I love these Old Testament stories like this one of Esau and Jacob – the dueling twins and their dysfunctional family.
Esau, the older one by a few moments, red and hairy; he becomes a man of the fields and a skillful hunter. His father, Isaac loved him.
Jacob, the younger, grabbing onto the heel of his brother in the womb; he was a quiet man, who liked to stay in the tents. He was a momma’s boy.
Poor Rebekah with her horrific pregnancy.
You know this story well – Esau is so hungry he trades his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentil stew. You know this story well because on some level it may be your story of family strife, sibling rivalry, poor choices and manipulative shenanigans, favorites and drama! This tale of strife and struggles is played out church families too.
Through the ages, this story has had a lot of significance.
- It explained the differences between two peoples, the Israelites coming from Jacob and the Edomites – descendants of Esau.
- It explained territorial claims – Edom was in dessert below the Dead Sea.
- It revealed a certain nationalist and ethno-political pride – Jacob’s people – Israel – later on in its history, beats up on the Edomites – and no wonder because like their forefather Esau – they are a bit dull, and can be manipulated – stupid Edomites!
St. Paul, in Romans, used the story of Jacob and Esau to show the mystery of God’s election and rejection. As it is written: “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau. Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means,” Paul writes, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
For St. Augustine, Esau becomes those who do not believe and with an ironic anti-Semitic twist Esau is no longer the father of the Edomites but of the Jews.
Of course the rabbis interpreted Esau as the non-Jew, the Gentiles – you and I are Edomites.
You may like this: John Milton described the independent Puritans as faithful Jacob while Esau represents the rather obtuse Presbyterians.
How we use scripture to differentiate, divide, conquer, put down. I don’t like using the bible to prop up my own prejudices!
Esau may be a dolt – but Jacob is a grasping, restless, conniving, trickster who will lie to his father, and exploit his brother’s hunger.
So on the surface level, this is a good story, but so what? It is the very kind of story that leads many people to dismiss the Bible has having anything really pertinent to say.
But this is what I love about the scripture and the Hebrew scripture particularly – for in these narratives there is no cover-up, no smoothing over sibling rivalries and family dysfunction and yet God moves things along with divine intention. God writes straight with our crooked lines.
In “Christian” families children need to be “perfect,”-truth telling paragons of spiritual virtue who go to church – particularly preacher’s kids! Books on “biblical parenting” fill bookshelves. You have to know by now though, that the pattern of Hebrew Scripture families, and Hebrew scripture heroes are almost the antithesis of what American Christian culture holds up as models.
These Hebrew scripture stories invite you to lean forward and go deeper and to use the words of Walter Brueggemann: “Embrace the precariousness of God’s mystery.”
We see dysfunction, but God is not hindered, so God sees possibility.
We want moral perfection. But God uses adulterers, cheats, gypsies and thieves. And of course even Jesus ran away from his parents and fled into the desert. He broke a few rules and caused a few problems too. He died a common criminal and was executed at the age of 33.
We seek order and rule following. But God goes where God goes and calls whom God calls and it is almost biblical truth that greater the rascal, the greater the purpose. From Cain to Jacob to the Prodigal Son: so much for biblical parenting.
We get so concerned about breaking “God’s rules” and here are stories right and left about God breaking “our rules.”
Here’s one of our rules – older sons get the inheritance. Thus it has always been, and it worked for a good long time. Those of you watching “Downton Abbey” know who gets the inheritance – the boy, the first born.
But God says, “Forget that!” God is not bound by our convention.
And I like this in a God – for it means that all human conventions, and all our best interpretations of what we believe God wants, yes, all our best convictions no matter how deeply held – must be held loosely before the God who will break any convention God so chooses: who gets to inherit, who gets to marry – who has to stay home and who gets to work – God’s spirit busts through every glass ceiling:
Not men over women, not straight over gay, not white over black, not rich over poor – God basically overturns all these social rules – kind of like Jesus in the temple square.
Jacob and Esau, children of a chosen man Isaac – he is the one through whom the promise will be passed down. And Rebekah is a real catch – daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram. Everything will go right for them, of course – they are God’s chosen, right?
But once again, the chosen have to wait to give birth – 20 years… like Abraham and Sarah – patience and trust not entitlements. And, they are not the perfect family. Dad is almost as doltish as his son….although I want to give Isaac a break – he was almost killed by HIS father!
But this comes as a word of hope for me. Truly “it ain’t over, till it’s over.” And so you keep moving and keep loving, and keep sacrificing – “all things work for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to God’s purpose.” St. Paul wrote that.
You and I may not get the vision, you and I may not have an easy time of it, you may be having a horrible time of it with your children, your life may be moving in a direction that you never would have expected and you don’t even want. You and I may not get to control the agenda.
So we each do what we do, as best we can, we play our part – our own imperfect, dysfunctional, sometimes up and sometimes down part – we can’t see the forest for the trees – but we press one and in the words of the hymn “We’ve Come This Far By Faith”: “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in the holy Word; God’s never failed us yet. O, Can’t turn around, we’ve come this far by faith. We’ve come this far by faith.”
This story teaches me to lean on the promise of God’s ultimate design – that I am part of the story – but the story is long and I must embrace precariousness – because my freedom is shaped by God’s “destiny-promise” that I cannot be lost and neither can my children who are loved more by God anyway; that nothing and nobody is wasted and that all creation will be drawn to the center of divine love.
This awkward story of family dysfunction, sibling rivalry and trickery becomes the narrative of grace – that is scandalous and only God can do that…. Only God can take our crazy and crooked lives and write the straight line of forgiveness and salvation shown in Jesus Christ.
Take a look at your own imperfect life and your own twisted narrative and your own funky family and consider this – maybe God is using you and yours right now to do something deep and rich and wonderful – yes even your family, even YOU.