We don’t like to talk about it, but it happens. A lot. When parents favor one child over the others. Or kids treat one parent drastically different than the other(s). It is so universal the Bible has a story about that, wanna hear it, here it goes!
Last week we left Abraham and Isaac as they walked away from the sacrificial altar.
Today’s passage features a nearly blind, dying Isaac. He and his wife Rebekah have twin sons, Jacob and Esau, who fought in the womb. Esau couldn’t escape the birth canal without Jacob holding onto his ankle, which was interpreted as one baby wanting to steal the birthright of another baby. Esau learned to be paranoid from jump street.
Isaac grew up to be what many consider a “real” man. I don’t know if it has anything to do with being lashed to a rock with a knife held aloft, but Isaac was a rough-and-tumble sort. He enjoyed the outdoors and related to the world on a physical level. So did his eldest son, Esau, who likely was filled with excess testosterone as evidenced by his overabundant hairiness. Isaac and Esau were buddies, it seems. Jacob was different. He was a thinker; some commentators have speculated that he was more stereotypically feminine. He was a momma’s boy–I say this as someone accused of being one myself. The story in Genesis 27 makes it clear that Rebekah prefers Jacob. She encourages him to steal his brother’s blessing of inheritance. What began in the womb is being brought to a head by a mother violating the principles of primogeniture. This is most intense.
Esau was a big, hairy dumbass. Jacob was a liar, a cheat, and a cunning opportunist. This isn’t a story with one good guy and one bad guy. Esau once returned home from an unsuccessful hunt and alighted upon Jacob making a pottage. Originally, this referred simply to a soup or stew. But through the Jacob-Esau cycle, it can to be defined as selling something for a ridiculously small amount, like giving a birthright for bread and stew. This Esau does, either out of stupidity or just being hangry. He has learned from his Jewish mother: If you’re going to let me starve, I’ll give you my birthright; what good is it if I’m dead?
This action, though, fulfills God’s earlier prophecy to Rebekah: “Two nations are in your womb…and the older will serve the younger.” Sounds kinda similar to what happened with Isaac and Ishmael, no? The former was the successor to Abraham, the latter the progenitor of the Muslim people.
Again, strife between brothers that is encouraged on some level by parents is a theme. Esau has given away his birthright, but he still has the paternal blessing upon which he can rely to secure his standing.
“Far more important than the birthright, which simply passed on property and titles from father to son, was the blessing of the father. This was an official passing on of spiritual rights, and it designated leadership of the tribe or clan. Beyond this, the Hebrews believed that a father’s deathbed blessing determined the character and destiny of the recipient and that the blessing, once given, was irrevocable. Isaac’s blessing was even more special in that it passed on the leadership of all the people of Israel according to the promise that God had given to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham.”*
On the surface, Rebekah’s conniving ways seem untoward and indicative of a horrible mother. How could she do something like that? we might think. But we don’t really know, do we? We don’t know what has happened in the home. We don’t know what Rebekah has seen that might make her fear for the future of the people if Esau is in charge. Maybe she has hopes that her eldest son will be the supreme military commander. Speculation, to be sure. But we should not be so quick to vilify Rebekah.
She is wily, though, ain’t she? That’s a helluva ruse that they put on, ain’t it? Jacob, wearing the clothes of his brother that carry Esau’s scent. Lamb’s wool attached to his hands and neck to simulate Esau’s hypertrichosis.** Isaac, old, blinded, and dying, is confused about what is happening. It is hard not to feel for him. This could be seen as a form of elder abuse. The last thing that he can do for his people is to pass on the leadership to Esau. Have the pair talked about it on those long hunts, sleeping under the stars together and reflecting on how God has selected them to lead God’s people?
What the selected passage leaves out is that when Esau returns home, he is livid. He has a violent outburst and threatens to kill Jacob. Rebekah tells her youngest to flee “until Esau has forgotten the wrong done to him.”
So it is on the flight from his enraged brother that Jacob puts a stone under his head and falls asleep. In his dreams, he sees a ladder with angels of God ascending and descending. Earth to heaven. Heaven to earth. Suddenly, God is there and in language similar to that uttered to Abraham, promises both a bloodline and land. A blessing and an inheritance. An affirmation that while Esau may think he has been cheated, God holds a different opinion.
(Jacob and Esau reconcile twenty years later, and Isaac is still alive. Rachel, Jacob’s favored wife, dies giving birth to his second son Benjamin as Jacob is on his way to see his birth family. Esau is extravagant in his welcome, but the brothers soon find themselves burying their father. When they depart, they never see one another again. Esau is remembered as the patriarch of the Edomites, so-called after the Hebrew אדום, ʾadhom, meaning ruddy. Once again, an older brother has an unusual path in living out God’s plan.)
What do we do with this?
Scholars believe that the recurring theme of elder brothers having roles that buck against the principles of primogeniture indicates a rejection of the Arab custom. This is a God who will not be hemmed in by human constructs.
How often do we become upset, even enraged, when we are denied something which we believe is owed to us? Sometimes this is a proper response, such as what is happening right now with NFL and NBA players pushing back against a racist system headed by a racist president. But sometimes our anger is misplaced. We feel we are owed something, but perhaps our behavior has not shown that we are deserving.
Sometimes we can foresee a potential disaster and we feel that God has led us to avert it. This is tricky, as using “God made me do it” as a reason for duplicitous behavior is problematic.
But this leads us to the crux of what is presented in the story. God’s ways are not our own. My atheist friends object to statements like this, and I get it. On the surface, it seems to be a cop-out. A way to justify horrid things as the will of God, thereby dismissing legitimate objections as evidence of a lack of faith. You don’t understand because you don’t believe.
Buddhism teaches that within us we have seeds of mindfulness and seeds of affliction. What blossoms and bears fruit are determined by that which we water. Do we tend to our afflictions, nurturing them so they become insidious weeds overtaking our entire being? Or do we nurture the seeds of mindfulness, examining our emotions, analyzing the factors that impact us, and tend to that which does not keep us angrily rooted in the past?
Once again, I ask where are you in the story? Isaac? Rebekah? Esau? Jacob? What this story is about depends on the perspective you take–the original authors most likely want us to take God’s side: Everyone has a path. Sometimes thinking that others can define it for you means it might take longer to see where God is leading. Amen.
*Losch, R. R. (2008). In All the People in the Bible: An A–Z Guide to the Saints, Scoundrels, and Other Characters in Scripture (p. 178). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
I mean absolutely no offense to anyone who suffers from hypertrichosis; if this posting is insulting, I apologize profusely. I love the D and I have an odd mind; combine those, and you get something like this 😉