Jacob and Esau
Through June & July, we are exploring characters and events in the book of Genesis. As we reflect on these stories, we are asking the questions: what does it mean to follow God? How does God fulfil his promises through these flawed people? And what can we learn from them? Last week we explored the story of Rebekah, who married Isaac, and was mother of Jacob and Esau. This week we turn to the story of Jacob and Esau.
19 This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Isaac.
Abraham became the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.
21 Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.
23 The Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. 26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.
27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)
31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.
34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.
So Esau despised his birthright.
And so begins the family history of Esau & Jacob, twins born to Isaac & Rebekah, after 20 years of marriage without bearing children. A prayer answered, a longing fulfilled, and the surprise of twins. Sometimes God gives us more than we bargain for when we pray!
1. Who's the favourite?
From the birth, there's an image of rivalry & struggle between these brothers, even within the womb. Can you imagine them growing, jostling for space, pushing their way to get out first? Esau gets ahead but Jacob follows grabbing Esau's heal. One translation puts it like this: "And the children clashed together within her.” (Robert Alter's Genesis: Translation and Commentary)
The pregnancy is so unusual that Rebekah wonders what is happening to her and asks God for an answer. And the answer speaks of difference, rivalry, and division, hinting that the youngest son will come out on top. Unfortunately, this is magnified by the favouritism shown by Isaac towards Esau & by Rebekah towards Jacob. And so the rivalry grows.
As individuals we can choose which of our thoughts, desires and behaviours we feed and encourage. If you’re a parent, you can also choose which aspects of your children’s character and behaviour to nurture or discourage. We can learn a lesson from this story, to resist favouritism and division. We can choose not to collude with the inevitable rivalry between brothers and sisters, so that it does not grow. I want my children to grow up knowing that they are of equal value in the eyes of their parents and in the eyes of God, so that the rivalry withers and their appreciation and love for each other flourishes as they grow up.
Favouritism should also have no place within the church family. In the New Testament, the letter of James puts it bluntly: “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism”, particularly if it’s based on a person’s wealth and social status. (James 2:1-13)
2. One sweet now, or two sweets later?
Siblings, even twins, can look the same but be very different personalities and characters. Jacob is portrayed as a home boy, hanging onto his mums apron strings, able to cook, clever but sometimes manipulative. Esau is portrayed very different, more physical, a skilled hunter who loves the outdoors, perhaps what some people these days might describe as a "mans man". But he’s also more impulsive, he’s a "one sweet now" rather than a "two sweets later" kind of person.
And as the brothers grow into adults, Jacob sees an opportunity to get ahead. He takes advantage of Esau’s appetite and hunger after a long day’s hunting. And Jacob tricks Esau into swapping his birth-right for a bowl of stew! This is not just Jacob sparring with his brother. Jacob is careful to make sure that Esau swears on oath to make it a binding agreement.
Now Jacob wasn’t innocent here, but Esau didn’t do himself any favours. He seems to only care about his bodily appetite in that moment. His hunger overshadows everything else and he doesn’t care about his future. The bible puts it like this: “So Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34)
Jesus teaches that it’s good to live in the present, and not to worry about the future (Matthew 6:25-34). But that is different from living only for the now, and not caring about the future. Jesus calls us to live in the now and to live for God’s coming kingdom. So, following Jesus will include denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following him, that we may gain life. (Matthew 16: 24-26)
In the New Testament, Hebrews chapter 11 refers to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and picks up on the idea of their faith as looking forward to what God would do in the future. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1)
Let’s live in the present but let’s live for God’s future, making decisions in the light of God’s coming kingdom.
3. Big picture in a small frame
There’s a song by a lady called JJ Heller called Big Love, Small Moments. The chorus goes like this:
“Big magic in the mundane
The big picture in a small frame
Everything is sacred when you take time to notice
Big love happens in the small moments”
In many ways, the story of Jacob is Gods big story in the small frame of Jacobs life. You can read the whole story of Jacob and Esau in the book of Genesis chapters 25-36. That’s about a quarter of the book of Genesis, so it’s a significant story. But in brief.
· God chooses Jacob.
· Jacob encounters God unexpectedly when he’s at a low point.
· God promises to be with Jacob, to watch over him, and to bless him.
· Jacob responds by putting his trust in God and begins to follow God’s lead.
· And for many years, God works on Jacob, blesses him, watches over him, and leads him home.
But this raises some questions.
a) Why did God choose Jacob rather than Esau? Was Jacob more deserving of Gods favour?
NO. At least no more or less than Esau. I’m sure Jacob had some good qualities. But he could also be deceitful and manipulative. Yet God chooses him and makes promises to him and journeys through life with him. God doesn’t wait for him to sort himself out or become good enough. No, God gets involved while he’s a deceitful schemer!
Jesus illustrates this in his earthly life. Responding to a complaint that he ate and drank with unrespectable people, Jesus replies with a hint of sarcasm: “It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
The Apostle Paul, picks up this theme in the New Testament “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans: 5:6-8)
And so it is with us. God doesn’t want you to wait until you’re “good enough” to pray, to receive his forgiving love, to be a part of his big family, to start following Jesus. The invitation is for now. Don’t put it off!
b) Did Gods promise mean Jacob got an easy ride?
NO. For Jacob there were lifelong consequences to his deceitful schemes. For example, he caused lasting damage to his relationship with his father and his brother. His brother became so angry with Jacob that he had to leave the family home and be separated from the mother who loved him.
Our actions do have consequences. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul puts it like this: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A person reaps what they sow. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7-9)
Think of your life as a garden and choose to plant the sort of seeds which will grow into good fruit and beautiful flowers!
c) Did God leave Jacob as he was?
NO. As the story unfolds, God works on Jacob, teaching him lessons in the school of life, perhaps smoothing off some of his rough edges, and humbling him. For example, Jacob meets his match when he seeks refuge with his Uncle Laban, who takes advantage of Jacobs obvious attraction to one of his daughters – Rachel. After seven years hard work, Laban tricks Jacob into first marrying his eldest daughter Leah. Then Jacob has to work for another seven years in order to pay for the privilege of marrying his beloved Rachel. Now he knew what it felt like to be tricked and deceived!
God loves us so much that he accepts us as we are, but God also loves us so much that he is not content to leave us as we are. God may be working in us, but God also works on us like a potter or a stone-mason or a sculptor. God wants to set us free from sin and destructive habits, god wants to mend our brokenness, and to restore the image of God in us. And that might mean some difficult experiences, some testing times, when we learn compassion, or humility, perseverance or faith.But in the New Testament, the letter of James encourages us to find purpose in difficult times: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
d) Did God have a greater purpose for Jacob? YES
In Genesis chapter 35, towards the end of the story, God gives Jacob a new name - Israel. And those two names, Jacob and Israel, became synonymous. The God of Jacob is the God of Israel. It is from Jacobs children that the 12 tribes of Israel get their names. God was forming a people who he would send to be a light for the rest of the world, and out of whom would come the Messiah, Jesus. And following Jesus, the church becomes the new Israel with the mission to go into all the world and share God’s light and love and with the promise that he will be with us as we go.
Who can tell what small part we might be playing in Gods big plan to renew the whole of creation? Let’s keep listening for what God is saying to us, believe Gods promises and follow Gods lead. God has made this most clear in the life and teaching of Jesus. And God has given us the Holy Spirit to help us to know Jesus and follow Jesus in our lives.
Almighty and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified:
hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people,
that in their vocation and ministry
they may serve you in holiness and truth
to the glory of your name;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Questions to think about or discuss:
How has favoritism affected you, your family or your church? What are some practical ways of avoiding favouritism and treating people equally?
Think of a decision you or your church might be facing. What would it look like to make a decision in the present, but with regard to God's future?
How does Jacob's journey of life and faith relate to your own journey of life and faith? Do you see any similarities or differences? What have you learned from his walk with God?