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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Holy Scripture is supposed to be the source of family values for good Christian families, but nowhere are these values more confusing than in the Book of Genesis. Each family seems to be more conflicted and dysfunctional than the first. Of course, many of us have discovered the joys and sorrows of dysfunctional families even without reading scripture. As I have observed, a dysfunctional family can be any family with more than one person in it. Which is why the Book of Genesis should give us all hope. After all, if God could use Abraham’s family to be his chosen people, then he has plenty of material to work with in your family and mine.
Families have always been a source of tension. As George Carlin once quipped, “The other night I ate at a real nice family restaurant. Every table had an argument going.” In many families, it is acknowledged that insanity is hereditary: Surprisingly, you can get it from your offspring. We believe that God intended for children to be a comfort in your old age-and they certainly do help you reach it faster. Sometimes the one at fault is the child, and every once in a while, oh, so rarely, it is the fault of the parent. Clearly this was the case for Jacob and Esau, and the less than perfect parenting style of Rebekah and Isaac.
Favoritism to one child over another is never good parenting. Favoritism doesn’t necessarily mean that you love one child more than the other. However, it does mean, that you are giving one child more attention than their siblings. And as innocent as that may sound, it can have consequences for children throughout their lives, affecting their relationships with each other, and with you.
In the Book of Genesis we read that Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac was a confirmed, 40-year old Norwegian bachelor farmer when he finally married. And like Sarah, her mother-in-law, Rebekah suffered from issues of infertility. For twenty years Rebekah and Isaac waited. Scripture tells us that Isaac prayed to God to bless his wife Rebekah, and finally God heard their cry. When Jacob was sixty years old, Rebekah became pregnant-not just with one child but with twins.
Even before the twin boys were born, their mother could feel them fighting and kicking in her womb. When she enquired from God about it, she was told that the two children would be the fathers of two different nations and the older one would become the servant of the younger. During their birth, the first child to emerge from the womb was a boy covered with hair that was red in color. Not exactly your standard, cue ball baby. Isaac and Rebekah named him Esau which means red and complete. The second son emerged from the womb clinging onto the heel of brother. He was named Jacob which can mean a variety of things. Ankle, supplant and “one who cheats.”
Aggravating these physical differences, the loving parents played favorites. Isaac favored the brawny Esau, and Rebekah doted upon the scholarly Jacob. Now if we compare our modern, definition of masculinity with the biblical description, Esau was clearly the manlier of the two. He was a man’s man who loved the out of doors; he was a skilled hunter, and a bit inarticulate Jacob, on the other hand, preferred to stay at home, studying new cooking techniques and recipes, and avoiding getting his hands dirty. He was also a bit cunning. The boys were as different as twin brothers could be and treated differently as well.
It is said that the first half of our lives are ruined by our parents and the second half by our children, but every once in a while, children can do it all by themselves. One day the skilled gamesman Esau came back home hungry from an unsuccessful hunting trip. His brother Jacob had just made a hot steaming red stew and it was impossible for Esau to resist the sweet aroma. Nevertheless, Jacob being the clever one offered his brother a bowl of stew, but it was in exchange of his birthright. In the earliest legal, Jewish tradition this meant two/ thirds of the family inheritance went to the older brother while one/ third went to the younger. It would have also meant the older brother had the right perform offerings on behalf of the family. To Esau, giving away his birthright may have seemed as a bit of a joke, after all everyone in Isaac’s household knew that Esau, the brawny, red haired boy was the elder son- not the scrappy, bookish Jacob.
Later in the story when Isaac was over 120 years old, completely blind and expecting to die, he called his beloved elder son Esau and told him to prepare a favorite meal of wild game, so that he could eat and then bless him. Unfortunately, his wife Rebecca overheard the conversation and since she loved Jacob more, she advised her beloved son to take his place, to deceive his blind father and say that he was Esau. Jacob said to his mother, “My brother Esau is a hairy man, whereas I am smooth. Perhaps my father will touch me, and I will appear to him as a deceiver, and I will bring upon myself a curse and not a blessing.” Rebekah replied, “On me is your curse, my son. Only obey my word.”
Rebekah then prepared the savory meal for Isaac, and she tool Esau’s best garments to fool the old man. Jacob, now dressed as Esau, presented the meal to Isaac. Jacob said, “My father!” and Isaac responded, “Here I am. Who are you, my son?” Jacob answered, “I, Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you have asked. Please rise, sit down and eat of my game so that you may bless me.” Isaac cautiously responded to his son, “How is it that you have found the game so quickly, my son?” Lying through his teeth, Jacob replied, “Because the Lord your God has made me successful.” When Isaac touched Jacob, and felt the fur, and smelled the scent of his garments, he believed that it was his hairy son Esau. Yes, deceived by both his wife Rebekah and his younger son, he finished his meal and then blessed Jacob instead of Esau. That was the mess favoritism wrought.
No sooner had the deception been completed than poor Esau returned from hunting and prepared the meal for his father. But he discovered his brother’s actions too late. Isaac had blessed Jacob with all the blessings that belonged to a first born and there was no blessing left for Esau. In the Jewish tradition, once the blessing was given, it could not be taken back.
Jacob had succeeded in cheating his brother out of his birthright and inheritance by lying to his father, and destroying what little trust remained in the family. Esau was left before his blind father stammering, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me.” With these words, he vowed to kill his brother, but he would wait until his father’s death. Fearful that Esau would kill his brother, Rebecca advised Jacob to flee to her homeland, to the tent of her brother Laban in Haran 500 miles away in Mesopotamia. There he would find refuge and a proper wife.
Certainly parental favoritism brought about the fall of the house of Isaac. But my friends, what about personal responsibility? Did Esau or Isaac have any role to play in the painful story? For generations, theologians have focused on one phrase, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” I can tell you in all families, there is always a scapegoat, and there is always someone to blame. None of the players in this story comes off well. None of them offered a fitting witness of goodness, honesty and integrity for God’s chosen people. But there is something in that little verse in describing Esau which speaks to every one of us, and to every family, even in this present generation.
I don’t believe that Esau truly hated his birthright. He simply took it for granted. That is what happens so often in our families. We take our parents and their love for granted. We take our brothers and sisters for granted. We take our own children for granted. We neglect the care and love and nurture that they need. Most of us believe that the opposite of love is hate, but the real opposite of love is apathy. That is how Esau despised his birthright. Neither family nor home was his priority; no, his stomach was doing all the talking, “Behold I am going to die; and what good is this birthright to me?” It seems a bit melodramatic. Was Esau really so famished? Probably not. If he had taken just a moment to think about his inheritance and what was involved, he would never have made such a decision.
It is the same danger that we all face these days. Many people have become so focused on themselves, their here and now only, and their personal rights, that they are convinced that tomorrow will never come. Plans for one’s ultimate future are discarded for a momentary bowl of red stew. Esau, favored by his father, may have thought that Isaac’s love would bail him, out of any poor decision he might make. How often that happens with the favored child. The story of Jacob and Esau reminds us that we cannot take our family and our love for them for granted- even in a time of pandemic. We must continue to find new ways to reach out and share our love, for no relationship within the human family can tolerate apathy for long.
This passage from Book of Genesis today leaves us with an image of two troubled and estranged brothers, but that is not the end of the story. God continued to watch over them and extend his grace toward them. When the two brothers finally met after years of separation, Esau embraced the deceiver Jacob and forgave him for all the pain and dishonor he had brought upon his life. Forgiveness, patience and love. These are the family values this story ultimately encourages us to embrace. My friends, that is the hope that God offers even to the most broken and conflicted families. You need only begin by acknowledging your own attempts at despising your birthright and settling instead for a bowl of red stew. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.