While the lectionary extends this passage to verse 34, it would be wise to treat the two periscopes separately, and for this commentary, we will focus on the first section which ends at verse 26. Ordinary Time would be a great season for a series on a biblical character like Jacob, so let’s save the selling of the birthright for a bowl of bean soup for another sermon in that series. Today, we will focus on this unusual birth story.
First of all, note that the theme of barrenness once again manifests in the patriarchal narratives. Sarah was barren, now Rebekah is barren, and later on in the Jacob saga, Rachel will struggle with barrenness as well. In the ancient world, the bearing of children, and particularly sons, was vital to a family’s future. In a culture where women have no legal or property rights, the bearing of sons insures that land and property will be properly handed down and preserved across the generations. It is the way to keep the family name alive. It is the only pathway to “immortality.”
But for this family, even more importantly, the bearing of children is deeply connected to the promise of God and the ongoing work of redemption which God began with the call of Abram (Genesis 12:1-4a). It is through this particular family that God is going to bless and redeem this broken world (Genesis 3-11). Central to God’s call to Abram is the promise of many descendants (like the stars of the heaven, the dust of the earth, and the sand on the seashore – Genesis 12:2; 13:16; 15; 5; 22:17). That’s a lot of descendants.
And so far, the only descendant of Abraham (at least the only one reckoned as the child of promise through Abraham and Sarah) is the only-begotten son, Isaac. SIDEBAR: the author to the Hebrews uses the Greek word monogenēs to speak of Isaac – see Hebrews 11:17. So God’s promise needs to get busy – only one descendant after 100 years!
Now God has blessed Isaac with a beautiful wife (the story of God’s faithfulness in bringing Isaac and Rebekah together is a magnificent tale in Genesis 24). But alas, she too is barren, and this jeopardizes the future of God’s plan and promise. Fortunately we do not have to wait 25 years (as with Abraham and Sarah) for the barrenness to be overcome. Isaac prayed, and God answered his prayer. This is a holy moment in our story – the simple prayer of faith that God not only hears but is pleased to answer.
Rebekah, however, does not seem to be pleased with this answer to prayer. Not only does she conceive, but she carries twins. Not only are they twins, but they are fighting (the Hitpolel of #cr literally means “to push each other around”) in the womb. And Rebekah cries out in misery – “I would rather be dead than suffering through this! Is this what I signed up for?” (This author’s very loose translation).
And suddenly the word of God intrudes into the story – God tells Rebekah, “You don’t just have two kids in your womb… two nations are in there!” I’m sure that news comes as quite a comfort to Rebekah! But God continues, “And the two peoples born of you shall be divided, and one shall be stronger than the other.” This is not surprising. Since the story of our first parents and their two sons (Genesis 4) we have known of sibling rivalry and the jealousy that plagues families and people groups and leads to brokenness and violence. But here is something deeper at work – the beginning of an enmity of people groups that continues to afflict the brokenness of our world. Our world is still scourged by the oppression of the weak by the powerful and privileged.
But the most unexpected pronouncement from God follows: “the elder shall serve the younger.” This inversion, which is the surprising mandate of the Almighty, comes as a complete shock. This is not the way the world works. At least this is not the way that the world is supposed to work, all things being equal. In the world of the patriarchs, the order of the firstborn is as natural as the law of gravity. The firstborn takes the lead in the future of the clan. The firstborn gets a double portion of the family inheritance. The firstborn is the honored one, the respected one, the privileged one. In the given world, it is the younger who is to serve the elder, not the other way around.
But this is the topsy-turvy, upside down, inverted, paradoxical world of the gospel. This is the world of grace, where one does not get what one deserves. Life, calling, and inheritance – all are free gift. This is the world in which “God’s ways are higher than humanity’s ways, and God’s thoughts are deeper than humanity’s thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). This is the world in which “God chooses the foolish, weak, low, and despised things of this world” and confounds the “wisdom of this world” with “the foolishness of God (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). In this story, ordinary conventions are overturned so that the plans, purposes, and promises of God might be revealed in all their illogical glory.
Apparently, the younger twin does not know about God’s unusual decree. At the time of birth the first son comes out of the womb – all red and hairy, and so they name him, appropriately, Esau – which means “hairy red man.” But the younger one wants to be first – he wants the power, the prestige, the privilege, and the possessions that belong to the fortunate firstborn. So as his brother Esau exits the womb, the younger twin grabs his heel (I imagine he is trying to pull him back into the womb so he can be first). Thus, he receives his name, Jacob (meaning heels, heel-grabber, deceiver, manipulator, or trickster). And as so often happens in the biblical story, as his name is, so shall he be.
It is this younger twin – Heels, the Deceiver, the Trickster – who is God’s choice to carry on the family blessing. The choice does not rest on the character of the “choosee” (as Bob Benson loved to say) but in the heart of the chooser. God’s ways are inscrutable, and in God’s unusual choice of a wily and scrappy scoundrel, the gospel story breaks in on our non-gracious world. I don’t know about you, but I am grateful that God loves and chooses scoundrels to be part of God’s story. It’s how a lot of us…no, most of us…in fact, all of us get included in this wonderful story of redemption.
Besides highlighting the inscrutable mystery of grace, this story also reminds us of the brokenness and divisiveness of a world that continually postures to grab for position, power, and privilege. In a world plagued by the Covid 19 pandemic, even God’s people have become divided over protocols like mask-wearing (which we do as an act of love and care for others, and not out of fear or alignment with a particular political party). In a world torn apart by racism and disproportionate violence against black bodies, the church often refuses to own up to its own complicity in attitudes and actions that divide us. As Lord Acton, British historian of 100 years ago, famously said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We have become too infatuated with power, and not mesmerized enough by the scandalous nature of God’s grace.
The way of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the way of the God embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…” (Philippians 2:6-7). As we enter into the saga of Jacob, God’s Scoundrel, let us remember that God has called us to this alternative way of life – a way that is not only better, but more fully human – as God intended. It is a way that resists and rejects power, position, and prestige, and chooses daily to follow in the footsteps of Jesus – who emptied himself, who humbled himself, and who gave himself away in love – for the sake of this broken, divided world.
Thanks be to God!