Any parent of boys knows there’s nothing unusual about Esau and Jacob. They were prenatal wrestlers, and their tussles intensified after they were born and continued long into adulthood.
So it was with my three brothers and me. I was a privileged only child for the first two years of my life. Then came my brother Larry.
A lifelong architect, Larry is a gentle and peaceful soul who has two boys of his own. Recently he has rechanneled his artistic talent into watercolors, and – although he and Rhonda live in Oregon now – keeps in touch via social media. Today, he’s not only my brother; he’s my Bro’.
In fact, a warm friendship exists among all my sibs, including Jim, Paul, and Susan. I only wish we lived closer so we could gather more often.
But that was not always the case. As the earliest born, Larry and I played as aggressively as Esau and Jacob. Indeed, there was a sharp passive-aggressiveness in our play.
When we about 3 and 1, Larry and I played with a tall, narrow dresser in the bedroom of our small apartment. I opened the six drawers to show Larry how they could be used as steps to the ceiling. But Larry, an inarticulate pre-toddler, looked bored, so I pushed him into the bottom drawer and closed it. Slowly, the top-heavy dresser plunged forward onto the hardwood floor, and all the drawers slid shut.
Mom, who thought we were playing quietly, ran into the room. She stared dumbstruck at the prone dresser.
“How on earth?” she asked, her voice shrill and tense. Calculating I might be able to blame the incident on Larry, I shrugged one shoulder.
Mom could not see well in that period of her life because of a cornea disease, but she sensed something was wrong.
“Where is your brother?”
I shrugged the other shoulder.
In a panic, Mom’s veiled eyes darted around the room. Inside the bottom drawer, Larry began to cry.
With a surge of maternal adrenalin, Mom pushed the dresser upright and pulled open the bottom drawer. Larry, who would be quiet and taciturn all his life, frowned silently as Mom lifted him into her arms.
“Larry!” I shouted. “How you get in there?”
I don’t recall what, if any, consequences resulted from the incident, so they couldn’t have been too severe.
And of course, the dresser event was merely one in a long string of brotherly aggressions. Later, when we were playing Superman on the top bunk, I fashioned a pair of Clark Kent glasses out of cellophane tape and pasted them over Larry’s eyes. Then I pushed him off the bunk, only mildly surprised that he couldn’t actually fly. Later, on one of those rare occasions when I played the bad guy in our cowboys and crooks game in the living room, Larry stabbed me in the back with a butter knife. It didn’t break the skin, but it prompted me surrender to the good guy immediately.
There isn’t enough time or room to relate all the tales of sibling aggression that took place when the five of us were growing up. Our parents probably despaired that we would ever reach peaceful accommodations with each other.
But the truth is, siblings have always fought among themselves while competing ferociously for parental attention.
Several thousand years after the tale of Esau and Jacob was spun, Jesus told the story of two brothers who contended for their father’s favor and property. One son took his inheritance and lost it through immoral and profligate living. The older son remained loyal and stayed home at his father’s side. When the prodigal returned home and begged and received his father’s forgiveness, the loyal son was furious and resentful.
In larger families, all kids are the angry older son, bitter that their disloyal and undeserving siblings are loved equally. It takes a lot of growing up to discard that feeling.
Some family therapists maintain this competitive behavior prepares children for adult life, although the benefits may not be evenly distributed. In The Book of Guys, Garrison Keillor suggests an important distinction in formative play:
Girls . . . were allowed to play in the house . . . and boys were sent outdoors . . . Boys ran around in the yard with toy guns going kksshh-kksshh, fighting wars for made-up reasons and arguing about who was dead, while girls stayed inside and played with dolls, creating complex family groups and learning how to solve problems through negotiation and role playing. Which gender is better equipped, on the whole, to live an adult life, would you guess?
Clearly, Esau and Jacob employed the kksshh-kksshh form of developmental interaction, as did my brothers and I.
If you are fortunate enough to have a sibling or siblings with whom you have established a friendly relationship, it would be interested to take one of those internet quizzes such as, “Which Star Trek character are you?” or “Which state would you live in?” Which brother are you: Esau or Jacob?
The writer of Genesis portrays Esau as a “skillful hunter,” but an impatient and impulsive man – two traits that every hunter knows may be dangerous on the hunt. If Field and Stream needed an attractive cover model, Esau would not be it.
Even so, if you were a hanger-on at Isaac’s tent and had to choose between the brothers, I think you’d conclude Esau – although perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer – was morally superior.
According to Genesis, the brothers’ sibling rivalry began earlier than most: when they were still in Rebekah’s womb. The boys wrestled and twisted so violently that Rebekah thought she was going to die.
In the days before obstetricians, she went directly to God with her complaint, and as with many modern doctors, God was only partially helpful. God did give her prenatal information that went far beyond the gender or health of the fetuses:
Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.
That’s nice, but God did little to ease her violent cramping. The wrestling continued until the time of labor. When the boys finally hurled themselves down the vaginal track, Esau burst out first. He was startlingly red and hirsute, so they named him Esau, which of course means Hairy. His brother, struggling for the advantage down to the wire, is dragged out grasping his brother’s heel. They named him Jacob, which means Heel.
As it turned out, both names were appropriate. In a future updating of the New Revised Standard Version, they may re-translated as the Hairy and Heel brothers.
The boys’ bitter rivalry was exacerbated, as often happens, by parental favoritism.
Rebekah, whose postnatal soreness must have lasted for months, loved Jacob because he was smooth-skinned and liked to hang around the tent with his mother. Jacob loved Esau because he liked his meat and Esau the hunter had more steaks on him than a Lady Gaga dress.
The climactic chapter of the boys’ rivalry is reported almost too casually. The passage that should have begun more ominously, as, “It was a dark and stormy night,” opens like a gentle fairytale: “Once.”
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!’ (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 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 25:29-34)
Neither brother looks good in this account. Esau is impatient and impulsive and convinced that if he doesn’t eat immediately, he’ll die. Jacob refuses to feed his brother until Esau gives him a prize of enormous value – his birthright to all his father’s lands, servants, riches, sheep, and property. How can Jacob be so selfish, so calculating? And how can Esau be so stupid? (Or, if we take the biblical account literally, how can he have been so hungry?)
“Thus Esau (or Hairy) despised his birthright” is the cliffhanger for today.
The Common Lectionary wants us to reflect on this moment before we’re allowed to read on.
No doubt many of you have already read past Genesis 25 into subsequent chapters, and if you have, please, no spoilers. Developments in future episodes will keep you on the edge of your Kindle: deception, betrayal, murder threats, fugitives living in poverty, erotic bating-and-switching – a mini-series that will make The Tudors look like Ozzie and Harriet. Future chapters will also provide subtle reminders that if you’re looking for models of clean living and Republican family values, Genesis is not the place to look.
Fittingly, the Gospel reading prescribed by the Common Lectionary for this Sunday is Matthew 13:1-9:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’
The parable of the sower is a helpful metaphor to keep in mind as we re-encounter the familiar histories of the old Patriarchs.
When God first approached Abraham and told him his seed would conceive a nation as populous as the stars in the sky, God didn’t mention how rocky that sowing would be.
The Patriarchs were not perfect. Many of them were distractingly quirky, and it’s easy to get angry with Jacob every time you read of his cruelty to his brother and his deceit of his father. Some of the seeds the Patriarchs sowed fall on rocks, others on thorns.
But God remained faithful to their covenant, and in the end their seeds grew incalculably more than a hundredfold. The Patriarchs, imperfect as they were, remind us that God’s seeds have also been planted in us – and as imperfect as we are, God has promised to bring forth a sumptuous harvest.
Esau and Jacob weren’t perfect either, and throughout most of their lives they weren’t even easy to like.
But God used these two quarreling, contentious, and unreliable brothers as players in God’s great plan.
And, as imperfect as you, I, and all our contrary siblings may be, God will use us, too.