Jacob and Esau

Stories about our origins are always stories about ourselves and our unique characteristics. Most tend to highlight the good and play down the flaws.  We airbrush history and our forefathers. You really have to dig around in the history books to read about the darker sides of Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and Lincoln. It is almost impossible to find any stories about Washington that make him fully human.  He is a complete enigma even to those who knew him well.

“Adams fumed in his diary, Franklin sparkled in his anecdotes, Jefferson agonized in his treatises, and Hamilton bristled with passion in his letters. Washington resisted any urge he may have had to display emotion, with rare exceptions. His fellow Americans embraced the creation of Washington as a distant, godlike figure. Even before his election as president, many Americans saw him as the one true unifying figure in the new nation, already a man apart. By the time of his death in 1799, many saw him as a semi-deity.”

The power of being the father of a nation is their personality continues to define how people perceive themselves and their role in the world. America continues to see itself as a nation apart, unique, not subject to the same emotions and foibles of those around us. In many ways, we are an enigma in the world.

This is definitely not the case with the Jews. This is the story of the first Jew to be called Israel. It is the story of the nation as much as that of an individual.  How does their story begin? It is born in deceit, ambition, outwitting others, trickery, opportunism, favoritism, and rivalry. Up until this point in Genesis, we’ve read about God’s relationship with individual men and women but now we are present at the beginning of the people we know as the Jews and their particular culture. This is the story they are taught as children. This is in so many ways the mark of their humor.  They have the last laugh. They trick the Gentiles and still deceive each other mercilessly. Their mothers are overbearing and ambitious for them while their fathers are kind but naive – busy with business. It is ironic, anti-authoritarian and, above all, rewards the quick wit and making fools of the outsider or the opponent. They celebrate their own flaws while assuming their superiority over those who are slow and unsophisticated. That’s why this is the perfect story.  Jacob is no George Washington!

As we have said before, in spite of the self-professed flaws, where would our community be without them? Tyler without “Jacob” would be a poor place to live.  Think of what we would have missed in the areas of medicine, education, philanthropy, the arts, non-profits, business, and law. There is no place they have not made a disproportionate contribution. In spite of our prejudice and envy they have blessed our community. We should, like Detroit today, be recruiting them to move here.From the start, the boys were influenced by their names. Jacob had a sign over his bed that said, “Ambitious and Entitled Deceiver Striving To Achieve At The Expense Of Others”. Esau’s sign simply said, “Shaggy Red Animal”. It has an effect over time.

From the beginning, it is clear that each parent favors one over the other and for different reasons. Both parents were ambitious for the one they favored.

Isaac favors the one who feeds him. More than that, Esau is the one who lives the life Isaac never had. Isaac was protected early in life from a competing sibling like Jacob. Isaac was the reflective one who would go out in the fields not to hunt but to meditate. He was an obedient son who does what is right and expected. He was a good businessman who built on the wealth left to him by Abraham but not a risk taker. He was closest to his mother and married late – as did Esau. In many ways, the rough hunter Esau is the one Isaac would be drawn to most naturally even though he is the polar opposite and causes himself and his parents’ grief. According to Hebrews 12:16, Esau was a completely secular man.  He was “godless” and without wisdom or character. Yet, he was by tradition the one to receive the blessing.  Like Samson, he was a consecrated fool.

Rebekah favored Jacob – not just for personal reasons or because he so resembled the side of her family – especially her own brother Laban. Remember, later in the story of Jacob it is Laban, his uncle, who deceives him into marrying Leah first and Rachel second. Trickery runs in the family. No, it is not just the family resemblance that makes her favor Jacob but her better sense than even Isaac about who could be the father of a nation. Not only that, but she remembered the word from the Lord when Isaac did not.

“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” 

Isaac was bound to the tradition of the first born receiving the blessing. By that tradition, Esau was the natural heir. Rebekah saw past the tradition at her own risk (“My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say.”). Rebekah did not just favor Jacob. She knew the future generations would be completely assimilated if Esau received the blessing. After all, it was Esau who had against his parents’ wishes and the instructions of his grandfather, Abraham, married the daughters of Hittites. The chances of the Jews surviving as a distinct people were slim if Esau was chosen for the blessing. Esau was a slave of his own appetites. He was careless, incapable of understanding the value of his own birthright, and without wisdom.

Rebekah saw in Jacob not only the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise at the birth of the two boys but the fulfillment of her sisters’ blessing when she agreed to leave and marry Isaac.

“Our sister, may you increase to thousands upon thousands; may your offspring possess the gates of their enemies.”

None of that would have been fulfilled by Esau and she knew that. He had already been seduced by the enemies and made her life “disgusting” as we read in Genesis 27:46. “I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women.  If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living.”

She had only one choice and one opportunity and she took it. Otherwise, the whole identity and bloodline of the Jew would have been corrupted and they would have disappeared completely. They would have been absorbed. It’s the one thing she does at the risk of her own life and a curse but she saves the line from destruction.

We sell her short.  We see her as a secondary character in the story.  She is, for me, the star.

I know we celebrate Esther and her role in saving many Jews but Rebekah saved all the Jews for all of history. She accepted the consequences and acted.  It reminds me of the quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a pacifist but had come to the conclusion that Hitler must be killed. He did not justify it. He accepted the guilt of being part of the attempt on Hitler’s life.

“When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it… Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself, he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God, he hopes only for grace.”

Rebekah did not attempt to justify or rationalize what she did. She was willing to accept the consequences of doing whatever God chose to do to punish her.

“My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say..Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau and put them on her younger son Jacob.”

We have so romanticized “mother love” and not showing favoritism that we are troubled by Rebekah in this story. We’re caught, aren’t we, between our disapproval of her deceit and our gratitude for what she did. It’s not a simple story and not really a happy ending as it offends our sense of neat fairness. While we recognize the deep flaws of Esau there is something in us that empathizes with his sense of injustice at being duped and having his blessing and place stolen from him not only by Jacob but by his own mother.

“Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me? Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father! Then Esau wept aloud.”

It goes against our principles.

As well, it is difficult for us to understand being willing to be cut off or cursed or separated from God ourselves for the sake of others. It’s not just a moment of punishment but permanent separation. Total self-sacrifice. Paul says the same in Romans 9.

  “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.  Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all..” 

We sometimes think he was the first to make that offer but it was Rebekah who saw that long before Paul and she acted on it fully aware of the consequences.

In East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote, “I believe a strong woman may be stronger than a man, particularly if she happens to have love in her heart. I guess a loving woman is indestructible.”

That was Rebekah.It creates a permanent split in the family. In fact, Esau is so enraged and vindictive that he not only vows to kill Jacob but in a childish gesture of spite for his parents he goes to Ishmael, the outcast son of Abraham, and marries his daughter.

But like many stories in the Bible, this one does not end there. It goes on for hundreds of years. In some ways, Esau is redeemed by the way he forgives Jacob when Jacob flees from Laban. Jacob is prepared to be attacked by Esau so he sends his family and servants ahead of him as a shield with himself in the rear.

“But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.”

Esau was a changed man and offered his protection and friendship.  If only the story had ended there but it doesn’t.

The descendants of Jacob and Esau meet generations later when Israel is passing through the wilderness and they come to the land of Edom.  They ask permission to pass through safely and they are denied.  Memories are long and resentments last forever.  It’s in Numbers 20.  “You may not pass through here; if you try, we will march out and attack you with the sword.” So, Moses finds another way around them but it costs him time and many lives.

Many, many years later they meet again.  In Matthew 2, the descendant of Esau, Herod the Great, is obsessed with finding a child who has been called the King of the Jews – the descendant of Jacob.  We know he doesn’t because he is fooled by the Magi but all the boys in Bethlehem younger than two years old are killed in vengeance and spite.  It’s a theme, isn’t it?

Finally, the two lines of Jacob and Esau meet for the last time.  One, the descendant of Esau, is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great.  The descendant of Jacob, Jesus, is brought to him for judgment.

“Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him.  Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate.”

Did you catch that?  Once again, Jacob is wearing Esau’s best clothes and, again, he fools Esau.  But not only Esau and Herod. He fools sin and death for eternity, for once and for all…and like all good Jewish stories they will not realize it until it is too late. It is the fulfillment of the long-ago prophecy to Rebekah. He will possess the gates of his enemies. “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.”

And that’s the rest of the story of two brothers and a woman who at the risk of her own destiny made the choice to save her people.  It’s still true that the spirit of Esau – the spirit of a foolish and godless world – is desiring to overthrow Jacob but the promise is real and the blessing is sure.



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