Once upon a time, there was a family: and this is a story from its beginnings, what we call its genesis. You’ve heard of Father Abraham and Mother Sarah, yes? And how they had a son named Isaac? Well, this is a story about Isaac and his wife Rebekah, and their double trouble. Isaac loved Rebekah dearly, but she couldn’t have children. For twenty years, 240 months, there was nix, nada, nothing! No baby! Finally, Isaac prayed to his father’s God, the God of life: and God heard his prayer. Rebekah conceived—but oh! it was twins! and oh! it was difficult. Her belly, it swelled and swelled, and the babies inside, they fought and fought, and she felt like she was being torn apart. So she went and asked the God of life about it.This is what God said:
“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.”
Well, let me tell you: that made her think!
At last, the babies were born. The oldest came out all covered in red hair. They named him ‘Esau’, what we call ‘Hairy’. The youngest came out holding tight to his brother’s heel—maybe he was trying to get out first? Whaddaya think? Anyway, he was named ‘Jacob’, how we say ‘he grabs’. So that’s how the boys came out.
Now, Esau grew up and became a hunter, and he loved to be outdoors; but Jacob, well, he was a funny one. He was quiet, and he hung around the tents with the women and the little kids. And their parents played favourites. Isaac loved to eat the wild game that Esau caught, so he preferred the oldest; but Rebekah’s favourite was Jacob.
One day, Jacob was cooking—the original MasterChef!—when Esau came home. He’d been out hunting, and he was ravenous. So he said to Jacob, “I’m totally starving! Gimme some of that red stuff!”—and so from then on, he was nicknamed “Edom”, what we call “Red”. But Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” As the oldest son, Esau’s birthright was a double part of the family fortune. And what with the sheep, the goats, the cattle, the land, the tents, the gold, it was worth a lot! And Jacob wanted it. Esau said, “I’m dying of hunger! What do I care about the birthright?” Jacob said, “Sign on the dotted line, then.” So Esau did—the idiot!—and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave his brother lentil stew and bread, and Esau ate and drank and got up and went away.
The next bit of the story is this: You might not know, but those brothers and their parents and their tribe were migrants, and they had to keep moving around. They lived all over, quarrelling with the locals over land and water. They were kicked out of one place, then another, then another. But in time, the king of the region, King Abimelech, saw that the Lord was always with them, and so he promised to leave them alone. But being a migrant was in their DNA.
And what with all the settling down, and pulling up sticks, and moving on, and settling down again, years passed, and Isaac grew old, and his eyes grew dim: maybe he had cataracts. Anyway, he couldn’t see. One day, he called in Esau, his favourite. He asked him to go hunting, and cook up what he caught, and bring it to him to eat. “And then,” he said, “I’ll give you a blessing.”
You might remember another story, when a woman heard everything through the thin walls of a tent? Well, it happened again. This time, Rebekah overheard. And was Esau Rebekah’s favourite? No, he was not. Her favourite was Jacob.
So when Esau left, she went to Jacob and told him to go and kill two goats from their flock. She said, “I’ll cook them up exactly as he likes it, and then you can take it in and receive the blessing.”
“Wait a minute,” said Jacob, “Esau’s a hairy man—but I’m all smooth. What if my father touches me, and realises who I am, and thinks I’m mocking him, and curses me instead?”
Rebekah said, “Don’t worry: I’ve got a plan.”
So Jacob went and killed two goats and brought them to his mum. She cooked them up just the way Isaac liked. Then she took Esau’s best clothes, which were in the house with her, and she made Jacob put them on. She tied the skins of baby goats—soft, hairy goatskin—onto his arms and his neck. She gave him the food, and she sent him into his blind old dad, Isaac.
He went in, and his father said, “Who’s that?”
Jacob said, “I am Esau, your oldest son, and I’ve brought your dinner, just like you asked. Sit up and eat, so you can bless me!”
But Isaac smelled a rat. He said, “How could you have caught the wild game so quickly, son?”
Jacob said, “The Lord your God made it possible.”
Isaac was still suspicious. He said, “Come near, so I can check if you’re really Esau.”
Jacob went to him, and Isaac touched his arms and neck. You remember, they were all covered with goatskin: soft, hairy goatskin!
Isaac said, “You have the voice of Jacob, but the hands of Esau. Are you really Esau?”
“I am,” said Jacob. Yes, my friends—he lied to his father. He really did. And then Isaac ate the food, and blessed Jacob with the blessing he meant for Esau.
The blessing was for good rain, and good soil, and good harvest.
The blessing was that people would serve him,
and that nations bow down to him,
and that he would be the boss of his brothers.
The blessing was that, if anyone spoke against him, they would be cursed;
if anyone spoke for him, they would be blessed.
So that was the blessing; and when he got it, Jacob left.
A couple minutes later, Esau came in. He had caught wild game, and prepared it, and now he asked his father to sit up and eat, so that he might bless him.
Isaac said, “Who are you?”
Esau said, “Your firstborn son, Esau.”
Isaac realised he’d blessed the wrong person. He’d made Jacob—the youngest son—the boss of his brothers, and had given him so much.
He shook and cried, saying, “What can I do: I’ve already given it all to Jacob!”
Then Esau—the big strong young man that he was—wailed and wept. He cried, “That’s just like Jacob! He grabbed the birthright, and now he grabbed the blessing! Grabby by name, grabby by nature!”
Then he asked whether there was any leftover blessing which he could have, and Isaac found one. But this blessing was not like Jacob’s. It was not for farming or for harvest: but that Esau would live by the sword, fighting and taking what he needed; that he would serve his younger brother—but that one day he would be free.
So the blessings happened just as God had said to Rebekah, before the boys were born. The oldest was stronger, but he would serve the younger. And the strange thing is, the blessings were given this way through sneakiness and trickery. Whaddaya think about that?!
You can imagine, Esau now really hated Jacob. He decided that, as soon as his father died, he would kill Jacob. His own brother! But oh! what a brother!
Esau muttered his plans to himself—but you remember those tricky tents with those thin walls? Someone overheard him. And that someone told Rebekah, and Rebekah told Jacob. She ordered him to go away at once, and to stay away until Esau calmed down. Then she went and told Isaac that Jacob needed to find a wife from among his cousins: and so Isaac sent Jacob away with another blessing. He told him to travel to the country of Rachel’s brother, Laban, and to find a wife from among Laban’s daughters. Jacob grabbed a few things, and left.
All his trickery—getting the birthright, getting the blessing—well, it cost him. He had to leave home in a hurry, and he was away for a long, long time. Even so, they were his: the birthright, the blessing. Not just that: Jacob became the father of all Israel—but I’ll tell you more about that another time.
So, is this story what you expect? He’s a trickster, that one: a swindler and a liar! And he’s a younger son, but he came out on top! And his family’s not so nice, remember? Abraham and Sarah: they treated Hagar and Ishmael like dirt. They sent them into the desert! Isaac and Rebekah played favourites with their kids. Rebekah plotted against her husband and her other son, because she liked Jacob best. Jacob himself tricked and lied to get his own way—and still God gave him the blessing.
He didn’t deserve it. But you know, I reckon he’s a bit like us. None of us are very important in this world; none of us are very powerful. Many of our relatives are not particularly nice. Our families include manipulative women and foolish men; thoughtless uncles; people who’ll do anything for a good feed. Some of us have relatives who won’t talk to each other, or who have fought since birth, or who have never really grown up. We all descend from migrants, and live a long way from our ancestors. And many of us are scrappy and sinful, anxious and argumentative, a little bit dysfunctional. In other words, we’re normal, and our families are normal. Full of conflict; full of struggle. Ordinary.
But before he was born, God chose Jacob, and he became Israel. Before you were born, God chose you, and through Jesus you are invited into the new Israel: for Jesus invites everyone into Jacob’s family. Like Jacob, we don’t deserve anything; like Jacob, we earn absolutely nothing; like Jacob, our families aren’t perfect. But they don’t need to be. Because God loves you, and wants you, and blesses you anyway, and will use you in God’s work for freedom. It’s ridiculous! It’s scandalous! It’s not what anyone expects! But hey, what a relief. Because maybe there’s room for you … and maybe there’s room for me. Amen. Ω
A retelling of Genesis 25:19-28:5, Alison Sampson, Sanctuary, 16 July 2017 (AP10). Header shows Rensig, Everhard (possibly) and Gerhard Remisch. Esau Gives Up His Birthright, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55878 [retrieved July 14, 2017]. Original source here.