Ah, siblings. Those members of our family that we do not choose and yet with whom as children we are forced to co-habitate. Siblings can be our best friends or can undermine us our whole lives. They can support us in times of trouble or disappear when the going gets tough. Siblings can compliment us one moment and take the wind out of our sails the next. No one knows us like a sibling. No one else has shared our family stories, and yet an adult sibling can feel like a stranger. But one thing is sure, very few tales of siblings tops the epic battle of Jacob and Esau.
Even before they were born, Jacob and Esau were doomed to be opposed to one another. Our reading today picks up at the 19th verse of the chapter, but the very first verse reads like this:
Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. 2 She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. 3 Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. 4 The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah. 5 Abraham gave all he had to Isaac.
Yes, you heard that right, Abraham disinherited all his children but Isaac. They had not betrayed him. They had not done anything wrong. And yet, perhaps out of an understanding of God’s promise, perhaps out of guilt for what happened on Mt. Moriah, Abraham leaves all that he has to Isaac. Already, one generation before Jacob and Esau seeds of sibling dissension are sown.
To further complicate their relationship, when Rebekah is pregnant with the twins, she receives a vision that tells her that instead of the elder son being the big shot, as was the tradition of the times, the younger son was going to usurp the elder’s role.
And thus, the environment that would lead to trickery and stupidity and unfairness was born. In my family, fairness was incredibly important, so I find this story very stressful!
I grew up with one sister, Marianne, whom many of you have met. She is three and a half years younger than I am, and if we had one tenet growing up it was the importance of being fair.
My parents were very clear that they loved us equally. If I was their favorite twelve year old, then she was their favorite eight year old. If I got a portable stereo for my tenth birthday, she got a portable stereo for her tenth birthday. My sister and I took this to heart. Every year, the Easter Bunny visited us and left a trail of jelly beans from our beds to our Easter baskets. Now, our beds were different distances from the baskets, and so we ended up with uneven numbers of jelly beans. To solve this terrible crisis, we would pool our jelly beans, divide them by color, distribute them equally between us by those colors, and give any leftover flavors and all the licorice jelly beans, to our parents.
You might say our interest in fairness was even a bit compulsive.
And while Marianne would occasionally bribe me with small amounts of cash to make her bed for her, neither of us would have thought to deceive the other of any family rights or inheritances. We would have thought it mean. . .even un-Christian.
Yet here we are, with one of the seminal families of the Bible. Here we are with Jacob, who will become father to the twelve tribes of Israel. And it turns out that Jacob is a sneaky, advantage-taking, conniving meanie-pants. Jacob is not fair.
Jacob did have a little help getting this way. Instead of his parents banding together, they each chose a favorite child. It is almost as if they did not have any copies of Dr. Spock lying around from which to learn! Isaac chooses Esau, the hunter as his favorite.. Rebekeh chooses Jacob, the gardener. Maybe Jacob is not manly enough for his dad. Maybe his dad just does not know how to love two sons equally since he never had it modeled for him. Whatever the case, the boys grow up in opposition to each other.
And then one fateful day, Esau is reallllllly hungry. Did Jacob know his brother was always starving after a hunt? Was it just happenstance that Jacob was cooking this flavorful red lentil stew when Esau returned from the field? We’ll never know. What we do know is that Esau is willing to sacrifice his birthright for a hearty meal. He might not be the brightest bulb in the drawer. The words used to describe the way Esau eats are words normally used for how animals east. Esau is portrayed as a dense, unthinking pig of a man.
By giving up his birthright, Esau is giving up the right to lead his family after his father dies. He is also giving up a double share of his family’s inheritance. Jacob’s actions are certainly manipulative, but Esau was just as responsible for the choice as Jacob!
Where Esau really gets the short end of the stick is when it actually comes time for Isaac to give his blessing. Jacob has already won the birthright, but he wants his father’s dying blessing, too. Isaac has become blind in his old age, and asks Esau to go and hunt some game and fix him a nice stew and then Isaac will bless him. Esau goes off to hunt, but Rebekah, who prefers Jacob, has heard this whole exchange. She finds Jacob, tells him what is going on, and then instructs him to get two goats from the flock so she can make a stew. She quickly makes the stew, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and has him wear the goat skins so that he feels furry to blind Isaac. Isaac is fooled, and blesses Jacob, who he thinks is Esau. When poor Esau comes back from the field, he asks for his blessing, but Isaac only had one blessing to give. When he hears this, Esau cries:
‘”Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” So Esau lifted his voice and wept.’
Have you ever heard of anything more heartbreaking? The desire to be blessed and loved by our parents is deeply rooted in us. Not receiving that love can cause a lifetime of struggle and regret. Esau is deeply, deeply pained by the whole experience.
Esau does not take the slight lying down. He immediately concocts a plan to kill Jacob and Jacob gets out of town fast! The next few weeks we will track Jacob on his long journey. Will he live? Will he be killed? Will he fall in love with a pair of sisters? Only time will tell.
In the meantime we’re left with the struggle of why meanie Jacob gets to be the heir and the father of the twelve tribes of Israel? We’re left with questions about why God doesn’t choose the most fair and honest among us to lead. Why is God not fair?
We’ll be struggling with the question through the rest of Old Testament, I’m afraid. God has a bad habit of choosing people that do not meet our criteria. He chooses leaders who are scrawny, and unfaithful, and murderous. He chooses leaders that are more passionate than pious, more clever than kind.
But God does not let those leaders stay that way. I promise you that Jacob will have some profoundly transforming experiences over the next few weeks. God’s willingness to choose broken, imperfect people to do his work is really good news for us. It means even on our grumpiest, most mean spirited days, there exists the possibility that God will use us for good. This also means that God is not done with us. Even if we’re wounded souls whose parents chose our sibling over us, or vice versa, God will push us and deepen us to face all the hurt of rejection, but then to grow as a result of our experiences, rather than staying mired in resentment.
To do God’s work we may, like Jacob, need to get out of Dodge, and out of the way of the family that we have hurt. Or, like Esau, we may need to leave town and get a little space from a family that failed to live up to expectations.
There is a time for reconciliation, and we will get to see Esau and Jacob’s reconciliation in a few weeks, but there is also a time to flee our families of origin and explore our identities as individuals God has made, rather than staying entrenched in family dynamics that are hurtful.
And if you make a journey like Jacob’s, watch out! God may use you to create something larger than you could ever have dreamed.