Sermon for 7 Pentecost, Year A
Based on Gen. 25:19-34
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
"Blessings: Esau's, Jacob's and Ours"
Today I'm going to begin with a personal confession. As an eldest son, it is next to impossible for me to read the Genesis narratives of patriarchs, matriarchs and their children without my built in biases towards the eldest personages in these narratives. I truly empathize with the eldest family members. As one with a longstanding penchant to favour the underdog ~ in this case, I believe it's Esau the eldest; I am troubled by many traditional sermons which seem to side with Jacob over against ~ and at the expense of ~ Esau. Usually, such sermons end by praising Jacob and condemning Esau; believing the former to be spiritual and godly ~ since, after all, he had the inheritance and blessing ~ while depicting the latter as this-worldly inclined and ungodly ~ since, he had lost the inheritance and blessing. More often than not, they support the notion that the twin brothers were enemies until death, without being reconciled with each other. I, however, do not believe this to be the case.
After reading today's story in light of other passages in Genesis dealing with Esau and Jacob; I am convinced that this story has parallels with other family narratives in Genesis, which shed light on one another and compliment one another. If they are read and interpreted as an organic whole, they provide us with a larger, more complete picture. Rabbi Arthur Waskow perhaps said it the best: "From almost the beginning to the very end of the Book of Genesis, one theme whirls through many variations: war and peace between brothers (and one pair of sisters)." It is those two words "and peace," which I believe have been neglected by many readers and interpreters of Genesis; which we need to take more seriously if we're going to be able to see the larger picture of this unfolding, vibrant, action-packed saga of Esau and Jacob.
Indeed, there are many significant parallels in the Genesis narratives, which instruct us as we read and interpret the Esau-Jacob story. For example, we remember that a few verses prior to our story, the writer tells us that when Abraham died: "His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him." In spite of the fact that Hagar and Ishmael were sent packing into the desert away from Abraham, Sarah and Isaac; here we learn that the two half-brothers both attend to the task of their father's burial. It seems that the death of their father brought the half-brothers together and they were, to some degree at least, reconciled with each other. Moreover, the narrative goes on to tell us Ishmael's descendants; the length of his life ~ 137 years ~ along with the land where he and his descendants settled. All three of these details ~ descendants-progeny, longevity, land-nation ~ along with mentioning that both Isaac and Ishmael buried their father, hence, were reconciled with each other ~ are clearly the signs of God's blessing ~ and likely Abraham's blessing ~ on both Isaac and Ishmael. When Isaac died, we are told, interestingly enough, that both Esau and Jacob buried him. In that other great Genesis epic of Joseph and his brothers, at the end of it all, we once again have this parallel of moving from sibling rivalry and alienation to a state of peace and reconciliation.
Moving back to our Esau-Jacob story, we have another significant parallel and motif, which is very instructive for us as we try to focus on the larger picture. This parallel and motif is that of trickery, conniving, deception. For example, not only does Jacob take advantage of Esau when the latter is famished by getting him to sell his birthright and swear it on oath for a bowl of lentil stew to make the blessing and birthright permanently binding. Jacob, now years later, as a father, is himself tricked by his own sons when they tell him that his favourite son, Joseph is killed ~ while, in reality, the brothers had sold him to Midianite traders who took him to Egypt. The one who tricked his own brother, father and father-in-law now is up-staged by a trick of his own sons. This trick, undoubtedly, caused tremendous suffering and grief for Jacob ~ for there is no worse suffering and grief than the loss of a beloved child or spouse. Maybe, just maybe, now that Jacob had experienced some of his own medicine; he was able to look differently at what he had done and how his trickery, conniving and deception had caused others suffering and grief too.
In spite of being swindled by his brother Jacob, Esau seems to be a rather gracious chap. In spite of the double share primogeniture inheritance falling now to Jacob, along with Isaac's blessing of Jacob, Esau's wrath is only temporary. Interestingly enough, Esau does not appear to be living under a curse either. In chapter 27, when Esau pleads with his father Isaac for another blessing, the latter does, after a fashion pronounce one of sorts ~ albeit second rate, compared to the first one. Nonetheless, in verse 40 of chapter 27, there is provision for an end to Jacob's domination of Esau. Isaac tells Esau: "but when you break loose, you shall break his (Jacob's) yoke from your neck." Another translation renders it this way: "But when you grow restive, You shall break his yoke from your neck." These words of Isaac are very significant, for eventually they are fulfilled when Esau is able to let go of his treacherous plot to kill Jacob and be healed from his anger and envy.
After fourteen or so years of alienation, rivalry and division, Esau is able to let go of his treacherous wrath and envy towards Jacob his younger brother. Jacob and Esau have both learned a thing or two by now. Jacob, in a humble servant posture bows seven times on his way to meet Esau. Jacob also refers to himself as Esau's servant and lord. He also extends to Esau a gift of reconciliation. Esau too is most moved by meeting Jacob. He takes some initiative to meet his brother Jacob. In the words of the narrator in Genesis chapter 33, verse 4, we are told: "Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept." Surely all of these actions on the part of both brothers indicate a humble, penitent spirit, wherein their brotherly love for each other is evident and they are reconciled with each other.
Furthermore, another indication of Esau being blessed and not cursed is the reference in chapter 33 as well as in chapter 36 of Esau's wealth ~ again as a sign of blessing ~ animals and property in abundance, progeny, and the land of Edom. In a moment of grace, Esau offers to share his wealth with his brother Jacob by inviting him to live on the same land as Esau. The brother who lost the blessing and birthright now turns the tables on the one who stole them from him by returning trickery and evil for grace and goodwill.
As many of us know, a biblical text takes on a life of its own over the course of history. For instance, there is the original context and meaning of the text; there are also a host of other contexts and meanings of the text as it is transmitted from one generation to another, one tradition to another and so on. The original meaning and context may differ greatly from our context and meanings that we discover and mine in the text today. In this vein, I would say that the reconciliation that takes place between Esau and Jacob is instructive for Jews and Christians today ~ although the parallels don't quite fit in an exact manner ~ as we continue our journey together towards further reconciliation and healing. Both Jews and Christians are discovering the blessings of one another's traditions, which make for peace with justice, deeper understanding, respect and friendship as we journey towards the realm of God.
In our family relationships, there is sibling rivalry, there is the tendency of parents to favour one child over another. This can undo and oppress a family for years, even generations. Is this the sort of legacy that we want to leave our children? A few years ago, I attended a weekend gathering of Lutheran men. In our group was one man who sadly told us that he could never remember his father ever blessing him. He told us this with tears flowing and much pain in his heart. This lack of blessing had some devastating consequences for the living of his life. Over the years, I've met others whom, like that man, have never been blessed by their fathers. These people are among the walking wounded in our society. If this story of Esau and Jacob teaches us anything, it surely is this: that not merely one favoured child but every child needs both God's blessing and their father's blessing. God is not miserly with God's blessings ~ God is generous in blessing everyone. Those of us who are fathers, need to be aware of the consequences for our children if we are miserly with our blessings or if we fail to bless them at all.
As Jacob grew older, he ostensibly learned this, for at the end of his life, he blessed each of his twelve sons. May the blessings of peace and reconciliation that comes from God, through Jesus Christ, with the presence of the eternal Spirit, be with each one of you today and every day. May you depart from this place and give your blessing to others ~ especially your siblings and/or children.
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