Family Dysfunction - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 6A (Genesis)
Genesis 25:19-34 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
19 These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22 The 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. 23 And 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.”24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26 Afterward 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.
27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30 Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
The lectionary readings from Genesis this Pentecost season speak to God’s faithfulness to the covenant promise. That promise was this: Abraham and Sarah would be the ancestors of nations, and that their descendants would be a blessing to the nations. There are many twists and turns to this story, beginning with Sarah’s inability to get pregnant, Sarah’s plan to provide Abraham with an heir through a surrogate (Hagar), and God’s commitment to fulfilling the promise through Sarah, which leads to a messy question of Hagar and Ishmael’s future, when Isaac is born to Sarah. So, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert, though God provides support. Then, just when you think the coast is clear, Abraham thinks he heard God command him to sacrifice Isaac. Fortunately, God stepped in and prevented the deed from occurring, or this chapter of the story couldn’t be told.
From the very beginning of the story dysfunction is part of the story. There’s the finger-pointing of Adam and Eve, the murder of Abel by Cain, and we won’t mention the issues with Noah and his family. Perhaps this is good news. The founders of our faith were not perfect. Their family life was problematic, and will continue to be so down through the ages. When we think of family values or biblical marriage, what is meant? In what way does the Bible either provide universal guidelines or perfect exemplars? At least in Genesis, the point is not “do this,” but rather “avoid this.”
As the story continues, Sarah has died, Isaac has grown up, and it’s time for him to get married and settle down. The problem confronting Abraham concerns finding the proper mate for his son. We should take note of the fact that it’s Abraham and not Isaac who is focused on this issue of making a match. Perhaps that is because marriages are normally arranged. Abraham’s concern has to do with the inheritance. If the promise of the covenant is to continue, Isaac will need to produce an heir. Abraham decides that it wasn’t proper for Isaac to take a wife from among the local Canaanites, as that might corrupt the family tree. So, to keep things in the family, Abraham sends a servant to his family to see if there is a suitable bride. The good news is that the servant does procure the right person for Isaac, they get married, and live happily ever after (Genesis 24). Now all is good.
Finding a wife seems to be the least of the problems for Abraham and his descendants. Even as Sarah found it difficult to conceive, the same was true for Rebekah. Fortunately, perhaps due to divine intervention, she gets pregnant. Once again, all is good, except that even in the womb dysfunction enters the family conversation, for Rebekah was pregnant with twins and apparently, they began to compete for supremacy even in the womb. Perhaps that is the way it is with twins. Growing up, I had close friends who were twins. They had a competitive streak in them that led to struggles for dominance. So, I have sense of how this works, as I was often drawn into the struggle!
While Rebekah was thankful that God answered Isaac prayers that she gets pregnant, carrying twins was not fun. She cries out to God: “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” God answers her cry for help with an allegorical message. You see, her two sons represent two nations, who will struggle for supremacy. Those nations, we learn, are Edom (Esau) and Israel (Jacob). God tells her that the elder son will serve the younger (just like Ishmael served Isaac, and on down the line). Once again, we see the seeds of a dysfunctional family. Siblings at odds with each other, struggling for dominance, and parents who are divided as well. Isaac favors Esau, the oldest, for he is a hunter and a man of the fields. He’s a “man’s man,” to use a phrase often used in our context. Jacob, the younger, by moments only, was of a different personality, and he was favored by his mother. The author of Genesis tells us that though Esau was the first to emerge from the womb, Jacob was right behind him, grasping his brother’s heel. In other words, even in birth, he was struggling for supremacy. We’ll see this trait emerge on several occasions as the story continues. But, if we take God’s word to Rebekah as a promise, this is as it should be.
The descriptions of the two brothers is intriguing. Esau gets his name from the redness of his hair (at birth he was hairy). Jacob, on the other hand, was a grasper, trying to supplant his brother, or so the narrator suggests to us. There is another interesting distinction between the brothers, and even twins can have very different personalities. We’re told that Esau was a man of the fields, perhaps a hunter, while Jacob was a man of the tents (perhaps he was a farmer). These two brothers, twins, couldn’t have been more different in personality. There was no dressing these two alike!
Not surprisingly, the parents took a different view of their two sons. Isaac favored Esau. Perhaps he took him out into the fields, teaching him to hunt and till the land. Jacob on the other hand was favored by his mother. It is in this dueling favoritism that the already present competitiveness is stoked into a flame by a mother who wants to make sure her younger son gets the goods. You see, in that day, the law of primogeniture was in effect. The inheritance went to the first born. Jacob tried to supplant his brother in the womb, but came up short.
Then one day, a situation presented itself, which offered Jacob the chance of a lifetime. His brother came in from a hunting trip, and found Jacob cooking up a stew (it appears that Jacob also learned to cook). Esau asked his brother to give him some of the “red stuff,” because he was famished (which is where the nation of Edom, Esau’s people, would get their name). Jacob is a trickster, and he presents his very hungry brother with a proposition. You give me your birthright, and I’ll give you some stew. In line with Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” Esau’s hunger got the better of him, and he agreed to the trade. A bit of stew for the inheritance. It must have been really good stew! Esau ate the lentil stew and the bread, which Jacob was cooking up, and he was filled. The narrator tells us that Esau despised his birthright, or as the Common English Bible renders it: “He ate, drank, got up, and left, showing just how little he thought of his birthright.”
So, what does this story say to us in our day? We could reflect here on child raising concerns, including the fact that children are all very different in temperament and inclinations. The fact that these families are depicted in less than flattering light should give us as modern parents some solace. On the other hand, we’re also reminded that favoring one child over another can lead to problems down the road. So, here is fodder for a conversation about child-rearing, a conversation that is always fascinating!
There’s another issue here, the one that emerges at the end of the story. Esau, we’re told, despised his birthright. If we connect birthright to faith, are you willing to sell your birthright? I’m going to ask that question in the context of the temptation to sell one’s faith for power. What happens when religious leaders cozy up to political figures? (Now, I should say that I am friends with several local political leaders, but what I have in mind here is the desire to gain power in exchange for giving up one’s values). We hear that 81% of Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, despite his less than stellar reputation as a person of faith. Many have made excuses for him, because he promises to give them a seat of power. Historian John Fea speaks of the “Court Evangelicals,” those Evangelical leaders, who have been given a seat at the right of power because they seem to give unqualified support to the President and his policies, some of which run strongly counter to how others of us view the Christian vision for humanity. While, it’s the court evangelical who is now sitting in a place of power, I often wonder if some of my liberal clergy friends are a bit envious of this access. Would we offer our blessings to politicians of our liking, so that we can sit close to the seats of power? What are we willing to give up to gain a bowl of lentil soup and a piece of bread?
Picture Attribution: Rensig, Everhard (possibly) and Gerhard Remisch. Esau Gives Up His Birthright, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55878 [retrieved July 7, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rensig,_Everhard_-_Esau_Gives_up_his_Birthright;_Jacob_and_Esau_with_the_Bowl_of_Pottage_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.