July 13, 2014
There are lots of just plain weird stories in the Book of Genesis. Remember a couple of weeks ago when we talked about Abraham’s aborted attempt to sacrifice his son Isaac? Now today the story is about two of Abraham’s grandchildren. The narrative that starts the Esau and Jacob saga sounds like the kind of story that gets told around campfires and on barstools when folk are congratulating themselves about how much better they are than some other people.
The Israelites didn’t get along with the Edomites, or the Reds, whom they claimed were all descended from Esau. So folk loved hearing the story about how Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. As the blogger Rick Morely says it, “The punch-line is that the great-great-grand-daddy of the Edomites was a hairy, brutish, blue-collar dunce who sold his most valuable possession for a bowl full of bean stew. Or, ‘red stuff.’”
At first glance it’s easy to read this story as just another testimony of how dysfunctional families can be. Not only was there that Abraham/Isaac attempted sacrifice thing, but Abraham also sent his other son Ishmael off into the wilderness to die. Then, of course, there’s the story of those other brothers Cain and Able. Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to the Egyptians. But I don’t think family dysfunction is supposed to be the main takeaway here. I think a lot of the stories in Genesis and much of the Hebrew Scriptures are trying to get at the questions like, “Why are we the way we are? Why is there so much violence, so much suspicion, so much fear and jealousy not only between nations and clans but even in our own families? Why can’t we all get along?
I think it’s pretty hard to find a hero in this story of Esau and Jacob, or the many stories like it. I don’t know that I would want to lay claim to either Jacob or Esau as my progenitor. And as hard as many Jewish and Christian commentators who have, over the centuries, tried to ignore or present the shortcomings of Biblical characters like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob as virtues, they are, I think, doing the storytellers a disservice. I think we are meant to hear the stories of these flawed heroes. If for nothing else, we are all flawed heroes who God, nevertheless, imagines we can change the way we live with each other.
Just look at what’s going on in Israel and Palestine right now. Or Syria. Or South Sudan. Or Iraq. Or Guatemala City. Or the Capitol Building in Washington DC. On Native American reservations and settlements in the U.S. and Canada. In border areas. Maybe in our neighbor’s home. Or maybe our own homes. The violence, the oppression, the abuse, the lack of respect and compassion, this us against them mentality goes all the way back to Jacob and Esau and farther. And we all know we don’t have to live this way, but we do. It’s not some other world that we read about in stories that needs redeemed, but the one we live in. The one Jesus came to. That’s why we have the stories the way they were written.
So what do we do? How do we stop living this way? How could the story of Jacob and Esau be rewritten? How could some of our stories be rewritten?
Esau, it appears, couldn’t see beyond the next few minutes. I would get into a lot of interesting conversations when I was working with kids at the Juvenile Detention Home. I remember asking one of the girls what she wanted to do with her life. Her response was she hoped she got out of the DH before the party on Friday night. That’s an Esau response.
Jacob, on the other hand, knew exactly what he wanted and knew how to get it. He was planning on stealing his brother’s birthright, it appears, from the womb. He even schemed with his mother Rebekah from his young days about how to accomplish that task. He was willing to do whatever it took.
Imagine a different story for these twins. Mary and I are anxiously awaiting the birth of our twin granddaughters which could take place any day now. I hope they have a better relationship than Esau and Jacob did. But if they come out of the womb with Mae grabbing hold of Rose’s ankle, I guess we will have to keep an eye on things.
What if Jacob and Esau had decided they were going to fight the dysfunction in their family rather than surrender to it. What if they had decided to work together for something good, than be rivals from the womb?
I think most relationships–siblings, families, workplaces, schools, churches, to neighborhoods, nations, the created order–would be so much better if we didn’t buy into this idea that everything is a zero sum notion that somebody else’s gain means my loss. And the things people end up fighting are often not all significant. There’s that old saying about the reason University departments fight so much between themselves is because the stakes or so small.
I realize that this story of Jacob and Esau goes way back when things were really different than they are now. But, it does seem a bit unfair that because Esau was born, according to the story, seconds before Jacob, that Esau got all the inheritance when Isaac died, and Jacob got nothing. But that idea isn’t all that old. This country was populated by second and third and fourth sons, who like Mary’s Finnish ancestors, came from places where the first born son got everything and the younger sons nothing.
What if Esau could have realized that maybe he and Jacob could work together to create something better? Sure, Esau would have had to give up some of his inherited money, but there was much else he could have gained by working with his brother for something good, rather than working against each other for something unjust. And there still are so many family disputes over money.
When people are working together, trying to draw good things out of each other, whether we are talking about families, neighborhoods, churches, or nations, wonderfully good and surprising things happen. In the climate crisis work that is being done there is a lot of talk about negative feedback loops, or things snowballing. For example, when the tundra begins to melt because of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the melting tundra releases more carbon dioxide which only speeds up the melting of the tundra. But there is also positive feedback that comes when people are drawing good things out of each other. It all snowballs in a good way. We see each other differently. We can forgive more easily. We can understand more about each other.
Most people know I love and treasure Oberlin. You may have seen that thing on our mantle that Mary got me a long time ago that says “I wasn’t born in Oberlin but I got here as fast as I could.” Yet, there are some things I find pretty irritating about this community, the chief one being is how quickly we mistrust each other’s motives. I think Oberlin has more mind readers per capita than any community in America. So often I hear people telling me what some other person is really thinking, or what they are really trying to do, or what they really meant. Usually it seems to me that person or group seems to be actually trying to suggest or accomplish something that can be of help to the whole community. But the mind readers assure me they are just looking out for themselves.
It’s bad enough to have that attitude toward acquaintances and strangers, assuming that their motives are bad and that they are trying to take advantage of you or don’t really care about you. But it’s even worse when that happens with people we are closest to. I am amazed sometimes how quickly people can attribute bad motives to people who they love and respect.
I heard a story about the time a person got a very angry response to an email he sent out. The person he heard from was a person who was a good friend, someone he had worked on projects with, been in church with. But she was livid and she told others about how angry and disappointed she was with him. Finally, it occurred to this guy to ask the woman to sit down with him and go over the original email, because she was accusing him of things and assuming things of him that were so contrary to everything about him. And when they read the email together, she realized that she had simply misread it. He didn’t say anything in that email she accused him of.
It was nice to get the matter resolved, but he was left with these lingering thoughts of why she so quickly jumped to all those wrong assumptions. They were friends. She knew what she thought the email said wasn’t anything like him, and in fact contradicted much of what she knew about him. So why wasn’t her first thought I must have read this wrong? Or even if she hadn’t read it wrong, why didn’t she think, boy he’s really having a bad day, or had a rough spell of things?
Instead of ripping into him because she thought he said something so contradictory to his beliefs and nature, she could have thought he could use some support right now, because this is not the way he is. But too much of the time we don’t do that. And we shouldn’t really get caught by surprise by stories like Esau and Jacob. We know these stories.
Now there are, of course, some people whose motives you ought to question. They aren’t looking to bring out the best in you or find ways to work together. It’s all zero sum for them. They want what they want and are going to do anything to get it. There were plenty of folk that Jesus didn’t trust. He did say, after all, we need to be as wise as serpents, because there are a lot of snakes out there. But he also said that even when we are dealing with the serpents, we need to be as gentle as doves.
Somehow the Jacob/Esau, Cain/Able cycles need to be, if not broken, at least dented a bit. I think Jesus was showing us the only way we are going to stop living this way is to stop living this way. Sure there are folk who are never going to be your best buddies or regain your trust. But we can still try to regard them as more than brutish dunces. Who knows why they have been off their game for so long? Maybe there are ways to, at least, bring out a bit of the better in them if we can’t find anything you would call the best. But some of these folk are going to continue to be a part of our lives and we can’t let them determine how we are going to live.
Towards the end of Acts 10 we read one of the great sermons of the early church when Peter is in the house of Cornelius in Caesarea. “…Jesus went through the country helping people and healing everyone who was beaten down by the Devil. He was able to do all this because God was with him. ‘And we saw it, saw it all, everything he did in Israel and in Jerusalem where they killed him, hung him from a cross.’”
Nobody lived a better life than Jesus. But even his motives were questioned. See how crazy it can get. But he was determined to live a better way, the way of God’s realm. And he trusted he was on the right path, the path of life. Nobody knew better than Jesus about the dysfunctions that run so deeply in ourselves, our families, our workplaces, schools, and churches, in our politics, and our nations. But he also knew we don’t have to keep reliving the story of Jacob and Esau, or Joseph and his brothers, or the children of Israel and the Edomites. He bet his whole life trusting that if we opened ourselves to the ways of God that we actually could help each other live different lives.
Esau and Jacob didn’t choose to live that other way. That’s why this is a cautionary tale. We can end up where they did, or follow Jesus along a different path and write a better story.