July 13, 2014
William G. Carter
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, [ twenty year gap here…] and his wife Rebekah conceived. 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. 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.”
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 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. When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
A man named Roger got down on his knee and popped the question, “Darlene, will you marry me?” She exclaimed, “Yes! I will!” Bursting into tears, she helped him to his feet, threw her arms around him, and whispered, “Do you know what this means? It’s time to meet the family.”
If you have been through a similar moment, you know how daunting this can be. After hearing all the legends, now we can connect faces to the stories. There’s crazy uncle Brian who loves to start an argument, and his long-suffering wife Cindy, who always burns the pot roast. There’s Aunt Towanda, who escaped her first husband who used to smack her around. Don’t forget cousin Tallullah; she was engaged three times but never actually got to the altar. Or second-cousin Eddie; we call him our second-cousin, but, let’s say more complicated than that.
It’s time to meet the family. So let’s meet the family of Isaac. There’s Isaac and Rebekah, and their twins Jacob and Esau. Isaac was the miracle child, born to Abraham and Sarah. His name means “Laughter,” in honor of God’s big joke of his birth. This is what we generally know about them.
But as you may have inferred from the reading, there is much more to the family than meets the eye.
For a guy whose name is Laughter, Isaac doesn’t laugh very much. In fact, we hardly ever hear him say much at all. In the Bible, the last time he talked was when he was twelve years old. That was the dark day when his father almost killed him. The family now claims it was a test from God, kind of a “how much do you love me?” kind of test. Grandpa Abraham got through it, but Isaac hasn’t said very much ever since.
When Isaac was forty, his father arranged his marriage for him. Do you have any forty year old sons still hanging around the tent? Perhaps you would like to arrange their marriages too. Who knows – maybe Isaac had a difficult time talking to people, or a hard time trusting anyone. I do know this is the book of Genesis, and after the first six days, nothing happens very quickly in the book of Genesis. Nothing. The ways of God are revealed over long stretches of time.
Rebekah was Isaac’s much younger wife. The father of Isaac’s servant had spotted her by a well in another village. He had promised Abraham that he would find a suitable wife for Isaac. So he went scouting around with ten camels and a lot of expensive jewelry. Rebekah was a pretty young lady, and sensitive too. It seemed like a match made in heaven, so she agreed to go to Isaac, sight unseen. And when her eyes met Isaac’s, it was, as they say, love at first sight.
But like her mother in law Sarah, who died before they could meet, Rebekah could not bear any children. It seemed to be a repeating issue. For twenty years Isaac and Rebekah rocked an empty cradle. Twenty years. That’s a long time to keep trying, to keep hoping, to keep praying. Picture the two lovebirds walking by the light of ten million stars, murmuring, “At least we have one another.”
And then it happened. Isaac prayed one more time for a baby and God said, “OK.” Finally! Remember that old promise from God to Isaac’s father Abraham? “I’m going to make your as numerous as the stars” (15:5). A new generation was about to begin – and not with just a child. With two children - twins! God was so generous.
Like my friend Elizabeth, married at forty-two, struggling for years with her much older husband to conceive. Then shazam, a son was on the way. She and her husband said, “This is so great. Let’s try again! Time is short.” With a bit of practice, a pregnancy happened again. They were so excited, and she went to the gynecologist and they heard three heartbeats in the womb. Why, God is so generous! Imagine four boys under the age of three, and you’re almost fifty years old. It almost killed her.
Rebekah had twins, and she thought that was bad enough. What do I know? I’m sure it was difficult. She had two little babies tussling around in the same womb. It got so bad she made it a matter of prayer, “O Lord, why am I living?” And God spoke to her – do you know how remarkable that is? God had not spoken directly to a woman since the Garden of Eden (3:16) – but God spoke to Rebekah and gave her a prophetic word:
Two nations are in your womb, said the Lord. Two peoples born of you shall be divided.
That’s a difficult message. There will be conflict between them the second they are born. The generations of one will battle the generations of another. Two brothers, of the same parents, yet they will fight one another for the rest of their lives. My goodness – that family is starting to look like other families we know. It happened between Cain and Abel, it will happen between Jacob and Esau.
It happened between Marguerite, Mary, Carol, and Jim Junior. That was back when I was a brand-new preacher, twenty-six years old. An attorney knocked on my door one afternoon, said “Put on your best business suit and come with me.” We climbed into his Cadillac, and I asked where we were going. “Jim Senior has died,” he said, “and we need to plan his funeral.” I never had an attorney help me plan a funeral.
Well, I think he wanted me there as the referee. Marguerite, Mary, Carol, and Jim Junior sat in opposing corners of the room. The only “funeral” they wanted was a reading of the 23rd Psalm. Three minutes, that was it. The funeral director would pop the urn into a hole in a ground, and then four of them would return to the family homestead for the reading of the will. Please understand: Jim Senior was worth $32 million in 1986, and Marguerite, Mary, Carol, and Jim Junior all wanted their shares. They never talked to one another, but each had a team of attorneys ready to pounce if another got anything more then they felt entitled to receive.
That’s what happens to some families. I hate to say it, but that can happen. People from the same womb can turn on one another. It’s time to meet the family.
And then God says it – not merely that there is a war within the womb, but that
one of the two will be stronger, and the elder will serve the younger.
That was God’s Holy Word. How would you like that hanging over your head? I don’t know if she ever told her husband Isaac what God said to her. Maybe like Mother Mary she would lock it up in her heart until it was time for Luke to write it don in the Bible. Or maybe she told old Isaac and he never let on. We don’t know. All we have here is God’s pronouncement that the natural order of things will be turned upside down.
The second child will be served by the first. That’s not the way it is supposed to go. Just ask my sister Debbie. She’s the number two child, and I am the first-born. I think she knows intuitively I am more important than she is. For 53 years I have reminded her every opportunity that I have. In high school she would flinch when she went to advanced algebra class and the teacher said, “Oh, you are Bill’s little sister.” I could hear her yowling five miles away. And darn if she didn’t work harder than me, just to get a little better grade than I did.
Did you ever have that kind of competition in your family?
My sister and I went for piano lessons with Mrs. Wilma Black. We had two half-hour lessons back to back. I said, “Debbie, why don’t you go for your lesson first?” She went in, played the Clementi sonatina perfectly, having worked so hard all week just to prove she could do it. Meanwhile, while she was in there, I sat at Mrs. Black’s kitchen table, pantomiming the same piece, trying desperately to make up lost ground because I hadn’t practiced a note all week. That’s why I wanted her to take her lesson first. Later I came out of my lesson having humiliated myself, and, having overheard it, she would preen like a peacock. True story.
If the Bible is God’s revelation to us, how essential that it should speak of sibling rivalry, of child competing against child within the same family. That is real life. And no God worthy of our worship is going to ignore real life. God knows about us and our families, in all of our complexities and competitions.
But here’s the thing some people ask: why isn’t life more fair? Why can’t each one of us get the same identical breaks? Why can’t each one of us be given the same identical abilities? Why can’t we all be the same height, the same width, the same intelligence, the same opinions, the same everything? In fact, why couldn’t you all be left-handed, just like me? But that’s not how God makes us.
Today we meet God’s family. Twin boys are born from the same womb. They have the same father, the same mother, the same God who created each one with equal love, yet they are so different. Esau is red and hairy, Jacob is smooth and slick. Esau is born with a Bowie knife in his teeth, a hunting spear in one hand, and a Cabella’s catalog in the other hand. Little Jacob comes out of the womb, grabbing Esau’s heel and never letting go. That tells you everything, says Genesis.
Their lives will grow and expand. Some growth will be mapped by their DNA – for instance, my nephew Sam is tall just like his father, his sister Grace is pretty just like their mom. Other dimensions of their lives will be shaped by their circumstances: who their parents are, when and where they are born.
A good part of their future will be set in motion by the ways they respond to the opportunities in front of them. Witness Esau returning from the fields, worn out and hungry, while his smooth-skinned, tent-dwelling brother is cooking up a lentil stew. “Give me some of that stew,” bellows the brute. “Only if you grant me all the legal rights that come with being first-born son,” says his twin brother as he shakes in a dash of paprika.
Esau says, “OK, just give me some of that stew. I’m starving over here.” Jacob pulls out a pre-arranged contract and says, “Sign here.” Now you know everything about them.
At first, I thought this was a story about the mystery of preferential treatment, namely, why one brother gets treated better than the other. But the more I reflect upon it, the more I sense the hidden hand of God. When the boys were still in the womb, it was God who announces “the elder will serve the younger,” and that is exactly what comes to pass. God said this to the mother who gave birth to each one just minutes apart. This prediction seems to linger with her for years as she silently decides God’s favorite will be her favorite, too.
Meanwhile father Isaac sits somewhat oblivious on his Lazy Boy recliner, not saying very much. He admires the strength and skill of Big Red Esau – the kind of son he always wanted - but neither Isaac nor Esau show the kind of wisdom, shrewdness, and sheer initiative that the leader of God’s Family is going to need to lead them in their way through the world.
Today, let’s meet the family, Israel’s founding family, the family into which we have been adopted through Jesus Christ. We will be with them for another month or so. This summer, my hope is that, as Jacob and Esau’s stories unfold, we will see ourselves in God’s unfolding story. We can - and should - read the Bible and look for God. But do you know how we know this book is God’s Word? It is when we read the Bible and discover that God is reading us.
Today the message is simply that God knows who we are, in the complexity and curiosity of our human families. And in the greatest mystery of all, God works through all of that - and all of us - to accomplish his will.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.