Esau and Jacob
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful 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.
It is a story more common than perhaps we know. Couples who have difficulty trying to conceive a child. Statistics tell us that one in six couples will experience infertility at some point in their marriage. I recently read a birth notice (2104) of a couple who wrote that they “proudly announce that after years of trying to conceive” their baby was born “during Infertility Awareness week!”
First it was Abraham and Sarah now it is Isaac and Rebekah. Couldn`t God have chosen more fertile people to have “descendants as the sand on the seashore”? Both women were said to be barren. We aren`t told why. For Isaac and Rebekah twenty years of marriage have gone by. No child has been born. And they would like children. They expect children because of God`s promise.
I am not sure how many of us are all that interested in the domestic life of others. Domestic life is just so, well, domestic. Frankly, the struggles of Isaac and Rebekah to conceive is rather personal and maybe a little mundane. Not really the stuff of prime time TV; though the proliferation of today`s reality shows can make you wonder. There just isn’t enough drama in the story to catch my interest. A couple struggles for years to have a child, they pray, twins are born; not much to see here.
Permit me some questions. Who won the Stanley Cup in the year 2002? Who won the World Series that year; the Grey Cup; the Super Bowl; the Masters; the FIFA World Cup? (No smart phones permitted.) What movie won the Best Picture award at the Oscars in 2008? What about the best actor in a leading role? What about a Grammy Award winner from that year? How about Pulitzer Prize winners? And, further, do you care?
I have been a pastor for over twenty-five years. I know that every widow and widower can recount with precise detail the domestic events of the day their loved one died. I can tell you that grandparents can recite with joy and precision the funny things their grandchildren say that add so much delight to their lives. I can tell you that parents can detail the events of the day when watching over an ill child with amazing accuracy. I know that as children watch their aging parents fail, physically and/or mentally, the details of domestic life loom large and tell the story of their weakened position. It is what matters to us. And as we read this story that God has preserved for us in his own word, we learn that God cares about us in our domestic lives as well. There is a greater story that God is writing in our lives—salvation’s story—and it includes the domestic side of life.
Sometimes in the midst of our own disappointments and failings and sinful bent in on ourselves we miss the nobility of the ordinary of life. The life God gives. We prefer excitement and accomplishment—neither which are to be denigrated—and miss the wonder and joy of the common. To have the strength to clean your home, make the meal, and do the logistics of keeping possessions in good order— there is a nobility about human life simply because God created us in his own image.
1. It was on the top of Mt. Moriah where Abraham and Isaac had consented together to obey God’s command for the sacrifice of Isaac; it was there that God reiterated his promise to Abraham and through him to Isaac. “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:16-18)
No doubt Abraham and Sarah have told Isaac of the wonder of his own birth. How it was that, when it was beyond every human expectation that they would have a child, Sarah conceived—as God had promised—and Isaac was born. I am sure that Isaac has heard stories of the great civilization of Mesopotamia and of relatives who still live there and has quizzed his father about why they are living in what seems such a backwater place. Abraham has told him of how God has called him to leave there and come to this place that he has shown him. Isaac must surely have come to his father before he was thirty-seven years of age and asked about taking a wife. Again he hears of how this choice is to be informed by obedience to the call of God. Isaac’s children are now to be the fulfillment of God’s promises.
According to the gospel each generation of people must embrace faith as its own. Isaac must decide if he too will believe God. Will he embrace faith as his father had? Each generation of children will have to decide if they will embrace the promise of encounter with God in Jesus Christ to which their parents have borne witness. Each child must decide if they will follow in the way Jesus is calling. Each must decide if they will embrace the church, the faith descendants of God’s promise in Jesus Christ, as their own.
Consider Rebekah. She comes into this family and is without question schooled in the promises of God. No doubt the twenty years of barrenness test the faith of both her and Isaac. There may have been points where Rebekah may have wished she had stayed at home. You can imagine that both of them might have wondered at God, started to blame each other, and doubt the promise. But they persist. They both come to that place of understanding that this depends on God.
When we are young in faith it can feel as if the promise of abundant life is Christ is an illusion. Other pursuits seem much more promising and instantly gratifying—wealth, achievement, position, popularity, and family— only to find each of these unsatisfying. Will we cling to Jesus Christ in faith and know his fulfilling love? There is nothing inherently evil in achievement, or position of influence or creation of wealth—but none of these, nor all of them taken together, can redeem human life or satisfy the human heart.
3. Isaac’s prayer was answered; Rebekah conceived and twins were born. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful 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.”
We have this ideal that parents’ love for their children ought to be equal. The one thing about the Bible is that it shows the lives of presumed heroes of faith with all their foibles. The fact that Esau was Isaac’s favourite and Jacob Rebekah’s is not given to us as something to emulate. Further, as we follow the story of the life of this family these parental preferences have an impact on their lives; sometimes positive and sometimes negative.
To be loved by a parent is a good thing. You can imagine that the joy Isaac took in Esau’s skilfulness for hunting was an encouragement to Esau. Like a father playing catch with his son skills develop; you can imagine Isaac setting up the target in one of their fields and then helping Esau draw the bow and shoot the arrow. So too for Jacob. Rebekah’s encouragement of Jacob as she noted his interest in running the necessities of the household that included the finances of the family business. You can see her showing him how things operated, how to keep records, an eye for the pleasantness and function of the home.
On the other hand their favouritism set up a division in the household that became the source of much difficulty. Each child knew which parent to go to when he wanted to get something or have someone on his side. I grew up with three brothers. We always felt that the youngest brother was very spoiled while the rest of us bore the brunt of the heavy lifting. This seems common in many families. Parents will readily admit that as the first child was born they were going to parent perfectly. Routines were strictly followed; plans followed to the letter. When the second child is born things are a little more relaxed; boundaries aren’t quite so rigid. When the third one comes along things have loosened up considerably.
There is no question that the behaviour of parents profoundly influences children. The atmosphere in which we are raised shapes and affects our character. And no parent is perfect. The gospel says of family life that sinners are being raised by other sinners. We all fall short of the glory of God—children do too. Child and parent alike stand in need of God’s saving grace. My children are fully aware of their father’s sinnership as I am of theirs. This does not mean parents are not to think carefully about how their behaviour influences their children. Indeed, the best thing you can do for your child spiritually is to grow in your own faith.
As the same time, we see from this story, that selective love of parents does not excuse the adult responsibility of children before God. In this story of the selling of the birthright both of them are accountable; Jacob for his taking advantage of his brother and Esau for despising his birthright. In our era we have made an industry out of victimhood; victims of childhood experience that is mostly shaped by parents.
George Bernard Shaw once said that “people become attached to their burdens more that their burdens are attached to them.” There is a comfort some derive in blaming others or circumstances for unfavourable outcomes in life. But this is to treat oneself as sub-human, according to the gospel, because it is to see oneself as incapable or responsibility—this is never how God treats us.
As unsavoury as parental favouritism might be there are children who are the victims of unspeakable abuse at a parent’s hand. Such abuse can never be excused—it can only be forgiven. Leslie Leyland Fields is the author of Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate. In a Christianity Today article she wrote of reconnecting with her abusive father later in life as his health was failing. She wrote: “I remembered all the reasons I never liked him. And in every kindness I extended to him, I mourned that he had never done the same for me. But I began to see him more fully. I saw his eagerness when I showed up each morning to visit. He called me on my birthday. … I finally recognized his mental illness, the root of his inability to love others. I realized that I was not the only one jumped, robbed, and bleeding; he lay there too. With every recognition, my heart both broke and healed. … I was laying down his selfishness and crimes, leaving them with God.”
4. The gospel says that we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness of our sins; we need to be freed from bondage to this corruption of heart that is bent in on itself. Parent and child alike. Knowing ourselves forgiven by God we are free to forgive one another. This is the promise of faith in Jesus Christ. At the communion table we have communion with one another having been forgiven and invited by Christ himself.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)