I often think the book of Genesis is like an extended soap opera. Every time you think things are sorted out and everyone is going to be okay, you flip the page and there is some new melodrama. We’ve had plenty of drama in the last couple of weeks’ passages, but now it seems like things should calm down a bit for Isaac and Rebekah. But that wouldn’t make a very interesting story, I guess.
We have to remember that Isaac is supposed to be the child of God’s promise to Abraham to make his descendants into a great nation, so one might assume that once Isaac meets Rebekah, they’re going to be prosperous in the offspring department. But time goes on, and on, and they don’t conceive a child. And finally after twenty years of hoping and praying and longing, Rebekah becomes pregnant. But her pregnancy is completely miserable. Even in the womb, her two sons struggle with each other. I picture them elbowing and kicking each other, jockeying for space. So she goes and talks to God about this – and wow, I wish we all got answers this clear, but I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the answer she would have wanted. God tells her that this is just the beginning. These two boys will struggle and be divided all their lives, and their offspring after them will be divided into two separate nations.
When her sons are born, they even look as though they came from two entirely different countries. The first was red, and his whole body was covered with hair, so much hair that they named him for it. The second was small and dark and came out clutching the heel of his brother as if he was already trying to supplant him. Esau grew up sturdy and steady, a physical sort of man who loved the outdoors and was a skilled hunter and provider. A typical man’s man, and loved by his father for it. But Jacob tended to stay close to home, the chef of the family rather than the hunter, and he was his mother’s favorite.
My sister is coming to visit in a few weeks, so don’t tell her I told you this, but we didn’t get along when we were kids. She was three years younger than me and I always thought she was terribly annoying. We were not good at the same things, and we didn’t like the same things, and when we did like the same things, we were always fighting over them, because God forbid we should like the same things. We were and are very different people, and being forced to live in a house together and share a room for several years just didn’t go very smoothly. And if you should ever put us in a car together…well. I cannot even tell you the number of times my parents pulled over because we were physically assaulting each other in the back seat.
Fortunately, we grew up and got over most of that stuff when we no longer had to live in the same space, and we’re actually really close now. But even now, no one can push my buttons quite like my sister – except maybe my brothers.
But even though I really like my siblings, I still catch myself falling into the same roles with them and with my parents that we did when we were children. Even though I now have a whole lot of education and therapy around how to be self-aware and not get sucked into my base reactions, being back around my family of origin can put me right back into old patterns, with the same old squabbles and the same ways of setting each other off.
In Esau and Jacob’s time, people didn’t usually grow up and move across the country; they stayed in the family system. So these two brothers never really grew out of their rivalry. They were just completely different people. They cared about different things.
Today, there has been lots of research on birth order, but it doesn’t matter in terms of legal roles and responsibilities. Back then, it mattered a lot. The oldest son would inherit the vast majority of his father’s wealth; any younger sons would have to divide up what was left. The oldest son would carry the legacy and name of his father, while the younger brothers’ lines would have less importance. Let’s not even talk about daughters, here. So at the beginning of this story, it’s Esau who is primed to be the patriarch of the family. It’s Esau who will be wealthy and comfortable. It’s Esau’s children who will continue on the primary line of the family. And because this isn’t just any family – this is Abraham’s family, the family of God’s promise – it’s Esau who is born to inherit the covenant with God. This isn’t just any birthright, it’s the birthright.
But frankly, Esau isn’t someone who cares a whole lot about any of those things. He kind of gets the raw deal in most sermons about this passage, but I just see him as a person of action and immediacy. He’s a simple guy, and his attention is on the moment. When he comes in from the fields, what he knows is that he needs to eat, or he’s going to die. That priority overrides everything else, even the birthright of all birthrights.
Jacob doesn’t strike me as someone who would put himself in situations where he would be starving, or who ever lets the current moment get in the way of seeing the long-term picture. There’s some suggestion in the passage that Jacob may even have been planning for this – that he knew his brother, better than anyone. Knew his patterns and priorities. Knew that the best time to catch him a little off his game would be when he was hungry and tired. And when Esau is weak and in danger, Jacob trades for the right of the firstborn.
Again, Esau usually gets ridiculed here for selling his inheritance for a bowl of stew, but what he actually traded for was his life, which seems less ridiculous.
It’s kind of a weird story to show up in something that’s supposed to be holy scripture. I once had a woman start coming to church who had no background with the Bible at all, but she got really excited about her newfound faith and wanted to read the Bible with her daughters. So she bought a Bible with simplified language and illustrations for children, and started reading through it. Well, it took her about a week before she came back and said, “These are not children’s stories!” True fact. The Bible is full of stories that don’t have a simple good and bad, a hero and a villain. Jacob is actually the “hero” of this story arc in Genesis, but here he’s not such a great guy; he’s more of a trickster character than a conventional hero.
But that’s real life, right? Most of our lives are not purely good or bad. Our motivations and actions are a mix of positive intentions and selfish motives and subconscious desires and patterns that we don’t even notice or understand. Biblical figures are just people, trying to figure out where God is in the midst of their very normal lives, where they’re fighting with siblings and trying to get the attention of their parents and working out their relationships…just like we are. And that’s good news for us, that God is there, somehow, right in the middle of the mess, so much so that the mess shows up in scripture, in this book that helps us know who God is.
And speaking of mess, these two brothers are a mess. Esau is…possibly not all that bright. Jacob is kind of a cheater, not to mention that he’s ready to let his brother starve to get the inheritance he wants. This is not the only time Jacob tricks his brother; stay tuned. They never grow out of their sibling rivalry, and they spend their whole lives competing over their parents’ affection. These are not fully self-actualized adults. They cannot get it together. And yet, they are stars in part of God’s story; they have a purpose that goes beyond themselves, and that is not disrupted even when they’re not the best versions of themselves.
And that is actually really good news for us. We’re not perfect people. We also have screwy family dynamics and we go back to the same behavior patterns over and over, even when they’re not the healthiest patterns for us or anyone else. We’re not always kind or compassionate or loving, even to the people closest to us – sometimes especially to the people closest to us. Sometimes we might feel like we can’t get it together, like we’ll never get it together. And that’s probably true. But you know what? It’s okay. You are the star in a part of God’s story anyway. God doesn’t need us to be perfect. God has a long history with imperfect people. God doesn’t need us to be perfect. God just needs us to be willing.