Sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Our summer journey through the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs continues. Last Sunday we had the story of the betrothal of Isaac and Rebekah; a romance story, almost fairy tale like in its textures. Tonight we begin to see some of the deeper complexities that emerge in this family’s life on the heels of that fairy tale beginning… it is not so “happily ever after” as the betrothal story might have suggested.
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The first complexity that emerges is the inability of Isaac and Rebekah to conceive. This is a deep problem in their social world, for without children—without heirs—one’s life is seen as only partial. It is doubly problematic for this family, as they themselves are heirs to the promise that Abraham and Sarah would be the first parents to a great people… yet there are no children, no heirs. It will take fully twenty years of married life before Rebekah becomes pregnant; for her, twenty years of dashed hopes and empty promise. “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren,” the narrative tells us. “[And] the LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.” But did he pray through those twenty long years? Or was it only as a last resort, after having to face the truth that on their own he and Rebekah were lost?
Isaac prayed and God answered his prayer, but it is Rebekah who will actually receive a message from the LORD. “The babies jostled each other within her,” the storyteller notes—babies, plural… twins—and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” This is one of those moments that for all the differences between their ancient world and our own, there is something very familiar. How many times have expectant mothers spoken of their baby turning somersaults or practicing a little boxing in their bellies? For some women it can be received as a joyous sign of the life growing within them; for others, it is just exhausting and painful. With twins? All the more. “Why is this happening to me?” Rebekah cries, obviously leaning into the exhausted end of that spectrum. “And so she went to inquire of the LORD.”
Isaac prays, and his prayer is answered. Rebekah prays, and receives a very clear word, not unlike the way Abraham before her had conversed with God. In this second generation family, Rebekah once again seems the stronger and more significant character.
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.
What you are feeling in your belly, Rebekah, is a foretaste of the story to come. Two babies, yes, but also two nations, two peoples; this is what is signified by the wrestling movements that have caused you so much discomfort and pain. “One will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” The older will serve the younger? This is not the way of their world. It is the first-born who has rights and privileges; the first-born who is to be served, and not the other way around.
Rebekah perseveres through her difficult pregnancy, and twin boys are born. “The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau,” probably meaning something like “Rough One.” It is an apt name, as the story will soon reveal. “After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.” The elusive Hebrew word here is “Yaakov”, meaning something like “Heel Holder”, but also “supplanter,” for he is the one who will displace his older twin. “The birth is a gift and a marvel,” observes Walter Brueggemann. “But it comes in conflict. From the beginning, Jacob is destined to be a man of combat. The paradoxical marks of gift and conflict dominate the Jacob narrative.” “[Jacob] is born to a kind of restlessness so that he must always insist, grasp and exploit. His life is a trouble not only for himself but for those around him.”
His life is trouble firstly for his parents, for the storyteller notes that when they grew up “Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents.” What’s more, “Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” I hardly need to tell you that such clear division in a family—such clear differences between a mother and a father in the way they see their children—signals a problem. We have been put on the alert.
“Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, ‘Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!’” You can see it all, can’t you? The rugged hunting man returns from roaming in search of game so hungry he can hardly stand it. Smelling the red bean stew that his brother was cooking, his hunger becomes even more acute. “Jacob replied, ‘First sell me your birthright.’” You can have the stew, but let me have your status as the eldest son, the firstborn. A few verses earlier the storyteller had characterized Jacob as being “a quiet man,” and once again the ancient Hebrew is elusive. Some translations render it “a plain man” or even “a simple man,” but we shouldn’t think for a minute that Jacob was somehow gentle or without guile. As the stories play out, we’ll see that his quiet is entirely more strategic, even conniving. And he can look his famished brother in the eyes, and bargain for something of the highest value knowing that Esau is more than likely to make the deal.
“‘Look, I am about to die,’ Esau said. ‘What good is the birthright to me?’ But Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So Esau swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. Esau ate and drank, and then got up and left.” A done deal. The big man doesn’t really even know what he’s just done, but Jacob does. The text ends by saying that Esau despised—he belittled or spurned—his birthright, and it is abundantly clear that Jacob is more than ready to take it and hold it, by any means necessary. In the view of the Jewish scholar Robert Alter, the dialogue between the two brothers suggests that “Jacob is a man of legalistic calculation. Perhaps this a quality needed to get and hold onto the birthright, but it hardly makes Jacob sympathetic, and moral ambiguities will pursue him in the story.” That is at least an understatement, for Jacob will again and again show himself to be the consummate shyster, wheeling and dealing and conning his way into privilege. He will eventually be stopped in his tracks—taken down hard, in fact—but that story is a few more Sundays down the road.
In the mean time, what we have before us is a most unusual picture, of a man whose chosenness by God is expressed, lived, even fulfilled, through all kinds of subterfuge and scams. Jacob will do it again and again as the stories progress; his destiny as the next in the line of the patriarchs won by wheeling and dealing. Its not as if this is without consequences, either. It costs him quite dearly in his relationship with his father and brother, and later with his uncle Laban. It will even leave him wounded and limping when he finally has to face down the very God who has chosen him.
And yet it would appear that this God is less concerned about the kind of upright, moral religiosity so often claimed as essential by those who number themselves as God’s people. It would appear, in short, that God is quite prepared to work with some rather unsavory raw material. “The last shall be first,” Jesus would later proclaim, and though we might tend to think in terms of the oppressed or the weak or the marginalized, here the “last” is Jacob; the second-born son who cons his way to what he wants, and is claimed by God as one of the “first” parents of this faith.
When you stop and think about it, if God can work with material so raw as Jacob—the “Heel Holder” and the “supplanter”—surely God can work with all of us.