Outwit, Outplay, Outlast!
By Pastor John J. Pawloski - July 16th, 2023
Genesis 25:19-34 (NRSVue)
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife because she was barren, and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The 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. And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other;
the elder shall serve the younger.”
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle, so they named him Esau. Afterward 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.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he was fond of game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Outwit, Outplay, Outlast! You remember this theme from the television show Survivor. The show where contestants use any means necessary to win competitions, to secure immunity from being cast off some tropical island, and duping some sap you have convinced to be your friend into voting to protect you while you stab him or her in the back. The show celebrates the cut-throat ways of sociopaths and narcissists. Or so it seems to me.
As I read the account of Jacob and Esau, I cannot help but think about this show. It seems like God has set into motion a version of survivor in ancient times. It is shocking that Jacob, whose name means to grab by the heel and signifies deceit, seems to be favored by God. It also seems like Jacob is a little too tricky for his own good. He is, but wait for it-Jacob gets his comeuppance from Laban who pawns off his ugly, older daughter Leah on Jacob after working for seven years, and then makes him work for seven more to get the beautiful, younger sister Rachel as his wife. God seems to be rewarding people for bad behavior.
One of the oddities of the Book of Genesis is that the characters that stay in their hometown do not seem to flourish, while those who leave their homeland seem to do well. But God does not work the way we think God should. In fact, God seems to relish frustrating human customs and expectations. Jacob, the second born (who would otherwise inherit only a portion of what Esau was supposed to get) steals Esau's blessing and preys upon Esau's hunger. Jacob is a momma's boy. Esau is Isaac's favorite who has a rough exterior, unpolished manners, and red coloring. Jacob, on the other hand, leaves to avoid Esau's wrath, and finds favor with Leban, his mother's brother. In ancient times, it was commonly believed that the oldest was favored by God, but that is not the tale the Bible tells.
One of the ugly truths of life is that no one can hurt us like family can. This seems to be especially true of sibling rivalry. Our siblings are supposed to be among the people closest to us on Earth (often they are), but they are also the custodians of years of witness to our mistakes, our failings, and to our most embarrassing moments. They often know just what buttons to press to reveal a weakness only those who have lived with us in close quarters would know. The Bible itself doesn't get very far (Genesis Chapter 4) until Cain, the older kills Abel, the younger because God is more pleased with Abel's sacrifice. Ischmael laughs at his younger brother Isaac, and he and Hagar are sent packing. Esau and Jacob are literally fighting one another to see who emerges first from the birth canal, and the scheming Jacob doesn't relent until he secures both the birthright (property) and blessing (a prayer seeking God's favor and prosperity), even if he had to lie to do it. As we will see in the scripture lessons ahead, Jacob even wrestles with God (or a divine being, perhaps an angel), and Jacob secures a blessing from God, broken hip and all. Not only does God grant Jacob a blessing, he gives him a new name, Israel. Yes, that Israel (the Northern Kingdom of the 12 tribes).
So, why is it that Jacob is blessed when his behavior seems so brash at times? Well, like Abraham, in the presence of the Divine, or when addressing God, Jacob is obedient, respectful, and observant about the presence of God. He could have balked at Laban's trickery (he tricked the trickster), but instead he labored another seven years to get the girl of his dreams. And we see the wisdom of God as Leah bore Jacob many more children than Rachel.
God's ways are not our ways. God knows that humans will splinter into tribal groups, tribal countries, tribalism even in our families. God wishes it were not so, as Jesus came to put the pieces back together that the world tore apart. God does not care for earthly systems or order, does not care about human trappings of what is important, who was first born, etc. God cares that we see God's presence in the world and in one another. Even if we have to wrestle God (ask difficult, probing, even angry questions of God). There is also an aspect where those of us who have been hurt by families have no choice but to make a new family. Sometimes it is this newly constructed family that sees us through important life challenges when our nuclear family lets us down. God's family tree looks more like a bush than a tree. We are all connected. We are caretakers of each other's souls.