The dysfunctionality of the Abraham dynasty serves to show us that God can take something riddled with problems and produce something which is good. Abraham’s role as a forefather of the Jews and Christians comes from God’s grace, not his righteousness.
19These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan‑aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22The 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, 23and the Lord said to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.’
24When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26Afterwards 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.
27When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!’ (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ 32Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ 33Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.
At a time when real life expectancy would have been under 60 years, we’ve had Abraham and Sarah having a child in their extreme old age, and Isaac being married when he was 40, not long after his mother, who was in her 90s when she conceived him, had died. According to the stories, Abraham was still alive when Isaac married Rebekah. The line of descent was very important to the people, so the one chosen to be Isaac’s wife had to come from a particular group. Thus Abraham had prayed for God’s guidance for his servant who had been sent to find a suitable young woman.
Possibly in the belief that Isaac was the son promised to Abraham to be make him a father of many nations, based on the miracle of Sarah conceiving in her 90s, Isaac was the only son – he had Ishmael before Isaac and six more after Sarah’s death – whom Abraham did not send away and disinherit. So much for valuing family life!
If we look at verses 20 and 26 we notice that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah and 60 when she conceived. Were his prayers to God to open Rebekah’s womb entreaties over all of that 20 year period? We hear only that Isaac prayed, and that his prayer was answered, but how often did he pray and feel that he wasn’t getting the response he sought? Is that like us? Would we keep going with a prayer like that when we saw no change in circumstances?
However long Isaac had been praying for Rebekah’s barrenness to be overcome it finally was, and she conceived not a single child, but twins, who fought for much of the pregnancy, draining her to a point of despair. Even then God knew that the two children would fight each other, dividing the family, with the younger one ruling over the older one – a far cry from the standard of the oldest male child being in charge. The image of Jacob hanging onto a foot of Esau as they were born suggests that Jacob was trying to pull Esau back so that he could be born first. Names were always important in those days, and were chosen with much thought. “Esau” relates to both Edom, the land over which Esau had dominion, and “red”, which was his colour when he was born; “Jacob” relates to Israel, the land over which Jacob would have dominion, and the heel which he grasped as the boys were born. Whereas Abraham considered Isaac his favourite son, and left his whole estate to him, Isaac favoured Esau over Jacob, and Rebekah favoured Jacob over Esau. We hear nothing of their growing up in a family with divided favourites except that Esau became a skilled hunter-gatherer, and Jacob, the one chosen by God, became skilled in cooking. Though these are complementary roles, Jacob’s time in the kitchen and looking after the home would have been seen as crossing the unmarked divide between the separate roles of men and women.
Like all of the early parts of our scriptures, this story would have been told many times around camp-fires in communities which had grown from the Abraham/Isaac/Jacob dynasty so it’s hardly surprising to see disparaging comments such as Esau asking for “red stuff” instead of the stew that Jacob had made. Quite likely that would have brought a hearty laugh. If we were party to similar stories in camps descended from Esau we would probably find comments denouncing Jacob’s “sissy” status, and bringing further laughter. Is that what we do? When someone shows characteristics we don’t have do we mock them and try to bring them back into the fold? You bet we do! The reference to Edom looks to be associated with Esau being famished, but it really relates to the food with the Hebrew repeating “red” at the end of Esau’s request for some of the stew. Our English translations could easily portray that better.
Esau may have declared that he was dying, because he was famished, but I think that was more in line with our claims that we are starving when, in reality, we are just hungry – and we wouldn’t use the phrase if we had seen and worked with people who really are starving. If Esau had really been dying Jacob would have known that the birthright would have been his without asking, but Esau was speaking out of hunger and the appetising smell of good food. Thus Jacob sought to gain Esau’s inheritance rights – a double portion of the estate on Isaac’s death – in addition to his own, through refusing to feed him until he committed himself. It is astounding, though a welcome reflection of how God works with sinners, that Jacob should cheat his brother out of something for which Esau cared little at the time, and clearly didn’t think through the consequences of his acceptance. Let us beware of the times we quite happily give up things of value when we want something else. I can think of politicians buying votes at elections, banks removing security when offering us convenience, our desire to interact on social networks taking away our skills associated with looking around us and relating to those with whom we share space, and critical thinking being pushed from schools to make way for all the information we don’t really need but someone convinces us we do. Feel free to add as many more examples as you like.
This time Jacob cheated his brother; later he would cheat others, including his father, too. He was a serial offender of great magnitude, yet God took Jacob and made his descendants into a nation – not one big enough and dominant enough to rule the world, but one built on faith, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Scripture tells us how the people of the day explained why things were the way they were in theological terms – and it wasn’t always pretty. If we all got along perfectly well with each other, respected each other, celebrated our differences, and worked for a common good then life might be quite boring, but throw in some competitive aspect, some different thinking and some self-centredness, and we have an image which not only looks like the world around us today, but also like the world in which Jacob was living. If there’s so much of a parallel between now and then, what can we learn from the Jacob and Esau story? Maybe we could start with accepting that even dysfunctional families can be called by God to do great things. When we put our heads together and focus on our faith, rather than self-interest, we can do great things, with God’s help.