September 24, 2017
Years ago, I was attending a dinner with a family at a local restaurant in Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. The mother and father were present along with their two elementary age children. Out of nowhere, the older brother hit his younger brother. I was surprised. What happened? I thought.
The father looked at me and said this is something that comes with having siblings. I was still shocked and if I am honest, it still strikes me as odd today. Being an only child makes understanding sibling rivalry hard to understand. The relations between siblings can be hectic. Things that were long in the past, are resurrected, past hurts are brought to the fore.
Today, we look at a sibling rivalry, parents that had favorites and how God worked through all of this to create a chosen people or salvation of the world.
Let’s look at the Blessing of Jacob.
Engaging the Text
21 Isaac said to Jacob, “Come here and let me touch you, my son. Are you my son Esau or not?” 22 So Jacob approached his father Isaac, and Isaac touched him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the arms are Esau’s arms.” 23 Isaac didn’t recognize him because his arms were hairy like Esau’s arms, so he blessed him. (Genesis 27:21-23)
Before we head into today’s text, it’s important to get some background. Issac as we learned last week, is the promised son of Abraham. He later marries a woman named Rebekah. In chapter 25, we learn that Rebekah is “barren” and unable to conceive. In this pre-scientific world, it was believed that the woman only received the “seed” from the man. If it didn’t take root, she was blamed for it. So, it was important for Rebekah to have a child. She is blessed with not one, but twins. However, the pregnancy was difficult. Genesis 25:22 says that the twins struggled within her and she wondered if she was going to survive. During this difficult time, she prays to God and is given a glimpse of the future: the two children represent two nations. One nation will be stronger than the other and the “elder” twin would serve the “younger” one. In essence, the older twin named Esau, would end up serving the younger one, named Jacob. This reversal of fortune is not simply the result of Jacob’s deceit, but is part of God’s plan. It is through Jacob, that the people of Israel will arise.
It’s also important to note something about the nature of the two sons. Esau became a hunter, a “man’s man.” Jacob was different, he was more quiet and lived near the tents. The parents had their favorites: Issac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob. Since Esau was the firstborn, he was entitled to all the privileges that belong to being a firstborn.
But Esau was interesting. He was aware of the covenant, but he wasn’t as committed to it in the way his grandfather Abraham did. This was a guy that wanted to go hunting, not sit and understand this relationship with God.
Jacob, was different. He did take the covenant seriously and was open to scheming to get the birthright. Rebekah also thought Jacob deserved the birthright and schemed to make sure he got it. In a patriarchal culture, women didn’t have much power. But she could work behind scenes to get what she wanted, or to be more precise what God had promised her. She knew that Jacob was the more spiritual of the two and was the real successor to the Abraham. Because of her scheming ways, she is the shaker and mover in this story. When Esau is out hunting, Rebekah finds his clothes, finds some goat skin to put on Jacob and then cook a delicious meal in order to fool Issac who at this time was blind.
In last week’s texts, you see Issac as a victim. This week’s texts has Issac as the victim once again. He is old, blind and near death. Now was the time to give Esau his blessing. Jacob and Rebekah use this to their advantage to fool him.
But was Issac really fooled? He wondered why “Esau” sounded like Jacob, but still blessed “Esau” anyway. Some scholars think Issac was in on the charade and played along. Why? It could be that even though he wanted to bless Esau, he saw God at work in this deceit. He could see that God wanted Jacob, not Esau to get the blessing. His giving the blessing also allowed him to avoid blame in hurting Esau.
A word or two about the blessing. When we think of a blessing today, we think of someone praying over us or in the context of marriage, of asking “permission” to marry someone. They might be meaningful words, but they don’t carry weight. It’s not a binding contract of any sort.
In the ancient world, a blessing was wish for a good life, but it was also so much more. The words of the blessing itself carried a force of their own; it was a guarantee that what was wished for will happen. It was so powerful that any blessing or curse couldn’t be retracted. This is what made Rebekah and Jacob plot and scheme and this is what made Esau so mad. Esau lost out on what was to be something very meaningful and real in his own life. Theologian W. Sibley Towner explains how important the blessing was in that society and it’s importance to Jacob:
Blessing in ancient Israel was not some vague and wordy spiritual concept. It revolved around the very practical notion of material welfare—the sort of thing people have in mind today when they say, “We have been blessed.” However, the mere fact that a parent touches and kisses a child and pronounces words of positive hope over the child adds a true spiritual dimension to even such a material blessing. Naomi Rosenblatt captures this abiding sense of blessing: “By internalizing the blessing of our parents’ love, we acquire self-esteem, self-confidence, and a deep sense of security. Their blessing tells us we matter, that we are valued. All his life Jacob yearns for the genuine blessing he never got from his father Isaac” (quoted in Moyers, 265). One might quarrel with that last sentence, in the light of the blessing without any deceit involved that is later given by Isaac to Jacob (28:3–4). But we can certainly affirm that blessing is intended to give physical and emotional empowerment.1
Esau is not happy when he learns of the treachery. He wants to kill Jacob, and that forces Jacob to flee for his life.
During the evening when he has nothing but a rock for a pillow, he has a dream of angels going up and down a ladder or staircase. It’s a sign of heaven taking place on earth. During the dream God finally speaks in the story. God repeats the promise God made with Abraham. Jacob might have tricked his father and brother of the blessing, God confirms the blessing on Jacob. What God promised to Rebekah all those years ago, became a reality: the covenant would continue.
In someway we don’t see people at their best in this story. Jacob is not the most upstanding person. He continues his trickery after this story. Rebekah was also a trickster, going against her husband and son to make sure her favorite son got the blessing? None of this is something we should emulate, but God does work through these less than perfect people. Miguel de la Torre talks about women as trickster in Genesis:
(Rebekah) She follows the path of other tricksters, such as Abraham and Isaac claiming before sovereign leaders that their wives are their sisters, and will be followed by many more tricksters, like Laban switching wives on Jacob, Joseph’s brothers showing Jacob the bloody coat to prove Joseph’s demise, Rachel sitting on her father’s idol while stating she is menstruating, or Tamar playing the prostitute with Judah. At first glance, deception seems morally questionable. How can a blessing conferring a divine preferential option be obtained through trickery? Such a proposition offends the moral sensitivities of many Euro-American Christians who normally discount deceit as a sin. Yet for the marginalized the trickster can very well provide an ethical methodology for those within oppressive social structures who have no other option for obtaining liberation from disenfranchisement.2
Deception is wrong even when used for good, but God is able to work through this sin. Rebekah believed in the promise enough that she was willing to do anything to make sure Jacob got the blessing that was promised.
In the gospels, we hear how Jesus tends to turn the tables where those who were considered on top in society we pushed down to make room for the lowly and excluded. We see an early example of God’s upside-down kingdom where God chooses the younger son, going against what society said was the way things were done.
What does this sermon mean to you? What does it say about our walk with God today?
1. Towner, W. S. (2001). Genesis. (P. D. Miller & D. L. Bartlett, Eds.) (p. 206). Louisville, KY; London; Leiden: Westminster John Knox Press.
2. De La Torre, M. A. (2011). Genesis. (A. P. Pauw & W. C. Placher, Eds.) (p. 252). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.