“Birthright vs. Pottage”
July 9, 2023 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
The Birth and Youth of Esau and Jacob
19 These 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.
27 When 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.
Esau Sells His Birthright
29 Once 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.
As I mentioned last week, we’re spending this summer focusing on one book of the Bible, the very first book. It’s a part of the Bible that we might know familiar stories. Stories about our creation, Adam and Eve in the garden, and the flood. For our season this summer, we’re focusing on the stories of our ancestors in the faith like Abraham. It’s the back half of Genesis and a section sometimes called the “Patriarchs.” These stories chronicle how one generation beginning with Abraham led to another generation including Isaac, and another generation including Jacob, and soon the foundation of God’s people in Israel had been formed.
And yet these foundational stories of the generations aren’t exactly a Normal Rockwell painting of perfect family life. Genesis is a chronicle of real people and their real lives. Perhaps I should have named this series… the Real Patriarchs of Canaan Country. Because like the reality shows that we watch for entertainment and scandal and guilty pleasure, some of the stories of the Bible read almost like a TV show drama rather than some shining moral guide.
Here are some other names I thought about labeling this summer series:
Summer Soap-Operas from the Book of Genesis.
Dysfunctional Family Albums from the Book of Genesis.
Take a Summer Dive into Fun Family Feuds.
Abraham and Sons: The Reason Why Family Therapy Was Invented.
The Flawed Family of God: From Abraham to Us.
Ouch. I was talked out of most of these names as being too much of a downer for the summer. The Bible, though, is an interesting book. It’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Ha, kind of like our summer. Turbulent weather is just part of the summer this year, just like turbulent stories are just part of the Bible. So I say we embrace them and get the most out of it that we can.
Last week we heard about Abraham taking his family line into his own hands and birthing a child with an enslaved woman only then to find out his wife is pregnant. When Abraham and Sarah sent the unneeded and now unwanted first son, Ishmael and his mother Hagar out into the wilderness, God challenged Abraham in a way that led to Isaac almost being sacrificed. This week we find the almost sacrificed Isaac now grown into a man, married to Rebekah, experiencing 20 years of barrenness then only to have twins conflicted and arguing before they’re even born. What can the parents do? Choose sides, obviously.
I mean, I’m tempted to put some popcorn on and watch this stuff unfold like a movie from my couch. Isn’t this what the best entertainment is, a fun distraction from our own real lives?
Here’s the problem, though. This isn’t entertainment. It’s real life and not only that, it’s the foundational story of our ancestors in faith. And not only that? The apple(s) doesn’t fall far from the ancestral tree. We might like to think our families are not this complicated and drama-filled, but who are we kidding?
So just a little recap: Isaac, all grown up from last week’s harrowing tale, has married Rebekah and they conceive after an agonizing 20 years of waiting. Great, right? Not so great. Rebekah’s pregnancy is painful. She can tell that something difficult is growing in her. She prays to God for understanding and this is what she hears: Surprise! You’re having twins! But not only that, these two children will form two entirely different nations, they will be divided from the start. The elder shall serve the younger.
Here's something you need to know: This statement by God to Rebekah about her children…”The elder shall serve the younger” was scandalous. In no normal household at this time did an elder son serve a younger son. There were rules in the world for a reason. To keep the order, to maintain the peace. Hierarchy kept everyone in line and there was never any question about who would inherit what. Elder sons were the Be All End All. But here was God inconveniently lifting the last to be first and the first to be last. God is here in this story to challenge the hierarchy.
From the very beginning, the stage is set for family conflict. The twins are born. Esau first, a big baby, full head of hair, pink healthy skin. Jacob is second, smaller, leaner, more petite. Scripture says Jacob came out of the womb by holding on to the heel of his brother. These boys grew into two very different men. Esau loved hunting and being outside. He lived in the present and was rarely home except to take care of his basic needs. Jacob, on the other hand, loved being at home. He thrived there. He learned to cook and tend to the domestic needs of the family.
As parents we’re taught in all the books to never pick favorites among your children. Well, Rebekah and Isaac? They fell hard, each for the child who was most like them. They either didn’t have parenting books in 1800 BC or Rebekah and Isaac just didn’t read them. We can all relate. There’s the way you pictured it, and then there’s the way it ends up being.
You can probably imagine what the household dynamics were like, then. Jacob watches the way his father loves his brother better. How it’s just assumed by everyone that his brother will be inheriting everything in the household, everything that has come to give Jacob purpose. We can imagine Jacob getting support from his mom, but what can she do? Both of them at the bottom of the hierarchy, the options for surviving and fulfilling God’s bold reversal are limited.
Jacob was clever, though. Knowing his brother’s tendency to only come home when he was hungry or needed sleep, and knowing his own strength was in cooking good food, Jacob saw an opportunity. He made some lentil stew and I suppose it was as delicious-smelling as lentil stew can be and when his brother came home hungry, he used this food, this bowl of red lentils, pottage, and his brother’s hunger as a lure. I’ll give you food, but only if you give me your birthright. I’ll let you eat but only if you agree to this major reversal of family traditions. Swear to me that you’ll do it. Maybe Esau was just really that hungry. I don’t know. Maybe some part of him knew that the future was less important to him than the present. I don’t know. Maybe he just didn’t care about the family heritage in the same way Jacob did. Whatever the reason, Esau gave it all up. He sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Jacob succeeded in turning the tables on the hierarchy. In a way God had ordained, but with methods that leave us saying, that was a little sketchy.
When we see a family where favoritism, deceit, cunning, outwitting and disloyalty are rampant we think, is God really there? There’s the way we want it to be and there’s the way it ends up being. I must have read this story 5 different times this week, wishing it worked out differently. Where is the value in uplifting a story were deceit highlights disloyalty and the foundation of Israel is built on a sketchy exchange over pottage. What is God doing? Where can God’s fingerprints be found? And yet, this is the story that has made it into the Bible. Like it or not this is our story, too, gritty as it may be.
And it leaves us to wonder, is our human struggle with conflict and relationships not also part of God’s creation. What if the family is the place where these existential conflicts can be played out. Jacob probably made a poor decision to use his brother’s hunger as an opportunity to test his loyalty and scoop up his inheritance. But Esau also made a failure of judgement when we let his own future and family’s value go in exchange for satisfying an immediate need.
These are serious developments. And yet because they happen to a family, a group of people who despite all the misjudgment and shortcomings share a covenant with each other and God, a family who inherited the same intangible, mysterious promise from God, a family in whose veins pumps the same blood. Because these humans get to work out their humanness within their family, there is something more to this story than we can yet see. The arc of this family narrative is broad and this divided family has time on their side.
Our stories over the next few weeks will follow Jacob. He inherits the birthright. He is the one later renamed Israel. It’s his children that form the 12 tribes of Israel. Yet he was born into conflict and conflict follows him for much of his life. Yet because of the conflict, he grows and develops. God finds a way to work through his imperfection to build a legacy that supports generations of God’s people through some of the best times and the worst. God’s grace finds the lowly and the least and the messed up and God works through them to bring hope and transformation. Sound familiar? This is our story.
As for the brothers conflicted from birth, more different than you could ever have imagined, one dishonored by his disloyalty to the family and the other dishonored by his cunning deceit, things get worse before they get better. Jacob deceives again by tricking his father into blessing him instead of Esau, Esau vows to kill Jacob and Jacob flees. They spend decades apart. They each change and evolve, as time and God would have us do. And at long last they meet again when Jacob seeks to return home with his family. Jacob, afraid that Esau wants to still harm him, sends a peace offering, and brings every strong person he can find. And when Jacob saw Esau coming from a distance, his fears grew. There were 400 men with Esau. He told his wives and children to prepare and he went out to meet Esau alone, bowing down to the ground seven times, scared, I’m sure about what was going to happen next. But then Genesis chapter 33:4 says this: “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.“ Jacob then tried to give his brother a portion of all that he had, but Esau told him: I have enough. Keep it. In return, Jacob tells Esau, I see the face of God in you.
What is the miracle in this story? Is it that God reversed the family hierarchy of that day and brought the last to be first so that a great nation could be built from humble origins? Maybe. But what if the miracle is also that even though families are complicated and gritty and messy and broken, God never leaves. Hope never fades. There is a possibility that we ourselves cannot even imagine. What if the real miracle here is that Esau himself understood in the end that he had enough and didn’t need to be first and most powerful and vindictive. Maybe the real miracle is that he recognized God’s blessing on Jacob’s life, as the younger, “lesser” brother and he was ultimately okay with that. Maybe the real miracle here is that after everything they’d been through, brothers reconciled and saw God in each other.
This is much more than a Soap-Opera or reality TV show. This is our heritage. This is our story. Our challenge. And our possibility. Life is messy. It rarely goes how we planned. Family will disappoint us. We’ll disappoint our family. But God never gives up. God will keep teaching us the surprising ways of love over and over again until we are finally able to learn it ourselves. And sometimes that takes a long, messy life. Don’t lose faith. Don’t stop trying.