Imagine what it must have been like, your mother whispering those words over your crib, your body curled next to that of your twin brother. Imagine what it must have been like, hearing the women talking, you and him, walking along. “The elder will serve the younger.” “One boy will be stronger than the other.” Imagine as they told you the story, the way you grasped at your twin’s foot, you, The Grasper, always at his heel.
“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided.” God appears to Rebekah with these words. She’s gone through a season of barrenness, a strange position for the woman who will carry on the line of God’s chosen people. But that is the way God is. Always upending things. Making a way where there is no way.
Now, not one but two nations struggle within her body until she can bear it no longer. Two brothers are born, twins who are distinct yet the same, who will struggle with one another for the rest of their lives.
This is the beginning of the story of Jacob and Esau. As we enter the story we, too, find ourselves in a strange position. It is difficult to stand back from the text, because we know where the story ends. It is Jacob through whom the promise will extend, through Jacob that God’s people will flourish. And it is through Jacob’s line that Jesus comes into the world. “Abraham beget Isaac, Isaac beget Jacob, Jacob beget Judah and his brothers.”
If we can find our way back, reading without this ending in sight, we can see that the story’s outcome is complicated, that the relationships are complex.
After the initial prophecy to Rebekah and the jockeying in the womb, the boys grow. The differences blossom. Esau, the red one, hairy and strong, beloved of his father, a hunter in the wood. Jacob, the grasper, sly and quiet, dear to his mother, living in the tents.
One day Esau returns from a hunt famished and ready to eat. Jacob offers him stew in exchange for his birthright and, strange as it may seem, Esau takes the bait. The terms are switched, Esau will have 1/3 of his father’s inheritance while Jacob takes the rest.
And in this story no one comes out looking good. It’s ambiguous, a muddle of fear and failure, ambition and anxiety. Jacob is no hero. He’s a plotting usurper, taking advantage of his brother at a vulnerable moment. Jacob sees the expansion of property and wealth as implicit in God’s promise. He sees an opportunity and takes it.
Esau comes across as bumbling and silly, a hungry teenager who makes bad decisions. He’s impulsive and coarse. But at no point does the Bible apply a moral judgment to either of the twins. Their actions are not described as evil, nor are they condoned by God. They act, well, very much like people.
While we may not get a clear moral judgment out of this story, we do discover in Jacob and Esau a caution about trying to make the world work out the way we think God intends it to be.
I have always wondered about those haunting words spoken by God to Rebekah during her pregnancy. “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided.” There’s no indication of how that will come to pass, how one will rule the other, in what ways the elder will serve the younger. There are no directions given, no steps to take.
But Jacob takes it upon himself to make the promise work out in the way he imagines God’s mind is working. Here Jacob is described with the Hebrew word tam. It can mean “whole” or “complete.” It’s a word that can also describes a person of integrity. Clearly, integrity is not a helpful way to describe Jacob. Because of this most English translation settle for translating tam as “quiet.”
But tam has another meaning. It can also be used to describe a kind of religious zeal, a whole-hearted loyalty to the Lord. We can imagine how this could take root. God has chosen him, Jacob, to carry on the line of God’s covenant. And Jacob knows the course this usually takes – inheritance, lineage, power, money, a name. It’s a promise, one that Jacob plans to follow through with steadfast devotion. Jacob is bent on fulfilling this single purpose, and willing to do whatever it takes to make that come about.
And Jacob’s grasping leads to devastation. Scattered throughout Genesis is brokenness, isolation, deception, fighting, and death. Brother against brother, mother against son. Generations of pain and torment.
The breaking point for Esau and Jacob comes when the twins’ father, Isaac, is on his deathbed. In addition to passing down the birthright, the physical inheritance of land and property, the father will place a blessing on each of his children. In a reenactment of the scene we heard today, Jacob disguises himself as his brother and tricks his old, blind father into giving away Esau’s blessing. Esau cries out, “do you only have one blessing? Bless me, too, father!” Isaac places his hand on Esau and tells him these are the only words left for him:
“See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be,
and away from the dew of heaven on high.
By your sword you shall live,
and you shall serve your brother;
but when you break loose,
you shall break his yoke from your neck.”
Esau pledges to kill his twin in retaliation.
Yet, this isn’t where the story ends. These lives will not be separated. They weave in and out, bearing the consequences of the past while always being drawn toward one another. After exile and separation Esau and Jacob are reunited. Jacob sees brother again, as if for the first time, looks on his twin and says, “seeing you is like seeing the face of God.”
We read this text in the same way it is lived out, as a story about winners and losers, the chosen and the rejected. But all the time God is there in the ruins, showing these brothers that there is enough, enough blessing for all, enough love for all, enough of everything. It isn’t simply that God disrupts social formulas and lines of inheritance, God does it in such a way to bring blessing to all, to bring wholeness to creation. This is what Jacob forgets.
I wonder if there’s a piece of Jacob in those of us who worship in churches, those of us who follow after Jesus. We spend a lot of time trying to make sure we’re on the right side of things, to position ourselves to make judgments on the lives of others because we believe God is about choosing some and not others, and most importantly about choosing us. The blessing is that it’s good for us and bad for others. We see this at work in the ruins of history from the Crusades to Zionism.
But with Esau we discover that just because one is chosen does not mean the other is cursed. This is what Jacob forgets. With Esau and Jacob the blessings are bound up together, bound to one another in bodies both similar and different. God is always drawing them back towards one another, even as Jacob is splitting them apart, dividing them up.
The New Testament preserves God’s intention in the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 11 we discover a list of all the people who, by faith, received the promise of God. It’s a lineage of faithfulness, of God’s faithfulness and human response to it. The writer of Hebrews describes these people, one by one. Abel and Rahab, Sarah and Noah.
We might be tempted to read it as a lineage of chosen-ness, who is in and who is out. But then we find Esau, listed beside his brother. “By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau.”
The blessings are intrinsic, Esau and Jacob both blessed, always being drawn together as they were drawn together in Rebekah’s womb.
Rebekah’s miraculous pregnancy stands at the beginning of this story, a reminder that God finds a way, that our anxieties to make the world right discount the surprising ways that God is drawing all things towards good. It is God who finds a way, not us.
The story will continue centuries later with another unexpected pregnancy. Everyone knew how God’s reign would come about on earth. It would come about through trickery, through upsetting political powers, unseating rulers, overthrowing oppressors with the sword and by blood. Enemies would be put to the sword, evil-doers vanquished. Everyone knew whose side God was on and how God would vindicate God’s people.
And instead God sends us a baby, the child of an unmarried teenager, born into poverty, a child who grows up poor and will spend the last three years of his life as an itinerant beggar. This man, God in flesh, Jesus Christ, became the savior of the whole world.
Just when we think we know how God will act, how God intends to be move within history, we find ourselves surprised. We find that God is acting towards good, towards the drawing together, towards gifts that spring up mysteriously, without our willing them, unexpectedly.
We don’t have to make history work out. That’s God’s work. Our work is to be surprised, to look out for the people and places where God is springing up. And when we mess it up, when we take control, when our grasping turns the world to ash, we wait again, wait to see what God is putting back together.