September 1, 2019
Christ Church Gardiner
While I am really enjoying reading these pivotal Genesis stories this summer, they are long. And we still have to skip over some of them or we would still be reading Genesis during the Christmas season. But even as long as this morning’s reading were, we still need a short “here’s what you missed” in the life of Isaac, before we move on to his sons Jacob and Esau. Because this week he’s married and having kids but when we last heard about Isaac two Sundays ago, he was just a teenager, about to be sacrificed by his dad, Abraham. Because of his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, God trusted in the loyalty of Abraham. But that story always makes me wonder what Isaac and Abraham’s relationship was like after that. What kind of trust did Isaac have in his father? And how might that have impacted Isaac’s future relationship with his own sons?
Between the story of the binding of Isaac and our story today, Sarah dies and Isaac takes a wife. Rebekah is from Aram, where Abraham and Sarah had first lived and where their kindred still reside. Just as God has had a hand in all of the maneuvering of this special family, God is intimately involved in choosing Rebekah for Isaac. Rebekah is beautiful, and when Isaac sees her, they conveniently fall in love, not always the case in arranged marriages, I would imagine.
Then the story switches briefly back to Abraham who takes another wife now that Sarah is dead. He’s only about 140 years old, so it makes perfect sense that he would need to marry again. Abraham and his new wife, Keturah, have 6 sons. I think the point of this interlude about Abraham and his new wife and new kids is to emphasize once more that it is Isaac who is the rightful heir, no matter how many children Abraham has. Remember that Abraham has already sent away his first son, Ishmael. And then we hear that before his death, “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son, Isaac, eastward to the east country.”
This story shows how Isaac’s inheritance must be protected. Any threat must be sent away. The promise by God of a great nation must be fulfilled through Isaac’s line and no other. But we soon run into another problem. Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, it turns out, is barren, as Sarah was before her. 20 years pass in the marriage of Rebekah and Isaac with no children. No children means no descendants and no great nation. But finally, God hears Isaac’s prayer, and Rebekah conceives at last. And she won’t bear just one son, but twins.
This is where we enter our story today. And we discover more conflict for this blessed, but troubled family. Because even God’s blessing in these Genesis stories doesn’t mean the absence of strife.
We learn that the conflicts between Jacob and Esau begin before they ever leave the womb. Rebekah can feel them struggling inside of her. When she inquires of God why she has to go through all of this suffering, she hears the oracle that sets the stage for the future of this family. God says 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.”
The elder will serve the younger, God said. But that’s not the way things are supposed to work. Primogeniture, the cultural norm of the day, meant that it was the exclusive right of the firstborn son to inherit almost everything.
And while that might cause rivalry in any family, imagine two sons born practically at the same time. Twin boys born to an important man with lots of land and wealth to pass down. But only to one of them.
Our family happens to be good friends with a set of twin brothers, but they don’t seem to have this sort of rivalry that we see between Jacob and Esau. Perhaps they would if they were competing to get a blessing that meant one of them would be rich and prosperous and the leader of a great nation. Jacob seemed to know even in the womb what was at stake. Rebekah could feel her boys struggling inside of her, and then as they were delivered, Jacob followed right behind Esau, grasping at his heel, as if trying to get out first so he could displace his brother and to be the one to get the blessing and the inheritance.
If a rivalry existed between Esau and Jacob from their birth, their parents didn’t help to soften it. It seems they had favorites. Our text says that “Isaac loved Esau…but Rebekah loved Jacob.” And as the unfolding of the stolen blessing begins, the narrator uses specific pronouns to show the favoritism on behalf of the parents. Esau is “his” son—Isaac’s, and Jacob is “her” son—Rebekah’s.
Now Jeff and I will use specific pronouns to imply ownership of our children sometimes…usually when we are really annoyed with one of them. I might say, “Your” son forgot to mow the lawn. And Jeff might say, “your” daughter spilled milk all over the living room floor. But at the end of the day, we love our children equally. They are fully “ours.” But this doesn’t seem to be true for Rebekah and Isaac.
And perhaps, primogeniture, that cultural norm of inheritance, is partially to blame for their favoritism. Looking back on that culture, we can see the cruelty of a system that gave the greatest share to the firstborn son, and even led to sending later born sons away from their family so that they wouldn’t threaten that inheritance.
In the case of Jacob and Esau, their relationship was twisted and frayed because of a system of inheritance that would reward one and not the other, and the striving of their parents to win the blessing and inheritance for their favored child.
Jacob’s name in Hebrew means cunning and trickster and even supplanter. And that is what he turns out to be—a supplanter that uses his cunning, under the direction of his mother’s shrewdness, of course, to cheat Esau out of their father’s blessing. This story makes me feel pity for Esau and Isaac and how they were manipulated by Rebekah and Jacob. But this story also points to larger theological question.
That question is: Who will God bless? This story of the younger brother getting the blessing owed to the older brother points us toward the wisdom that God may choose to bless outside of cultural norms. This is a god who is willing to turn those norms upside down and build a nation with those who are not normally the chosen ones. We see this in Jacob and later in Jacob’s sons. We see this in the great King David who was the youngest son out of eight boys, a lowly shepherd who worked in the fields, and yet chosen by God and anointed to lead Israel.
And we see this idea of blessing the lowly most fully in the Gospels of Jesus. We heard it today in our Gospel reading when Jesus tells the Parable of the Wedding Banquet and proclaims that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This has been called the “scandal” of the Gospel—the proclamation that the last shall be the first. The insistence that the old rules don’t matter in the Kingdom of God. “From his birth in a stable, to his execution as a criminal, the story of Jesus is all about shaking up our preconceived notions of how things work in the world. The strong are weak, and the weak are strong. Outsiders are insiders, and insiders are outsiders. The last shall be first.” (Kelly Ladd Bishop)
Our story today of Jacob and Esau may offend our sense of right and wrong, and using your cunning and intellect to cheat a brother is probably not God’s intention for how we should live our lives. But this story is a reminder to us about the kind of world God seeks for us—a world where we throw out the old norms that favor those who are fortunate enough to have been born into certain circumstance. This story insists that in fact, blessing isn’t a birthright. God’s blessing goes where it will. And we have a role in bringing that blessing to others. Particularly to those that Jesus embraced—the poor, the suffering, the sick, the outcast, the children, the foreigner. Where might we be a blessing to those who need it most?