Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 10, 2011

2011.07.10 “Blessed Deceit” – Genesis 25: 19 – 34

CENTRAL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
“Blessed Deceit”
Pastor David L. Haley
Genesis 25: 19 – 34
July 10th, 2011

If there’s anything I’ve learned as a pastor, it’s this: within almost all of our families lie deep, dark secrets we’d rather not see revealed. As writer Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Isn’t that the truth?

Frankly, I don’t want to know what yours are, that is, unless you want to tell me, in order to begin to find a way out, and to seek healing and help.  Frankly, I don’t want to tell you mine, because, well, it would take too long, and you don’t have all day.

I’ll never forget being clued into this many years ago, by a story told by one of my teachers.  He said he was visiting in his office with a young woman whose father he’d known for many years.  He was going on about what a wonderful man her father was, when she interrupted him to say: “The son-of-a-bitch molested me since I was a child.”

So I take this as a given, not that we’re all THAT bad, but that issues are there, either secret or not-so-secret. When I interview families in preparation for weddings, I like to know what the family dynamics are, if mom and dad are divorced and families are blended, and what the chances are of a fight breaking out. In hospital intensive cares and at home death scenes, while grandma lays dying or has just died, I’ve seen family tensions turn ugly, and instead of sorrow, anger and hostilities break forth. When I interview families before funerals, often – not always – there are subtle clues indicating family tensions and issues, like who we might NOT want to speak at the funeral. When there are undercurrents like that, I try not to preach the deceased “too high” or “too low” in my eulogy. I keep in mind the story of a woman at her husband’s funeral, who interrupted the pastor’s eulogy to go up to the casket, look in, and say, “Sorry, I just wanted to make sure that’s my husband you’re talking about.”

Even when we do genealogy, we tend to highlight our favorable ancestors, and downplay or cover up our more notorious ones; that’s the only way prestigious genealogies get written.  Like the woman who found she had an ancestor who died in the electric chair at Sing Sing, but revised it to say, “One of my ancestors occupied the chair of applied electricity at one of our countries most well-known institutions.”
In fact, I would go so far to say that some of us may feel that our families (or members of our family) are our greatest failing in our desire to live as committed followers of Christ. Especially when, as is often the case, it is beyond our control to do anything about it.

If your family is like this, you may breathe a sign of relief today to learn that so were the families of the Bible, the people God used to accomplish God’s purposes. What a relief! We thought our family was the only one!

Today we come to the 3rd generation of Biblical patriarchs, after Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, to the story of the birth of Isaac and Rebekah’s children, Jacob and Esau. It is an extreme case of sibling rivalry; after Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau are the two brothers in the Bible who hated each other the most.  And you thought your children were bad!

Usually, when we read the “Holy” Bible, we don’t expect stories about infertility, obstetrics, genealogy, wills, and family dysfunction, yet here they are.  Someone has said that the story of Jacob and Esau feels like walking into a court house and sifting through musty boxes of birth certificates, death notices, marriage licenses, records of lawsuits, medical histories of family pathology, and resentful letters never meant to be read by others.

But herein also lies the story of our redemption: God’s grace still meets us even in our own flawed family histories.  As journalist Bill Moyers put it a few years ago in his PBS series on the Biblical patriarchs: “The further we go into Genesis, the closer we get to home.”

Today’s story doesn’t even start well.  In the beginning of Genesis 25, we find that after having Ishmael by Hagar (whom he never married) and Isaac by Sarah (whom he almost killed), Abraham marries a third wife, Keturah, by whom he has 6 more children. Then it says, “But Abraham gave everything he possessed to Isaac.” It also adds that “he gave gifts to the sons he had by his concubines, but then sent them away to the country of the east, putting a good distance between them and his son Isaac.”  Probably didn’t want any fights to break out at weddings or family gatherings.

It gets worse with the rivalry of Jacob and Esau, in Genesis 25 and 27, starting even before they are born. Yet again, God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah of a great dynasty is threatened. Isaac’s wife Rebekah may have been sent on her way last week as the future matriarch “of thousands of myriads”, but the reality is, she’s barren. For twenty years. Isaac and Rebekah struggle with infertility, praying for 20 years, until at last God answers their prayers.  Once pregnant, with twins no less (shouldn’t have gone to that infertility clinic) they tumble and kick so badly within her that she wished she’d stuck with infertility. Especially so, if she’d known what they would be like AFTER they were born.

When they are born, even that is dramatic. Esau (“Hairy”) is born first, but Jacob (“Heel”) comes out clutching his brother’s heel; from his first entrance, a grasping schemer. (Aren’t we glad we don’t still get names this way, from attributes of birth or circumstance? Some of us might be called “Taxi” because we were born in the taxi on the way to the hospital, or “Ribs” because that’s what mom was eating when the contractions started.)

As the twins grow, as with all children, different personalities emerge, in this case opposites.  Esau, ruddy like King David, becomes a man of the fields, an outdoorsman, a Hemingway type.  Jacob, on the other hand, is described as a “plain” man, a man of the tents, probably bookish and wearing glasses.  But the next verse is the most telling of all: “Isaac grew to love Esau, who brought him game to eat, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” Is there any parent here who can’t see trouble on the horizon?
Further character insight is given in the famous chili cook-off in chapter 27. Esau, out hunting or carousing, comes home famished.  Jacob, on the other hand, has been watching Iron Chef and has cooked up a bowl of chili, which, at that moment, looks to Esau like the best thing he’s ever seen. Jacob, instead of sharing with his brother, sees his opportunity and takes it: “Let’s make a deal: you give me your birthright [the right to succeed me as head of the family], I’ll give you this bowl of chili. Esau’s need for instant gratification and disregard for everything else, not unlike that of some recent politicians we might name, is described by the use of rapid-fire Hebrew verbs:  he ate and drank and rose and went off. “Thus,” says the narrator with disgust, “did he spurn his birthright.”  Obviously not the man to lead the Fortune Five Hundred of Abraham’s Descendants.
If you keep reading, it gets worse.  In Genesis 27, Mother Rebekah plots with Jacob to also steal Isaac’s fatherly blessing. Coached by Mom, Jacob dresses up to feel and smell like Esau to his blind father Isaac, deceiving him to get the blessing. Not only did his dear brother cheat him out of his birthright, but also his father’s blessing, Esau lifts up his voice and weeps, and in a rage, promises to murder Jacob, and stomps out not to be seen again. As we used to say, a Kodak moment, but one that won’t make the family album.  Except it did.

Who was to blame? Was it any one in particular, or, as more often the case with most families, was there plenty of blame to spread around? That is, after all, why family counselors use such terms as “systems theory.”

Was it Father Isaac, who because he loved and envied Esau, perhaps living his life through Esau, was blind to his faults, and could not see that Esau’s shortcomings disqualified him from being heir? Those of us who are parents understand, though we must admit we are more likely to see parents who dote on their lazy or irresponsible children more easily in other families than in our own. Jewish sages envision a day when God will judge his people for their sins, and Isaac will rise to defend them. Why Isaac?  Because he is entitled to say to God, “I had a wicked child and I loved him. Can You not do the same?”
Was it Mother Rebekah, who – depending upon how you see her – is either the plotting mother of the story, or the heroine who makes it happen? Does Rebekah resort to deceit because, as a woman, she has no other way to bring about what she knows is right, to make happen what God has told her will happen through her dream?  Isaac won’t listen, and family counseling is out, so there’s this.

As usual, there’s a price to pay, especially when deceit is involved, no matter how right or daring the plan may be. When she tells her beloved Jacob to run off to family in far away Mesopotamia, “just for a few days, until Esau cools off and forgets what you did to him,” she knows in her heart it will never happen. The will of God, as she understands it, as been done, but at a terrible price: she’ll never see him again.

Was it older brother Esau? Obviously, according to the story, Esau is unsuitable for the role of heir, even though it was rightfully his, just as it was often the curse of great kings and queens to be succeeded by weak, unworthy children. Jewish scholar Elie Wiesel says that Esau is a pitiful figure. His own mother seems to resent him, his younger brother is more clever, and when he comes back to his sad, old father with a humble request, “Father, bless me, bless me, too!” his father, whom he loves, rejects him. When Esau therefore lifts up his voice and weeps, that cry echoes throughout eternity. It is the cry of all unblessed children, whether of ancient or modern times, whose sociopathic toll in life and society is incalculable.
Was it the younger brother, our questionable hero, Jacob? Jacob may have gotten away with the goods, and would do so throughout his life, but it would cost him dearly. Jacob will find out what it feels like to be deceived and defrauded by his future father-in-law, Laban, for which he will give 14 years of hard labor, first for Leah, and then for Rachel.  In fact, he will find no peace until he wrestles with an angel twenty years later, and even after that, there will be the painful sequel over his son, Joseph, when his other sons lie and deceive him about Joseph’s apparent death. For Jacob, “What goes around, comes around.”

What do we learn from this story? Many lessons, especially for us who are parents.

That all children are different, and no one size fits all. As someone once said, before I was a parent I had four theories about parenting, and no children. Now I have four children, and no theories.

That favoritism in families will always come back to bite you.  The best strategy I think, is to love your children all equally, but to make each one feel special in their own special way.

That we are passing on to our children something all right, but what will it be: a curse or a blessing? How often do we see how the children of the second and third and fourth generations continue to pay for the sins of the first generation, whether through abuse, or alcoholism, or divorce, or infidelity, just to name a few. The effects go on and on; the question is: How and by whom will the cycle be broken?

On the other hand, perhaps the most important thing we can impart to our children is our blessing. I’m not saying we have to bless everything they do: just make sure that they know we love them and always will.  Perhaps more than anything else, this tells us we matter, and that we are valued. By internalizing it, we acquire self-esteem, self-confidence, and a deep sense of security. Not to receive it is to be sent forth, like Esau in a rage, or like Jacob, who all his life yearns for the genuine blessing he never got from father Isaac, sentencing him to a lifetime of scheming. There is something about us human beings that if we can’t get a blessing by love, we will get it however we can.  All of us, I expect, know people like that: they may even be members of our own family.  So let us do everything in our power to send our children forth on life’s journey with our blessing, and not our curses, ringing in their ears and imprinted on their souls.  Alas, according to this story, I fear it will be both.

Which brings us to the final, greatest, and most amazing lesson of all: that despite our flawed families, God’s grace still precedes us, meets us, and follows us, through all the days of our lives.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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