“It's All in the Family”Dr R. Lee Carter Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 119:105-112. Year A: Proper 10 (15) - July 12, 2020
The primary issue that divides Jews, Christians and Muslims today, as it has for centuries, is this: what does it mean to be the true children of Abraham? Is it a matter of ancestral DNA, whether through the line of Isaac or Ishmael or does it come through God’s adoption of those who live, like Abraham, by faith?
The story of salvation in our Old Testament is a family story or, more specifically, the story of how one family will bring God’s blessing to all families of this world. It may sound odd, but the issue of how God has been so wondrously gracious to us through Christ is the touchstone that still divides the predominant factions of the Church until this day. Of all the good things to argue about, how the saving, love, mercy and grace of God comes to us is a curious one. Similarly, the kinds of things that embitter and divide families today are not always rooted in reason either.
The story of the rivalry within one family, that of Isaac, Rebekah and their twin boys, Jacob and Esau, threatens God’s foundational promises of land and offspring to Abraham, promises that stand behind the Bible’s great story of salvation. In fact, most of the stories that one finds in Genesis 12-50 concern threats to the twin promises, and show how God, in spite of all, still works out His great plan.
Our Old Testament reading for today (Genesis 25:19-28) opens with a familiar theme in the Bible, the threat to the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham’s line because of the infertility of the ancestral parents. The foundational mothers of Genesis 12-50, Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel are all described as childless, yet later wondrously conceived.
We find the same theme in the stories of the unnamed mother of Samson (Judges 13:2-5), Hannah (I Samuel 1) and Elizabeth (Luke 1). Our present story, however, differs because it not only resolves the threat to Abraham’s line, but it intimates the threat to the promise of land. The unborn twins in Rebekah’s womb would become the ancestors of two neighboring, yet constantly feuding and border-disputing nations, Israel and Edom.
The sibling rivalry between Esau (Edom) and his wrestling brother, Jacob (Israel), had ancient roots. The Bible says the contention began in their mother’s womb! It would extend for generations.
The Bible gives us an historical, blow by blow recounting of the conflict between the descendants of Jacob and Esau. One entire book of the Bible deals with the bitter rivalry, the book of Obadiah. The last book of our Old Testament, Malachi, opens with this question and answer monologue (Malachi 1:2-5):
“I have loved you,” says the Lord. “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’
“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.”
Edom may say, “Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins.”
But this is what the Lord Almighty says: “They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the Lord. You will see it with your own eyes and say, ‘Great is the Lord—even beyond the borders of Israel!’
The sentiment is echoed by Isaiah (34:5-8) and Jeremiah (49:7-22). It was, after all, the descendants of Esau, the Edomites, who led the cheers for the Babylonians as their enemy armies devastated Jerusalem and destroyed its temple in January, 586 BC and who blocked the escape path of the fleeing Judahites so that the Babylonian hordes could slaughter them.
The crescendo of the bitter rivalry is found in Psalm 137:7: “Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!” Even then the feud did not subside as the Edomites, seeing their opportunity, seized lands that had belonged to Judah. It is no wonder that many Jews, even in the time of Jesus, seethed in agitation under their ruler, Herod, who was an Idumean, a relative from the ancient line of Esau.
We usually think of sibling rivalry as childhood conflict but perhaps we should associate it more with the word “childish” than with “childhood.” Bitter family disputes can last long into adulthood and some conflicts among brothers and sisters are never resolved.
In many cases, sibling rivalry gets worse through the years, often leaving little desire for reconciliation. As in the case of Esau, the blessing of the family is despised. Neither Esau nor many contentious families today, realize what they are giving up.
If there is any consolation, be assured that the Bible offers a wonderful source of examples for a wide variety of dysfunctional families. Accounts of blatant parental favoritism, sibling contention, and family violence abound. Few characters of the Bible, as it were, wear a halo. Why would we expect otherwise?
The life of faith is characterized by ordinary, flawed people who reach out to God for change, redemption and character transformation. The human entanglement in pride and self-deception requires our honest self-assessment and, after we find ourselves flat on our backs from tripping over our own egos, a good sense of humor.
Thus, there is in this serious passage, as in so many others in Genesis 12-50, the requisite element of humor. Why not? Humor, especially about oneself, is a mark of grace. Humor in the Bible often emerges from the conflict of opposite characters, their idiosyncrasies, and their major flaws. How can we read a story of two brothers fighting in the womb without a wry chuckle?
Good humor often arises from the contrast of polar opposites placed together in a predicament. Here we have twin brothers who are as different as night and day. One is a hulky, hairy, stereotypical “dumb jock,” no doubt the fulfillment of his father’s own sports fantasies, who is aptly named “Big Red (Esau or Edom) or “Red All Over His Big Hairy Body.” The other is a feckless fellow who can’t turn loose of his mother’s apron strings. He is appropriately named “Slick, Sleight-of-hand Shyster (Jacob).”
I know. I know. For the last two decades, the name “Jacob” has been the darling of the baby names for boys. There’s nothing wrong with the popular name, except maybe for those who know a little Hebrew. There is no way to put this nicely: Jacob means a usurper, a conniver, someone who would throw his own mother under the bus if it worked to his benefit.
We need to come clean about the real meaning of the name because it is essential to the story. Likewise, knowing that Esau or Edom means “red” will explain why he has such an appetite for “red stew.”
Esau may not have been the brightest shade of red, shall we say, to reject his own birthright, with all the rights and privileges of primogeniture. He fell victim to a brilliant schemer’s clever trap. What better way to trap a hungry, hairy, hulk of a ruddy man than with the offer of red stew?
Esau could not resist. If he didn’t eat, he would die anyway, making the need for any birthright worthless. If we sympathize with Esau’s plight, we cannot but find Jacob’s sneaky scheme to rob his brother of his birthright inexcusable. Esau may have been short-sighted and not so bright, but Jacob was “con-cunning” and conniving.
This introduction to the personalities of the twins, Jacob and Esau, sets the stage for even greater contention between the two. Deceitful schemes and sibling jealousy destroy relationships in general but this bitter rivalry threatened to undermine the promises of God.
We’d like to believe that rascals like Jacob do not succeed in this world but experience teaches us differently. We’d also like to think that parents don’t knowingly show favoritism. We all know too well that this can destroy any family but in this particular case, as soon as Esau was able to complain to Jacob that “Mom always liked you best,” it was too late. Mom already did like him best!
That left Isaac and his son, Esau, to gravitate toward each other, as the story unwinds. Each was a man’s man, a manly hunter with a man-sized appetite. Each knew his way around a barbecue grill. Each had his list of virtues longer than the Boy Scout Law. Each was persistent, gritty, tough, self-reliant, courageous, dependable, daring and a little rough around the edges. Both had a gourmand’s appetite for venison or any game cooked in the great outdoors.
Jacob, on the other hand, was no Field and Stream man. He refused to stray much farther than his mother’s open sight. He lacked pluck, vim and verve. But what he did have, however was a dominant mother.
Rebekah was beautiful, the Scriptures tell us, but she was as ruthless in her persistence to get what she wanted, in the way she wanted and when she wanted it as her brother, Laban. The contrast between the domineering Rebekah and her obsequious husband, Isaac, is as broad as that between their boys, Esau and Jacob.
These contrasts in character make the story both colorful and memorable. Somewhere between the lines of the story I suspect there was humor for an ancient audience who recognized the kind of stock characters that Esau, Jacob, Rebekah and Isaac represented.
The story hinges, however, on something else that was recognizable and terribly serious: treachery and deception. Rebekah hatches the scheme and Jacob, of course, reluctantly but dutifully carries it out. Rebekah does the cooking, the sewing and the planning. Jacob just watches and wears the costume.
The scam was simple. When it came time for the elderly, half-blind Isaac to give the traditional, formal, parental blessing of the first-born, Rebekah plotted to do the old switcheroo. Mom did like Jacob best.
Of course, the scheme worked and Esau was left with neither birthright nor blessing. How poignant were his sobs and his cry that is recorded in Genesis 27:34: “Bless me too, my father!”
Today it is fashionable to condemn the ways of generations past as patriarchal, benighted and backward. What has not changed over the ages is the arrogance and self-righteousness of those who elevate themselves as the champions of justice and righteousness and who have no idea of how culturally conditioned, parochial and condescending their contemporary way of thinking really is. I weary of those who interpret the Scriptures with the same disdainful eye.
I am one who actually believes that the ancients had a valid point about our human need for a formal way for parents to bless their children after they have reached the age for rearing children themselves. As a chaplain and counselor over the years, I have often sought to help young adults who have longed for the approval of their parents and who have cried out like Esau: “Bless me- me too, Father!” I have long advocated for a ritual or celebration where the adult child is finally and formally affirmed by their parents.
This would not imply that the older parents agree with the decisions that their children made over the years, but for spiritual and psychological reasons, there must come a time when parents give their blessing to their adult children to allow them to move on with their lives. If we can have child dedication services for young children in our churches, why not go full circle and celebrate a time years hence to formally let go and to pledge to treat them like the adults they are? What would we call this? It would be a service of parental blessing! Yes, as well as a time for adult children to bless their parents
The concept of blessing is not so foreign to us that we have to spend much effort trying to explain what it was that Esau missed.
Perhaps we have missed the blessing of our own parents and perhaps our parents have not received our blessing. Perhaps it is time for us to change that.
Perhaps it is time for Christians to recognize that their God-given mission is reconciliation and that includes rapprochement within families. Does not the Old Testament itself conclude with the hope of turning “the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 4:6)?
God’s intention to bring blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3) started with a single family.
Children of Abraham, what does being part of that family mean to you?
Lord, Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.
(Psalm 119:111). Amen!
About the Writer:
The Rev. R. Lee Carter, Ph.D., has served as pastor of the North Chapel Hill Baptist Church (Chapel Hill, NC) since 1994. He also is a professor of Religion at William Peace University (Raleigh, NC), and serves as the William C. Bennett Chaplain there. He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been married to Pamela Weatherly Carter since 1975 and they have two grown children, Jonathan and Christa, two grandsons, Charlie and Sammy, and a granddaughter, Leila.
Scripture and Music:
O Word of God Incarnate
In the Bulb There Is A Flower
Just A Closer Walk with Thee
Wonderful Words of Life
Be Thou My Vision
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
Every Time I Feel the Spirit – William Dawson
Hymn of Promise — Natalie Sleeth
Seed to Sow — Roger Emerson
Anima Christi — Robert Powell
Thy Word — Amy Grant
Be Thou My Vision
Hymn of Promise