2.16 Jacob and Esau
Abraham, Jacob and Joseph were the three lightning rods of God's intervention in pre-Exodus Israel. Through their lives, God reshaped history according to His priorities.
Isaac married Rebekah and they had two sons. Their struggles began before birth (Gen 25:22). In the midst of her discomfort, God revealed to Rebekah the character of her sons:
"Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger" (Gen 25:23).
This is a second example of God speaking directly to women. When Hagar was in despair, God came to her twice and saved her life, revealing to her His plan for her son Ishmael. Out of her suffering and exile, He was going to bring a good future for him. Likewise, when Rebekah asked Him why she was having such a difficult pregnancy, He assured her that His plan was being fulfilled. The suffering no doubt continued, but at least it had meaning. And God was present with her through it.
Esau ("red") and Jacob ("he deceives") are a type of the origin of racial conflict. Two brothers, closely and inescapably confined, competed -- for nourishment, space, comfort. After birth, the prenatal rivalry continued throughout their home life and passed to their descendants. So it became a generational curse that started in the womb, just because one baby stuck his elbow into the other's ribcage. As with most racial conflict, the two boys had physical and behavioral differences on which to focus their mutual antagonism. Esau was red and hairy, a hunter and outdoorsman. Jacob was the "momma's boy." Isaac and Rebekah endured years of incessant bickering by their sons.
This rivalry eventually came to a head in the famous incident about the loss of the birthright (Gen 25:29-34). Esau arrived home famished from hunting and asked for a serving of stew. Jacob denied him until Esau promised to relinquish his birthright.
"So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob" (Gen 25:33).
This verse is commonly cited to prove how petty Esau was. But both brothers were at fault here. For although it seemed to be an unplanned exchange, it is obvious that Jacob had long been thinking about how to get the advantage over his brother. It must have bothered him for years. So when Esau had an urgent need, the first thing Jacob asked for was the birthright. This shows us that Jacob was more than the supplanter, he was the provoker. He would not share for the common good, but only barter to his own profit. These were not two adult men, they were overgrown two-year olds carrying on a single incessant quarrel. Esau, the impulsive and headstrong one, got the worst end of the deal. Mastered by his own immediate hunger, he handed over his birthright, his pre-eminence. What was that to him? It belonged to the intangible and indefinite future. Esau lived only for today, for "the bird in the hand." He did not realize, nor did He care, that God's covenant promise was wrapped up in that birthright.
There is a strong echo of the Isaac and Ishmael story here. It is not just about the older brother being done out of his inheritance, but it is also the fact that it is all or nothing, the blessing cannot be shared. There is not enough to go around. This is one of the fundamental characteristics of racial strife, as groups compete for a limited resource: land, jobs, political power. A gain for one group is considered a loss for the other.
Absent from the brothers was any sense of a common identity or shared heritage. This is curious, given the fact that they lived as strangers amongst other nations, particularly Philistines. An ethnic minority often develops strong internal ties when surrounded by outsiders. Yet Esau, especially, found compatibility with the Canaanites, taking two Hittite wives (Gen 26:34-35). They only added to the discord in Isaac's household.
The idea of a limited patrimony is a distinctive of both Old Testament and modern secular thought patterns -- the idea that the inheritance is fixed and limited. This sets the foundation for a self-centered or ethno-centered morality: or as it is called in America, "looking out for number one." In contrast to both these worldviews, the New Testament outlook upholds the limitless grace available through Jesus Christ: it reaches "unto all the world." This provides an impetus not only for worldwide evangelism, but also for erasing all racial boundaries. There is plenty for all, and in fact, the more you share with others, the more there is for all:
"it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).