Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Good Seed and Doofi

Genesis 25:19-34
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

There is an ancient tradition of the church that hunters are not holy.

The notion that “hunters beth nat hooly men” is not a biblical verity, but it does appear to be traceable back to Esau, the older twin of Jacob, the sons of Isaac and Rebekah. The line is from Chaucers Canterbury Tales, the 650 year-old poem which English majors learn in Middle English.
By cause that it was old and somdel streit 
This ilke Monk leet olde thynges pace, 
And heeld after the newe world the space. 
He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,That seith 
that hunters beth nat hooly men, 
Ne that a monk, whan he is reccheless 
Is likened til a fish that is waterlees –This is to 
seyn, a monk out of his cloystre 
But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oystre; 
And I seyde his opinioun was good.
If Field and Stream needed an attractive cover model, it would not be Esau. The writers of Genesis portray Esau as a “skillful hunter,” but an impatient and impulsive man – two traits that every hunter knows can be dangerous.

Even so, if you were a hanger-on at Isaac’s tent and had to choose between the brothers, 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.’
On the other hand, 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. 

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 slabs 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 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 just 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 ravenous?)

“Thus Esau 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. Of course most of us  have already read past Genesis 25 and know the spoilers. Developments in future episodes will keep us on the edge of our Kindle: deception, betrayal, murder threats, fugitives living in poverty, erotic bating-and-switching – a mini-series that will make Fargo 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 at 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.


As to the adage that “hunters be not holy men,” I cannot agree. 

Not many people in my home area in Central New York would think of hunting as an unholy pursuit. When Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the U.S. Senate, she sought to ingratiate herself with an expanded constituency by avowing, “Up here, most folks go hunting and shoot their Thanksgiving turkeys.” Could be, but I don’t remember a lot of neighbors doing that. You can’t relax and enjoy your bird if your tongue is exploring every bite for lead pellets.

I doubt my former neighbors in Central New York really hunt their Thanksgiving turkeys in the woods, but I do know this: slaying a turkey in the exhilaration of his flight is more humane – and more Godly – than raising them for months in suffocating crates before binding their feet and wings and stuffing them head-first into electric decapitators. Men and women who shoulder their 12-gauges and seek their game in the unfettered forest may not always be pious, but they clearly have a moral advantage over the operators of reeking slaughter houses and overcrowded chicken farms.

I say this with deference to my friends and relatives who love hunting. When I was growing up, almost every autumn Uncle Bob killed Bambi’s mother or one of her cousins and our dinner tables were laden high with venison for weeks. About that I have mixed feelings. Uncle Bob was a good man, but Bambi’s mother was good, too. And I hate venison.

I grew up in rural Central New York where hunting was popular and everyone 14 and older was eligible to take a 12-gauge or .22 into the woods. With fond memories of Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett, I spent hours in the woods across the road from our house. I had no interest in assassinating quail, but I shouldered my .22 more or less as a beard, so my hikes looked like manly quests and not effete interactions with nature. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, John Nickel and I took our .22 rifles to the village dump on Cedar Street to shoot rats. That was exhilarating at first, until we discovered how hard it is to kill a rat. Rats can take a lot of lead before waddling beneath piles of junk, growling and cursing in their nasty rat lingo.

Uncle Bob loved hunting, but my father hated it. Somewhere in a family album there is a picture of Dad crouching with his rifle beside a 3-point buck that he had shot. In another picture three or four other guys - including the high school principal, Dad's boss - pose behind him with broad smiles. Dad is not smiling. He looks like he is about to throw up.

Actually, Chaucer’s critical reference to hunters is uttered by a monk who’s a few beads short of a rosary. The monk dismisses as worthless as a plucked chicken the idea that hunters are unholy.

My final exegesis, therefore, is that both hunters and gatherers do Gods will, but the hunter Esau was feckless, Jacob was a self-centered opportunist, and Jesus left us wondering if even bad seeds can have a chance to take root and grow into something useful.

And a final thought for the day. For English majors who have discarded their Middle English along with the algebra they never use, be assured no knowledge is ever useless.  

All of us in Professor Jene Beardsley’s class at (then) Eastern Baptist College had to memorize 20 lines of Canterbury Tales in middle English. That comes in handy when you get unwanted solicitation calls at 9:05 p.m.

“Mr. Jenks, let me tell you about this wonderful new development in water softening systems …”

And I reply,

“Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”

“Uh, beg pardon?”

“And bathed every veyne in swich licour, of which vertu engendred is the flour …”

“Sorry. Wrong number.”

The picture at top: Stained glass by Everhard Rensig and Gerhard Remisch, 1521, Victoria and Albert Museum.