The story of Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob is absolutely rich (Genesis 25:19-34). The details given let us know that the story was meant to be fodder for lots of discussion around the campfires and dinner tables of old, and here we are considering it again today. That’s a good sign that we’ve tripped onto an epic story. And it is.
Isaac, now married for some undisclosed period of time (long enough to know he and Rebekah are having fertility issues), prays for help. God answers his cry and their attempts at getting pregnant take shape, even though they are, like Abraham and Sarah, on the older side (Isaac is 60 when they conceive). The longer the pregnancy goes, the harder it is for Rebekah. So hard, in fact, that she cries out to God in agony, wishing she were dead! God hears her cry and explains why her pregnancy is particularly uncomfortable: she’s carrying twins. (Aside: note that this is yet another time in this foundational story of Judaism where God responds to a woman’s cry. That’s significant in a patriarchal age when women were treated as property and had little social voice.) Making matters worse, Rebekah learns that the two children she iscarrying are competitive, even wrestling in utero, and when the delivery comes, Jacob is holding the heel of his hairy brother. The stage is set – two brothers who struggle from the get-go.
More critical details are provided in this introduction to these two boys who will largely define how Israel thinks of themselves and the world around them. Dad prefers Esau, Mom prefers Jacob. Esau is a skilled outdoorsman, bringing home lots of game, and Jacob is the student who prefers to stick around the office of the family business. He likes to cook, too, and does a good job of it with Esau’s spoils. As soon as readers stop and pay even a little attention to these details, they must be caught up in it. Because readers were born at some point and understand the dynamics created if favorites are clearly known. If we don’t have firsthand experience, we have seen it. These details beg some questions.
How would favoritism potentially be recognized by each kid? Imagine it for a while. How do they know they are favorites? How might that feel? How would it be recognized by onlookers outside the family? How might that impact how they treat these two boys? How does being a favorite (or not) mess with a kid’s identity, self-worth, and vision? What kind of foundation is created when favoritism is present?
One result is competition. Esau is technically the firstborn (by five minutes), and is Dad’s favorite. That puts him on the top of the food chain. Whether or not he knows it is somewhat irrelevant because Jacob definitely knows it – he’s felt it all his life. And he doesn’t like it. And with the help of Mom, he is going to change it.
“The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” This is statistically accurate (and not just for men). My wife lured me into her web with Beef Stroganoff. I was a goner. Esau came in from a hunting expedition tired and hungry. Jacob was ready with his famous Lentil Stew. Esau let his hunger override his mind and control his mouth. Before he knew it, he took an oath relinquishing his pole position to Jacob. My guess is he didn’t really take it seriously. Didn’t matter – the deed was done. Another piece of the drama to chew on that begs more questions.
What does this scene tell us about the character of Esau and Jacob, that one would treat something so precious as to give it up so flippantly, and that the other would orchestrate such a deceptive transaction (which was a set up for the much more deviant move to come later with Isaac)? How is this story an allusion to all the stories that are coming later that include rival tribes? What does it say about core character issues not just with Jacob, but with Israel herself, which is what he represents? Better refill your drink and get some more chips – there is a lot to process here!
Good literature does exactly what we see here. One reason classic books are classic is because the author has done a good job setting things up in the beginning, and works them out throughout the story. That’s what we are invited to work with here – much more than a simple check box to help us know that Jacob somehow became the patriarch of what would become the Jewish nation. Of course, if we are slowing down enough to sit with a text like this, our gaze will eventually turn to ourselves and our world.
Have you spent much time processing how your beginning story has informed the whole of your story? Are you aware that you never really outgrow your story, that it is woven into the fabric of who you are and will continue to be? Or have you stuffed it away, hidden it in a closet or swept it under a rug, thinking that if you ignore it, your origin story will have little effect on you? You may not be paying any attention to it at all, thinking you’re off the hook. Nope. You have been shaped by your story of origin. You may not realize it, but it has been informing your thoughts, feelings and behavior your entire life. And it will continue to do so for the remainder of your life. That’s a fact. How your origin story informs the rest of your story depends on what you’re willing to do with it. Everyone is born to human parents, which means everyone has experienced some form of mess. Your mess may be different than my mess, but it’s all relative, all still a mess, and each of us is invited to be aware of our mess and determine if we want that mess to create more messes in our life.
When we are aware of the mess inherent in our origin story (and the good, beautiful stuff, too), we then have the opportunity to integrate it into our lives to help us grow into who we want to become. Everything belongs in our story (thanks, Richard Rohr). This simple truth doesn’t make the bad stuff we’ve experienced okay, it just simply reminds us that we are complex, composite creatures that have been shaped by innumerable forces from our first breath forward. Our faith provides some hopeful help, here, because what we see as this origin story unfolds is a God who comes alongside to help work things out, to help us in our struggle, to do something redemptive even with the pain we’ve all been through. Not to destroy us, but to help us become more alive and free than we thought our story could allow.
This is why the writer of Psalm 119 had to write the longest Psalm about the Way of God: actually worked! It’s why Paul talked about the futility of rule-keeping legalism in favor of walking in the Way of the Spirit – relationship with God – in his letter to the church in Rome. Over the centuries, ghis Ground of Being we refer to as God has been drawing us in, inviting us to root ourselves in the Spirit-infused Way of life that heals and restores not only ourselves, but serves to bring healing wherever we go. This, of course, begs some questions.
Are you aware of this Way of God that leads to life? Are you aware of how it may be similar or different than the way a lot of the world operates? Are you learning more and more about the Way so that you can be on it and in it?
Jesus knew that simply hearing about the Way wasn’t enough to make a significant difference in life. The seeds of the Way need to be cultivated if we ever want to see fruit. Paying attention to how we cultivate that seed matters. In his parable of the soils, Jesus speaks plainly about why some people hear the Good News of the Way of God but see little impact – their soil is not conducive to growth. Knowing that soil matters might help us be less judging toward others, especially if we know that we are not always in control of the fertility of the soil we find ourselves in. On the other hand, once we know that soil matters, we can do our part to ensure that the soil of our lives is as fertile as possible so that we might experience life in its fullness. Fruit enough for ourselves and plenty of others. This, of course, begs more questions.
What is your soil like? How are cultivating it? What sort of growth are you looking for – what kind of “plant” or you wanting to cultivate?
A friend of mine once said that he and his wife try to parent their children so as to limit the amount of therapy they’ll need in the future. Another friend of mine, when we talk of everyday goofs as well as deeper, uglier stuff we do that naturally affect our children and those around us says, “Well, write that down for the therapist!” More reflection on who we are and who we are becoming is something that benefits everyone – ourselves, who we immediately impact, and far, far beyond what we can imagine. One practice from the distant past that is rooted in our biblical story is the Prayer of Examen. In this time of prayerful, daily reflection (lasting 15-20 minutes), we invite God to help us see ourselves more clearly so that we can pay attention to who we are and who we are becoming. I invite you to try this on for size this week. Pick at time toward the end of your day (I like the end of my work day), and move through this process from Ignatius (or use this video to guide you). It just might help cultivate the soil in such a way that who you really can be might grow and flourish.