In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Today we’re looking at the account of Jacob stealing the blessing from Jacob. The story has a lot in common with the previous story we looked at introducing Jacob and Esau – where Jacob takes Esau’s birthright. So we won’t re-hash themes and motifs that we’ve already talked about in that story. By the same token, we’ve seen a lot of these themes and motifs throughout our journey through Genesis, so I hope they’re starting to feel familiar and we can begin to understand what’s happening in the book.
What I want to focus on in this passage is the relationship between Jacob and Esau. Because it’s messed up. The whole thing right from the very beginning is obviously very dysfunctional. We get the foreshadowing with the birth and naming of Jacob. We see Jacob taking the birthright from Esau. We know that Isaac prefers Esau and Rebekah prefers Jacob. It seems as if the relationship is doomed from the beginning. And it reaches a peak in our story today.
And notice that it’s not just brotherly competitiveness. It’s actually a family divide. Rebekah urges Jacob to deceive his father, her husband. She not only wants Jacob to succeed but she is effectively throwing Esau under the bus. And Esau is rightfully incensed. Directly because of Jacob’s actions, he has lost everything. He is angry to the point that he plans to kill his brother:
41 …“The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”
Now there’s some biblical theology stuff going on here. This pattern of brother against brother is a recurring motif in Genesis and through the biblical history generally. We see this with Jacob and Esau today; we see this with their father, Isaac and his half brother Ishmael; we also see this to some extent with Abraham and Lot; and we see the most vivid and obvious connection with Cain and Abel, Cain who also wanted to (and did) murder his brother.
And it seems that at the deeper theological level and at a narrative level, what we are seeing in this motif of brother against brother is a distinction between the elect and the non-elect. In each case, in each of these families, one is chosen and one is not.
Now I’m aware that talking about elect and non-elect, or the notion that God chooses some (and therefore does not choose others) is a difficult one for many of us. I don’t want to get off track here (because the bible clearly states that God desires everyone to come to salvation and that Jesus Christ’s work is available to anyone) but let’s remember that what Genesis is showing us is God choosing, from amongst a world full of sinners, some sinners through whom He will work His plan of redemption.
And it is precisely sinners that we’re seeing here. There can be no doubt that Jacob and Esau are both sinners. I think that there’s something profound about the notion that sin (the effects of sin; the manifestation of sin) is so well described by the motif of brother against brother.
And this makes sense when you think further back to Genesis 3. When the serpent tempted Eve, he did so with the words:
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
We’ve talked about this a lot, that the first sin, the fundamental sin, is the desire for human beings to choose for themselves what is right and wrong – to become gods unto ourselves. As the judgment of Israel in the book of Judges:
“Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6, 21:25)
When everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes, when each individual becomes the judge of right and wrong for him or herself, inevitably there will be conflict. When each person becomes the center of the universe, inevitably those universes will collide, each trying to displace the other. We can’t occupy the same space.
This plays out in a vivid, dramatic way with Jacob and Esau. Jacob has already “stolen” the birthright from Esau so you can understand Esau’s anger when Jacob now steals his birthright. Jacob keeps taking what Esau believes is rightfully his.
But I wonder what Jacob might have been thinking? Why should Esau get all the benefits of the firstborn, why should Esau get the blessings of their father, purely because he was born two seconds (!) before Jacob – remember Jacob was born grasping Esau’s heel. How fair is that?
I wonder if Rebekah also felt how unfair all of this was. After all, Jacob was her favourite. And sure it’s wrong for parents to have favourites, but Jacob clearly favoured Esau, so why shouldn’t she favour Jacob?
“What about me?” wondered Jacob. “What about me?” lamented Esau. “What about me?” complained Rebekah. It seems to me that the most pitiable, yet most common expression of “Everyone did what is right in his own eyes” or “Your eyes will be open and you will be like God…” is “What about me?”
It’s the same thing we see in Cain and Abel. Abel’s sacrifice was accepted by God but Cain’s was not. Cain complains before God: “What about me?” And he doesn’t like what he hears from God and resolves to murder his own brother.
This same tragedy of brother against brother is what we see in Jacob and Esau. It’s the same tragedy that we see throughout the Bible. And it’s the same tragedy that we see throughout human history. The church has not escaped it.
Isn’t it a tragedy that so much of Christian history can be described by our schisms? Isn’t it a shame that we spend so much energy defining what it is that divides us? It’s sometimes amazing how many things we can find to disagree on. The effects of sin on all of us are profound.
So What Now…?
Maybe this is at least part of the reason we are given to each other in Christ. Maybe this is part of the reason that in Christ, we are called to live out our salvation in community.
Because in Christ, through Christ, sin is no longer what defines us. Rather, we are defined by grace. In Christ, in Christian community, in the church, we are called to live with one another as if (and because) sin no longer rules us. We no longer live in competition with one another, in fear of one another, in contempt of one another. We no longer seek to be only with those who are most like us but we rejoice in the vast diversity of people that are given to us.
In Christ, we recover that which was lost. That each of us are made in the image of God. Humankind was made as the image of God at the center of the cosmic temple of Eden. But when we chose to go our own way, each choosing to be our own god, we no longer belonged, and therefore are cast out of God’s temple. And when the ego-centric god in me confronts the ego-centric god in you, we clash – brother against brother.
But when, by the grace of Christ and through the blood of Christ, I recover (so to speak – forgive the messy metaphor) the image of God in me and I encounter the image of God in you, we can find harmony. Maybe this is what we are doing (at least in part) in the church and what Christ is doing through the church. We are trying to get past what sin has turned us into and living through Grace what God has meant us to.