My brother and I never had the kind of tension and rivalry that shows up so profoundly in this morning’s Genesis text. It might be because we didn’t have the kind of dynamic of parents playing favorites, or maybe it’s that both of us have a very non-competitive attitude about the world. Whatever it is, my brother and I got along well. And maybe it’s part of that happy brotherhood that makes this story of Jacob and Esau so foreign to me.
Because I can put it in the theoretical box, and kind of get at the feelings these two had for each other. Watching other sets of siblings who were really competitive, who had strong rivalries that sometimes veered dangerously close to hatred, is about as close as I can get to understanding it. But maybe that’s not the case for you. Maybe their parents playing favorites and the two of them undermining each other sounds like your own upbringing. But there’s also more than just a simple sibling rivalry going on here.
In the Ancient Near East, it was law by custom that the firstborn son would inherit the lion’s share of his father’s belongings. He would take over leadership of his father’s household and determine the course of everything his father had set up. The younger siblings, meanwhile, got the leftovers. If they got along with the eldest, things might work out and they could stay in the household—but they’d always be subordinate. Always the lesser one.
And Jacob was mere seconds younger than Esau. That tiny gap in time, not even long enough for Esau to figure out that was even his heel that Jacob was holding, was enough to doom Jacob to second place forever. He wouldn’t have the birthright of inheritance. He wouldn’t get first choice in anything. And what’s more, he was bookish. He liked spending time in the tent, where the women traditionally were. He wasn’t good at hunting or being out in the fields. So not only is he the loser when it comes to the birthright; he’s really not well suited in the ancient world to strike it out on his own.
But what he does have is smarts. Jacob is wily and slippery, and he knows his brother really, really well. And his brother is, well, a few eggs shy of a dozen. Sure, he’s outdoorsy, and yes he’s strong and a hunter and a real man’s man, but he doesn’t really use his brain much. Instead, he uses his gut. And his gut told him that day that he was going to die if he didn’t get something to eat now. So Jacob used that against him to get what he wanted. A bowl of stew for a birthright. Esau made the trade.
And it wouldn’t be the last time Jacob took something from Esau. Later in the story, Jacob would trick his own father into giving him the blessing that Isaac had planned to give to Esau. His crafty theft would break the family, and he would end up fleeing to his uncle’s home off in Paddan-Aram for a while. It’s a great story that I think you should all definitely read, but one very important detail comes up when Jacob returns home. He meets Esau. Esau commands an army. And something spectacular happens.
Esau meets Jacob in the field, and he embraces him. He is overjoyed to see this brother of his that stole his birthright and his blessing. He waves off any ill feeling Jacob thinks may still be there. He is, in fact, happy for his brother and the way his life has turned out. The blessing was in good hands, it turns out, and Esau is more than happy to watch from the sidelines how that blessing would work its way out into the world through Jacob and his family.
Knowing this touching reunion is in the future is so important to understand what to pay attention to here in this story today. See, Esau had every advantage he could have—he was the firstborn son of a powerful magnate, he was strong and brave, a great hunter and master outdoorsman. He even does extremely well for himself without the birthright or the blessing. He has flocks and herds of his own, and he becomes the father of an entire nation. In short, Esau does okay in the end.
But when we forget that, we get hung up on how unfair it seems that Jacob stole his birthright, and later his blessing. Except it worked out. And Esau understood what his role was supposed to be. He wasn’t going to be the one who carried forward the blessing of Abraham into the world. He wasn’t going to be the father of the people chosen to make God’s blessings known in the world. He was supposed to be a supporting character in God’s story, not a star. And when he learned that, he rejoiced at what God was doing in Jacob.
It’s characters like Esau that can help us read scripture without what one of my friends called the “Disney Princess Bible reading.” We have a tendency to read scripture and want to see ourselves as the hero of the story, the good guy or girl who’s been chosen by God to do the big and important things. We’re the ones set against the bad guys in the Bible and their allegorical modern equivalents. But Esau reminds us that sometimes, we’re not the hero. And that’s okay.
Because God doesn’t always pick us for the starring role. As much as the Bible says over and over that God shows no partiality, God is consistently arbitrary about whom God chooses to do things. And most of the time, it’s the “wrong” person—whether it’s David, who was Jesse’s smallest and youngest son; or Esther, who was the demur princess in a macho court; or Mary, the unwed and outspoken young woman who refused to sit down; or Jacob, the second-born twin who only had his wits to keep himself alive.
But in a way, thank God that God is arbitrary. Thank God that God doesn’t weigh our merits before choosing us for whatever role we are called to have. Thank God that God is so arbitrary with grace, giving it to whomever God chooses—whether it’s Jacob who was arbitrarily chosen to father a nation and carry on Abraham’s blessing, or Deborah the judge who was arbitrarily chosen to save Israel from the Philistines, or Paul who was arbitrarily chosen to share the gospel with such fervor, or Elizabeth (who is being arbitrarily chosen for salvation today in baptism). God’s arbitrariness is God’s grace, because it doesn’t rely on anything we do to earn it.
So let’s rejoice in whatever arbitrary role God has chosen for us in this story, especially if we’ve been chosen to be supporting roles. Lift up and pray for the people whose voices God has chosen to amplify—voices that name the breadth and depth and height of God’s love for all, voices that are unwavering in naming what God’s justice looks like, voices that we may not have heard before. Let’s imitate Esau, and see the wonder of how God’s blessing comes through unexpected people. Let’s make room to support the people God has chosen.
May we find the kind of grace and humility that Esau found when we look to our siblings in Christ who are leading us to the kingdom. May we have the trust in God’s arbitrariness to believe that stepping aside and letting others take the lead doesn’t diminish God’s love for us, or the importance of our role as supporters. And may we rejoice in the unexpected people God has chosen to lead the world to God’s own blessed kingdom.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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