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; 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. Afterwards 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 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. 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.
Worth The Struggle
Let's begin with a disclaimer: I don't know many people who would say they were born into the 'perfect' family. I grew up in a house with 7 children. I’m the middle one…(the well adjusted one, ahem)... and if you know me, then you know what that says about the rest of them. I look up and down the ranks of my family of origin; where people have been, what they’ve done, who has done what to whom… we're not exactly the Brady Bunch…
But as a child, I remember listening to Bible Stories about the people God had chosen through history. They always seemed so distant, and their personalities so foreign. They were presented to me as almost perfect; and if not perfect- perfectly repentant. The innocence of Mary… the patience of Job… the passion of David… the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob... When we talked about the characters of the Bible in Sunday school there was almost sacredness to their names- we sang hymns about them… and had little cut outs of them in robes that we put on felt boards- so safe and pure we could hold them in our hands.
But there was a disconnect. These little cut out people were nothing like me or my family. My family line was filled with dysfunction, and crazy people, and cousins who didn’t care about each other, and brothers who would get into fist fights, and people who would lie and cheat each other. So I got the message, at least on some level, that if God were to use me, I would have to overcome some serious hurdles (and maybe even get some therapy) before I would be worthy of anything.
Someone recently asked why I sometimes bring Bible stories into modern day- why I write sermons that contain things like, little Isaac listening to an IPod, or Abraham trying to navigate a FaceBook account… and I told them- so that I can help us see ourselves in these people- so that they can be more to us than some little cut out on a felt board from 3000 years ago who we have nothing in common with… so that we can see that they are more like us than we have been taught to think… and that if God can use them… then maybe God can use us… despite where, or how, or with whom we grew up.
Now, a brief look at the family tree of Abraham up to this point…
We start with Abe… rich old Abraham- he is married to Sarah- but he is not the model husband (at least by modern standards) He has a son Ishmael (with Hagar) and then another late in life child, Isaac (with Sarah) Not only do the boys grow up in a family with older parents, but two different birth mothers living in the same household. This surely brought about sibling rivalry… talk about dysfunction… but then, if you are Isaac, you see your older brother get thrown out into the street with his Mom… oh, and when you are just about to hit puberty, your dad brings you up a mountain, ties you to an altar and almost slits your throat! How do you get that image out of your head- divine intervention or not!
So little Isaac grew up with some problems! He grows up closer to his mother than his Dad…. (big surprise there…) and overall he was pretty passive. That happens I suppose, when you are the predestined child of the covenant. Your life is pretty much mapped out from the start. You are told from birth that God will be continuing the covenant through you… what else is there to know? Others have shaped and manipulated Isaac's life from before his birth… he doesn’t even pick his own wife- Papa Abe does that for him when he is… wait for it... 40!
But meanwhile, Papa Abe hasn’t slowed one bit. He has taken on a new wife, and at 100 and something years old, he has six more sons… (and we don’t know how many girls- most of the time they aren’t mentioned in the Bible.)
Enter full of life, bubbly Rebeka- Isaac’s new young wife who has come from a family of crafty, manipulative folk who’s parents make a deal to give Becky in marriage and at the last minute try to cancel out on that deal… but they do give her a last minute blessing before she leaves the homestead- "Have lots of kids!"
Now lets get to the story:
Twenty years into the marriage, Becky and Isaac still have no kids- and maybe because Becky is unhappy, or maybe to fulfill some sense of covenant, or maybe to repeat the narrative of his father… Isaac finally shows some initiative… and goes to God and prays for a child. And God grants his request… Rebecca gets pregnant.
But while they are in the womb, the babies… and here is how it is literally translated… 'smash each other'!" These kids start fighting before they are even born- and poor Rebecca is so miserable she asks “Why am I even here?” In desperation she seeks counsel and learns that these two won’t get along for most of their lives. This is not exactly a peaceful pregnancy where Mom has the luxury of dreaming of the perfect family.
And mothers who may be reading this- you know how when you are pregnant, well meaning people tell you all those horror stories about childbirth? Well, when these boys are born, the first one, Esau, comes out all red and covered with hair, and the second one, Jacob, comes out right behind him, hanging on to his heel! Not for nothing, but that’s a scary birth story!
To make things worse, the parents, from the beginning, play favorites- Daddy Isaac likes Esau because he liked to hunt (and Isaac loved to eat) and Mom Rebecca loves Jacob- who was more the 'stay at home with Mom and learn to cook,' type.
I’m thinking at this point, Esau isn’t the smartest kid in the class, and also is one of those dramatic types… everything is a crisis… everything is life or death… When he comes in from hunting one day, he is “staaaarving to death” and smells the stew Jacob is cooking- and he has to have it… “Jacob, come on. man! Give me some of that stew!”
Jacob, I believe has inherited the manipulation gene from his Mom’s family- he plays on his brother’s stupidity and sense of drama and taunts Esau… “You want this? This rich, red, meaty stew? Ummmm… its good…” Can you see him swinging the ladle back and forth? And Esau takes the bait… “Come on give it to me…”
And Jacob sing-songs, “Give me your birthright and you can have it.”
And before you know it, the deal is done, and Esau throws away his double portion of the inheritance for a quick fix bowl of lentil soup… by the way, that’s what he ends up with… soup… not the red meat stew he was tempted with…
But swapping out stew for soup is only a glimpse of the way Jacob will trick and swindle in the future… Esau always ends up with the short end of the stick…
Through the whole narrative, we never get a sense that Jacob is a likable guy- he’s a cheat and a liar and manipulates things to insure his own security for most of his life. And it really does make you think- Why would God choose Jacob to be the one to carry on the covenant? Why would God choose a person like that- a self serving product of dysfunction- who none of us want to be like- why would God choose him to continue the promise? It doesn’t seem right…
But go back to Sunday school- we have this supposition, that God can only use us if we measure up to some standard- if we are morally upright, if we change our behavior, if we continually work toward the perfection of the self. We adopt the assumption that God can use us- sure- BUT it’s our job to work hard at it, and constantly be dissatisfied with our own performance; constantly be assessing whether we are good enough or pious enough or strong enough or moral enough… as if in some way, this whole plan of universal redemption has anything at all to do with the way we behave. How small do we think God is?
And further, we tend to think that because we are Christian that we should somehow automatically be able to achieve this perfect family, or have perfect relationships or at the very least, a better self image. We sometimes think… "why would I still be like this if I am really walking in the will of the Lord? Why would I still think the way I do, or try to manipulate things and people and situation for my own benefit? Why can’t I hold on to that warm fuzzy God feeling instead of reverting back to being selfish and self centered? What’s the matter with me?"
We don't stop with the self either. While we’re at it, what’s the matter with our church? Why is our pastor still preaching on healing and reconciliation and unity and forgiveness over and over… what’s wrong with us that we still volley for position? Why do we still want to be looked at as righteous and knowledgeable and spiritual in the sight of others, but we talk about people behind their backs? How can we still care so much about who is getting what and who is doing what to whom… why can’t get it together?
But here’s what I know… that once we start measuring our own performance, or morality, or holiness factor, or anything else to some standard that human beings have set up- then we are missing the vastness of God! We miss out on the fact that God works, not despite our faults and shortcomings, but through them. You’re no secret to God you know… the things you think and do and say and the ways we hurt each other and plan to hurt each other… God knows them all. God created you for crying out loud!
And everything you are- God loves. Everything you think or say or do- God accepts… even the things you are most secretive about or ashamed of… God accepts… And guess what? God still has the power to work through all of it to bring about peace and shalom and righteousness to the world… The change in you- the change in your behavior; the change in the way you relate to others and the world, begins when you realize just that.
I’ve said this before and I’ll continue to say it up until I take my last breath… you can’t do anything to make God love you more than God does at this moment… and you can’t do anything to make God love you less than God does at this moment. I know it’s a stretch to try to believe that… and I know it goes against everything we are taught and everything we experience in this world… and to try to believe it has to be a conscious choice, one that you work at every single day until you are exhausted from thinking about it… but I promise you, that it is so worth the struggle.