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OUR FAMILY TREE: JACOB, ESAU, AND THE POWER OF BLESSING

October 26, 2008

Our Family Tree:  Jacob, Esau, and the Power of Blessing

Genesis 25:19ff; 27-28

 

            Yesterday, I stood with a young man and woman as they became husband and wife.  It is always a real pleasure for me to be part of a marriage ceremony.  As I officiated the wedding, I looked into the faces of the parents and noticed their joy, their delight, as they watched their children, now adults, make vows to the person that would be their marriage partner.  Those parents began praying for their children and their future marriage partner long ago.  During that wonderful celebration yesterday, I thought back to an experience I had about ten days ago when I stood at a graveside with parents who were saying goodbye to their child.  Parenting is a wonderful experience of great joy, but at times it will absolutely break your heart.  All of us who are parents know the truth of that statement. 

The Bible also tells us about times of great joy and times of sorrow in the lives of parents.  Some of the greatest stories in the Bible begin with words like “A certain man had two sons.”  We have already seen some of these stories as we have taken a look at Our Family Tree.  The story of Cain and Abel and the story of Isaac and Ishmael are just that kind of story. 

Today, we come to another example, the story of Jacob and Esau.  As an adult, Isaac was somewhat passive.  He could not even select his own wife.  Abraham sent a servant back to a land of origin, back to the area of the Chaldees, to select a wife for his son.  This servant picked Rebekah and brought her back to the land of Canaan.  Scripture says that Isaac loved her and that she was a great comfort to him after the death of his mother, Sarah. 

The story we follow today begins in Genesis 25, beginning at Verse 19:  “Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah the daughter of Bethuel, the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Armenian.”  Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was barren; they both wanted to have children. A husband praying for his wife sounds familiar.  “The Lord answered Isaac’s prayer and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.” 

The Scripture tells us something remarkable about the twin boys she is carrying in Verse 22:  “The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’”  I have known women carrying just one child experience that kind of jostling.  They, too, asked, “Why is this happening to me?”  Having twins is significant.  Having twins that are struggling within their mother’s womb is significant.  You will notice this struggle is a foretelling of what is to come.  You can only imagine Rebekah saying to Isaac, “These kids are at it again.”  She prays to God about this, and God gives her insight as recorded in a poetic passage in Verse 23.  God tells her that these two children will become two nations.  One child will be stronger than the other.  The older will serve the younger.  I am not sure she ever shared that revelation with Isaac.  She may have kept it to herself.  She certainly knows that the twins within her womb will have enmity with each other. 

The day of the birth comes.  They name the oldest son Esau, a word that means “red.”  In some ways, that describes every newborn.  They all look somewhat like a little red peanut.  This baby was different.  He was hairy and red-headed.  When Esau came into the world, his younger twin bother, Jacob, was clutching his heel.  Jacob’s very name means “the grabber” or “the supplanter.”  From the very beginning, these two boys have an extreme case of sibling rivalry. 

Trouble occurs for a second reason within this home – favoritism.  You will notice that the Bible notes a real difference in these two boys.  Esau is an outdoorsman, “a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents.”  Verse 28 provides a very telling statement:  “Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.”  This family becomes divided early in the lives of these children.  A father’s preference for one son and a mother’s preference for the other son create a dysfunctional family.

As time passes, this favoritism becomes an open conflict.  One day, Esau comes in from the fields where he had been hunting for game.  He either needs to eat quickly because of his hunger or he has nothing to eat.  The hunt might not have been very successful.  Jacob, on the other hand, has prepared a stew.  Esau says to his brother, “Give me some of that stew.  I am famished.”  Using Esau’s hunger to his advantage, Jacob replies, “First, sell me your birthright.”  The birthright was the inheritance of the oldest son who was supposed to grow up, become the leader of the family, and take responsibility for everyone else. 

In this particular family, the inheritance would have been divided into thirds.  The older son would have received two-thirds of the inheritance, and the younger son would have gotten one-third.  For Esau to give up his birthright means that he gives up quite a lot – a position of leadership and a major portion of his inheritance.  In fact, his inheritance will be reduced by one-half.  Because he is so hungry, he really does not think about the birthright’s worth.  For a bowl of stew, a bowl of pottage, he sells his birthright.

This exchange parallels the sale of large areas of land in North America.  Native Americans sold Manhattan Island for about twenty-six dollars’ worth of beads.  The exchange also goes right along with what is sometimes called the “folly” of then Secretary of State William Steward.  He bought the land of Alaska for $7,000,000.  It only cost the United States about two cents an acre.  This land was a steal.  Think of the oil there.  Like those who sold Manhattan Island and the area of Alaska with little thought, Esau turns over his birthright to Jacob. 

Some commentators say that this exchange between the brothers was legally binding.  According to the law of the Chaldeans, once a birthright was sold, that settled it.  Others say that this sale really had no validity at all.  It was simply one way that Jacob, yet again, undid his gullible, impetuous brother, Esau.  Either way, their bargain is an important part of the story. 

We move to the second scene of the drama in Chapter 27.  Isaac is old and feeble.  He is also blind.  Think of macular degeneration or glaucoma.  He knows his days are short, so he sends for his favorite son, telling him, “Take your bow and arrows into the field.  Kill an animal and make me some of that good wild game stew that is your specialty.” As Esau leaves to hunt, Isaac adds, “After you come back and I eat the stew, I will bless you.”

Overhearing this conversation, Rebekah speaks to Jacob and tells him Isaac’s plan to give Esau his blessing.  Mother and son now scheme to deceive Isaac.  They kill two young goats, and Rebekah prepares these domestic animals with seasonings and spices so that her stew tastes like wild game.  Her plan is for Jacob to take this stew to Isaac, pretending to be Esau.  Her favorite son can then get the blessing. 

Worried that Isaac will discover their scheme, Jacob makes a statement to his mother that has double meaning, “Esau is hairy, but I am smooth.”  It can mean that his skin is smooth, but it can also mean that his talk is smooth.  Both were true of Jacob.  They place two patches of the skin of these young goats on the back of Jacob’s hands and neck and make plans for him to wear Esau’s clothing.  Again, Jacob reveals his reluctance, by asking, “What if Isaac finds out?”  Rebekah replies in Verse 13, “My son, let the curse fall on me.  Just do what I say; go and get them for me.”  The two carry out the plan with Jacob disguised as Esau.

As this story unfolds, Jacob blatantly lies to his father at least four times during his attempt to gain the blessing.  Isaac loves the way the stew tastes, but he has some doubts, wondering, Could this really be Esau?  It sounds like Jacob’s voice.  He questions Jacob, “Are you Esau?”  When Isaac calls him close, he can smell Esau’s scent on the clothes.  He touches Jacob’s hands and the back of his neck.  When he feels those hairy patches, he is convinced this son is Esau.  He actually gives the blessing to Jacob. 

It is hard for us to understand the strength of this blessing, the power of this blessing.  It is so important that it was worth the trouble of deceiving Isaac.  It was so important that mother and son connived to have this blessing.  Look at the last two lines of the blessing, as found in Verses 27-29:  “May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.” 

Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence before Esau returned from hunting.  The Scripture says that when these two realize what has happened, Isaac shakes all over, terrified by what he had done.  Giving his blessing to the younger son violated every cultural norm.  The older son should have gotten the blessing; but when Isaac realizes he has given it to the younger son, however, it is too late.  Now, Isaac’s actions cannot be undone.  The father has just one blessing to give.  Jacob has it, and that settles the issue.  Again, I say that we have difficulty understanding.

Esau cries out in despair with a loud and bitter wail in Verse 34: “Bless me – me too, my father!”  I want to give you an aside and that is important to the text.  Let me say right up front that this is not a political statement.  The Hebrew word for “the one who is blessed” is Barack.  Let me hasten to add that John is the name of “the beloved disciple.”  Joseph is a name used in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Sarah is the name of Abraham’s wife, “the mother of nations.”  All four people running for national public office in the United States have biblical names.  I simply share that information because the word blessing appears six times in this passage.  Its frequent use in the Hebrew text emphasizes its importance and power. 

Once Jacob steals the blessing from Esau, hatred begins to grow in this family.  Look at Verse 41:  “Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him.”  Rebekah knows that Esau was vengeful, and she certainly does not want any danger to come to her favorite son.  She learns that Esau has made a vow that when Isaac dies, he is planning to kill his brother.  In order to protect Jacob from Esau, she says to Isaac in Verse 46:  “I am disgusted with living because of the Hittite women.  If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living.”  Esau had taken Hittite wives.  She asks Isaac to do for Jacob what Abraham had done for him – allow the son to take a wife from among their own people back in the Chaldees, Paddan Aram.  

In Chapter 28, Isaac calls for Jacob, commanding him, “Do not marry a Canaanite woman.  Go at once to Paddan Aram to the house of your mother’s father Bethuel.  Take a wife for yourself there, from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.”  Listen to this second blessing that Jacob receives:  “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples.  May he give you and your descendents the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham.”  Could anything be clearer about the import of this blessing? 

Esau learns of the plan and realizes how upset his parents have been that he had taken Hittite wives.  Once again, using judgment that is questionable, Esau responds by marrying the daughter of Ishmael.  He somehow thinks that marriage is going to make a difference. How do you think that goes over in this household?  It simply adds insult to injury. 

Scene Three – Jacob is spending his first night away from home.  We think of Jacob as a young man at this time in his life, but he is sixty-eight years old by all reckoning of biblical numbers.  At this age, Jacob is still a bundle of contradiction.  He actually stops at a place where his grandfather Abraham had worshipped on a previous occasion.  He is clueless, though, about the significance of that place for his family.  He finds a rock that looks like a pillow and wraps up in his cloak.  He sleeps as you might think a person would sleep if lying on a rock.  Having done that a few times, I know you cannot have a very restful sleep.  Jacob has dreams and a very pleasant vision of a stairway.  Perhaps we could think of an ancient ziggurat, one of those pyramids with steps going around the outside.  Ascending and descending this stairway were angels; standing at the top of the stairway was the Lord

Verse 13: 

 

There above it stood the Lord, and he said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.  I will give you and your descendents the land on which you are lying.  Your descendents will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and the south.  All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.  I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land.  I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised.” 

 

Jacob, this scoundrel, this con-man, receives a wonderful blessing from God.  God can bless whomever He chooses, and He blesses Jacob.  Jacob wakes up, and realizing he is at an unusual place, he calls it Bethel, “the house of God.”  He also calls this location the “gate of heaven.”

Following this blessing, Jacob strikes a bargain with God, just as he does with everyone else.  What audacity!  Verse 20:  “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I can return safely to my father’s house, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” 

Let us look at what we learn from these three scenes.  First, strife between husband and wife, between mother and father, creates a real problem for the children.  I am not just talking about an occasional argument or disagreement.  I am talking about a contentious relationship between the parents. 

Second, each child needs a blessing from his or her parents on a repeated basis.  When our children were young and we put them to bed at night, sometimes I went around to all the beds and gently put my hand on their head.  I would breathe a little prayer of blessing for them. 

One day Clare said to me, “Kirk, they need to hear your words.  They need to know that you give them your blessing.  They will not know otherwise because they are asleep.”  That practice made me a better father.  Children never outgrow the need to have a blessing by grandparents, aunts, and uncles, Sunday School teachers, and especially parents.  Parents need to bless every child.  Nobody should be omitted from receiving a blessing.

Third, we learn that we are never too old to have a significant experience with God.  We think sometimes that only children or adolescents can have an experience.  God called Moses at the burning bush to be on a mission when he was eighty years old.  God called Abraham, when he was seventy-five, to leave Ur of the Chaldees and take this great venture down to the land of Canaan.  Jacob is sixty-eight years old. 

Did you think that somehow if you get old enough, the statue of limitations will run out on you and you will not have to worry too much about your relationship to God?  Did you think you would not have to continue to grow spiritually?  Did you believe that you could somehow just arrive at a place that was calm and peaceful and all was right with the world?  God is with us from birth to death.  His blessing goes with us from birth to death.  Our experiences with God never end.  He wants always to be involved in our lives. 

Fourth, God’s blessing does not mean that life is going to be easy.  God’s blessing does not exempt us from the wear and tear of life.  I do not know why we should ever think that.  All we have to do is look at the life of Jesus and think about what he went through before his death.  Was anyone ever more blessed by God?  When God blesses us, it is for His purposes.  Sometimes His purposes are very, very difficult.  We must receive the blessing from God and be prepared for the challenges that go with the blessing. 

Fifth, in order to have an encounter with God in which we receive a blessing, our lives do not have to be pure.  I know that Jesus taught the Beatitudes.  “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).  When Jacob saw God in a dream, he was far from being pure in heart.  God does not wait to bless us until we have all aspects of our lives worked out, until all of our motives are pure, or until everything is really tidied up in our spiritual life.  He can bless us and then use us for His purposes. 

The story of Jacob is one of the most important in the book of Genesis, one of the most important in the entire Bible.  It is not just a story about a member of our family tree; but it is also a story about us, a story about how we live our lives, a story about families.  It is a story about the way God interacts with us, trying His best to bring good out of people that are less than perfect.  God does that primarily by leading us to salvation through Jesus Christ.  Once we receive Jesus Christ as Savior, we have a great turning point; and we begin a long journey, a journey in which God works continually in our lives. 

 

Kirk H. Neely

© October 2008

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