere between 13 and 16 years old. So the servant asks her for a drink — and then she volunteers to draw water for his camels too.

Which this is no small thing: one thirsty camel can drink 100 litres, and the servant has ten camels, so that is — potentially — 1000 litres of water Rebekah needs to draw. And this well is not just a narrow hole in the ground with a bucket and a rope, it is a large cistern with steps running down the side — that is why it says here in verse 16 that Rebekah went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again.

So Rebekah spends the next hour or so running down into the well and running back up again to fill the trough for the camels. And [21] without saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.

[22] When the camels had finished drinking, the man took out a gold nose ring weighing a beka and two gold bracelets weighing ten shekels.

— and this is some seriously expensive jewellery, several years’ worth of an average man’s salary —

and once the servant has Rebekah’s undivided attention, he asks, “Whose daughter are you? Please tell me, is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?”

[24] She answered him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son that Milkah bore to Nahor.” [25] And she added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.”

[26] Then the man bowed down and worshiped the Lord, thanking God for leading him directly to the right young woman.

Meanwhile, [28] the young woman ran — wouldn’t you? — and told her mother’s household about these things.

[29] Now Rebekah had a brother named Laban, and he hurried out to the man at the spring.

And…why did he hurry?

Well, Moses tells us: Laban hurries because he had seen the nose ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms. And Laban is thinking that showing hospitality to this rich man might come with some unexpected benefits!

[31] “Come, you who are blessed by the Lord,” he said. “Why are you standing out here? I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.”

So the servant follows Laban home and unpacks and everything — but then, when food was set before him, he said, “I will not eat until I have told you what I have to say.”

Then tell us,” Laban said.

And then the servant re-tells the entire story we have just read so far!

Which for Laban and everyone else must have been fascinating — but for us comes across as overkill.

And the question we ask is why? We have already noticed that Moses is not a writer who likes to waste paper or ink…so why does he suddenly waste so much of it here?

Well, for one thing: he wants to get our attention. The servant’s purpose in telling this story is to convince the family that Abraham’s God has arranged this marriage between Isaac and Rebekah, and they had better go along with it. But Moses’ purpose in re-telling this story to us is to highlight the fact that God himself has arranged this marriage between Isaac and Rebekah. When Moses repeats something twice he is telling us, “Hey! This is important!”

And, for another thing: Moses wants us to get to know Laban a bit more, because he is going to play an important role over the next ten chapters. When Moses first introduced Laban, he hinted to us that Laban is motivated by greed: now he reinforces that point.

And we know this because, if we pay attention to how the servant retells the story, we notice that the servant emphasizes the fact that Abraham is really, really rich, and that Isaac is the only son in the family. Why does he do this? Because the servant does not know if Laban is the kind of guy who might fear Abraham’s God — but he is pretty sure Laban is the kind of guy who would give away his sister in exchange for a lot of money.

So the servant’s purpose in telling this story in this way is to give Laban every reason to say yes. Moses’ purpose in re-telling this story in this way is to give us further insight into what kind of man Laban is — which will be important a few chapters from now, when Laban re-enters the story.

Well, the servant’s story works: [50] Laban and Bethuel answered, “This is from the Lord; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. [51] Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed.”

How very, very pious of them! If the Lord wants Rebekah to go away and marry a crazy rich Asian, who are they to stand in the way?

— and, of course, we also notice that they are not going to let Rebekah’s opinion stand in the way either: they don’t even bother to ask her what she thinks of all this.

Nonetheless, [52] when Abraham’s servant heard what they said, he bowed down to the ground before the Lord.

[53] Then the servant brought out gold and silver jewelry and articles of clothing and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave costly gifts to her brother and to her mother.

He is paying the bride-price for Rebekah.

[54] Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank and spent the night there.

Whew! Phase 1 accomplished!

Except that, in the morning, when the servant wants to leave, suddenly everyone is having second thoughts. They say, “Come on! What’s the rush! Let the young woman remain with us ten days or so; then you may go.”

Maybe they are realizing they are really going to miss Rebekah, and they want to spend some extra time with her.

Or, maybe they are remembering something the servant said the night before: that if Rebekah refuses to go back with him, then the servant is released from his vow. He will be allowed to return to Abraham with his honour intact — but without the bride-price?

Now, Abraham might be mad about that — but, perhaps, if they can delay the servant’s return for long enough, then when he arrives home Abraham will already be dead and buried, and Isaac will decide it is too much of a hassle to raise an army and come demand the bride-price back etc. etc…?

But the servant says to them, “Do not detain me, now that the Lord has granted success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master.”

And then, suddenly, the family realizes, “Hey, you know what? We forgot to ask Rebekah what she thinks of all this! Why don’t we ask her?!”

[58] So they called Rebekah and asked her, “Will you go with this man?”

And Rebekah looks at her family. She looks at Abraham’s servant. Perhaps she looks at all the gold and silver and clothing the servant has already given her. And she says, “I will go.”

Oh well. It was worth a try.

[59] So they sent their sister Rebekah on her way, along with her nurse and Abraham’s servant and his men. [60] And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “Our sister, may you increase to thousands upon thousands; may your offspring possess the cities of their enemies.”

[61] Then Rebekah and her attendants got ready and mounted the camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebekah and left.

Meanwhile, sometime during the last weeks while the servant was gone, Isaac left his home in Beersheba, where he grew up, and travelled down south to Beer Lahai Roi, which means “The Well of the God Who Sees Me.”

Now, why would Isaac travel to this distant well in the southern wilderness, far away from everything?

Well, if we recall, this is the well where God appeared on earth in human form for the very first time in history. This is the well where the angel of the Lord met Hagar at the lowest point in her life, and told her, “I have heard of your misery.”

And if we recall, Isaac has recently buried his mother, and his father is definitely in his last days on earth. Isaac may be a filthy rich Asian — but what good is all that wealth without a family, without a wife, without children, without a future?

It actually makes sense that Isaac would travel to the place — closest to his home — where the angel of the Lord once appeared: he is at the lowest point in his life, and he is looking for answers. He is hoping that God will meet him at “The Well of the God Who Sees Me,” and explain to him what he is supposed to do next.

But it seems that God did not see him there. So now Isaac has returned home to Beersheba without the answers he so desperately needs. And [63] he went out to the field one evening to meditate

— to wonder at the silence of God? To wonder why God has not heard him in his misery? —

and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching.

Isaac looks up. Just like Hagar looked up and saw the well that saved her son’s life; just like Abraham looked up and saw the ram that saved his son’s life: so now, Isaac looks up and sees his salvation finally approaching.

[64] Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel [65] and asked the servant, “Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?”

“He is my master,” the servant answered.

So she took her veil and covered herself.

In Rebekah’s culture, a woman did not cover her face — except on her wedding day.

[66] Then the servant told Isaac all he had done.

And [67] Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

And some scholars think that what Moses is telling us here is that Abraham is, in fact, dead: that he died waiting for his servant to return with Isaac’s bride.

And they say this for two reasons: first, when Rebekah asks who Isaac is, the servant says, “He is my master.” Which would be an unusual thing to say if Abraham was still alive.

Second, the servant tells Isaac all he had done, he makes his official report to Isaac. Which, again, would be an unusual thing to do if Abraham was still alive.

But we don’t know for certain. And we will talk a little more about this next week.

In any case, it is clear that — one way or another — Abraham has retired from leadership, and Isaac is now the head of the household.

Moses is telling us that Isaac is the new Abraham.

And he is telling us that Rebekah is the new Sarah.

He is getting us ready for the next cycle.

And that is a beautiful story. But what does it mean? Moses just poured more paper, more ink, more time, and more detail into this single episode than he did into any of the other covenant episodes, so clearly Moses thought this was important!

Why? What does he want God’s people to learn from this?

Well, in a single sentence, this is it: Abraham’s God will spare no expense to find a bride for Abraham’s son.

And Moses meant this as an encouragement for the ancient people of Israel. He wanted them to know that, no matter how dark things get, no matter how hopeless, Abraham’s God will always preserve Abraham’s household. Even if Abraham’s household gets reduced to just one man, the future of God’s people is secure: a bride will be provided, even if she has to come in from outside.

But there is another layer of significance to this story, because that sentence can also be reversed: this is not just a promise that God will provide a bride for his chosen son, it is also a promise that God will send a husband to rescue his chosen daughter.

Moses only hints at it here, but over the next few chapters it is going to become more and more clear that Rebekah grew up in — what we would call today — a deeply dysfunctional family. An unhappy family, dominated by greedy men who used their sisters and daughters to make more money. So it is no wonder that when Abraham’s servant showed up, Rebekah saw him as a saviour, left her family, and followed him home.

And so, in this way also, Moses meant this as an encouragement for the people of Israel of his time. They too had grown up in a deeply dysfunctional environment. They too had been rescued by a messiah sent from God — Moses himself — who led them to Mount Sinai in Arabia, where God actually met them and married them. And so Moses wanted his people to know that, no matter how dark things might get in the future, no matter how hopeless, God will always send them a messiah to save them from despair and give them a future.

This was their hope when they were slaves in Egypt. And this was their hope, many centuries later, when they were exiles in Babylon.

And we know this was their hope because that is what the Old Testament prophets said. Even as the Babylonians came to conquer Jerusalem, the prophets reminded the people of Israel that, once, long ago, God had called their ancestors out of the east, out of that dysfunctional land of Babylon. He had married them, binding himself to them through a covenant. He had given them a house, a home, a land of their own, and more children than they could count.

But as we know, the honeymoon did not last. This is how Jeremiah described it — and we actually read this during worship today, it is on Page 4 of our worship guide, in our section called Worship through Confession: “This is what the Lord says: I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown…Now: does a young woman forget her jewellery, a bride her wedding ornaments? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number.”

And so, because the people basically kept looking away from God their husband and kept going back to Egypt and back to Babylon for their affirmation, God finally let them have what they wanted: he sent them back home to their ancestral lands in the east, back to Babylon.

But — the prophets were careful to point out — that was not the end of the story. For instance, this is what the prophet Isaiah said — and again, we read this passage in worship today, it is there on Page 4, in the section entitled Promise of Forgiveness: “‘Your Maker is your husband — the Lord Almighty is his name! He will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit, a wife who married young only to be rejected,’ says your God.” Again and again, the prophets reminded the people of God’s promise that, no matter how dark things got, he would always send a messiah to rescue them.

And God kept that promise. Very ironically he sent them a pagan king, a Persian King, who sent the exiles back to Jerusalem, where they rebuilt the city and the temple — you can read that history in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

And yet, the people of Israel were still not free. The Persians still ruled them. And after the Persians came the Greeks. And after the Greeks came the Romans. They were home, they were in their own homeland, but their home had become deeply dysfunctional. And some of the people — many of the people! — fell into despair, and gave up hope, and gave in to the nations that ruled them. Generation by generation, Abraham’s nation was reduced and reduced until it looked like soon there would be nothing left.

But a faithful few remembered Moses’ promise that the Lord would send a saviour to rescue them.

They remembered the words of Isaiah, near the end of his great book of prophecy — and this passage is printed on Page 1 of our worship guide, it was our Call to Worship. Speaking with the voice of the Messiah to come, Isaiah says this: “I delight greatly in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.”

The Messiah is speaking here, and he is talking about how he is getting ready for his wedding day.

And then he goes on to tell us who his bride is: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quietas a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”

This was their hope. This is what Zechariah and Elizabeth were waiting for at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. This is what Mary and Joseph were waiting for as they travelled to Bethlehem, this is what the shepherds were waiting for when the angel came and announced the birth of Jesus. This is what the old man Simeon was waiting for when Luke tells us that he was waiting for the consolation of Israel. And this is what Anna the prophetess was waiting for when Luke tells us that she was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four: she was waiting for God himself to come and rescue his bride from captivity.

All these people were living by faith in these Old Testament promises. They knew from Moses and from the prophets that God would spare no expense to provide a bride for his Son — even if that meant actually sending his Son to go and pay the bride-price himself, and lead her out of the darkness and dysfunction of the Roman empire to a new land, a new family.

And that is exactly what Jesus did.

So the reason this chapter is the longest chapter in Genesis is because this is the template for the rest of redemptive history. This story about a father sending his trusted servant into a far country to purchase the freedom of a bride for his son — this is the Christmas Story of the Old Testament. This is the story of the rest of the bible.

This is what Moses wanted his people to understand.

And that was Good News for the people of Israel.

Is it also meant to be Good News for us?

Well: yes.

Because when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem amost 2000 years ago, Abraham’s household was again reduced to just one man: Jesus himself. He came to Jerusalem as the last true Son of Abraham, the only true Isaac of history. He came to Jerusalem to claim a bride for himself. He offered to save the city and the nation, if they would agree to call him Husband and Lord.

But the leadership of Jerusalem was not willing to give up their lordship, their power. They rejected God’s servant, just as Laban tried to reject Abraham’s servant. And the ordinary people of Jerusalem, instead of rebelling against their leaders as Rebekah rebelled against her brother — the people of Jerusalem joined their leaders in rejecting their Messiah. They tried to rob him of the bride-price and send him away with nothing: they tried to rob him of his life.

And they succeeded! — for a while. Unfortunately for them, on the third day Jesus rose again from the dead. And because Jerusalem had rejected him, Jesus honored that rejection. He gathered up the few who had accepted his offer, he led them out of Jerusalem, and he sent them to seek a bride for him from outside the land of Canaan, from outside the nation of Israel.

The Christian Church is that bride. We are that bride: a people drawn together out of every dysfunctional nation on earth. When we were baptized into Jesus, we became the bride of Christ.

Now: how exactly is this Good News for us? How does being the bride of Christ change our lives?

This is how: being the bride of Christ means that we have been saved from our past, from our present, and from our future.

This means that, no matter what kind of dysfunctional family background we came from before, no matter what kind of dyfunctional nation or race or religion we came from before, we are free from all that now. Who we are is no longer defined by where we came from or who we used to belong to or what sins used to dominate our lives.

— but, of course, if you are anything like me, you often do not feel very free. Many of the scars of our past follow us into our new life. This is normal. In fact, over the next few chapters we are going to see that Rebekah’s dysfunctional family background deeply affects her relationship with her husband and her sons, damaging the family that she loves. We are just like her! — and that is often discouraging.

So this is how being the bride of Christ is Good News for us: even though we carry our sins with us, even though we struggle all our lives to cast off our dysfunctional habits, even though we often end up hurting the next generation in the same way we were hurt — even so we are not defined by these failures.

Our past does carry into our present and affect our future — but we are the Bride of Christ. Which means that, when Jesus looks at us, he does not look at us with disgust and scorn, instead he rejoices over us as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. To him, we are beautiful! not because we are perfect now, but because he sees us as we are going to be, as he is going to make us.

As Isaiah put it: our Maker is our husband — the Lord Almighty is his name. Jesus is not bound by time as we are. Which means that he sees our past, our present, and our future all at once, just as we can see a tree from its roots all the way to its fruit. Jesus is already looking at the fruit we are going to produce for him; he is already rejoicing over the children we have not yet given birth to.

And, friends…this truth, this reality, has so many implications that it is actually difficult for us to think about without causing brain damage. And there is one particular implication that is — perhaps — the most difficult for us to accept. And that is this:

Because our Lord and God and bridegroom sees us from past to future, from root to fruit, this means that even our scars, even our dysfunctions, even the damage we do to our own families is all a part of his plan to make us who we are destined to be. We look at the scars in our lives and all we can see is the ugliness; but our Saviour sees the beauty. We look back over the history of the Church and all we can see are wrenched and twisted branches; but our Saviour sees the fruit lifted toward the sun of his Father’s glory, the leaves offered up for the healing of the nations.

It is really hard for us to accept that all this grief, all this sin — all this evil — can be part of his plan for us. But…it is. And that is what it means for us, as the bride of Christ, to be saved from our past, our present, and our future. The consequences of our actions are not deleted, they are redeemed.

And as we leave the life of Abraham and move on into the life of Isaac, we are going to discover that this becomes one of Moses’ main themes. We are going to watch as Isaac and Rebekah — but especially Rebekah — act out their family dysfunctions and screw up their kids. And we will be tempted to wonder if, maybe, it was a mistake for Isaac to marry this particular woman.

When that temptation happens, we are going to look back at this chapter and remember that God orchestrated every moment, and that Moses repeated all those moments twice — in all their glorious detail! — just to make sure we would not forget that God is the one who chose Rebekah to be Isaac’s bride, along with all her baggage…just has he has chosen us to be Christ’s bride.

Our God does not make mistakes, because he knows the beginning from the end.

So: that is life-changing Good News!

What should we do because of this?

Well, if you are here today and you have not yet accepted Jesus as bridegroom and Lord, then do so.

As things stand for you now, you are in slavery to the traditions and cultures that formed you, and even if you manage to cast off one set of dysfunctions you are just going to end up trading those in for another set. And in the end, everything you have worked so hard to accomplish will be deleted from the system anyway.

But in Christ nothing is wasted — not even our failures. So you really do stand to gain so much by joining yourself to Christ through baptism. So do that.

Now, if you are here today and you are already baptized with Christ, then this is what we should do as we go forward: we should take Rebekah as our example. She was a young woman of remarkable courage, a woman who knew her own mind, a woman who was willing to risk everything in order to answer God’s call.

— really, in many ways Rebekah was like a second Abraham: just like Abraham, she was called to leave her father’s household, her father’s land, her father’s people, and go to a land the Lord would show her. And she did!

We are on the same journey. Like Rebekah, we are the bride brought in from outside, made part of a covenant household that we did not deserve. As it did for Rebekah, this takes courage. It takes courage to follow Jesus, to leave one family and be joined to another.

It takes courage because we know in our heart of hearts that most likely our Lord is going to ask us to give up aspects of our previous life that are still precious to us. We all come from a variety of family backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, national backgrounds; the world has taught us to put a lot of pride in those things, and so as a result it takes courage for us to put aside that pride and learn how to take pride in Christ alone. It takes courage to examine our personal habits and cultural traditions and try to figure out how to bring them into deeper submission to God’s Word.

And all this takes courage because we know that, if we start to examine these things, if we start to consider our connection to Christ to be more important than family, cultural, or national background — then we will get pressure put upon us, just as Rebekah did. Family, friends, media — even governments! — are going to ask us, “Will you go with this man? Are you sure you want to go with this man, and give up all the benefits we have to offer you?”

And our answer needs to be, like Rebekah’s, “I will go.” It needs to continue to be, “I will go.”

It would be nice if it was just a one-time decision and then: done. And in one sense it is, because once we are joined to Christ we belong to him and that’s it.

But in another sense, our decision to go with Jesus is a decision we have to make again and again. Because life is complicated! People are complicated! Our hearts are complicated, and it takes time — a lifetime — to sort through the junk and figure out what to get rid of and what to keep.

And so it takes courage for us to press forward knowing that we are not going to get it all right, knowing that we are going to continue to sin even against the Saviour we love. We need courage to make this journey —

— and the only true source of this kind of courage is this Good News: that in the end, when we finally arrive in the land he promised us, in that moment we will look up and see him in the field coming to meet us, and we will know that everything is going to be okay.

So let’s fix our eyes on the Good News. And let’s live with courage.

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