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 Lordsaid to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
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. Afterwards 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 skilful 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.
What Will You Share? Genesis 25:19-34
Our story begins with strong Rebekah, whom we met last week. She married Isaac and supported him through the grief of his mother's death. Like her mother-in-law before her, Rebekah found herself unable to conceive. For twenty years, she lived with her husband, knowing the promises of his God, their God, that their family would be the roots of a great lineage, and, yet, she never grew pregnant. Maybe Isaac remembered the stories Hagar had told him about her time in the wilderness, seeing and being seen by God. Maybe Isaac and Rebekah needed to be reminded that God could see them. So they settled in Beer-lahai-roi, where Hagar had once encountered and named God as she hid from Sarah's cruelty. Isaac prayed for Rebekah. We don't know how long he prayed but we do know that, eventually, she became pregnant.
As is true for many women, pregnancy was not easy for Rebekah. It becomes clear that she is carrying not one child but two, and it feels as though the children are battling inside of her. Rebekah was growing up in a time with poor pre-natal care, far from the women in her family who could have talked about the difficulties of pregnancy with her. It is not clear if she had a relationship with any women from Isaac's family who could have supported her this way. And, she would have known that pregnancy was easily among the most life-threatening experiences that a woman could go through. This pregnancy became so difficult that she wondered if it might be better that she died than live with such pain. So she prayed, because that's what you do when you're hopeless. Like Hagar and Abraham and the unnamed servant before her, God heard her and answered her. God tried to explain the turmoil inside of her.
It is not clear if God is simply describing the future or setting the future in action by speaking. God said that the two children inside of her will be as two nations who have always been at war. This may not be a surprise for her to hear. Siblings often fight, and fight hard. However, the next part of God's revelation would be more unusual. In their culture, the eldest son was the most valued. He would inherit twice what the next son would inherit. He would become the leader of the family if the father died. He would be expected to carry the family's legacy. His life would be privileged based on the accident of his birth order, not on his merit as a leader or devotion as a son. God told Rebekah that her sons would not follow the traditional path. In her sons' lives, the elder would serve the younger. Again, it is not clear if God is describing what will happen or making this strange relationship happen. But, in this vision from God, we learn, and Rebekah learns, that we should expect something unusual from these boys.
Esau was born first, red-faced, red-headed, a wild child who becomes a wild man at home in the field and on the hunt. Esau's name is connected to both the color red and the nation of Edom, a nation he will be said to found and with whom Israel will be in conflict. Jacob is born second, coming out gripping his brother's heel. His name is similar to the Hebrew word for heel. He was named for the circumstances of his birth, just like his father was named for his own mother's laughter. Jacob's name is also similar to the Hebrew word for supplant or cheat. Jacob, the boy who held his brother's heal and may one day replace him. I wonder if Jacob heard his destiny every time his mother called his name. Maybe he grew to be the trickster. Maybe he saw manipulation as his only way forward. He grew into the name, this quiet boy who stayed with the women among the tents, figuring his life and his part of God's promise could only truly be secured if he could outsmart the traditions that favored his brother.
As we will see throughout Jacob's life, he will have a sense that he has a part to play in God's plan for his family. However, it is not clear that he believes that God will actually follow through with God's promise. Jacob clearly believes that he must act in order to put himself into a more favored position where God can use him in his family. This is not an unfamiliar tactic for many people, especially people born into systems with rigid senses of social mobility or systems that really resist change. When it seems like the system can't be changed, you learn to work around the system. It's like that line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when they talk about securing the father's blessing on his daughter's marriage to a non-Greek man. According to the mother, while the father was the head of the family, the women were the neck, figuring out how to move the head wherever they wanted it. Jacob is going to spend a lot of his life trying to be the neck moving a stubborn head.
While spending his time among the tents, Jacob learned to cook. The story tells us that he cooked up a rich, red lentil stew. Esau plopped himself down next to his brother's cooking fire, exhausted from his day in the fields, and demanded some of the red stuff. Now, Jacob is smart. Maybe he's being playful with his rough older brother when he says, "Really hungry, huh. Well, this meal is going to cost you. What could be an appropriate price? I know... your birthright." Or, maybe he's deadly serious, knowing his brother well, understanding that this wild man cares not for his future plans when his immediate need is so distracting. Maybe Jacob's been waiting for a moment of weakness to find a way to get what he really wants, and, this is the moment that his strong brother finally cracks. Esau says, "I'm about to die; what good is a birthright to me?" Maybe Esau didn't believe his brother was serious. Maybe the hunger in his belly was far more pressing than his future plans. Maybe he was actually near death. Whatever the reason, when Jacob demanded Esau swear to give away his inheritance, he said yes, and he swore. Then, he ate and drank at his brother's side and left. I sure hope the stew was worth it.
Part of me wonders if Esau really believed that Jacob would hold him to a silly bargain made over a bowl of soup. I mean, how many of us in this room haven't said, "I'd sell my right arm for a good hamburger right now," and counted on the people listening to us to understand that we were simply exaggerating to make a point? Or, maybe Esau counted on his brother being too intimidated by his physical strength to actually risk making him stay true to his word. Regardless, as we will see in the coming readings, Jacob will hold Esau to his word. The birthright, and God's blessing, as mediated through their father Isaac, will belong to Jacob simply because he will be wily enough to take them. I can't help but wonder, though, if the story had to be this way. What could have happened if Jacob had not felt like he had to resort to manipulation to secure his blessing?
Several articles I read in preparation for this sermon pointed out something important about Jacob's story. We will hear in the coming week's how Jacob's name is changed by God to Israel. His name will become the name of the whole nation. A whole people will understand themselves as being his descendants. When we remember their history and read this story of a wily, smart, small man who finds a way to thrive in the face of a bigger, stronger, more privileged brother, we are learning something about how this nation understands itself. They often found themselves at the mercy of stronger nations, nations that occasionally wanted to destroy them. They had to outsmart stronger people in order to survive. Jacob becomes the embodiment of this survival strategy. He is the one who makes sure he gets God's blessing, regardless of what the more powerful have in mind.
I can't help but wonder if the next part of God's kindom plan is to help create a world where the Jacobs don't have to work so hard to secure their blessings. I can't help but wonder if the next step that we are being invited to create with God is the step that dismantles the need for manipulation and trickery from smaller, weaker parties, a step where the powerful can learn to look at their privilege and decide to use it for the common good. Maybe God's kindom will be a place where a brilliant man like Jacob will see a future in God's blessing and be confident that his powerful brother will share that blessing with him. Maybe God's kindom will be a little more like this meal that we will share today in Communion, where all are equally welcome and all are equally called to share with the person next to them, rather than Jacob's meal with Esau. We are here, today, because of the wily machinations of a less privileged younger brother. May we help God make a world where such schemes are no longer necessary.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3340
Amy Merrill Willis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2149
Juliana Claassens: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=967
Esther M. Menn: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=119
Melissa Tidwell: http://www.workingpreacher.org/print_questions.aspx?lectionary_calendar_id=712
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.