Monday, July 11, 2011

Brothers and Blessings


A sermon preached July 10, 2011 at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL,

(c) Christina Berry

Genesis 25:19-34

19 These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham's son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her; and she said, "If it is to be this way, why do I live?" So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger." 24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30 Esau said to Jacob, "Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!" (Therefore he was called Edom. ) 31 Jacob said, "First sell me your birthright." 32 Esau said, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" 33 Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Genesis 27: 26-29

26 Then his father Isaac said to him, "Come near and kiss me, my son." 27 So he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, and said, "Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed. 28 May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. 29 Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother's sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!"

It had all begun with blessing.

Isaac had told her that God had spoken to him; now he had heard the blessing for a second time, at Beer-sheba. “I am the God of your father Abraham; do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you and make your offspring numerous for my servant Abraham's sake.”

Rebekah had almost despaired of ever conceiving a child, but the promise and the blessing had been fulfilled. Now she was having a very difficult pregnancy. The two babies – for she knew it was twins – struggled in her womb, as if they were in a wrestling match. She had wanted a son, but now, two babies? She worried – worried that they would be healthy, that they would be strong. But she also worried about herself, and her husband Isaac. Could she, after waiting so long, really give her love to two children at once? And Isaac, after his strange and tormented childhood, could he really be a good father to two sons?

She smoothed her palms across her bulging belly as she remembered her husband’s history: born to aging parents, Isaac had been burdened from the moment of his birth with this covenant promise, that a great nation would spring from him. Yes, this covenant was a burden, a source of trouble. It had prompted Isaac’s father, Abraham, to offer him up on the altar of sacrifice. Isaac still awoke in a cold sweat some nights, frantic, crying, “Father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”

It was as if some essential part of him had been broken, left him timid and hesitant. All the wildness had gone to Ishmael, the son of the slave-girl Hagar. Still, Rebekah was happy to be with Isaac. He was good to her, even if he was a little too attached to his mother. Then near the end of her confinement, the Lord gave her that frightening oracle, about her sons:

“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”

She was determined that this should not be – not with her children. No parent wishes for their children to be divided, no mother wants one of her children to serve the other. The tradition was that the eldest should be the heir, should receive the birthright, and the father’s blessing. That was how it had ever been and how it would be.

When they were born, though – oh! when they were born! If the pregnancy had been difficult, childbirth was torment. First to emerge was Esau, covered in blood, a hairy little thing, but strong, with a lusty scream. Then, the midwife said, clinging to Esau’s heel, came Jacob, the second son, so beautiful, like a flower, and so quiet, looking around thoughtfully in that way that babies have – as if he were sizing up this new world. Even after the blood of childbirth was washed off, Esau was a ruddy, hairy thing, rough and independent, always outdoors. Jacob stayed closer to his mother, and that expression: expectant, evaluating, calculating, never left his face.

Esau couldn’t make any sense of his mother’s relationship with his twin. Jacob was such a weak and girlish thing – always in the tent with mama. But his father, Isaac, said to let them alone – let Rebekah coddle Jacob, and he and Esau, father and son, would get about their manly pursuits. It never crossed Esau’s mind that there was anything wrong – he was happy, out in the fields, hunting, trapping, providing meat for his family.

Jacob watched, evaluating the situation. His mother had told him about the prediction, about how he had emerged holding onto his brother’s heel. As Jacob thought this over, it didn’t really seem devious to trick his brother. If Esau would fall for it, why, it was just a fulfillment of the Lord’s word. Besides, Esau was a grown man. So Jacob watched for his opportunity.

He was cooking the day it came, a rich red stew of lentils. It was the traditional meal for mourners, and Jacob had prepared it for his father, Isaac, who was mourning the death of HIS father, Abraham. Both Isaac and his half-brother Ishmael had attended to the burial of Abraham, and now Isaac mourned his father and the loss of all that might have been between them. So Jacob took extra care with this stew, made it savory and satisfying, an offering to his father, extended along with Jacob’s hopes, his yearning for his father’s affection, which seemed to be reserved only for Esau.

It was too perfect, really, when Esau came tromping into the tent, smelling of sweat and game, his hairy arms flecked with dirt and leaves, his sandals wet and muddy.

“That smells good!” Esau said, nodding toward the stew pot.

“It’s a lentil soup for our father,” Jacob said.

“Gimme some of that red stuff – I’m famished!” Esau said, in a voice too loud for the tent.

It was almost a whim, almost a joke, when Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”

He could hardly believe it when Esau replied, “If I starve to death that won’t be any good to me – sure, have it.”

It didn’t seem possible. “Swear,” Jacob said. And Esau did.

Jacob handed him a bowl of lentils. Jacob could barely conceal his elation! How easy that had been! The birthright: the inheritance and respect and rights due the firstborn— it was his! in exchange for a bowl of lentils! Jacob turned his face away as his brother ate, in order to hide his contempt. It was easy, after that, easy to think through the rest of it.

And Rebekah would help, she who favored her sleek, beautiful younger son over that husky, brawling boy whom Isaac so clearly preferred. Isaac had to admit that he was playing favorites. He wondered, at times, if he loved Esau so much just on account of the boy’s strength. Jacob seemed to Isaac so much like himself as a boy and a young man, a mama’s boy, a quiet son who preferred to stay in the company of women. Isaac thought about his mother Sarah, how she had protected him and stood up for him, and how strained his parents’ relationship had become after that terrifying dawn on Mount Moriah. God had provided, indeed; the ram in the thicket took Isaac’s place on the altar – but Isaac could never trust his father again.

But Esau, his first born – what a simple delight that boy was! He never brought problems, or complicated emotional transactions. He brought fresh game, and stories of the hunt. He brought the smell of earth, and morning dew. He was rugged, and strong. And simple.

Isaac was waiting for him to come, to come and receive the blessing. Life had been good to him. The God of his father had blessed him, had kept all the promises of the covenant, had given Isaac not one son but two, two to carry on the family name. And now it was time to bless his first born. Isaac called Esau to him, and instructed him to go out hunting, and bring back game, prepared in the way that Isaac most liked.

Rebekah was watching, and listening; she would not let this opportunity pass. She called her son to her and instructed him in their scheme: kill two of the best young goats, and bring them! Quickly! Rebekah prepared the meal with care, and with love, even in her deceit. Jacob watched, alternately fascinated and fearful.

“Mother,” he said. “Father will surely know it is me. My skin is smooth. I smell clean. My voice is refined.”

Rebekah turned on him with fury. “Shut up! I have this under control.”

She scraped the goat hides clean of blood and sinew, leaving the fur rough and unclean. She hurriedly ran to snatch Esau’s best robe, and dressed Jacob in it. She wrapped the hairy goat skins around his hands, and around the back of his neck, and shoved him toward the savory meat she had prepared.

“Hurry!” she hissed. “Take it! Take it to him, quickly!”

Jacob entered his father’s tent. He could not stop his hands from trembling, but his voice was strong: “My father! I’ve brought the savory meat you love so much!

“Which son are you?” Isaac asked, for he could not see well now.

Jacob answered his father, “It’s me, Esau, your firstborn son. I did what you told me. Here, let me help you sit up and eat this fresh game I’ve prepared, and then you can give me your personal blessing.”

Isaac said, “So soon? How did you get it so quickly?”

“Because your God cleared the way for me,” Jacob answered.

Rebekah stood watching behind the tent flap, willing her husband to believe.

“Come close, son; let me touch you,” Isaac said. “Are you really my son Esau?"

Jacob stepped forward, reaching out his arms and leaning down close. Isaac felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob's voice but the hands are the hands of Esau.” Still unsatisfied, Isaac pressed him, “You're sure? You are my son Esau?"

“Yes. I am.” Jacob answered.

Rebecca held her breath.

Isaac said, “Bring the food so I can eat of my son's game and give you my personal blessing.”

Jacob brought it to him and he ate. He also brought him wine and he drank.

Then Isaac said, “Come close, son, and kiss me.”

Jacob set the bowl of meat to one side and leaned in closer. It wasn’t until Isaac began to speak that Rebekah began to breathe again.

‘Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed. May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother's sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”

Almost as soon as Isaac lifted his hand from Jacob’s head, Jacob fled his father’s tent. He ran to his mother, who held him as he shook, and wept with relief. They had done it! It could not be undone now! For a brief second, Jacob felt a twinge of guilt, when he saw Esau approaching their father’s tent, the savory smell of game wafting behind him. Esau approached the tent slowly, grieving. His father would soon be gone. All the happy hours they had spent together came back to him in a rush of memory. The pain of his mother’s detachment had always been soothed by his father’s rough affection. He would be alone now. His mother hated his wives, did not care for him; his twin brother looked down on him. But he would be the patriarch, the head of the family, and he would care for them all, no matter the past.

Shored up by this thought, he quickened his pace, and went to his father’s side.

“Papa! Look here, Papa! Can you sit up? I’ve brought you some game. It is so fresh, and the herbs and vegetables look so good. Can you eat a few bites – it is just the way you like it!”

Isaac looked confused. Through his hazy, watery eyes, he glared toward Esau.

“Who are you?” the old man demanded.

Confused, Esau stepped back. “Esau, papa. I’ve brought the savory meat you asked for.

I’ve come to receive your blessing.”

Now Isaac was confused. “But who was that, just now, who was that who brought me meat,

and bent down, and received my blessing?”

The realization hit them both at once. Treachery! Isaac started to tremble, shaking violently. He said, "Then who hunted game and brought it to me? I finished the meal just now, before you walked in. And I blessed him – I can’t take it back!"

Esau began sobbing bitterly. “Papa! Can't you also bless me?”

Isaac wept with his son. “Your brother has deceived me, and took the blessing I intended for you.”

Esau said angrily, “Not for nothing was he named Jacob, the Heel. Twice now he's tricked me: first he took my birthright and now he's taken my blessing.”

Then, Esau begged, “Haven't you any blessing for me? Has he taken it all?"

Isaac answered Esau, “I've made him your master, and all his brothers his servants, and lavished grain and wine on him. I've given it all away. What's left for you, my son?”

Esau pleaded, sobbing inconsolably, “But don't you have just one blessing for me, Father? Oh, bless me my father! Bless me!"

“You'll live far from Earth's bounty, remote from Heaven's dew. You'll live by your sword, hand-to-mouth, and you'll serve your brother. But when you can't take it any more you'll break loose and run free.” [i]

They embraced, and wept together, for all that had been taken from them.

As Esau left the tent, Rebekah jumped away from the entrance. Her eldest son Esau seethed in anger against his brother Jacob. He brooded. He was sullen and would not talk to her. Finally, he decided – once the period of mourning his father’s death came to a close, he would simply kill Jacob. It would be over.

Rebekah, watching as ever, got wind of the plan. She called her younger son Jacob to her.

“Listen! You have to run. Esau is going to kill you. Get out of here. Run for your life to Haran, to my brother Laban. Live with him for a while until your brother cools down, until his anger subsides and he forgets what you did to him. I'll then send for you and bring you back. Why should I lose both of you the same day?”

And so, Jacob ran. He ran with the birthright, he ran with the inheritance. He had his father’s blessing, but he was a fugitive. He had everything that by all rights belonged to his brother Esau. He ran to his uncle’s home, looking back over his shoulder, scanning the horizon for his brother, his stupid, gullible, murderous brother.

Esau, for his part, went back to his tents. Perhaps he woke each morning feeling the emptiness of his loss:

his beloved father, gone! his birthright, gone! his inheritance, gone!

And the gift for which every son yearns: his father’s blessing -- gone, gone from him…. all gone forever.

Esau, like Jacob, left his parents’ home, and went to his Uncle – not Laban, the brother of his mother Rebekah, but to Ishmael, the half-brother of his father Isaac. Still perhaps hoping to win his mother’s love, Esau took a wife there, in addition to his Canaanite wives. He took a wife from the house of Ishmael, a proper wife. But the past could not be changed.

After both of her sons had gone, Rebekah lay awake at night, sleepless and alone. She wondered, sometimes, whether she had done the right thing. Perhaps this El Shaddai might have accomplished the promise without her. As much as she loved Jacob, the child of her heart, she ached too for Esau, his father’s boy.

She had given birth to two sons, an answer to Isaac’s prayer. The one, the elder, was red, and so they called him Esau, which means red. The second, the younger, was holding his brother’s heel, and so they called him Jacob, which means heel, supplanter. Now they were gone, both of them. This was not what she had wished for, not what Isaac wanted.

No loving mother wishes for a child to live an unblessed life! Every loving father wants to fix things, to make things come round right! But there are forces in the universe which do not yield to a parent’s love, events which cannot be shaped by a parent’s dream. Surely this God who sees, the Almighty, would make a way for her sons.

And so, each one of them: Jacob, Esau, and Rebekah, lay down on their beds and looked up at the moon, and thought how the world had changed because of this covenant: no more was the sky empty; now the countless stars spoke of promise no more were their lives in the hands of random fate; now a God of gods would speak to them, hear them, see them. No more did the whims of countless pagan gods torment them; now El Shaddai lived alongside them in everlasting covenant.

Whatever happened now, this God of Abraham would be there. Surely El Shaddai, the God of the covenant, the lover of the outcast and the one who favors the least and the last, surely this God would be at work in the world, and in their lives, to bring blessing, and promise, and life. [ii]

Amen.

[i] Portions of the dialogue in this sermon are adapted from The Message.

[ii] Much of the perspective of this sermon comes from the work of Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis in the Interpretation series. I am grateful for his empathic and thorough-going insight.