Genesis 25: 19-34
It was early November of 2007 and the sun had set; it was dark. I had just come back to my apartment from a long walk on a blustery, Jerusalem afternoon. My lights were on which indicated that I was home and I heard a knock on my door. I thought it was unusual since I knew all of three people in Jerusalem having just moved there in October. So I carefully opened the door, just a crack. A young man dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans with a very official looking clip board looked at me and said “Shalom.”
Then he said something to me in Hebrew. It was undecipherable. Now I had taken conversational Hebrew for an entire year at the synagogue in Fairfield but, somehow it just didn’t prepare me to really speak the language. “Ahh, Anglit??” I asked. English? “Yafo, OK.” he said. We both looked at one another. Then he said, “I’ve come to take your gas mask.”
Now, I heard him as plain as could be but transcribed it very quickly in my mind to, I’ve come to read your gas meter. Then I realized, rega (wait a minute), my apartment is electric, not gas and there was no meter for him to read. I thought he was mistaken and asked him again what he said.
“Your gas mask,” he repeated, “from the war.” I just looked at him. Then I said that I had only lived in Jerusalem for a month and had the apartment. I’m not sure what that had to do with the situation but it was the only thing that I could think of and compute…in English!
He then asked me how long I had been in Israel to which I replied, “only a month.” And somehow we surmised together that I didn’t have a gas mask to turn over to him. I shut the door and then realized, this is ISRAEL. And this was where I had chosen to live for a year.
I was alarmed to realize that the government needed to give out gas masks to its residents in case of attacks. Then, I was comforted that, if in fact there was a war, I’d have a gas mask. Then, I was panicked that, the gas mask which I didn’t possess, had to be given back. What if I needed it, what if another war broke out tomorrow while I’m here? Will they bring me a gas mask in time? How do you work those things anyway? Do they have instructions?...in English?
The reality is, living in Israel, the HOLY land is, at best, tenuous and as we can see violence and conflict has once again flared up between Gaza and Israel. No doubt you have seen and heard many reports of the very recent uprising.
And so I come today to you with a very heavy heart because of this beloved place that I called home for a year. But conflict is not new in this part of the world and we see that from the beginning even the ancestral stories of our faith have been fraught with discord and difference.
The story of Jacob and Esau that we will examine today is one of conflict and strife from the womb, and about sibling rivalry and the ways in which family can become distorted and dysfunctional. Today’s scripture is one of sibling rivalry at its very worst. This is a portrait of a family divided, and an archetypal story that has repeated itself many times. Yet it consistently tells of a God at work with the human race and condition.
Last week we heard the endearing story of how Isaac met Rebekah. One of Abraham’s servants dutifully went to the well in the middle of Nahor, not in the land of Canaan but in the land of Abraham’s ancestors to find a suitable wife for Isaac. By now they have been married for many a long year and here is where we pick up our story.
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; 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. Afterwards 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 skilful 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.
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.
Who, in their right mind would make their brother sell their birthright for a measly bowl of lentil stew? On the other hand, who in their right mind would sell their birthright for a measly bowl of lentil stew? Enter the sordid and tragic twin brothers Jacob and Esau and a birthright that would grant the inheritor an extra special portion of daddy’s estate - the sovereignty and priesthood of the entire clan. A big deal. How many families have you seen fall apart when it came time to the reading of the will? So this isn’t so far fetched that there is contention over a birthright.
And not far behind, or perhaps the instigator of all of this disharmony was their mother Rebekah. Yes, that meek and lovely, covering her face with a veil Rebekah. That beautiful bride that Isaac fell madly in love with many years before.
You see motherhood came late in life for Rebekah and even later for Isaac. Aging out at 40 he needed progeny so that the Abrahamic covenant could be fulfilled, that is to become a great nation, and to be given some very special land to call home and to be blessed in it all.
So far so good but when the birth of their twins became a reality, Rebekah drastically changed and we begin to see a much different face of Rebekah and not one that is very pretty. She was now mother to two very different boys, different in temperament, aspirations, occupation, in just about every way, these boys were polar opposites. Esau the elder was a wonderer, and was daring, and a hunter, Jacob was a tentbody, introverted with epicurean instincts. And sadly, what Rebekah couldn’t do was to love them equally and neither could Isaac.
Esau could care less about his birthright and what it meant. To Esau it was worth only a spoonful of stew. To Jacob the birthright was of sacred significance. Jacob was more attentive to God than Esau and we see from later scripture that Jacob was the Lord’s preference for becoming a nation. But both of them act in ignorance of God’s work at hand.
Now there is much more to the story that we will fill in over the next few weeks as I continue these stories. But today we will focus on divisiveness and conflict and how we understand it in light of the Biblical text, the current uprising in the Holy Land, and our lives as a Christian body gathered.
I have come to understand from living in the Holy Land that peace over there is something far from which you and I can envision. Peace will not be people living equally and free together according to our American democratic ideals. So it is not fair to judge by our standards and what we see in the media. This is a more complex situation than that and what gets reported is distorted on both sides.
There are multiple layers of historical significance which contribute to this very old conflict and compounds the intense feelings that the Palestinians and Israeli’s have for this very minute piece of real estate in the world.
Even in time of ceasefire getting from East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem is a nightmare.
Both sides have made mistakes and caused harm to the other. Yet we are looking at legitimate claims on both sides and outside of extremists on both sides, people like you and me who just want to live and love and grow their children. Israel has a right to exist, to defend themselves and to continue to develop this land that God has entrusted to them. But being chosen does not mean that you are free to act without regard to any consequences. The Palestinians have a right to establish themselves as a nation but without terrorist intervention and intimidation. Peace, at best, will be carving out borders of this blessed and ordained land that will moderately satisfy, and those words are used loosely, both Palestinians and Israelis. To compromise will be a necessity but that will take courage and strength.
We learn from the story of Jacob and Esau that there will be strife, dissension, and discord when two brothers dwell in such a small space and that the decisions we make today can drastically affect our future. We also learn from their complex and difficult journey that God is present in all of this. God’s doing the best that God can given us humans that God has to work with.
And that is the point. It is God’s abiding love that will bring resolution out of conflict eventually, when and whereas we cannot not envision it. And this is the faith and the hope that we need to always believe and rely on.
That when we ourselves cannot see the good, envision an end or see the light of day, God can.
We can’t rewrite holy history of a land or of our lives but we can look back and choose to see the work of our benevolent God and then carry that knowledge with us into the future. There in lies God’s totality and wholeness, which is my friend, Shalom.
Baruch atah Adonai Elohein melech ha-olam.
Blessed are you O Lord, our God, sovereign of the Universe.