Jacob and Esau weren’t just brothers; they were twins.
They were the sons of Isaac, the grandsons of Abraham. That made them heirs to a promise made by God just two generations back. One day their descendants would make great nations. One day they would be blessed. One day they would become a blessing to the whole earth (Genesis 12:1-3).
One day… but not in the “today” that starts at Genesis 25.
Esau is born all red and hairy. Jacob is born literally hanging on his infant brother’s heel. Esau grows into an outdoorsman. Jacob grows into an indoorsman. Esau is a daddy’s boy. Jacob is a momma’s boy. The fight that started in the womb continues throughout most of their lives.
One time, Jacob was inside cooking some super delicious stew (Genesis 25:29-34). Esau comes back from working in the field, and he is hangry. He smells that tasty stew, and he wants some. Jacob, seeing Esau’s weakened, hangry state, says he’ll trade some stew… for his birthright. So Esau gives up his birthright. Within five minutes his stew bowl is empty, and so is his right to be the first descendant.
This is pretty much the norm for their relationship: trickery and jockeying for position.
It comes to a head as Father Isaac is on his deathbed (Genesis 27). He can barely see. He calls in his favorite son, Esau. “I might die any minute,” he says. “Go hunt some game like you do. Cook me my favorite dish. Bring it to me, and I’ll eat and give you my blessing.”
A father’s blessing was serious business, given out in limited doses with tangible power. Esau runs off obediently to hunt and cook and get the blessing he deserves.
But their mother has been listening.
Rebekah calls in her momma’s boy. “Jacob,” she says. “Quick – get me some goats from the flock. I’m going to cook them, and you’re going to go in to your dad and get that blessing before Esau gets back.”
Jacob objects – not for moral reasons, but for practicality. “Dad might be blind, but he’s not dumb. He’ll feel my arms and know that I’m his smooth-skinned second son.”
“Then we’ll cover your arms with the skins of the goats we kill,” she says. “Just go.”
So he goes. He goes in to his dying father. He pretends to be a son that he is not. The lies are flowing, including even God in the ruse: “I killed this game so quickly because God helped me, Dad.” Esau hesitates… questions… but then gives in. He gives Jacob his blessing.
Moments later Esau walks in, proudly carrying his dad’s favorite meal. Isaac asks a question that must have hit Esau like a sucker punch: “Who are you?
“Because Esau was just here – so you can’t be him.”
Rage. Unadulterated anger. The blessing has been given and cannot be given again. Big brother Esau hates his younger, conniving brother. His only comfort are plans for murder.
Rebekah knows she must act fast. “Run,” she says to Jacob. “Run to your Uncle Laban’s house!” Isaac blesses his tricky, heel-grabbing youngest son and sends him on his way. Jacob runs and runs, away from home and toward an unknown future. He’s blessed but alone. He’s got the birthright but he’s sleeping with a rock for a pillow. He’s got all he connived for; he’s got nothing.
This a good story. It’s got all the elements of prime time TV drama: selfish behavior, tragic plot twists, family exile. All we need is for one of the main characters to die out of the blue and it could be a Walking Dead episode.
But what are we supposed to get out of this?
Jacob is one of our forefathers in the faith. It seems as though we ought to look up to him, but the question “What Would Jacob Do?” might lead us to some decidedly un-Christian behavior. What do we learn about God from a guy who acted more like Jack Sparrow than Jesus Christ?
That’s the question, right there: What do we learn about God?
Which brings us to the Scripture for today, when God shows up.
Lying on the ground with a rock for a pillow, halfway between a revenging brother and an uncle he barely knows, Jacob sleeps.
A ladder is reaching from earth to heaven. Or, as Biblical scholars and Led Zeppelin would put it: a stairway is reaching from earth to heaven. God’s angels are going up and down, up and down. God stands at the very top. God speaks:
“I am the LORD. I’m the God of your father, Isaac, and your grandfather, Abraham. I’m going to give you the land you’re sleeping on – for you, and your descendants. They’ll need it because there will be so many of them, as many as there are specks of dust in the earth. I’m with you here. I’m with you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you back here, one day.”
Up to this point Jacob has only mentioned God once, and that was a lie. Now, waking up from his dream, Jacob immediately speaks truth about the God of his fathers. He takes the stone that was his pillow and makes it a pillar, a monument to mark the spot. He pours oil on it out of respect. He calls the place Bethel, “House of God.” “If God will be with me,” he says, “then the LORD will be my God.”
If this story is more about God than it is about Jacob, here’s what I see: God made a covenant with Abraham that will not be broken. The covenant survives despite human meddling. Human involvement is shaky; God’s covenant stands firm.
From this vantage point I look again at Jacob. He’s not an example to be followed; he’s a mirror to be examined. In his trickery I see my own feeble efforts to control my destiny. In his heel-grabbing I see the human tendency to use brothers and sisters like steps on a status stairway. In his lies I see a selfish world where the end justifies any means.
This story is not about Jacob as a hero. It’s about Jacob as a human being. It’s about God’s promise that will continue despite Jacob’s shenanigans. It’s about God being with Jacob not for Jacob’s sake, but for the sake of God’s big story built on a promise.
Friends, let’s learn from Jacob. If we think this story is about us, then we’re tempted to do whatever it takes to glorify ourselves: lie, cheat, steal, trick. This story is not about us. The point is not glory for me or you. It’s about God. The point is glory for the one true God.
God’s covenant – first through Abraham, then through Jesus Christ – stands firm for us and despite us.
May we stop fighting for promises we made ourselves and live into the promise God made to us.
May we stop living into our own stories by whatever means necessary and live into God’s story by loving God and loving all God’s people.