On a recent hike around a beautiful lake in northern Virginia, I was surprised to find that, instead of enjoying the fall leaves or the sun glimmering on the water, my toddler daughter was enthralled by the mushrooms along the path. To be sure, there were a lot of them in a variety of colors and sizes. But given the more dramatic aspects of nature, I could not believe that mushrooms were exciting her the most. She could see something beautiful that I could not see. She was not confined to my expectations of what was worthy of attention.
In ancient Semitic cultures, the eldest son was favored to receive the family wealth and name. This was called their birthright. It was meant not only to indicate who would receive the family wealth but also to determine who would be the head of the extended family once the current patriarch was dead.
This was the custom of the time of Esau and Jacob but, as we have already seen, God does not always abide by human customs when choosing who will carry out God’s plan for salvation. In fact, God, who sees people in a different light than we do, may act in direct opposition to our assumptions. Even so, we cannot assume that God’s choosing of specific people and families is the same as God condoning and approving of certain human actions and behaviors. God’s openness, grace, patience, and love stand out in stark contrast to the dysfunction and manipulation that will define the family God has chosen.
Before Esau and Jacob are even born, we see a glimpse of the rivalry that will define the brothers’ relationship and impact future generations. In the womb, the twins fought each other so severely that their mother, Rebekah, cries out to God for answers. God predicts that this is just a foretaste of the power struggle that will result in the younger brother superseding the older.
When it comes time for them to be born, Esau is delivered first, followed closely by Jacob, who has a firm grasp on Esau’s heel. The name Jacob is derived from the Hebrew word that sounds like “heel” but also carries with it the connotation of usurping or supplanting another. As they grow, the rivalry between the twins is intensified by their parents picking a favorite twin. Esau becomes a skilled hunter and is loved more by his meat-loving father, while Jacob was much more of a homebody and became his mother’s favorite son.
The rivalry moves to a new level when, in a moment of desperation, Esau trades away his birthright to Jacob. After spending the day in the field, Esau is famished and asks for the stew Jacob has cooked. Taking advantage of his brother’s situation, Jacob says he will give him food in exchange for Esau’s birthright. Esau is convinced he’s near death and agrees to the exchange. The NRSV ends this chapter by saying, “Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34b), but it might be more accurate to say, “Thus Esau showed indifference to his birthright.” This echoes what he told Jacob earlier: “What use is a birthright to me?” (v. 32). In summary, Esau did not take sufficient care of what had been given to him.
Grasping at a gift
We should not assume that Jacob’s actions toward his brother are condoned by God. Just because God chooses Jacob over Esau as the bearer of the divine promise does not mean God approves of everything Jacob does. Jacob did not need Esau’s birthright to receive God’s covenant blessing.
It was also not necessary for Rebekah and Isaac to choose sides in order for God to work outside the cultural norm of the older brother receiving the inheritance. Scriptural evidence shows that God chooses based on criteria beyond human understanding. Thus, God’s favor is a gift that cannot be earned or obtained through other means.
God’s reason for choosing Jacob is unclear. God’s reason for not choosing Esau is also unclear. However, scripture is clear that both brothers act in ways that are worthy of praise and worthy of blame. It is not easy to discern who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. For this reason, the emphasis of the story is not on Jacob’s moral goodness but on God’s grace, God’s ability to bring goodness out of less-than-ideal circumstances.
Jacob still must deal with the consequences of his choices. He will continue to get his way by manipulating those around him even when it is not necessary for him to do so. And yet, God will also be able to bring about what was intended despite Jacob’s choices. Eugene Roop, former Bethany Theological Seminary president, points to the preservation of God’s plan throughout this saga: “But most importantly, the conflict that tears this family apart does not destroy the divine promise that the family carries” (A Dunker Guide to the Bible, p. 5).
Scarcity versus abundance
The story of the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau is an example of what happens when we are driven by the competitive nature of scarcity. Rebekah and Isaac feed into this dynamic by choosing to limit the love they give to each son. It is also made worse by a culture that has created a societal system where the eldest son is the one blessed with wealth and status.
We see this in our culture as well, where consumerism drives the false belief that we live in a world with limited resources. Even though it’s true that scarcity does exist in our world, advertisements market specific limited resources so that we feel compelled to buy something before it’s gone or before someone else gets it first. Advertisers use phrases like “get it before it’s gone” or “limited time only” to convey this idea of scarcity and to stoke desperate actions. When we believe there isn’t enough, we begin competing with one another and grasping for things that we believe will make meaning in our lives. The Brethren, on the other hand, have historically valued simplicity as an alternative to scarcity and competition.
In The Simple Life, Bible scholar Vernard Eller wrote that the reason Brethren value simple living is because of our desire to live under God’s reign. Thus, we subject all activities and possessions to God’s reign, seeking God’s kingdom first and letting the rest fall behind or witness to this single loyalty. When we live under the authority of God, we find ourselves living with an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity, for we simply need less to define ourselves. Our relationship with God and with one another, not things, is what defines our identity.
Jacob’s name is given to him because of the way he will continue to grasp at the heel of wealth and power. But this will not always be the case for Jacob. He will learn what it means to subject himself to God. Soon Jacob will receive a new name to show a change that has taken place within him. And we will also see that Esau, despite his losing his birthright and being passed over for the covenant blessing, has more than enough.
Audrey Hollenberg-Duffey is co-pastor with her husband, Tim, of Oakton Church of the Brethren in Vienna, Va.