Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 16, 2017
Genesis 25:19-34 Commentary
Sometimes it’s precisely when we assume nothing can go wrong that things, in fact, do go quite wrong. Thankfully, then, God is graciously present in and to such things, always providentially bending them toward God’s good and loving purposes.
It certainly seems like nothing can go wrong as the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday unfolds. After all, old Abraham has finally found a good wife for his son. That son of God’s promise, Isaac, and his wife Rebekah have fallen in love and married.
Yet the child of the promise’s wife, like his mother, has not been able to have children for twenty years. So Isaac and Rebekah, as well as their parents and God’s promise, have no natural guarantees for the future. They have no way of providing themselves with children or the future they provide.
That means that Isaac and Rebekah, as well as Abraham’s whole family and God’s promise, will survive only if God intervenes. So once again, Abraham’s family must learn to embrace what Walter Brueggemann calls “precariousness.” It must depend entirely on God for its very survival.
It’s a reliance that few of us easily embrace. We, after all, naturally assume that if we just plan things carefully, things will turn out the way we want. We’ll have the good education, as well as marriage and children for whose college education we’ll save. We’ll retire at about age 65 after carefully preparing for it through things like contributions to various pension plans. And if we don’t, we’ll always have safety nets to catch us when we fall.
Yet we profess that our lives are no less precarious than Isaac and Rebekah’s. Certainly we carefully use the gifts and talents God has given us to plan and provide for ourselves and those we love. However, we profess that every good thing we have is a gracious gift from God’s loving and caring hand.
Our text’s Isaac Abraham seems to recognize that. He appears to realize that if Rebekah and he are to have the future that is children, it will only be through God’s “yes” to his prayers. Any children they have will be, in John’s words, “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
And, in fact, God does smile on Isaac, Rebekah, their father Abraham and God’s promise. God says “yes!” to their prayers by graciously empowering Rebekah to become pregnant.
So now nothing can possibly go wrong, can it? Rebekah and Isaac will have a son through whom God can also keep God’s promise God made to Grandpa Abraham.
However, Rebekah’s pregnancy turns out, after all, not to be just a gift; it’s also, in Brueggemann’s words, “problematic.” Once Rebekah can begin to feel her unborn twins moving around, she senses they aren’t just tumbling around in her womb.
They’re also jostling, perhaps bruising or even crushing each other. In fact, I picture those unborn twins as elbowing and kneeing each other. But the Bible’s original language suggests that this is more than just roughhousing. It, after all, uses a word that it uses in other places to describe people smashing others’ skulls.
All of this makes Rebekah’s pregnancy so miserable that she basically wonders if there’s any point in going on living. So she turns to the God who graciously granted her those children.
Yet what God tells the expectant mom can hardly be reassuring.
“You haven’t seen nothin’ yet,” the Lord essentially tells God’s adopted daughter. “Your sons won’t turn out to be best friends, or even friends, as siblings sometimes are. They won’t even be close. They’ll, instead, be separated. In fact,” God adds, “your twin sons are so divided now that you should think of them as making up two nations already.”
Yet while they’ll live a life of conflict, God goes on to warn the twins’ mom, it won’t really be a fair fight. “The older [stronger brother],” God almost certainly shocks Rebekah by insisting, “will serve the younger [weaker brother].”
Now to us this may not sound particularly startling. After all, while birth order sometimes shapes our families, it doesn’t necessarily determine them. Almost all of us know younger siblings who in one way or another dominated older siblings.
However, in Isaac’s day, firstborn always meant first in line for nearly everything. The oldest son, says my colleague Jack Roeda, always got the biggest and best slice of the family pie. He got all of the privileges. Younger sons’ status, says Walter Brueggemann, ranked somewhere down there with widows, orphans and immigrants.
God, however, has a special place in God’s heart for underdogs. While the world keeps its eye on rich and powerful people and institutions, God especially watches out for the weak and powerless. So we shouldn’t be surprised that God has a special place in God’s heart for “the younger” Jacob. Esau the older, after all, will be given virtually everything by everyone, including his family. Jacob will have only what God gives him.
Yet we may find that troublesome at least in part because Jacob comes off nearly throughout his life as rich and powerful. Esau, by contrast, says Scott Hoezee, comes off more like Hoss from the old Bonanza TV show: good hearted and sweet, but also a little slow.
Yet our text provides a couple of subtle details that affirm Esau’s natural lofty status. While he seems so vulnerable to his clever little brother Jacob, he eventually becomes the father of the Edomites. Esau is, in other words, the ancestor of one of Israel’s biggest and most persistent enemies. So when Jacob’s Israelite descendants first hear this story, they think of Esau and his descendants as the more powerful nation.
What’s more, the twins grow up to become two very different people. Esau “became a skillful hunter, a man of the open countryside.” Now scholars argue about whether this is a compliment. Yet you can’t argue with the fact that their families depended on people like Esau to provide their food. In those days, if no one hunted, no one ate.
Jacob, on the other hand, “was a quiet man, staying among the tents.” Again, there are all sorts of arguments about just what the Hebrew word for “quiet” really means here. Yet again there’s no mistaking the fact that if everyone stayed among the tents with Jacob, few people would eat. In other words, it seems as if older, stronger Esau is the provider, while the younger, weaker Esau is the recipient.
On top of that, the twins’ dad Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau.” Esau, in other words, has the most powerful ally in the family: his aging dad. Relatively powerless Jacob is, by contrast, allied with the even less powerful Rebekah. For brothers who were divided already in their mother’s womb, their parents are divided in their affections.
Yet our text reveals that older, stronger Esau is vulnerable to his younger, weaker brother. After all, while Esau is born first, when Jacob is born, he emerges holding on for dear life to his big brother’s heel. It’s as if he doesn’t just wrestle with his big brother; he also, as it were, wants to catch up with or even pass him when they’re born.
So we’re not surprised that the name Isaac and Rebekah give their younger son means, “heal.” However, we’re also not surprised that Jacob’s name sounds a lot like the Hebrew verb “cheat.” Jacob will, after all, spend much of his life trying to cheat people.
However, the first person Jacob swindles is his big brother Esau. When Esau returns from a hunting trip, he’s both exhausted and famished. He desperately needs something to eat and drink. It just so happens that Jacob is in a place to meet his need: he’s cooking some stew.
The first time our text’s Esau says anything, he has no time for niceties. He literally says a crude, “Let me feed myself with some of that red stuff.” Since Esau thinks he’s starving to death, “the heal” sees his opening. Jacob replies to his big brother’s crude “Gimme some of that!” with his own brusque “First sell me your birthright.” The scholar Gordon Wenham suggests that demand suggests it’s a premeditated exploitation of his brother’s weakness.
As we’ve noted, Esau’s birthright is basically his bigger, better slice of the family pie. After all, when a dad’s estate was divvied up, the oldest got twice as much of his property as any other brother.
However, that glorious future means nothing to Esau compared to his desperate present. So when Jacob coldly makes him swear he’ll give him his slice of the pie, he despises his birthright enough to immediately surrender it. As a result, the little brother gives his big brother his bowl of stew in exchange for the biggest slice of his family’s pie.
Yet it’s not even a rich, meaty stew. Esau sells his precious rights of inheritance for what’s essentially a bowl of lentil soup. Perhaps it’s no wonder that he just quietly eats it, drinks, stands up and walks away.
After all, Esau has just impulsively and contemptuously traded something incredibly valuable for something that will just leave him hungry again in a few hours. It’s a trade he’ll both live to regret and resent his brother for enough to want to kill him.
When God’s grace comes to us, it’s always, as Scott Hoezee points out, in the midst of our brokenness. God works in the real and often messy places not just of our world, but also our lives. Yet God works God’s grace in a messy world and people through messy people. God works with you and me, just as we are, to do God’s work in our world.
Esau is a rather unattractive, impulsive character. But Jacob is little better. Yes, he’s probably smarter, as well as quicker on his feet and more perceptive than his big brother. But Jacob proves to be quite willing to use all of that in order to manipulate and swindle Esau.
God uses the younger, weaker, less powerful brother Jacob for God’s good purposes. But lowly and vulnerable people like him aren’t necessarily better people. They’re just the people God generally chooses to work out God’s plans and purposes.
Those whom we teach and to whom we preach too may feel morally or spiritually unqualified to serve God by loving their neighbors this week. Thank God, then, that there is, by God’s grace through the work of the Holy Spirit, no one, not even Jacob the cheater, who is unqualified to do God’s work.
In his marvelous book that remains a good investment for any biblical preacher or teacher, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979) Frederick Beuchner writes, “Luckily for Jacob, God doesn’t love people because of who they are, but because of who he is. It’s on the house is one way of saying it and it’s by grace is another, just as it was by grace that it was Jacob of all people who became not only the father of the twelve tribes of Israel but the many times great grandfather of Jesus of Nazareth, and just as it was by grace that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world at all.”
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