19These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” 24When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
27When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
I know a thing or two about twins.
We’re pretty sure they are identical twins, although my parents never had them genetically tested. In any case, they’re a lot alike. Joe’s wife recently sent me a picture of the twins when they were little, asking if I could tell which one was which…because apparently she couldn’t tell, neither could our mother, or even the twins themselves. And yes, when they were in high school, they did pull (and get away with) the usual twin-tricks, like attending each others’ classes, dating each others’ girlfriends, and blaming whatever they could on “the other twin.”
They both went to the same college, they both majored in social work, and both minored in addictions counseling. They both went through the same master’s program in social work (where they both met their future wives). In fact, it’s only been in the past five years since they each got married that they now live in different houses, different cities and states.
That’s what twins are supposed to be, right? In our culture, when we say “the twin virtues of x and y” or “this organization was founded on the twin goals of…” what we mean is that the two things are similar, almost exactly the same, on equal footing.
And yet, anyone who’s ever known twins should know that they are never completely alike—not even identical twins—and there is no such thing as “equal footing,” at least not for long. My brother Jeff was born one minute before Joe was…and growing up, Jeff would never hesitate to pull rank (I’m older!). Joe, of course, eventually learned that there were advantages to being “the baby” of the family, and made sure to use that to his advantage whenever he could. As adults, they both get along fine most of the time, but the competitiveness comes out in interesting ways. I’m sure that’s true to some extent for all siblings, twins or not.
Fortunately for my brothers, and unlike the twins in our scripture passage today, Jeff and Joe never had to fight each other for the birthright in our family. Even if we had lived in Ancient Israel, that would have gone to me, as the eldest son! And the birthright was a big deal in early Jewish culture: Deuteronomy 21 teaches that the eldest son was to receive twice as much of his father’s inheritance as any other son. I can see how that would be hard enough to accept for the typical younger sibling, but for a twin? You missed it by just *this* much! And the guy who gets the birthright? Well…he’s mostly the same as you…he just happened to be standing a little closer to the exit when the door opened.
So Esau is born first, and Jacob comes out clutching his brother’s heel. Wait for me! No, I wanna be first! So cute… I bet his parents told that story a million times as he grew up. And every time, Jacob rolled his eyes, while his slightly older brother looked at him and grinned a wicked grin.
Jacob, however, is not without his own streak of wickedness. One day his brother comes in from hunting and asks Jacob for some food. Now, when Esau says that he’s starving, those of us who have children tend to think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. We have heard this before:
“I’m so hungry I could just die! Pleeeeaaase give me anything to eat…can I have some of those brownies on the counter over there?”
“No, but you can have some carrots and celery, if you’ll take them out of the refrigerator, wash them off and chop them up. Then make sure to clean everything up when you’re done.”
“Ummm…I’m not really hungry anymore. Can I go outside and play?”
As familiar as this scene is to us in a wealthy country where most of us have more food than we know what to do with, I’m actually going to suggest that Esau may not have been exaggerating that much. Esau is a hunter in what is probably still primarily a hunter-gatherer society, where food is scarce and the vast majority of time was spent finding and then preparing enough food just to survive. If Esau has been out on a hunting expedition, traveling, walking, running, and unsuccessfully chasing his quarry for several days and several miles, there is a strong possibility that he may actually be famished, weakened to the point of near-death. If this were not the case, Esau (being the stronger brother) would have just taken what he needed, or forced his brother to do his bidding. No, Esau really is in a desperate place.
And Jacob sees this, and seizes his opportunity. His older brother has been out trying to provide food for the family, and is now on death’s doorstep. Is Jacob his brother’s keeper? Well, yes…for a steep price. When you read this story closely, it doesn’t paint the founding father and namesake of Israel in a very flattering light, does it? Later on, in the story right after our scripture passage today, Jacob and his mother conspire together to lie and deceive Jacob’s father while he is on his deathbed, in order to receive his blessing, the one that rightfully should have gone to Esau.
In fact, if there is a moral to the story of Jacob and Esau, it seems at first glance to be “do whatever you can, lie, cheat and steal, use any means necessary to get ahead.” And in reward for these dubious actions, God blesses Jacob and chooses him over Esau to carry forward the covenant and build a great nation, and they all lived happily ever after. Well, except Esau.
Actually, I don’t really think that’s the moral of the story. As with most things in the Bible, it’s more complicated than that. In a few minutes, I will get to what I think the moral of the story really is—or, at least three possible morals. But first, I think it’s important for us to put this fascinating story in a little bit of historical context.
The story of Jacob and Esau is, like many of the stories in Genesis, an etiological one. Etiology is the study of origins of things. All civilizations and cultures eventually attempt, through their literature, their art, their music, their teachings, to answer questions like “Where do we come from? Where do those people over there come from? How did things get to be this way?”
In the case of the 10th century (or later) inhabitants of Judah who lived in and around the growing city of Jerusalem, they looked around themselves and noticed that the people to the south, the Edomites, shared with them a common language and culture, unlike the people to the North, East, and West. The Judahites and the Edomites also shared belief in a common God, Yahweh. The Edomites were the older people group, the ones who had been in the land the longest, but the Judahites believed that they alone were Yahweh’s chosen people. And so these two nations, alike enough to be brothers, twins…fought.
Like so many family feuds, they fought for so long that in a few generations they probably forgot why they had started fighting, but when their children asked about the people to the south who looked and talked and worshiped like we do…they told their children the old story about Rebekah, and the twins who struggled in her womb, and the ancient words of prophecy: Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
The elder shall serve the younger. Sometimes, when Judah and Jerusalem were winning, that was a reality. And sometimes, when the Edomites were winning, it was wishful thinking. But the story of Jacob and Esau at least explained how things got this way, and provided inspiration for how things should be when all was right with the world.
Historically and archaeologically speaking, that’s the end of the story. And yet, like all scripture, the story of Jacob and Esau also speaks far beyond its original context and into our lives today. What does it say? I can think of at least three things.
The first is a pretty common interpretation of the story, but it’s still a good one: Don’t sell your birthright for a cup of soup. We are God’s beloved children, made in his image and precious in his sight. That’s a pretty incredible birthright. We are intrinsically valuable just the way we are. And yet, how often do we sell our birthright, and buy into what our culture tells us about our value: You aren’t valuable because you don’t look a certain way. You aren’t valuable because your house isn’t big enough, your car isn’t nice enough, your job doesn’t pay enough. You aren’t valuable because you don’t have this one thing that you need, that I happen to be selling. When we’ve bought into that kind of thinking, that kind of devaluing of ourselves, we have sold our God-given birthright. And like Esau’s bowl of soup, we’ve sold our birthright for something that won’t last, no matter how desperately we want or even need it.
Second: A lot of people today talk about how the Bible teaches “family values.” That’s pretty funny, actually, because most of the families in the Bible are completely and totally messed up. Biblical family values—especially Jacob’s family—are not ones you’d want to emulate. But there is hope in that, because it means that no matter how messed up your family is, no matter how much you fight over stupid things, no matter how horribly you treat one another…God still uses families—lying, stealing, cheating families—to accomplish good things in the world. Jacob’s sons aren’t much better than he is: They throw one of their youngest brothers into a pit and sell him into slavery. And then God uses that horrible act to save Jacob, his family, and an entire nation from famine and destruction.
That leads me to my third and final point, which is related to the first two: God turns our cultural expectations upside down and inside out. He shows preference for the youngest son where we’d expect the oldest to find favor; he chooses the weak where we would choose the strong, God causes a mother’s will to be accomplished in a paternalistic world where the father’s will is the only one that matters, he lifts up the poor and destitute where we honor the rich and powerful. Jesus had something to say about this: He said that the last would be first an the first would be last in God’s Kingdom.
My challenge to you today is to let God turn your life upside down and inside out. Let God lead you and your family in new and unexpected directions. Better yet, come and be a part of God’s family, the church. We’re pretty messed up, too. We’re far from perfect, and sometimes we even lie, steal and cheat. But we know better, and we try hard to walk alongside each other. Most of all, we know that our value is not determined by what we make, but rather by who made us. We’re all made in God’s image: That makes us all brothers, and sisters. It makes us all identical twins. And beautiful ones, at that.