These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Genesis 19:25-34 (NRSV)
Who of you grew up in a family with more than one child or had more than one of your own children? Then you have, I would suspect, experienced something called sibling rivalry. I can see by your faces that you’re familiar with this!
I am, too. I was the youngest of three children in our family. My older sister and brother were a little over 2 years older than I was. The two of them were born ten (10) months apart. (My mom used to talk about that time and what it was like to have three children in diapers!)
My sister was the oldest. My brother was next. And, because of the way that their birthdays fell, they ended up being placed in the same grade all throughout elementary, middle and high schools. Because he was the only boy in our family and was my dad’s helper on our ranch, he was given responsibility earlier and at much greater levels than my older sister. Even though she was older than he.
He got his driver’s license earlier than she did. He got his own car sooner than she did. And, then, to make things even more challenging, he was incredibly smart and athletic. An “A” student without even really trying. And All-American in football. In contrast, my sister, although she was incredibly smart in her own way, was a “B” student and not nearly as athletic, although she could sprint.
You can imagine the difficulty this caused in our family. The rivalry that existed between them. They always seemed to be at odds with each other over something. And, although, sibling rivalry existed between all three of us, it was at a much higher level between the two of them.
Sibling rivalry. It’s a power struggle. A struggle between sisters and brothers to decide who is better? Who is smarter? Who is stronger? And on and on.
That’s what we have in our story today of Jacob and Esau.
At the opening of our story, Abraham is dead at age 175. We learn in preceding verses that, after Sarah died, he married another wife. A woman named Ketura. He had six more children with her. Before his death, he gave “everything he owned to Isaac.” Everything. And to his sons with Keturah? Well, he gave them gifts and then sent them away to live in the east. Away from Isaac. Does that sound familiar? Remember Ishmael?
As we heard last week, Isaac married Rebekah at age 40. For twenty years, she was barren, unable to conceive. How difficult that must have been for her! And, yet, on her behalf, Isaac prayed to God. And his prayers were immediately answered. Rebekah become pregnant.
This wasn’t an easy pregnancy. Unknown to her, she had twins. The fetuses pushed against each other inside of her, causing her great discomfort. So much discomfort that she regretted getting pregnant and even questioned why she should go on living? How difficult this must have been.
So, she, like Isaac, went to inquire of God. To search out God and to find out what was going on. God responded in an oracle through which she learned she had twins. She also learned that each twin would be the leader of two nations. That two different peoples would emerge from her pregnant body. And, even more, that the younger would be stronger than the older, and that the older would serve the younger.
This is some serious sibling rivalry.
At the end of her pregnancy, Rebekah delivered and discovered she had fraternal twins. The first and oldest was ruddy--a healthy red--and also full of hair. Rebekah called him Esau, which means red. The second-born twin came out immediately and was holding onto Esau’s heel. His mother named him Jacob, which shares the same root as the word that means heel. It can also mean to cheat.
As they become young men, our story tells us that Esau became an outdoorsman, who knew how to hunt. Rough and ready, who loved the open country.
Jacob? Well he was more of a momma’s boy. Our text says he stayed at home, that he liked to cook. It also says he was quiet. A better translation of this, though, is that he was “whole” or “complete.” A person of integrity.
One can only imagine the rivalry between these two, very different, brothers. To make matters worse, our story tells us that Isaac and Rebekah each played favorites. Isaac loved Esau. Rebekah loved Jacob.
Besides the sibling rivalry that added to the family drama, in this time period, having twins introduced another special situation. At the time, the firstborn--the oldest--was eligible for the birthright. This meant that the inheritance Esau would receive would be twice as much as Isaac’s. In addition, in this particular family, there was the blessing of Abraham to consider. This blessing from God (You remember it, don’t you? That Abraham would be a great nation, on his own land, and that he would be blessed so that he could be a blessing to others?). This blessing from God had been passed down to Isaac and would be passed down to Isaac’s oldest son.
So, in this family, not only was Esau up for a double share of the inheritance, it was also expected that he would receive God’s blessing, mediated through the blessing of his father, Isaac.
And yet we know, if nothing else from the stories of Abraham we have already heard over these past weeks, that God operates in a way that is anything but ordinary. It’s almost as if Jacob was so obsessed with obtaining both Esau’s birthright and God’s blessing that he will stop at nothing to obtain it.
In our story today we heard that he essentially bribed Esau to gain his birthright. And in the next few chapters, we learn that Jacob, led by Rebekah, tricks Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob instead of Esau.
It seems unfair, doesn’t it? That Jacob should gain both the birthright and the blessing from Esau through such trickery and cheating.
And, yet, Esau isn’t as innocent as we’d like to make him out. Esau wasn’t dying of starvation. He’d been out hunting and came home hungry. And, in exchange for a bowl of lentil soup, Esau sold his birthright. For a bowl of soup. Our story reads that he ate, drank, got up, and left. Showing just how little he thought of his birthright.
There is really nothing in the behavior of either one of them that deserves God’s favor, is there? Neither one seems deserving of anything in the midst of their rivalry and dysfunction.
It’s important to remember that this story is not just the story of two brothers. But, it is the story of two nations. Two nations that would be in conflict with each other for over a millenia. Two nations that would be in a power struggle with each other over generations, just as Jacob and Esau struggled with each other. No nation or brother who was really deserving of God’s favor.
Yet, God is generous to both brothers. Both would become ancestors of a multitude. Both would be blessed with abundance to care for the needs of each family. And, in their final reunion, Jacob would recognize the “face of God” in the face of his brother, Esau, because of the gracious way in which Esau would greet him. Eventually, the story of both would end with reconciliation and blessing.
This is a message for us, too. That, in the midst of our family dysfunction. In the midst of our dysfunction in the church. Or in our community. Or our nation. Or the world. In that conflict that just never seems to end, God is there. Right there.
In the midst of our dysfunction in the church, especially as we stand in this 500 anniversary year of the Reformation, an event that tore the universal, catholic (small”c”) church apart and that pitted Roman Catholics and Lutherans against each other until just these last few decades, God has been there.
Just as God broke in and upended the world through the gracious act of our Savior, Jesus Christ, God continues to be present. Right here and right now. In the midst of all of the messiness. In the conflicts between individuals and families and countries and churches. In our struggles with each other and with God, God continues to be present. Working. Involved. Never giving up.
And showering mercy upon mercy and extending blessing upon blessing to us and to all people. Everywhere.
Let the people of God say, “Amen.”