A quote from the Midrash; “Like Abraham and Isaac, Jacob was chosen by God. But God did not hold him close.”
We continue our stroll through the book of Genesis with a story of deceit, craftiness and lies. It is our introduction to one of the most compelling figures in all of The Bible. Jacob both delights and repulses us as we are drawn to his mischievous spirit like a moth to a flame. Jacob is dangerous, Jacob is self-serving, and Jacob is the one chosen to continue the line that runs from Abraham to Mount Sinai. I wonder when Moses was chiseling out the sacred commandments if he thought to himself, “I believe Jacob broke every one of these.”
As often happens in the Old Testament, the story begins in barrenness. Rebekah, the wife chosen for Isaac is unable to have children. Walter Brueggemann wants us to pause and carefully note the sacred significance of birth within the family of Abraham. He writes, “Other families are free to invent and govern their own future. But this family is marked by the promise of an unexpected gift. This promise requires an end to certitude and an embrace of instability. Any pretence that the family is in charge is a deception.”
With this thought we wade right into the story of the lost birthright. In the culture of Isaac, family security was based on a time honored pecking order which radically favored the first born. Societies found great solace in the establishment of rules and regulations which helped to determine a sense of stability within that society. The first born was granted both the family blessing and the birthright. Each established who would be in charge of the family fortune. With Isaac’s wealth, this would be quite a financial windfall. But something bigger than the claim of a few acres of land was transpiring. When Isaac prays for a son, he is not just praying for an heir. Isaac is praying for the continuation of a holy promise. Isaac is relinquishing any claim on the one that God delivers. If there had been only one son, God’s claim and societies expectations might have existed simultaneously. But Rebekah was pregnant with twins, marking the beginning of a lifelong conflict.
Many of my heroes come from that long list of men and women who have consciously made the decision to transgress against the laws of society because they were called by God to observe a holier directive. Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonheoffer and Dorothy Day were not without flaws. But basically they were good, descent folks following a holy and often dangerous mandate to perform unselfish acts of justice and compassion. Jacob, the second born, possessed none of these qualities and yet Jacob, the second born, is the one called by God to fulfill the covenant made with Abraham. What on earth did God see in Jacob?
The story tells us Jacob and Esau began fighting in the womb. Esau was the first born but Jacob was holding on to his brother’s ankle at birth. All his life Jacob wanted to be first but in birth and in life Jacob was physically too small to overcome his brother. Esau became hunter; Jacob became the gardener. Esau would pick up his bow and dash into the woods. He was motivated by the thrill of the hunt. Jacob planted seeds and waited. The hunt might last a couple of days but the harvest took an entire season. Jacob the schemer learned a valuable lesson that served him well. Jacob the schemer developed patience.
When the time was right, Jacob began to cook a pot of stew. Slowly he allowed the soup to develop that distinctive flavor which only comes when one is patient enough to allow each ingredient to celebrate its uniqueness. Jacob sat, waiting for the aroma and the moment to intersect. His patience was rewarded when both the soup and his brother came to a boil. Home from a long hunt, Esau was drawn to the smells that dominated the camp sight.
“Little brother, I am famished. Give me a bowl of whatever it is you are cooking.”
“Dinner is still a couple of hours away. You can wait just like the rest of us.”
“I will be dead in two hours. I know the soup is ready. What’s wrong with me eating now?”
“If you want to eat now, it will cost you.”
“Anything you ask. Just quit talking and start serving.”
“You can have all the soup you want if you will give me your birthright.”
“My birthright! What kind of deal is that?
“It is the only one on the table.”
Esau, intoxicated by the aroma of the stew threw his hands up in the air and declared, “What good is my birthright if I am dead before dinner? I still have the blessing.”
Patience won the day, just as it would years later when Jacob was trying to win the hand of Rachael from his Uncle Leban. But that is another story. As this legend is shared by Jacob’s descendents who are held captive in Babylon, the lesson to be learned is Israel might be small, Israel might be second-rate, Israel might even be in exile, but those who wait on the Lord can trust in the sureness of God’s promise.
If we stop here and acknowledge that Esau had a major role in his own demise, maybe we could live with Jacob. But the boy was just getting started. With the birthright in his back pocket, Jacob schemes for the whole enchilada. How hard could it be to trick an old man into bestowing the family blessing upon his younger son? In this case, it was easier than one might imagine. It is as if Isaac knew what was happening and simply got out of the way. Still, we don’t particularly care for our heroes stealing candy from babies or committing fraud against someone who is on their way to the nursing home. As much as we want to like Jacob, his priorities kept destroying his family. He acquired both the birthright and the blessing but could use neither. Jacob ended up having to flee for his life. Conventional wisdom suggests this is the kind of trouble you run into when you step outside the mores of an established culture. Godly wisdom would suggest that God works mysterious wonders even when the chosen display no Godly qualities.
Our New Testament reading from the book of Romans claims, “There is no condemnation for those in Christ for they have been set free from the law of sin and death.”
Was the story of Jacob an early encounter with the grace of God? That would mean the resurrection of Christ was the public demonstration of what God had been doing all along? God has always condemned sin. But could Jacob be an example of how God’s grace has always been part of the human equation? Follow the story. In the coming weeks we shall see God never stopped loving Jacob and Jacob never stopped trusting completely in himself. And yet God eventually blesses Jacob and gives him the name Israel. Translated it means, “The one with which God wrestled.”
How appropriate! Who among us does not find ourselves in some form of wrestling match with God? Our existence is difficult and uncertain. Often in desperation or even self-preservation we dare claim privileges over life and death as if OUR birthright is our most prized possession.
Then, like Jacob, we are forced to stare into the wilderness of our own discontent. This wilderness is an exile void of cultural privilege and expectations. This wilderness exposes everything as it really is rather than how we would prefer it to be. The wilderness is empty of human benevolence but filled with Godly possibilities. Like Moses and later Jesus, Jacob went into the wilderness to face his demons and discovered the presence and grace of God.
It would be so perfect to say end this story pretending Jacob saw the error of his ways and turned his life around. But Jacob, the poster child for human behavior will not surrender his birthright so easily. The purposes of God and the self-interests of Jacob continued to be in tension for the remaining days of his life. God never deserted Jacob but neither did God embrace the choices of this wayward rebel. Such is the confounding ambiguity of God’s grace. Amen.