Today I preached at New Creation Fellowship Church, a Mennonite congregation in Newton, Kansas. Our text was Genesis 25:19-34. I’m sharing the written text here and will share the audio when it becomes available.
Thank you for letting me share the pulpit today. It’s a great privilege for me to be back at New Creation, and I’m grateful for the time we get to spend together this morning.
I want to my sermon today to do two things, and I’ll toggle back and forth between them a bit. First, I want us to talk about this story of two brothers, destined, it seems, from the womb for conflict. Second, I want us to use it as a model for reading Biblical texts, especially ones that may be familiar to us.
Today, I’m doing that in front of you, with a passage I’ve been thinking about for a year now. You’ll find out why shortly.
You might be familiar with this story from the life of Jacob and Esau. It will actually appear in the lectionary this year, in July, but I could not wait. Why? Because it’s winter now in the US, and that means I want to make soups, stews, and curries. You will figure out why that’s important later.
Here is the story, again: Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, finally gets pregnant after 20 years of infertility. Isaac himself is 60. And that’s not the only big news! Rebekah is going to have twins. The pregnancy is hard, it seems, and the babies seem to be fighting within her. It gets so bad that, according to the New Revised Standard translation, she says, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” Maybe an exaggeration, like when I tell my fighting children, “You’re going to put me in an early grave!” But even if it’s an exaggeration, probably some of us can sympathize.
The turmoil in the womb seems ominous. In fact, the story tells us that God delivers this prophecy to Rebekah: The two children in your womb will give rise to two different nations. And, in contrast to how things are supposed to be, the younger one will rule over his older brother.
We have to remember this in context—that Isaac himself is younger than Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, but he is the one who is considered the preferred son and the one through whom the nation of Israel will be established. So there is a family history of awarding the younger son the privileges usually associated with being the oldest child.
The boys are born so close together that they are touching—the second one holding on to his brother’s heel, as if he is trying to hold him back in order to get a head start in a race. The older one, Esau, is red and hairy and so gets named after these characteristics. (Which makes perhaps makes you glad that your own parents did not name you after your ugliest characteristics as a baby. What might your nickname have been? “Conehead.” “Ugly.” “Butterball.” “Colicky.” “Super Pooper.” I will confess, though, that my own grandmother continues to sometimes call me “Burple,” which was her nickname for me when I was an infant, all because I once ruined her brand new winter coat.) The younger one is named Jacob, which is related to the word deceiver. It seems that, from birth, Esau’s family defines him by his rude appearance and Jacob by his striving character.
Though twins, they are opposites: Esau is a manly man, hairy, an outdoorsman and a hunter. As a child, I imagined him as a young Burt Reynolds.
A shirtless Burt Reynolds on horseback and in a cowboy hat in Fade In, 1968
Jacob, however, likes hanging out in the tents. He’s a homebody. The rabbinic literature consistently depicts them as opposites: the jock and the scholar.
Isaac likes his older son best. Why? The scripture tells us that Esau brought home meat to eat, and Isaac “had a taste for wild game.” At minimum, this suggests that Isaac’s love for his children was based on food. If that seems terrible to you, be honest: you might have a favorite grandma, and maybe her cooking is part of why you like her better.
Anyway, don’t feel bad for Jacob: his mother loves him better than she does her older son.
So, we have these two sons, each favored for opposite reasons by a different parent. Esau is out hunting. He’s apparently unsuccessful, because he comes home hungry—starving to death, if you believe him. He asks his homebody brother for some of the stew he’s making. I rather doubt that this plan has just popped into Jacob’s head, because the younger brother immediately comes back with a ridiculous offer: Esau can have some food in exchange for his position as eldest son.
Jacob is serious. He wants the rights and privileges of the eldest, including a double portion of inheritance. In an inheritance system of primogeniture, being the oldest mattered a lot. And in the case of Jacob and Esau, it wasn’t just competition for the flocks and fields that Isaac might leave them but a nation that would number as many as the stars, as their grandfather Abraham had been promised.
Esau considers it for a second, then realizes that he’s, like, really, really hungry. He says yes. But yes isn’t good enough. Jacob demands that he swears it. And Esau does.
The scripture says Esau “ate and drank, then got up and left.” In just a few minutes, he’s spent half the inheritance he could have had. He throws away his first-place position in the family as if it’s a used hamburger wrapper.
Now, the way I heard this story as a child was that Esau was a fool. He traded something of great value for something of little value. And we should despise him for it like verse 34 tells us he despised his birthright.
I think we like this interpretation because judging people about the foolishness of their decisions is a national pastime in America. We do this every day. Just ask people who pay for their groceries using WIC or SNAP benefits or other kinds of aid. When we see the vouchers or EBT card come out, we look to see what else they have in their carts. Did they dare to buy a soda? A box of cake mix? A sandwich from the deli? Do they have a cell phone? Do they smell like cigarette smoke? We judge, judge, judge, assuming they are making a poor short-term financial decision that reflects their inability to control their cravings. We assume that it’s their nice shoes—perhaps a gift from a friend, a leftover from a more prosperous time, or a find from the Etc Shop—that’s made them poor, not the rising cost of healthcare or housing. We judge them for indulging in vices, but when rich people use their money to buy third and fourth vacation homes or a brand new car every year, we say they are contributing to the economy.
This reading got challenged for me in a very literal one day last year. I was on Facebook when I saw a post from my friend who is a good cook. She posted a photo of an egg dish. It looked something like this:
Above, hard boiled eggs in a brown sauce with onions, on rice. Find the recipe for this egg curry here.
I didn’t even know what it was, not just because I’d never seen it before but also because all of the comments on it were in another language, one of the 38 beautiful languages of Bangladesh. So I was stuck: I don’t think I’d ever wanted to cook and eat something I’d seen on Facebook so much before, but I had no clue where to start.
Yes, I did. I had to start with an apology to Esau. Because, in that moment, I would have traded my eldest child status for a bowl of what I would later discover was an egg curry dish.
In a different sermon, this is where I would say that we too often trade away what God wants for us in exchange for lesser things. That’s a fine sermon, but it is not this sermon. This is a sermon about looking again at Esau, with more empathy and a willingness to re-read with an open heart.
I became much more sympathetic to Esau. This sent me back to the story with new questions.
This is the first step in the model of reviewing familiar Bible stories that I am proposing here:
Identify what in your current understanding of the passage affirms rather than challenges you.
When I did this, I saw that I could get behind that reading—of Esau as a fool and Jacob as a man simply fulfilling his destiny, regardless of who it hurt—because I saw myself as a Jacob. I was a child who hoarded my allowance. I was never tempted by the impulse buys of the checkout line, by candy bars or bubble gum. Plus, I was an oldest child—which I am sure surprises some of you—and I loved being the oldest child.
If you were like me, then this story affirmed you. But it affirms some pretty ugly traits: It affirms the idea that it’s okay birth order—and in the case of the culture of ancient Hebrew culture, your child’s gender—to determine inheritance. It affirms the idea that it’s okay to use other people’s weaknesses strategically against them. It affirms the idea that you should always be on the lookout of the opportunity to get the upper hand.
And so I began the work of this second step of the model I propose here: Feel through the story with a more empathetic heart, one open to being challenged, seeking to understand the perspective of other characters in the story.
I thought about Esau, tried to feel the story from his perspective. I wondered what it would feel like always be second in your mother’s eyes. To have a prophecy told of you that you were going to fail, that your destiny was to disgrace your role in the family. To have your younger brother always on the lookout for a way to trip you up and trick you, because I bet this wasn’t the first time Jacob tried this nonsense. To be loved by your father for your accomplishments and your conformity to his ideas of masculinity. To be perhaps worried that if you came home from the hunt empty-handed, that love would waver. Maybe Esau’s agreement to this rotten deal was his giving up on the whole thing, his resignation, him saying Fine, I’ll be the person you always insisted I would be. To become the villain in a story he wasn’t able to change. Fine, I’ll be the stupid one, the jock, the roughneck.
We don’t know how Jacob was feeling, either. Maybe shame that he couldn’t win his father’s love, that perhaps he didn’t measure up to what his father considered a man to be. He didn’t like hunting. Maybe he was so gentle that he couldn’t stand the thought of killing something or maybe even handling raw meat. After all, the soup he’s serving is lentil soup—there is a mention of bread in it, but no meat. Maybe he is tired of being less-than in his father’s eyes. Maybe he’s teased for being too close to his mother.
When Isaac is old, as described in Genesis 27, just a few chapters ahead, he calls Esau to him and promises his son a final blessing, but first his oldest son must bring him some freshly killed meat and prepare it for him and feed it to him. Here, we see that it’s Isaac’s appetite that shapes how he treats Esau: no food, no blessing. Or perhaps what we see is that Isaac finds his time with Esau around food to be so special that it’s in this setting that he wants to bless his son. We don’t know, but Esau goes out to hunt to provide his father with what might be their final meal together.
Rebekah uses this as an opportunity to trick her husband. She demands that Jacob get some goats and she makes them into a meal for her husband. The story doesn’t say that Jacob slaughtered the goats himself, perhaps another sign of his sensitive nature. Instead, his mother does it for him, then she sends her younger son, dressed in the goat skins, to the old man, whose vision is so impaired he can’t see that he’s being deceived. He is suspicious, because he asks Jacob, thinking he is Esau, how he managed to kill an animal so quickly. And Jacob, the one we’ve been told is the good guy in this story, tells a lie: that God helped him. think Esau disrespects God by trading away his birthright, but Jacob outright lies to his father in the most pious tones about how God is blessing what he knows is a lie.
Jacob’s deception is successful. He tricks the old man into giving him his brother’s blessing, then exits the scene. Soon, Esau bursts into the tent, ready to receive what his father promised him, but it’s too late—his blessing has been given away, and it can’t be retrieved or exchanged. But his father does promise him this: while he would be under the control of his brother for most of his life, he would eventually throw it off. This is a promise of oppression and eventual freedom from it—but never peace with his brother.
Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. Jacob traded his father and his brother for a blessing of power over others. If there is a despicable trade here, I think it is Jacob’s.
When Esau traded away his birthright, perhaps he was foolish—or perhaps he was simply exiting a system that bestowed special privileges on people because of their birth order. Maybe he was saying I’m done playing this game.
When his younger brother deceives their father into giving him Esau’s blessing, Esau is distraught. Chapter 27 tells us: When Esau heard that his father had been deceived into giving Jacob his blessing,
he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father! But [Isaac] said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing”… Then [Esau] asked, “Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?” … [But Isaac answered,] “what can I possibly do for you, my son?” Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!”
Esau delivers the most insightful comment in the whole story: “Do you have only one blessing, my father?”
Esau calls for a new set of rules: love isn’t zero-sum. Love doesn’t have winners and losers. There is always enough love, somewhere, for everyone. Love isn’t pie. It never diminishes by being shared.
There is always enough blessings—unlike egg custard pie.
I love Esau in this moment. He thinks about murdering his brother right then and there, then looks at his father and decides not to. Perhaps he knows that the old man must feel terrible. Two men who bonded over what their bodies could do in the hunt, and now one of them has seen his body—his eyes—fail him so badly that he just destroyed his child’s life. Perhaps Esau feels that fate has simply closed in: it was unavoidable for him to lose out to his brother, and he’ll always be remembered as the villain in the story.
But in this moment, he decides not to be the bad guy he has been told he will be. He lets his brother live—at least for now.
Jacob doesn’t believe that it’s possible that his brother won’t kill him, which tells us that Jacob knew the depth of his crime. He flees. Esau, in contrast, stays to care for his father who has just wronged him so badly.
We often read this story as inevitable: the boys fought in utero, and each fulfilled his role—Esau as the brutish one driven by appetites, Jacob as the clever striver. We think that Jacob’s entitlement must be balanced with Esau’s destiny as a fool disrespectful of his inheritance.
But the story is not inevitable. In fact, I think the prophecy doesn’t come true. If we look ahead to chapter 33, we see the brothers meet again. Jacob has been living abroad and is now returning to his native land. He sends messengers ahead to offer his brother gifts—peace offerings. The messengers return with news: Esau is coming after them with 400 men. Knowing what he’s done to his brother, Jacob can’t imagine forgiveness but instead assumes violence. He divides his group into two, so that if one is attacked, perhaps the other can escape, but he keeps his wives and children with them—and in a move that shows us that he hasn’t learned much, he puts his favored wife, Rachel, closest to him and sends Leah, her sister and a wife he never wanted, toward the front. He’s repeating the sins of his own parents—which will ultimately hurt his sons even more than Isaac and Rebekah’s favoritism hurt him and his brother.
But when his brother greets him, we see a scene similar to that of the reunion of the prodigal son and his loving father in Jesus’ parable! Chapter 33, verses 4 and 5 tell us
But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.
Of course, Esau knew who these people were–they are Esau’s nieces and nephews! Remember that Jacob was his only brother. In viewing his newfound family members, perhaps Esau sees the father he loved again. I imagine him scanning the mass of little boys, looking for one who looks or acts like he did as a boy–the hairy, ruddy one, playing rough. Perhaps he watches the boys play and sees them interact as he and his bookworm brother used to.
Jacob tries to give his brother livestock as a gift. Esau waves the idea of it away, saying, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”
I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.
What a gift for Jacob to hear. What grace he has received.
I already have plenty.
You took my birthright and my blessing, but I have plenty.
My brother. The one who traded away our brotherhood in an attempt to be my master.
Keep what you have.
You don’t even have to restore what you stole. It’s over.
Esau welcomes him home. He offers to walk with his brother—who is limping from wrestling with an angel the night before and who is leading a family and flocks with young members. “We’ll go at your pace,” Esau says. He offers his brother welcome and protection.
In the Esau story I learned as a child, he’s controlled by his emotions—but if he is controlled by emotion here, it’s love. He’s not lesser than Jacob—he’s far more mature and kinder. He’s not Jacob’s servant, as his mother predicted and had even hoped, but his host. In the half-hearted blessing Isaac had managed to rustle up for him, his father promised that, eventually, he would throw off the yoke of his younger brother’s oppression. But he’s been living free from that for some time. It’s been Jacob whose been living in fear and in the past. At some point in his absence, Esau began to live in peace.
Perhaps young Esau knew all along that a bowl of soup was better than participating in an unjust system. Certainly, as his father approached the end of his life, Esau understood that love is infinite, that it gets bigger, not smaller, when shared. And now, as the head of his own household, Esau shows us that he’s not going to be defined by the prophecies that others have delivered about him. He’s not the bad guy in the story because he’s changed the story. There isn’t just one blessing, and he has refused to live as if there were.
Above, Jacob Sees Esau Coming to Meet Him by James Tissot, circa 1900. Jacob stands, looking across the distances as men march toward him. Women and children sit around him. Jacob faces away from us, but a child in the lower left corner stares at us, as does a woman on the right. We are all waiting to see what Esau will bring—peace or violence—to his brother.
The last step of the reading strategy I propose is this: What new comes out of this feeling-focused reading?
For me, in the Esau story, it is this, and it is something that is radically counter to the shame-based religion that has so often led to the oppression of vulnerable people, especially women, people of color, people with disabilities, victims of violence and others whose bodies have been used against us: that we can trust our appetites. That our bodies can lead us out of systems that hurt us. That sometimes we are caught in a game we cannot win, and so exiting the game and writing our own rules for a new life is our best option for peace with others and dignity for ourselves. It’s anti-oppression work—and it’s what frees both Esau and Jacob, and when we do it well, I think it can free us too.