Gone Wandering 1:
Living in Tents and Other Quiet Pleasures
on the Jacob/Esau cycle in Genesis
© Robert J. Elder, Pastor
15th Sunday in Ordinary time: July 10, 2011
Today we embark on something that preachers aren’t supposed to do during the summer months, at least according to common ecclesiastical wisdom: we are starting out on a five-week series of sermons! Not only is this considered the “low season” for church attendance – an odd time to expend the extra effort required to put together a coherent series – but all this effort is dedicated to an Old Testament character. Still, over the next several weeks, I will try to walk us through the story of Jacob, patriarch of Israel, to see the ways in which the record of his life speaks to the activity of God in our lives today.
Why would a sermon series about Jacob be of importance today? He was a man born of a time and place so different from ours that we might suspect that we could do just as well attempting a sermon series on the minds of alien invaders from another galaxy.
I’ll tell you a couple of reasons why I think it is important to encounter Jacob and his strange Old Testament world. His other Bible name was “Israel;” biblical tradition traces all the Jewish people who once called Israel home back to this man. To understand Jesus’ ministry in Israel, we must understand Israel, and to understand Israel, we must understand the one in whom the story about the nation of Israel first began to take shape, the man named Jacob.
In the course of learning about this man, we may begin with bright hopes of sharing a story about a person of high character. But it won’t take very long to find such hopes disappointed. We may take him or leave him, but in the end, Jacob will strike us as a figure characterized by the sort of ambivalence that marks any real human being. One scholar (Terry Fretheim, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I, Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 516.) said that, take him or leave him, we will discover him to be sometimes simple, other times complex, sometimes positive, other times negative, sometimes clear and other times ambiguous. In the end of the story, the biblical miracle is that God takes him, just as he is. This is the story which sets the tone for the whole history of Israel, and which sets the reconciling stage for the work of Christ and his ministry. If God takes on one such as Jacob, the thinking will go, then why would there not be hope for me? I may be no better than he was, but I am certainly no worse!
In this story, then, we have the gospel in a nutshell. We may be self-serving, ambitious, scheming, capable of tawdry little episodes in our lives, but God knows we are also capable of high morals, clear values, good works. In any case, God takes us, will have us, just as he had Jacob.
So scene one in our story for this first week in the series opens on the front porch of Isaac’s and Rebekah’s house. Both are praying for children. In scene two, after the same sort of barrenness which her mother-in-law, Sarah, experienced, Rebekah was given a difficult pregnancy. We are startled to learn in a blunt way that she is to give birth to twins, when the narrator flatly declares, “The children struggled within her.” Children? That’s the first we know there is to be more than one child born.
Right away, Rebekah questioned the purpose of life. We might think that to be an overreaction, but the word used for “struggle” can be literally translated “crush.” Anyone who has ever felt a baby move knows the trampoline effect of even a single child in the womb. With twins, using the word “crush” might not be an overstatement. Even before birth, these two boys were engaged in a struggle, contesting with each other, trying to crush one another, vying for the all-important first place in the birth order. In a literal way, when it came to inheritance in those days, the last one out was a rotten egg, or at least as good as. The contest in Rebekah’s womb was an omen of a life-long struggle to come between these two boys and the nations to which they would give rise. By the time Rebekah was on the gurney, heading to labor and delivery, she was more than ready either to die or to have the boys’ conflict out in the open.
Scene three is the delivery itself, an all-important moment in a society that promised everything in inheritance to the first-born son. By the social standards of the time, whichever son emerged first would inherit Isaac’s birthright, along with the promises God had made to Abraham, and through him to Isaac and the nations to come from them.
No wonder that when the boys came out, and hairy Esau came first, Jacob came along right behind, clinging to him by the heel. Years later, when Jacob would wrestle with an angel, I wonder if it reminded him of the intrauterine wrestling match with his twin brother.
Then the scene shifts abruptly. The boys are grown. Esau has become a hunter, a man with a subscription to Field and Stream and a gun rack in the back of his pickup truck, more often than not to be found in the wild, stalking game, sleeping under the stars. In contrast, Jacob was “a quiet man, living in tents,” tending to the front lawn and the morning paper, enjoying a more domestic, settled life than his brother.
At last comes the critical scene in this little piece of the drama that was Jacob’s life. The paragraph starts innocently, “Once when Jacob was cooking a stew,” it says, “Esau came in from the field, and he was famished.” It is easy to see what is coming. Esau, a man of the hunt, preferring to live in the fulfilling present than sit around awaiting a secure future, Esau gave up his privileged position as first-born son, future heir, in favor of stew for lunch. Short-term satisfaction was bartered away for long-term entitlement. While Jacob seems to be a bit of a schemer in this, there is not much of a kind word for Esau in the passage. In the end, five verbs describe what he did in simplicity itself: he “ate, drank, rose, went away, despised.”
But what does this make Jacob? A schemer, to be sure. Opportunistic. Clever. Patient, even. In his quiet tent-living, Jacob had apparently had plenty of time to consider a way to wrest the birthright away from his brother. When the moment came, he seized it without hesitation or second thought. At this moment, he doesn’t seem like much of a model of religious faith, does he?
Here, then. we have a plain word about the way God works in the world. God does not wait for plastic saints to be born before taking action. God’s purposes can be accomplished even through the lives of scheming, clever, quiet tent-dwellers like Jacob. That his mother favored him over Esau surely was a leg up for him, and demonstrates again that God chooses to work in and through human actions and choices, our participation – even our bad decisions and off-center intentions – are redeemable by God as he creates the future. By granting Rebekah the “insider” information that the elder son would serve the younger – making this a text favored by the babies of families everywhere – God helped plant within her the kind of predisposition toward Jacob that would help bring God’s desires to pass.
Both boys come off looking less than saintly, and to try to make just one of them the villain is to misunderstand what the story is about, as well as to misunderstand what it is like to be human and alive in a world filled with confusing choices and opportunities. Jacob took advantage of his brother in need. And Esau came off as the most careless of sons, so casually despising his birthright. Why would God choose either one of these two to carry forward the promises he has made to Abraham and Isaac?
It seems to me that this is the question of the hour not only for this passage, but for us in our struggle to walk in faith. Why would God choose me? Or you? No one is more aware of our own shortcomings and failures, our dull bad-choice moments as well as our scheming hearts than we are. No one is more able to see the manifold reasons why we are bad candidates to carry forward the work of God’s kingdom than we are. And yet, God has chosen us! Some days we may doubt it, but we are seated here this morning, more than for any other reason, because we are responding to some call to us. Even if we are aware of it only in the vaguest way, even if we came to worship today almost by accident – as an afterthought – we are here, and God’s plan is now prepared to make use of our awkward commitments even if it beats us to see how or why.
In the end, we do make a difference in the work of the kingdom, and even our compromised, stumbling attempts to discern God’s will and do his work are honored by him, refined by him, made whole through Christ in such a way that our lives have meaning far beyond any meaning we might have imagined for ourselves. Jacob, standing in the shadow of the doorway to his tent, watching his brother Esau slouch away, rubbing the remnants of his afternoon stew from his beard, Jacob probably was unaware of a potential for fulfillment of God’s purpose dwelling in that moment. But his lack of awareness of it did not make it any less real.
Neither does our lack of awareness of God’s immediate purpose in our lives mean that there is none, only that we have not yet begun to see it. God is still working on the future that we may create together in relationship with him in Jesus Christ. That is the legacy of Jacob and the promise which has continued through the faithful people who have called him father right up to the present day. We are in their number. God has chosen us and has plans for us, too. Praise be to God.