Rev. Mark Schaefer
Woodside United Methodist Church
July 10, 2011
Genesis 25:19-34

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 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. 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.” When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 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. When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

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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.


My great aunt is the family genealogist.  She has traced our family history on my mother’s side all the way back to England.  Through a couple of interesting stops along the way.  She discovered that on my grandfather’s mother’s side of the family we were related to Roger Sherman, one of the Founding Fathers and part of the delegation to the Constitutional Convention from Connecticut.  In fact, it was he who proposed the Connecticut compromise that provides for two houses of Congress.  I know, that’s a nice fact to drag out around the Fourth of July, isn’t it?

On my maternal grandmother’s side, it turns out that we are descended from the Olneys, one of the thirteen founding families of the Colony of Rhode Island.  That’s not too shabby either.

But then my grandfather, my great-aunt’s brother, learned that the family surname, Wiley, apparently came from a family in England who lived near a Wily/Wylie Creek.  Apparently the creek had been named wily because it was crooked.  Likewise, the Wileys had been so named because “they were as crooked as that creek.”  Well, that gave my grandfather quite a laugh.

My great-aunt was not amused.

I suppose I can’t blame her.  When you’ve been pleased to find folks like Roger Sherman and the Olneys in your family tree, discovering that at the root is actually a family of scoundrels is not terribly pleasing, I guess.


You know, sometimes, we can have that reaction to the Patriarchs in our whole Biblical tradition.  I mean, it’s nice to think of our spiritual ancestors as people like Paul and Peter, Mary and Joseph, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  David and Moses.  But then, the further back we go, the more we run into people like Jacob.  And the reading we have this morning certainly does nothing to dispel our qualms about this particular root of our family tree.

Isaac and Rebekah are married.  For twenty years they try without success to have children.  Isaac prays for relief and Rebekah conceives.  But it is not an easy pregnancy; she is carrying twins and it appears they are fighting in the womb.  Off to a great start.

When the children are born Esau is born first and comes out fairly hairy.  But Jacob is born next and is born grasping at the heel of Esau.  They grow up into two very different kinds of young men: Esau loves to hunt and be out in the field; Jacob likes to stay at home with his mom in the tent.

One day, Esau comes home from being out in the field and is famished.  Jacob is cooking a lentil stew.  Esau begs for some of the stew and Jacob says he’ll give Esau some in exchange for his birthright.  Esau says he’s starving and so after Jacob makes him swear to it, he gives his birthright to Jacob in exchange for the lentil stew. This, of course, raises an important theological question: just how good of a cook was Jacob, exactly?

But let’s pause for a moment, here.  The text concludes by saying, “Thus Esau despised his birthright” and maybe he did.  But what kind of brother asks his elder brother to trade his birthright for some lentils?  I don’t care if these are the best lentils in the world—like the ones at that Indian restaurant on M Street in Georgetown—this is your brother, you jerk!  He’s hungry.  Give him some food!

Has anyone stopped to consider how we don’t think well when we’re hungry?  If you’re like me, you get cranky and irritable when you’re hungry.  You’re not in any place to make good decisions.  And so, seeking to remove the one advantage Esau has because of his birth, Jacob uses Esau’s hunger to get the upper hand.

What a heel.  Literally.  I suppose we should have seen this coming.  They named him “Heel” when he was born.  Or perhaps “Heel-grasper”.  That’s what Jacob means, after all.  The name “Ya’akov” bears a resemblance to the word “akev” which means “heel”.  And in Hebrew, to “grasp at the heel” was an idiom that meant, “to supplant” or “take the place of”.  Now, I’m not saying that Isaac and Rebekah are to blame, here, but if you want your child to be an upstanding individual, it’s probably best not to name him “Supplanter”.  Kind of the way that Jerry Seinfeld used to joke that if you named your child Jeeves, he would be doomed to be someone’s butler.

But it only gets worse with regard to Jacob, doesn’t it?  It’s unfortunate that the lectionary skips right over this.  Next week we get the nice story of Jacob’s ladder.  But before that is more of Jacob the Scoundrel.

When Isaac is old and his eyesight failing he sends Esau out to hunt some game and prepare him some savory food, the kind he likes, and then Isaac will give Esau his blessing.  And so Esau goes out hunting. Meanwhile, Rebekah overhears this and comes to Jacob and says that he should put some goat skins on his arms, bring some stew, and impersonate Esau before Isaac and get his blessing.  This, of course, raises the second important theological question: just how hairy was Esau, exactly?

At first, Jacob begs off and doesn’t want to do it.  Let’s be clear, this is not because he has developed a set of scruples.  This is because he’s afraid of getting caught and then getting cursed.  Rebekah assures him that any curse Isaac places on him, she will bear.  And so, Jacob goes into the tent, wearing goat skins on his arms, and fools his old, blind, ailing father into giving him the blessing meant for his elder brother.

When Esau returns and discovers that Jacob has supplanted him yet again and that his blessing was taken, he is enraged… and devastated.  And honestly, there’s nothing in the text that tells us we should not feel sympathy for Esau.  What did he do wrong?  Nothing.  He is the victim of his brother’s trickery, his mother’s plotting, and of being a member of a family of scoundrels, it would seem.


So, what are we meant to do with Jacob?

Well, there are a few things worth noting here.  The first is that at the very beginning of the story, we are told that the younger will be the stronger of the brothers, and that the elder will serve the younger.  Actually, it is Rebekah who is told this, when she seeks an answer from God as to why the unborn children in her womb are fighting with each other.  It’s interesting because it’s the second prayer in as many verses.  Isaac prays for Rebekah to become pregnant and she does.  But then it is Rebekah who prays for understanding.

And God tells her: you have two nations in your womb, one will be the stronger and the elder shall serve the younger.  So, one important thing to bear in mind is that this was God’s plan from the very beginning.  Poor Old Isaac, he has no clue.  The whole time, he thinks Esau is the favored one.  He’s the elder brother.  He’s manly, goes out and hunts game.  Why wouldn’t he be the one to inherit both birthright and blessing?

Seemingly, Isaac has forgotten how God likes to work.  Forgotten all the more so since he was the second born.  He has an older brother, Ishmael.  He, of all people, should know that God doesn’t really care about our societal preferences.  In a world that prizes first-born males, God seems to like second born children and women.

We should also note that the text does not judge either Jacob or Rebekah for the use of trickery.  In fact, using trickery is the main way that later born children and women get ahead in this patriarchical biblical world. Trickery is often how the underdog gets ahead.  If you have any doubts about this, I invite you to read from the Book of Esther.


But there is need for a cautionary word here.  We should probably not rush into thinking that deception and trickery are okay if the will of God is involved.  I say this because unlike Rebekah, we are usually no more clued in to what the will of God is than is Isaac in this story. In fact, I could quickly see this as an excuse by unscrupulous clergymen to swindle you out of your money.  ‘It’s okay to do this–I’m doing the will of God!’  Thank God no unscrupulous clergymen have figured that out yet!

And really, there’s no real evidence that Jacob had any idea of God’s true intentions for his family when he behaved this way.  It was not on account of his awareness of the oracle God had given to his mother that he swindled poor Esau out of his birthright with a bowl of lentils.  It was not coming from any enlightened perspective that he sought to take his brother’s blessing by fooling his doddering old father.

No, Jacob was just a scoundrel.  A trickster.  A heel. And that actually brings up the biggest scandal of all:  God uses people just like him.

For as much as we might like to pretend, there are a whole lot of scoundrels in the family tree of faith.  Jacob tricks his brother and father.  Later, he will be tricked by his father-in-law into marrying both daughters.  Later still, his own sons will deceive him, telling him that Joseph was killed by a wild animal when it was through their betrayal he was taken and sold into slavery.

Moses, in a fit of rage will murder an Egyptian.  Aaron will help the Israelites to build the Golden Calf and then deny that he had anything to do with it. Jael lures a Canaanite commander into her tent with the promise of hospitality and then drives a tent-peg through his head.  David betrayed one of his most faithful officers, stole his wife and had the man killed.  Solomon built a temple for God and a palace for himself, much larger than the temple for God.

Jonah received a direct order to go preach to Nineveh and he got on a ship and sailed as far as he could in the other direction.

Matthew was a tax collector, a profession known for skimming off the top.  The disciples all try to vie for the top post and most glory the whole time.  Peter contradicts Jesus when Jesus tries to explain what it means to be the messiah and then denies him publicly three times when he’s on trial inside.  Paul persecuted the church of God, violently.

Augustine was a playboy in his youth.  Luther an anti-Semite in his old age.  Wesley was once so bitter over a woman who spurned him that he denied her communion for being “too fickle”.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was often drawn to the affections of women.

And yet, every single one of them had a role to play in accomplishing the purposes of God.  Every one of them was a part of the people of God, working for the transformation of the world and witnessing to God’s power and truth.

That is, after all, the scandal of grace.  God chooses people that we probably would not.  We like to set up systems to determine who is worthy and who isn’t.  We say you have to be the first-born male to carry on the family tradition.  God has a different idea and picks Jacob.  We say, that women have to wait for the initiative of men.  God has a different idea and sends Ruth into the tent of Boaz.  We say that only the most righteous are worthy of encountering God.  God has a different idea and Jesus dines with tax collectors, prostitutes, and outcasts.  We say that kings are born and clothed in glory and come from reputable lineages and good bloodlines.  God has a different idea and sees a king born to a poor family in a backwater country who is clothed ultimately in a crown of thorns.

God is not impressed by our standards.  God is not impressed by our understandings as to who is worthy.  God knows that God’s purposes can be accomplished through people no one would expect.  It seems, in the end, that God even has a soft spot for scoundrels, tricksters, and heels.  God is just as capable of accomplishing God’s purposes through broken people.  It may be, when all is said and done, that God has no other choice but to use broken people.


I suppose that’s a comforting thing, all told.  Just in case we were thinking that we weren’t quite good enough to do the work of God in this world.

It’s a comforting thing: just in case we were thinking that we didn’t have the credentials, or the background, or the social position, or whatever else it is that we might imagine qualifies us to do the work of God.

It’s a comforting thing: just in case we were imagining ourselves as less than good, as broken, as unworthy; we see that God can use people just like us.

It’s a comforting thing: because just in case it should turn out that we are the scoundrels in someone else’s family tree years from now, that won’t have prevented us from serving God in the here and now.

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