Sermon: "Jacob and Esau," October 8, 2017

Thanksgiving Sunday
Ingrid Brown

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;
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.
— Genesis 25:19-34 (New Revised Standard Version)


This is a weird story. 


Let’s jut take a minute and go over things.

Like I mentioned with the children, we are following Abraham’s family tree.  So we’ve heard about Abraham and Sarah, and they, miraculously had a son, Isaac.  Isaac trusts God, and prays about who he is going to marry – big life decision, good to pray about – and over here we have Rebekah who was also praying about who she would marry.  God offer’s a little nudge in the right direction and Isaac and Rebekah are married. Fabulous. Now, we have our reading today, the story goes that they couldn’t conceive a child and Isaac pleaded with the Lord, and then, as it happens in their family, God makes it so that they are able to make a baby. 


Maybe this is the earliest version of be careful what you pray for, because she becomes pregnant with twins.  Obviously, this is before ultrasounds, but she knows something is off – scripture tells us that the two “struggled in her womb”: this sounds wildly uncomfortable.  SO much so, in fact, that she, like probably every pregnant woman in history, Rebekah calls out to God, “Why is this happening to me!?”

So then, God answers her – this is the ultra ultra-sound – God says, there are two nations in your womb.  I bet it felt like that.

“Two nations are in your womb,” sys the Lord

Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;

One people shall be mightier than the other,

And the older shall serve the younger.”


Wow, this is really big news, for a few reasons, even beyond the fact that God has just spoken to her:

Scripture is setting up, foreshadowing even, the tale of the descendants of each of the brothers – with a little suspense thrown in: “one people shall be mightier than the other.”  We also have this flipping of what is to be expected: in a culture where the elder brother receives everything, God tells Rebekah that the older will serve the younger. 


And we are then introduced to them:

Esau: out of the womb with chest hair and rippling biceps; and Jacob: weak, and riding on his brothers coattails already, actually grabbing his heel, is what it says, Jacob is a play on the Hebrew word ‘aqeb, heel.)


The Biblical story sets these characters up well, we begin to get a picture of them: Esau the champion, the strong, virile, athletic powerhouse who can do no wrong (Olympic stance).  And Jacob, awe, can you just see him?  Shoulders slumped dover, gangly limbs, long fingers, awkward. 

We get to know their personalities too: Easu the hard-working hunter, ready to please; and Jacob, the home body, loves cooking, but ever so sneaky. 

This cast of characters is familiar, though right?  Handsome, strong, verile, hairy even, older brother, who serves the family well and no doubt makes excellent choices all the time. Sinister, dark, sneaky, younger brother, slinking around in the background, finding ways to thwart his older brother.


We know this story – we’ve seen it on tv.  This is like the baseline for family conflict in tv series, right?


The story continues: we have Esau (flex) who has been hunting or working or something out in the wilderness for a really long time and he comes home famished.  Famished.  This isn’t famished isn’t like you or I understand it, like I went on a long hike and forgot my lunch and got back home after dark and was really hungry.  No, this is starvation famished, about to die famished, there is actually no place to eat, famished.


And there is Jacob (sneaky, slumped), slowly stirring his cauldron filled with lentils, onions, garlic, vegetables, mmm, *sniffsniff* is that cumin?  Coriander?  And the smell wafts up and over, tendrils sneaking into Esau’s nose…Esau on the brink of death, of starvation.


“Brother!  Feed me!” he pleads, “I am about to die!”

And can you see it?  Jacob reaches over, picks up a carved wooden bowl, takes his great spoon and ladles out a steaming bowl. Esau is there, desperate.  Jacob pulls back, bowl in hand, “First, give me your birthright.”


Remember, a birthright is the family inheritance, all that the family owns which is Esau’s to inherit – The birthright in this case is a lot, including title of head of household.  So we are thinking of, say, Jimmy Pattison – the name means as much as the fortune.


Back to Jacob, “First sell me your birthright,” and Esau says, “I am about to die, what good is a birthright to me?  Whatever, give me the FOOOD!”


And they exchange.


And here we have the inciting incident in the story, this is where things start to get interesting!  Perhaps we would expect to see Jacob tower over Esau, getting ahead, but then!  Something would happen which would initiate the full march towards justice.  We might expect then the ultimate failure of Jacob and the restoration of the birthright to the rightly deserving Esau. 


If this was the marvel universe, for those of you into comic books or superhero movies, and we were watching things play out between Thor (muscles) and Loki (awkward), the moral errors of this story would be righted: the wily younger brother would somehow loose it all and face the consequences, and the good son would be returned to his former glory and all would be set right with the world. Fade to black, roll credits.




But that isn’t how this story goes.  The familiar Mini-series drama breaks down.  There is no corrective here.  In fact, if we were to keep reading, we would hear that Jacob ALSO (with his mother Rebekah’s help) falsely receives Isaac’s deathbed blessing, meant for Esau. 

And if we KEEP reading, following the Biblical story of these two brothers, we know that Esau’s lineage becomes the Edomites (spoiler alert, things do not go well for them) and that Jacobs family becomes the people we call Israel, YES, Israel, the ones God sets aside to demonstrate how God will one day bless all of us, Israel, whose story fills the pages of the Old Testament, the people Israel that we later come to call the Jewish people, Israel, whose lineage gives us our Jesus Christ.


So, what is going on here? 


First of all, this is a history of the people Israel, explaining how they came to be.  Genealogy, family, history, it shapes identity.  It has for most of human history, and it does for us today.  I was born in Canada, but let me tell you, my Latvian grandmother made darn sure I knew about our Latvian heritage. 

Family traditions, stories that go back generations, particular items: great-grandma’s christening gown or grandpa’s watch.  In order to know who we are, most of us feel a deep sense of needing to know where we come from, who our people are. This is Israel’s family story.


But there is a key piece in this story that I want to go back to.  It is that feeling that bubbles up when we read through it and our cultural morality jumps into action.  We read this story and think, hey wait a minute, he didn’t earn this!  He basically stole it!  Where is God in this making everything right!!??!  This doesn’t sound like justice, fix it oh mighty smoting God!


Except, that isn’t actually who God is.  When we take off our cultural lenses that tell us that the good guy is supposed to win, that the cheater should face justice, we end up face to face with this stark reality.  God chose the underling.  God chose the underserving one.  God chose the imperfect, frail, selfish, scheming younger brother. 


And when we pause a minute, we begin to notice that we have stories like this woven like a thread all through this book we call our Bible. 

Jeremiah, a child, just a boy, called to be a prophet.

Rahab, the prostitute, called by God into risky, faithful action….her lineage follows down to David, the youngest of seven brothers, small shepherd who becomes King of Israel…and not to mention that poor teenager set to marry that carpenter who gets pregnant and gives birth in a barn to a baby that becomes a man that lives his life mostly homeless and dies the death of common criminal on the cross. 


We can take notice of just who it is that God notices, who God selects.  God picks the poor, the broken, the vulnerable.  The ones on the outskirts of town, on the margins of society.  God taps on the shoulder, the ones who don’t feel good enough, the ones who cant get their act together.  God say, “hey, can you help me with something?” to those of us who feel like we can barely help ourselves.   


Perhaps this is the great misunderstanding about Christians.  We likely have ourselves to blame for this stereotype, but that notion that we are saintly ones inside these walls.  The idea that we have it all figured out, set in the right order, and we are just on the express highway to heaven, no roadside assistance necessary, thank you.


I certainly don’t feel that way.  I trip, I fall, I scuff my knees, and I come to church, I come here, into a community that helps me brush the dust off, get up, find some bandages, and try again.


We don’t come here, to this place, attempting to follow Jesus because we think we have all the answers.  We come together in this odd assortment of lovely family, astonished that God would go, “hey, psst, come one…yeah, you, (head to the side)..lets go.”


Maybe, when I was describing Esau, you saw yourself: strong, powerful, ready to help, righteous, handsome.  But Ill bet, there are more Jacob’s in here than Esau’s.  More of us who feel awkward, incapable, like we could never measure up, who do sneaky, underhanded things despite our best intentions, who fail to live up to the person we want to be, the person we know we are inside.


Earlier I mentioned that we need to know where we come from to get a full sense of who we are as people.  Scripture tells us that Christ-followers we are grafted into the lineage of the people Israel.  Adopted, so to speak.  Woven into the rich historical fabric of Israel.  So this story, of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, this is our story.  We are Jacob.  And we are chosen, broken and flawed and awkward as we are, to carry Gods message of love and redemption and reconciliation into the world. 

May we be given the courage to do so.  Amen.