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Birthright
James Klotz
July 13, 2014 - Genesis 25.19-34, Psalm 133

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Birthright
Genesis 25.19-34, Psalm 133      

James Klotz
Morningside Presbyterian Church
July 13, 2014

 

When we were growing up, my favorite toys were Legos, and my sister’s were Barbies. I loved my Legos, but Barbie had something the little Lego people didn’t—that amazing elevator in Barbie’s Dream House. Jenny guarded her Barbie Dream House carefully, and only when her friend Kristen came over was I allowed near. The compromise rule only allowed me to take one of the lesser-used Ken dolls and play a “delivery man”. Even then, restrictions were in place: “Barbie doesn’t need any more deliveries today,” and devastatingly, “the UPS man doesn’t get to ride on the elevator”.

I wasn’t much better, and unfortunately, the evidence is on tape. Jenny and I were staying with our grandmother once, and we discovered her trove of family Christmas videos. Watching one from when I was six and Jenny was three, I was excitedly playing TV chef with my new Little Tykes play kitchen. I was barking out a steady stream of commands to my hapless toddler sister, who wanted to be my “chef’s assistant”. After a few minutes of watching the video, my grandmother turned to me accusingly and said, “oh my, you are so bossy to her!”

Sibling relationships can be complicated. Everyone, it seems, knows some stories about siblings. There is a whole field of psychology called Family Systems Theory that gets into the nuts and bolts of sibling relationships—rivalries, alliances, the impacts of gender mixes and age difference. The power of sibling rivalry seems to be attested to by its antiquity—the books of the Bible, Genesis in particular, are full of stories of siblings not getting along.

It impacted the very first humans born onto this earth. Adam and Eve had two sons, first Cain, then Abel. Cain the farmer and Abel the shepherd both make sacrifices of their labors to God, then—and this very important—for reasons that are not explained in the text, God “had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Gen 4.4-5). Cain is angered by the unexplained rejection, and murders Abel.

A few weeks ago, we heard about another pair of brothers made into rivals through no apparent acts of their own. At Sarah’s suggestion, Abraham impregnated Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael, so he would become the father of the promised nation. But then Sarah herself becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac and is consumed with jealousy, demanding that Abraham cast out Ishmael and Hagar into the desert to die. God rescues the pair, and Ishmael becomes the father of a great nation in his own right.

In today’s lectionary passage, we are introduced to two more brothers with conflict in their futures. Even before their births, we learn, the twins are fighting each other in their mother’s womb. When Rebekah goes into labor, it is little Esau who is born first, but Jacob is literally on his heels. No matter. By the laws and traditions of the ancient world, Esau automatically gets preferred status and the lion’s share of his father’s eventual inheritance.1 It’s his birthright.

We are told that Esau grows up to be a master hunter, but Jacob “lived in tents”. Their father Isaac favors Esau because Isaac has a taste for wild game, but Rebekah favors Jacob, for a reason that is not given in the text.

We then find this strange little story about the sale of the birthright. The scene opens on Jacob “cooking something up”. An utterly exhausted Esau returns from the field and begs for a plate of “that red stuff” in Jacob’s pot. Jacob demands, twice, that his older brother sell him his birthright in exchange for the food. Esau, being melodramatic or perhaps not, says he is hungry to the point of collapse and death, figures a birthright is worth nothing if he is dead, and agrees to the exchange. “And he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Gen 25.34).

The word “despised” is so loaded, in Hebrew just as in English. We typically see the word in the Old Testament used to convey utter contempt or wickedness, such as Goliath’s attitude toward David (1 Sam 17.42). When a person in the Old Testament “despises” someone or something chosen by God, he or she is typically “condemned to insignificance”2 in the history.

This event with the sale of the birthright for a bowl of stew sets up the more famous story of Jacob snatching away something else that ought to be Esau’s by right of birth. Years after today’s story, the boys’ father Isaac has grown old and blind. He asks Esau to go into the field to capture some of his favorite wild game, and he will then give his blessing to Esau. Rebekah overhears this and thinks of a way to ensure her favorite, Jacob, is the one who gets the blessing. She tells Jacob to pretend to be Esau, going so far as to cover his bare arms with goat skin to fool his blind father’s sense of touch. Isaac is fooled, gives the blessing to Jacob, and in walks Esau, horrified to learn what has happened. Isaac, too, is said to “tremble violently” (Gen 27.33) when he learns of the deception, but it is too late, the blessing has already been given out. Isaac confirms that the older brother will be as a lowly servant to the younger, and Esau reacts angrily. Esau has been cheated out of not only the birthright—which was after all mainly to do with money—but the priceless blessing. He vows to kill Jacob, and at Rebekah’s urging Jacob flees.

Esau’s reaction is extreme, but I can’t help feeling a little sympathy for him. Maybe it’s because I’m an older brother myself, and us first children all know how the baby of the family can get away with anything. Maybe it’s because it’s just the latest arbitrary selection of one sibling over another in the Bible, and I’m trying to make some sense of a decision that seems downright unfair.

Interpreters have been struggling with this for centuries. Unlike the way it was with Ishmael and Isaac, there was no clear mandate from God as to whether Jacob or Esau—or both3—should be the ancestor of the chosen people. Esau does not seem to come across as particularly bright, and Jacob comes across as a schemer and a cheat. Jacob! The man who would be called Israel, father of the chosen people, the man after whom the whole nation would be named! A cheat!

So for centuries, interpreters have been looking with a magnifying glass, trying to read between the lines for an explanation. Many zero in on that line, “Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents” (Gen 25.27). We have a clear picture of what Esau does all way, but what exactly is Jacob doing?

Perhaps, the ancient interpreters thought, Jacob was spending his time reading in the tents. Maybe one of the tents was an ancient version of a schoolhouse.4 Perhaps Jacob was studying and pondering the higher things, philosophy and theology, while his “jock” brother was out terrorizing the local wildlife. Maybe Jacob was the virtuous intellectual who had to resort to using his brain to outwit his more muscular brother. Perhaps Jacob was doing it for Esau’s own good. The Jewish philosopher Philo thought that wise Jacob could foresee that foolish Esau would use all that money from the birthright wastefully and sinfully. It was only right to take the birthright “to remove [Esau] from evil, for the improvement of character. And this does no harm, but is a great benefit to him”.5 I suppose it’s a possibility…

The author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews seems to consider Esau’s sale of the birthright to be a cautionary tale to Christians facing hardship. Hebrews’ author thinks Esau was too rash and faithless, even “immoral and godless” to sell his birthright for a single meal (Heb 12.16), and that by giving up the birthright so easily, he forfeit his chance at the blessing.

Maybe Esau was not the innocent oaf we might think—he is told that he will live by his sword (Gen 27.40), and he will become the ancestor of some of the Israelites’ worst enemies. A Jewish commentary from around the time of Christ wonders about the description of the struggle inside Rebekah’s womb before the twins were born and imagines this scenario: “when she passed by houses of idol-worship, Esau would squirm about, trying to get out, as it says, ‘the wicked turn away from the womb’; when she would pass synagogues and study-houses, Jacob would squirm to get out, as it says, “before I [God] formed you in the womb, I knew you’” (Genesis Rabba 63.10).6 By this interpretation, Jacob is actually virtuous and Esau is actually wicked, and it’s only right the good younger brother take both birthright and blessing from the evil older brother.

These are all fascinating possibilities, but they run into the problem all imaginative readings do: simply, those explanations are not in the text. The Bible, especially Genesis, leaves many silences around the motivations of the people in it. We get descriptions of what people do, but we don’t always know why they do it.

Thus, interpreters have to look elsewhere in the Bible for explanations. So many of the characters, major and minor, that we meet in Genesis are identified with the tribes and nations that bear their name. This will be true for Jacob’s sons—the twelve tribes of Israel are named after them. Lot’s grandsons Moab and Ben-ammi become ancestors of Israel’s rivals, the Moabites and Ammonites.

This holds true for Esau. His nickname, as we learn today, is “Edom” or “red”, after the color of the fateful bowl of stew. His descendants would form the nation of the Edomites. Over the course of the Old Testament story, the Edomites will violently refuse the Israelites fleeing Egypt passage to Canaan. Then, they will prove to be a constant military rival to Saul, David, Solomon, and various kings of Judah.7 Devastatingly, the Edomites will prosper in the greatest tragedy of the children of Israel—the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. Edomites began to colonize the land left empty during the Exile,8 and some scholars find the bitter reaction of the exiles in the condemnation of Esau in the later prophets.9 These exiled children of Jacob saw salvation in the fact that in the ancient story, their ancestral father Jacob/Israel outsmarted and rose ascendant over his older, more powerful brother, Esau/Edom himself. They too will someday turn the tables on their distant cousins. Using this line of thinking, we might come to the conclusion that the whole point of the Jacob & Esau story is actually as a metaphor for the politics of later centuries.

This is all well and good, and it is perhaps a little closer to the text. But I can’t help but wonder if Genesis is also trying to say something right here, in the life stories of these two brothers.
So many of these ancestral stories seem to be concerned with scattering outward. Siblings fight (or are fought over), and they leave and become the ancestor of a tribe or nation separate from the nation founded by Jacob/Israel. The momentum is centrifugal—conflict flings siblings and other families to the four corners of the world.

But if we look closely at Genesis and read slowly, we see some important events in these stories we might otherwise miss. After the dramatic separation of the brothers Isaac and Ishmael, there is a brief mention of the two brothers coming together in peace for a labor of familial love—to bury their father, Abraham.
With Jacob and Esau, there is a surprising reconciliation. After the great dramatic stories about Jacob—culminating in the all-night wrestling match that ends with Jacob realizing he has seen the face of God—after all this, Jacob meets Esau for the first time since the younger took the birthright and the blessing from the older. Jacob is terrified. He sends his entire entourage ahead of himself and promises them to Esau’s service. Jacob himself throws himself down on the ground before Esau in a position of humiliation and servitude. “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Gen 33.4). Esau is eager to meet his new sisters-in-law and his niece and nephews. Jacob, along with the rest of us, is stunned at this turn of events. Walter Brueggemann puts it this way:
In the holy God, there is something of the estranged brother. And in the forgiving brother, there is something of the blessing God. Jacob has seen the face of God. Now he knows that seeing the face of Esau is like that. […]
Not for a minute does the narrator confuse God and brother, heaven and earth. But it is seen that the most secular and the most holy overlap. … The religious encounter and the renewal of the relation are not the same. But they come together and must not be separated (emp. original).10

Our Psalm this morning speaks volumes about this. It’s short, almost like a haiku, but it is ebullient in its praise of the power of reconciliation, of “kindred living together in unity” (Ps 133.1). It’s described in terms of two liquids, precious oil and dew. It’s not just any dew. It is dew from the snow-capped heights of Mount Hermon, the tallest mountain of ancient Israel. This dew is water that comes out of the air itself, a potent image of divinity to the ancients. This dew somehow makes the journey of over a hundred miles to water the sacred Mount Zion in Jerusalem. This dense little poem suggests that the power of reconciliation—of love—can literally move mountains!11 It transcends space and time.

As much as these Genesis stories have to say about the dispersal of peoples, nations, and tribes, we must not overlook the power of the reconciliations, sometimes quiet, sometimes dramatic, that do occur between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. For all the cycles of centrifugal, scattering power that flings families apart, there are these cycles of gravitational, gathering power that changes the world and gives people a glimpse of God’s own face. A chaplain colleague of mine at the hospital says she sees this as a sign of all of these players moving from a typology of the head (that scatters) to one of the heart (that gathers).

The other mention of Esau in the New Testament comes from Paul in Romans. He points out that the elevation of one brother over the other had nothing to do with their individual actions, for it was foretold to Rebekah well before the twins were born. Thus grace works for us, not out of any merit of our own, but out of God’s will being manifested in his abundant love (Rom 9.10-16).
Paul speaks of how we all—regardless of parentage, race, background, gender, status, or any other category—all of us are through the Spirit adopted into Christ’s own family. We too can call upon God as “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8.15).
Elsewhere, Paul says that “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself…and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us (2 Cor 5.19).

I think this is the message of the story of Jacob and Esau for us this day. For all of our personal rivalries, our petty squabbles, and our very real divisions, we are being called into reconciliation and unity. When our churches and denominations are divided, when nations and peoples are in conflict, when civil discourse seems to have fallen in favor of permanent polarization, we are called as messengers of Christ to the ministry of reconciliation. We won’t always get it right. We may falter, and we may grow discouraged. But it is God’s calling on our lives, and God will see us through.

“How very good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity! […] For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore” (Ps 133.1, 3). Brothers and sisters, that is our birthright.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Assis, Elie. "Why Edom? On the Hostility Towards Jacob's Brother in Prophetic Sources." Vetus Testamentum 56, no. 1 (2006): 1-20.
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching Interpretation. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W. "Psalm 133: A (Close) Reading." Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 8, (2008).
Görg, M. "??????." In Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, edited by G. Johannes
Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, 2, 60-65. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.
Krause, Joachim J. "Tradition, History, and Our Story: Some Observations on Jacob and Esau in the Books of Obadiah and Malachi." Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 32, no. 4 (2008): 475-486.
Kugel, James L. The Bible as It Was. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1997.
Pitard, Wayne. "Edom." Oxford Companion to the Bible, (1993).
Tsevat, M. "???????." In Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, edited by G. Johannes
Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, 2, 121-127. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.

 


1 M Tsevat, "???????," in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer
Ringgren(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).
2 M Görg, "??????," in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer
Ringgren(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 63.
3 Elie Assis, "Why Edom? On the Hostility Towards Jacob's Brother in Prophetic Sources," Vetus Testamentum 56, no. 1 (2006): 10.
4 James L. Kugel, The Bible as It Was (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1997), 202.
5 Ibid., 207.
6 Ibid., 204.
7 Wayne Pitard, "Edom," Oxford Companion to the Bible, (1993).
8 Assis: 15.
9 Joachim J. Krause, "Tradition, History, and Our Story: Some Observations on Jacob and Esau in the Books of Obadiah and Malachi," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 32, no. 4 (2008).
10 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 273.
11 F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, "Psalm 133: A (Close) Reading," Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 8, (2008).

Last Published: November 21, 2014 11:44 PM