Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 13, 2014

2014.07.13 “Stories from the Family of Faith: Jacob and Esau” – Genesis 25: 19 – 34

Central United Methodist Church

Stories from the Family of Faith:

Jacob and Esau

Pastor David L. Haley

Genesis 25: 19 – 34

July 13th, 2014


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. 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;

the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”  

When Rebekah’s 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.  Afterward 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 skillful 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, the New Revised Standard Version


Amid all the news of the week, good and bad, there was one story that might have escaped your attention. It was a story about movie star George Clooney, which contained two surprises: first, that George Clooney is the “sexiest man alive,” (and not us, men); and second, that the sexiest man alive is also one of the angriest men alive.

He is angry because the British tabloid, The Daily Mail, reported that the Lebanese mother of his fiancée, Amal Alamuddin, 36, objected to their wedding on religious grounds, saying that relatives had joked about the death of the bride if she defied her mother’s wishes, the article said.  (“Heard the News on George Clooney? This Much is True: He’s Livid,” by Ravi Somaiya and Christine Haughney, The New York Times, July 11, 2014)

While most of us may feel that the celebrity crowd and the paparazzi crowd deserve each other, on the other hand, I think we all feel that if people start making stuff up about our family to sell papers, we’d be outraged too.

Given that, I can’t help but wonder what the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rebekah, would say if they could read their stories today, still being read and discussed in the world.

“Dear Sir:  What gives you the right to put words in my mouth or the mouth of my wife Rebekah or our children, Esau and Jacob, impugning our motives? Do you not know that what happens in our tent, stays in our tent?  And, of all the scenes and conversations that happened in our long lives, why in the name of all that is holy did you pick only these? – Yours truly, Isaac ben Abraham.”

As we have seen in our past week’s sermons about the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament, our ancestors in our family of faith, one of the most amazing things about them is that they are shown in such an unflattering light.

Look, all of us know we have family secrets and skeletons in the closet, but these people were supposed to be better. They are people God chose to begin the redemption of the earth, to be the Chosen People. And yet, what an ungodly mixture of saints and sinners they are.  The message to us is, if God can use THESE people, perhaps God can also use us, too.  Let’s see what today’s story of the second and third generation of the Chosen People, Isaac and Rebekah, and their sons Jacob and Esau, can tell us about ourselves, about family, and about faith.

Up to now we’ve heard how God called Abram and his wife Sarah to leave their country, to go to a country God would give them, in order that they might be the dynasty through whom God would bless all the people of the earth.

Since then, we’ve heard two horror stories and a love story: how Abram, at the insistence of his wife Sarah, was going to leave his bastard child, Ishmael, to die in the wilderness with his mother Hagar, until God intervened.  Then we heard how, once the promised child Isaac was born, Abraham came very close to killing him out by offering him as a sacrifice, until again, God intervened. Last week, thankfully, we heard a love story, about how Abraham sent an unnamed servant off to the old country to find a wife for Isaac, which he did; her name was Rebekah.  The promise is alive!

Except, there’s just one problem:  even though Rebekah is beautiful, strong, and courageous, she’s barren.  As some of us have learned, one of the great injustices of the life is fertility: two people who would dearly love to have kids can’t, and yet two teenagers only need to get near each other to get pregnant.

I don’t know what kind of fertility clinics they had in ancient times, if any, but eventually Isaac and Rebekah get pregnant, with twins.

From the first stirrings inside her, Rebekah felt struggle: kicking and fighting inside her, something only you mothers know.  Don’t you like what she says:  “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” Maybe, moms, you said that too, in your own way, if not about struggle, about morning sickness.

Little did Rebekah know this was just the beginning; it’s probably merciful that ultrasounds can only tell us so much.

Rebekah did what all of us would probably do, which was to pray to God, who gave her a premonition:

“Two nations are in your womb,

two peoples butting heads

while still in your body.

One people will overpower the other,

and the older will serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)

And that’s the way it would be.  Not only did they struggle in the womb, Esau was born first, and Jacob second, holding Esau’s heel, another sign of what was to come.
As one commentator, Dan Clendenin, has said:

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.” (“Divine Redemption in Our Human Families: Lessons from Jacob and Esau,” The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself: Weekly essays by Dan Clendenin, July 3, 2011)

It’s probably a good thing the story doesn’t tell us everything; parents of boys, or girls for that matter, can only imagine:  one smacking the other with bath toys, fighting with sticks, fighting over who loves who best, whether Dad and Mom will go to your soccer game or my piano recital, over who will get the car on Friday night.  But I digress . . .

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 field, an outdoorsman, a Duck Dynasty type.  Jacob, on the other hand, is described as a “plain” man, a “momma’s boy,” perhaps 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.” If Esau had said, as Tom Smothers used to say, “Mom always loved you best,” he would have been right.  Is there anyone here who can’t see trouble on the horizon?

This favoritism by Jacob and Rebekah would culminate in two ways. Both seem strange to us, coming as they do from an ancient culture, but by them, Esau the oldest, would be defrauded.

The first occurs over a bowl of stew; as we parents learn, it doesn’t take much. Esau, out hunting, comes home famished.  Jacob, on the other hand, has been watching Paula’s Home Cooking and has cooked up a stew, which, at that moment, is the best thing Esau has 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 stew.”  Esau, like some of us – not being good at deferred gratification – is described in rapid-fire Hebrew verbs: “he ate and drank and rose and went off. “Thus,” says the narrator with obvious disgust, “did he spurn his birthright.”

It gets worse.  In Genesis 27, Mother Rebekah plots with Jacob to also steal not only Esau’s birthright, but his father’s blessing. Coached by Mom, Jacob dresses up to feel and smell like Esau to his blind father Isaac, deceiving him to get the 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, one that won’t make the family album.  Except it did, as we sit here still stunned by it.

What shall we make of this story, to be savored, like Jacob’s stew?  What can it teach us about ourselves, about family, about faith?

We should recognize that in many ways that this story is not about them, it is about us. The people in this story are not just characters, they are qualities, that reside in us. In each of us, there is an Isaac and Rebekah, an Esau and a Jacob struggling with each other: passive and aggressive, weak and ambitious, slighted and scheming. Which will characterize our interaction with others?

It is like the Native American story about the two wolves within. As the story goes, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “The battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil; it is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good: it is joy, peace love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson though about it for a minute and then asked, “Which wolf wins?” The grandfather replied, “The one that you feed.”

What does this story tell us about family?

If you think your family is messed up – even dysfunctional – this story may bring a sigh of relief. Thank God; we thought our family was the only one! As it turns out, so were the families of the Bible, the people God used to accomplish God’s purposes. As journalist Bill Moyers put it a few years ago in his PBS series on these Genesis stories: “The further we go into Genesis, the closer we get to home.”

This story also reminds us that all children are different, not all are to be treated or raised exactly alike. And while there is much beyond our control, such as our birth circumstances, birth abilities (or disabilities), even birth order; there is also much that we can control: paternal affection, paternal favoritism, and especially paternal blessing which – with-or-without – we send our children into the world.  If nothing else, we should remember the saying, “Remember, it is your children who will choose your nursing home.” But in the end, while family dynamics is important, it does not have to be our destiny.

I have always loved the poem “Nancy Hanks,” about the mother of Abraham Lincoln, who as a child and young man faced considerable hardship, which appeared in the “Book of Americans,” by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet in 1933:

If Nancy Hanks

Came back as a ghost,

Seeking news

Of what she love most,

She’d ask first

“Where’s my son?

What’s happened to Abe?

What’s he done?”

“Poor little Abe,

Left all alone.

Except for Tom,

Who’s a rolling stone;

He was only nine,

The year I died.

I remember still

How hard he cried.”

“Scraping along

In a little shack,

With hardly a shirt

To cover his back

And a prairie wind

To blow him down,

Or pinching times

If he went to town.”

You wouldn’t know

About my son?

Did he grow tall?

Did he have fun?

Did he learn to read?

Did he get to town?

Do you know his name?

Did he get on?”

This, finally, is what this story tells us about faith and about God, perhaps the most amazing lesson of all: despite our flawed selves and our families, God’s grace still meets us and uses us to accomplish God’s purposes. For this is the God who draws straight with crooked lines; who uses people like us, and families like ours, to change the world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.



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