WE LIVE, WE LOVE: What is your name? Genesis 25 19-28
Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church November 18, 2018
There’s a phrase I hear repeated over and over in my house, the phrase “it’s not fair.” “It’s not fair that he got more dessert than I did.” “It’s not fair that he got more time playing video games than me.” “It’s not fair that I always have to feed the guinea pigs and he doesn’t.” And often, when I weary of this eternal complaint I reply by saying simply “life is not fair.” This week I’ve been tempted to add “and if you think things are unfair in our day and age, then it’s a good thing you weren’t born in the time of Jacob and Esau.”
In ancient times the distribution of wealth in families was very unfair by contemporary standards. Land, money, possessions were all passed from one generation to the next through one channel and one channel only from father to eldest son. What we see in the story of twin brothers Jacob and Esau we see an attempt by God to turn the tables and give the inheritance not to the eldest son, but to the youngest. As if to say, when God enters the scene be prepared for what is humanly prescribed and culturally and socially expected to be overturned.
I use the word “attempt” here because although Jacob, the younger of the twins does end up inheriting his father Isaac’s estate and more importantly the blessing that had been passed on from Abraham before him that he would be the father of a great nation, the way in which Jacob secures that inheritance involves trickery and deceit and results in a whole lot of animosity and suffering in the family.
The story begins with Rebecca, barren for 20 years, finally conceiving not one but two children. Her husband Isaac who has wondered how he would be the father of a great nation if his wife could not conceive has prayed to God to receive this blessing and at last it has arrived. But all is not well in Rebecca’s womb. The pregnancy is a difficult one and it feels to her that there is a constant struggle going on within. Deeply invested in the life growing within her she wonders what she is to do. How is she to live with this discomfort, with this turmoil within her?
So she prays to God for guidance. God responds that within her womb are two nations and the two children born of her will be divided. One will be stronger than the other and the eldest will serve the youngest.
Over the years, this passage has been used to speak of Divine favoritism also known as Divine election. This is where we get the concept of Israel as the chosen people. Up until this point in history, God has tried to bring about a universal way, which has not worked, and now an elected group will attempt to do so.
But in my own reading of this text I find myself wondering if this passages isn’t more descriptive than prescriptive. What if what’s happening here is Divine commentary on human behaviour rather than Divine sanction for it. In other words, what if God is declaring that division and strife is what ensues when we play favorites. It’s just the way it is.
When Jacob and Esau are born we see that they are barely making their way in the world before their parents Isaac and Rebecca have taken up opposing positions, Isaac favoring outdoorsy and adventurous Esau and Rebecca favouring the quiet homebody Jacob. Before long, Rebecca is plotting with Jacob how they are going to pull the wool over his brother Esau’s eyes to secure his birthright and how they are going to pull the wool over aging Isaac’s blind eyes and trick him into giving Jacob the blessing Rebecca believes that he deserves more than his older brother Esau. As the story unfolds in the chapters beyond this morning’s reading, we see that favouritism begets favouritism, deceit begets deceit and so it goes.
It’s a story fraught with complexity that has woven its way through human history and still persists today. This way of being in which we declare one person or one nation more favoured than the other has been adopted by our culture and our history is steeped in it. This is the stuff that has led to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike to declare they are the divinely chosen ones. It’s what religious wars are fought over. This is the division we see in our own United Church of Canada, when some believe their way of interpreting God is more righteous and we end up fighting with one another in a way that is most unbecoming to a Christian community. This is the stuff of Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump arguing over who has bigger weapons and the right to use them to rule the world. This is Israel and Palestine waging war against one another because some are still trying to cash in on what they believe is their Divinely inherited right to the land. This is the standoff at Oka. This is the stuff of estranged family members fighting over their parent’s will.
As we have witnessed over and over again in this series we’ve been engaged in the last several weeks there is no shortage of ways we humans fail in our relationships and end up in a mess. If there is anything redemptive in the story of Jacob and Esau perhaps it is that despite our persistence in being the ones who like Jacob continue to grasp at the heels of our brothers and sisters wanting to be who we are not and taking what is not ours or in the best of who Jacob is wanting to overturn systems of oppression but doing it in ways that continue to cause harm, God continues to persist in blessing us and in using us to bring about blessing in our world.
In fact I wonder if what this story is really saying is that it’s actually in and through conflict that divine purposes are carried out. Not that God condones the conflict but that God is revealed to us in and through the mess.
This week I was on a conference call with a group of colleagues from the states. One of them who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico said she didn’t realize how much the political scene was affecting her until after the mid-term elections and her candidate won. She then went on to ask the group if anyone knew about gatherings that were being hosted around the US to bring together Democrats and Republicans for dialogue. Intuitively she knew that even though her favoured candidate has one, the way forward for a nation as divided as the US is right now is not through pitting one candidate against the other, it’s through people at the grassroots who care enough about their country and the people in it to sit down at table and listen to one another until they can find a common ground. Her desire for reconciliation is so great, she sees her country in such need of grace that she is willing to pray for it and work for it.
The same principal is at work in Israel and Palestine through programs that intentionally bring together people from both communities who have become convinced that the only way to true and lasting peace is through putting weapons aside and working together on projects that promote better understanding between them.
Here in our own country, Reconciliation Canada creates dialogue circles for those who want to take seriously our need to be in right relationship with our indigenous brothers and sisters. And it’s hard work. People lean on whatever faith and belief systems they have to help them through the process.
Even Esau and Jacob after years of estrangement find their way back into each other arms when after a night of facing the truth about his deceptive ways Jacob comes face to face with God and finds the courage to return home again. After all their years apart it turns out Esau just wanted to put the past behind him and be reunited with the brother who had shared his mother’s womb.
For as much as we do mess up as human family, our longing for love and right relationship is stronger than all that divides us. When what divides us causes rifts so deep we wonder if we will ever be able to mend them over and over again what we see happen is a kind of an awakening, a siren call for our souls. It’s in moments such of these that God the Spirit of love and life itself gets working again, upending what has become oppressive, turning around all that humanity puts in place to keeps us from one another, rising up in our midst in the way we see people rising up in the streets to protest for what is just and fair. Sometimes it takes generations to turn things and the places that love is found seem few and far between but in the end love always rises to the challenge.
That’s what’s at the heart of the Christian faith. Not that we are chosen to be more superior to anybody else, but that we carry a belief that love and blessing are free for all.
In the Jewish tradition, one of the ways the story of Jacob and Esau is interpreted is very personal. It’s said that every story found in the Torah is not just about the history of Israel, it’s a story about every one of us. One way of looking at the story is to say we are all Rebecca, each one of us having two souls within us. The Jacob soul is the inclination to do good. The Esau soul is the inclination to do bad or only to be concerned with our own needs and desires. Each of these two parts seeks to be the sole ruler over the small city that is each one of us. It accounts for the inner struggle that we so often have with failing to do the good we intend, with lashing out at one another in jealousy, fear and ignorance instead of leading first with curiosity and grace.
I’m not convinced that this dualistic way of viewing ourselves is all that helpful. After all there’s not much that’s likeable about Jacob in the biblical account of his life and Esau doesn’t seem that bad to me. There’s even a lovely part in the story in which Esau begs his father for his blessing after Jacob has stolen it. And isn’t that what all of us want in the end of the day, simply to be blessed?
We long for life to be just and fair, for an ordered world where we get what we think we deserve, where right is right and wrong is wrong. What we get instead is a messier kind of existence where there is conflict and hurt, deception and alienation and the midst of it all love, grace and blessing, a right of birth for each and every one of us.