Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

God may be commonly associated with the gifts of peace and unity, but this story of the struggle between Jacob and his brother, Esau, highlights family conflict as a context within which God also works.

July 13, 2008

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 25:19-34

God may be commonly associated with the gifts of peace and unity, but this story of the struggle between Jacob and his brother, Esau, highlights family conflict as a context within which God also works.

The First Lesson for this Sunday tells about the origins of Israel and its closest neighbor, Edom, through competition and adversity. More generally, its honest portrayal of sibling rivalry provides an opening to address this common family dynamic and to reflect on God’s presence even through times of strife and disagreement.

What appears initially as a male genealogical list of fathers and sons beginning with Abraham and Isaac suddenly takes unexpected direction, with attention to the lineage of a woman (Gen. 25:20)! Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, introduced in last Sunday’s First Lesson, becomes central in determining the direction of the covenantal promises in the following narratives (Genesis 25-28).

As Sarah before her and Rachel after her, the matriarch, Rebekah, is unable to have children. The motif of the barren wife in the ancestral narratives places the divine promise of descendants at risk and stresses God’s control over the future.

The word “barren” to describe a woman without children comes from a pre-scientific understanding of human reproduction. Using an agricultural analogy, people of the ancient Near East understood that the “seed” of the father was planted in the fertile field of the mother’s womb, where it grew into a baby. If the male seed did not take root, it must have been the fault of the mother’s “barren” womb.

In this passage there is no blaming of Rebekah. Instead, Isaac turns to God and intercedes on his wife’s behalf. The narrative moves quickly to the answer to his prayer, showing that God alone is responsible for the birth of children.

The focus then shifts to Rebekah’s suffering in pregnancy. While in the next generation Rachel will lament that death is preferable to infertility (Gen. 30:1), here Rebekah’s difficult pregnancy causes her to question the value of living.

In her suffering, Rebekah also turns to God and inquires about the tumult within her. The divine oracle interprets the struggle in her womb as a conflict between two nations, in which “the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23).

While the story recounts events in the life of one family, the oracle makes clear that more than personal biographies are concerned. Esau and Jacob are identified as ancestral figures standing for whole peoples. This story preserves the folk-memory of the origins of two closely related nations, Edom and Israel.

Some of the details of the narrative make sense only when the story is considered in this way. When Esau comes out of the womb “red” (Hebrew, ‘admoni, Gen. 25:25), this is a wordplay on “Edom” (Hebrew, ‘edom). This connection is confirmed later when Esau sells his rights as a firstborn to Jacob for some “red stuff” (Hebrew, ha’edom ha’edom) and the text explains “Therefore he was called Edom” (Hebrew, ‘edom, Gen. 25:30).

Jacob’s name (ya’aqob) is related to the heel (Hebrew ‘aqeb) that he grasps as the twins emerge still jockeying for first position (Gen. 25:26). Jacob’s name is also related to the verb “to supplant” as indicated in Esau’s lament after his younger brother has taken both his birthright and his blessing: “Is he not rightly named Jacob (ya’aqob)? For he has supplanted me (wayya’eqebeni) these two times!” (Gen. 27:36).

Jacob is later renamed “Israel,” since he has “striven with God and with humans” and has won (Gen. 32:28). Against all odds Jacob always comes out on top. His assertive and opportunistic character reveals something about Israel’s self-understanding as a small and seemingly insignificant nation, charged with manifesting their identity as God’s covenant people.

The unexpected ascendancy of the youngest son is a common pattern in the Bible. It is Isaac rather than his older half-brother, Ishmael, who remains the focus of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 17:18-19). It is Jacob’s son of his old age, Joseph, who sees his dreams fulfilled when his older brothers bow down to him in Egypt (Gen. 42:6-9; cf., Gen. 37:5-10). David, the youngest of all of Jesse’s sons, is anointed king by Samuel (1 Sam. 16:10-13). When his elder brothers cower in fear, the boy David emerges as the amazing victor over the Philistine giant Goliath (1 Sam. 17:33, 50).

These and many similar biblical stories of the youngest son rising to prominence contradict the expectations, laws, and conventions of society. The weak and marginal become the surprising means through which God works in Israel and in the world.

The different lifestyles of Esau and Jacob, as well as the peoples that they represent, are indicated in this passage. Esau is an outdoorsman and a hunter, whose game wins the favor of his father. Jacob is an introvert who prefers staying at home close to the mother who later helps him to steal the blessing Isaac intends for Esau (Gen. 25:27-28).

Jacob exploits these differences when his brother returns home exhausted from his exploits in the field. The concluding verse implies that Esau himself was to blame for his loss of status because he did not value it more highly than lentil soup (Gen. 25:34).

But God is generous to both brothers. Like Jacob, Esau becomes the ancestor of a multitude (Genesis 36). Like Jacob, Esau is blessed with abundance to meet his family’s needs (Gen. 33:9-11). In their reunion, Jacob recognizes the face of God in the face of his brother, Esau, because of the positive reception that he receives (Gen. 33:10). The brothers’ reconciliation continues as they bury their father, Isaac, together (Gen. 35:29). Ultimately, this story of sibling rivalry ends with reconciliation and blessing.

Conflict is often viewed as something to be avoided, ignored, or quickly resolved. The story of Esau and Jacob challenges us to acknowledge rivalry as a part of life. Even through our struggles, God is present and active extending blessing to all peoples.