By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
July 16, 2023
Genesis 25:19–34 (ESV)
19 These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. 21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” 24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
The story of Isaac and his descendants is interesting. Like his father and mother, Isaac and his wife faced struggle. Abraham received a promise from God that he would be the father of a multitude, or many nations. That his descendants would be like the stars of heaven. I find this promise to be interesting, because like many things it is layered, the interpretation of this promise could be like, as in quantity. It could also be like, as in of similar substance. This second interpretation is more spiritual in nature because we know from the great scholars and poets of, They Might be Giants that the sun (or stars) is a “mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace. Where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees.” What the like of the second interpretation of God’s promise to Abraham could be in this instance is that the descendants would be like the stars in an ancient cosmological sense, meaning they would be like divine creatures. They would have a nature that is physical as well as spiritual.
I mention this dual interpretation of this promise because it highlights the reality of humanity. There are always multiple ways to look at our present circumstances. There actually can be more than one right way to an answer. It is shocking to even consider the possibility, but we have all experienced it. Let us consider math. I am a math traditionalist; I will add my numbers right to left carrying the one and all that until I get to the sum. My wife, although we are of the same generation, did math differently. She was doing new math before new math was a thing. And it irritated me, because she can do basic math in her head twice as fast as me. We both get the same answer but the way we get there is different. We have different perspectives, and value different things as humans. When we look at the promise to Abraham many of us will look at it in a numerical sense, while others would consider it from a spiritual perspective.
This shows up in the interactions of the people involved as well. Abraham trusted God, he believed and even entrusted his life to this promise. But he waited many years for this promise to be fulfilled. There were moments where Abraham regarded this promise from a spiritual perspective and at other times, he was convinced that it was numerical or physical. This got him in trouble. It was when he regarded things in one perspective above the other that he began to look at his situation and question the method that God used. In those moments he was convinced by his own wife, who was barren and really wanted him to have a son, to take a servant as a surrogate. This disfunction within, caused by focusing too heavily on one side of the promise, led to division.
Isaac learned from his father. He watched how his aged father lived his life. He saw the great faith his father held. He witnessed his father’s resolve that his God would provide. Isaac had firsthand knowledge of this when he walked with his father to the mountain of sacrifice. We spoke about this a few weeks ago, and I focused on the provision of God. I minimized, at that time, the direction that God gave. All our translations and traditions state that God commanded Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, which fits in the context. But the word offer can also mean ascend or go up to. Abraham offered his son at God’s command, and we praise his faith, but we often do not consider that maybe Abraham misunderstood.
Could it be that God asked Abraham to go with his son to offer sacrifices together? Could it be that the test really was to see if Abraham would fully trust that God would provide the sacrifice for them? I have always struggled with that story, but I think it was more about God wanting Abraham to bring Isaac into the life of faith more than we think. And that is what happened. God will provide is the only answer Abraham would give his son as they walked to that mountain to worship. Abraham had told his son his entire life how God had given Isaac to them to fulfill the promise God had given early in his life. He would have told his son all about this because Isaac knew his family was different. He was the only child in encampment with parents so old, and I am certain Isaac asked as many why questions as my children. Isaac knew his place within the family. Isaac knew the blessing, the cherished relationship, the hope that surrounded his existence. And God commanded Abraham to take this boy, this promised boy through whom he promised the blessings would become realized, up to offer a sacrifice. And God told Abraham that he would provide.
Isaac watched as his dad walked up the mountain. He watched as he looked for something to sacrifice. He watched and even helped build the altar. He saw it all, but when it came time to begin the ritual, the only available sacrifice was himself. We speak of the faith of Abraham, but the real story is the faith of Isaac. Isaac listened to his father; he trusted that God would provide a sacrifice for Himself. He trusted enough to allow his own father to tie his hands and lay his body on the wood covered altar. And he remained silent.
Isaac grew and for forty years he remained unmarried. You would think that his parents would have a sense of urgency with finding Isaac a wife as soon as possible, yet they waited. Only after Isaac’s mother died did Abraham decide to find a bride for his son. Isaac watched and listened as his father gave his most trusted servant instructions. He watched as this man, who was like an uncle to him, loaded up the animals and traveled to the distant land Isaac only heard about in stories. And where was Isaac when this servant returned but in the field meditating or praying. We are not told of Isaac’s anxiety or if he even had any. If Isaac was like any of us, I imagine he was concerned about the lack of a bride, and probably had been for the past twenty years. Yet we only know that Isaac listened to his father and that he went into the fields to meditate. That gentle and confident spirit was seen by Rebekah the moment she saw him. And without hesitation she followed Isaac into his mother’s tent to become his wife. Isaac had faith.
We see this faith in greater ways today. Isaac was forty when he married Rebekah and for twenty years, they remained childless. God had assured him that the promise given to his father remained and was transferred to him. Isaac was to become the father of the nations of promise. The promised nations like the stars resided again with a barren family. For twenty years they waited, but what does Isaac do in that time? Does he follow in his father’s footsteps and take matters into his own hands as was his cultural right? No. He prayed for his wife.
This is something I want us to dwell on. We live in a time and culture that expects things to be instant. Over the course of the lives represented in our meeting we have gone from no Television, to having a Television, to VHS, to DVD, to mail order DVD Rentals, to Redbox, to the ability to stream on any screen that happens to be near by any movie we want instantly. We struggle with waiting so much that I have had to tell angry customers that have waited an hour for service in a store, that they had only been in line for two minutes. We do not know how to wait, and when we are required to do so it becomes unbearable. Isaac was promised to be a father of nations just like his father before him, and yet God required him to wait. Isaac’s only recorded response was to pray. And God heard his prayers.
When Isaac was sixty years old, Rebekah became pregnant. She also was not in prime childbearing years. We do not know Rebekah’s age at the time of the marriage. There are some weird attempts at trying to determine her age, some are scary. All we really know is that she was old enough for the family to consider her preference in the matter. This means that she was considered an adult, most likely older than most women entering marriage in that era, because why else would they ask her? Even if she was a teenager at the time of their marriage, she would have been in her upper thirties after twenty years of marriage. This does not seem strange today, but in ancient times it was. There was not birth control in those days, most newly married couples would be having their first child within the first year of marriage. Yet Isaac and Rebekah had been married twenty years. Kristy and I have been married for twenty years, and Albert is nine. That was eleven years and believe me I wondered.
Rebekah conceived, and as the children grew within her, she became aware of something strange. The movement within her body was such that she was concerned. I do not know if they were able to determine if there were twins, but Rebekah knew that the quantity of elbows hitting her kidneys was beyond what she expected. She knew that the children within her were struggling. For twenty years she had lived with her husband Isaac. She watched as he walked in his quiet confidence. She watched as he lifted his anxieties to his God even after two decades of barrenness. She saw him remain faithful to her, when there was no taboo for him to find other means of ensuring the continuation of the family name. Rebekah observed Isaac’s faith and she followed his lead. When the children within her presented concern, she inquired of the Lord. Both Isaac and Sarah sought God before they did anything else.
If you learn nothing else from me, I hope that you learn that prayer is the most important thing in faith. Our purpose statement for Willow Creek is Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the Love of Jesus with others. I like that statement a great deal. I have taken that very purpose statement to the Yearly Meeting as my definition as to what we as Friend should be. The reason I love this statement is because it reflects what I see as the lifestyle of Jesus. He made it his custom to worship with the community. That is loving God. Jesus withdrew often to pray in the isolated places, embracing the Holy Spirit. Jesus would then minister to those within the community through teaching and signs. This ministry is living the love of Jesus with others. Worship, prayer and ministry is the lifestyle of Christ and right in the middle of it is prayer.
Isaac lived a life of prayer. Rebekah, when she faced a problem, also inquired of the Lord. Some might say that she went to the prophet to seek some sort of oracle. I understand why they might say that because when they speak of Isaac he just prays, but Rebekah inquires. It does not really matter how Rebekah inquired, if she went to a prophet or if she prayed like her husband, what matters is that she inquired. Her desire and her faith rested in God. And God told her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”
The babies are born and the first emerges victoriously. He is ruddy or red and his body is covered in hair. This baby is healthy and appears to be ready to take on the world. And Rebekah and Isaac name him Esau. The funny thing about his name is we would be led to believe that Esau means either red or hairy like the description we are given. But it is not. Red is more closely linked to the name given to his descendants, Edom. And Hairy is more closely related to the city he would later build Seir. Esau is more likely related to a word meaning handling rough. This could be attributed to his hairiness, like he is rough or rugged like a wild animal. Or it could be related to his brother’s roughhousing at birth.
Jacob can come from a couple of sources, but most likely the parents are toying with words again. It was said that Jacob was holding his brother’s heel when they were born, so Jacob can mean heel catcher or supplanter. I like the wordplay here because it really speaks who he is. Jacob would later be named Israel which meals wrestles with God. But prior to this divine bout he wrestled or tripped up his older brother. The second idea of his name could relate to the word that means may God protect. I like the word play personally, and although ancient naming systems are important, I also think parents of ancient times would have fun with the names like we do today. I love my children’s names but if I am honest the only reason, we really chose them was that they sounded good together.
Isaac and Rebekah lived a life of faith, but their sons, were different. Esau grew to be a strong outdoorsman. It is not hard for us to construct a mental image of Esau with the description we are given. He was dark and handsome. With thick hair. Some believe he had red hair but for me I have always pictured him to resemble Native Americans. He was outside, with sun kissed skin, in tune with the natural world. Jacob. Jacob stayed in the tent and was quiet. Other than the wrestling part, I always pictured Jacob to be more studious. I always saw him as short and thin.
Jacob was quiet, probably more contemplative. Esau, when they boys get older, comes across as boisterous. He comes in from the field and he was exhausted. “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” He smells the stew and demands. While Jacob the quiet contemplative one uses his brother’s hastiness to his own advantage. “Sell me your birthright now.”
Jacob is the heel catcher. He knows how to manipulate his brother. He knows how to use his brother’s own personality against him for his own advantage. Esau is stronger than Jacob, but Jacob controls this wild man. “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Esau is prone to exaggeration. He is rash, he lives by his stomach meaning his mind is focused only on his immediate needs. There is a place for people like this within our society. They remind us to live in the moment and to enjoy life as it comes. But their weakness is forward planning. They consume now without regard for the future. And because of this, no matter how strong and commanding they may be in that moment, they will eventually be controlled by others.
Jacob is the opposite of his brother in every way. He does not live in the moment, instead he manipulates the moment to deceive other to bend to his will. Esau commands attention immediately, Jacob quietly weaves through the situation. Esau claims to be dying of hunger, and Jacob as he draws the soup seemingly in compliance to his brother’s will, with a word causes his brother to give up his position as the first born.
This story is filled with human experience, it is one of those stories we can identify with. Isaac was a quiet contemplative man, and his wife was one that inquired of the Lord when problems arose. Their children, like typical adolescent siblings, just work against each other. What can we glean from these words?
The immediate thing that comes to mind is we need to allow our children to be themselves. Yes, Jacob manipulated Esau to swear to give Jacob the birthright for a bowl of soup. But let us look deeper. Inheritance in ancient times was straightforward. They would count the number of eligible heirs, in this case two, and add one. Each would get a portion but the eldest would get a double portion. Isaac would have split his property into thirds and the youngest would get a third and the eldest would get two-thirds. We can say it is not fair, and it does not really matter. This is not our culture, but the reasoning is that the eldest was responsible for the younger even in adulthood. They required the double portion because the younger siblings would always have the eldest as a safety net in times of trouble. That extra portion is ancient unemployment for the others in the family, and that is a great deal of pressure for the eldest.
Esau was not a businessman. He was a man of the outdoors. He was at home hunting game, not leading a tribe. We are told that Esau despised his birthright because of the stew. I think he really despised his birthright because he knew he was not qualified. He knew he was not a planner; he knew he was not a herdsman. He knew, on merit, his brother deserved the birthright. Even though his father loved him more, Esau feared failure. He could not bring himself to even fight for his birthright because the responsibility scared him. All he wanted to think about was a nice bowl of soup.
Raise children in the way they should go, the Proverb says. It does not say in the way we think they should go, but in the way they should go. Esau was a hunter, Jacob dwelled in tents. When we attempt to force those around us to conform to our expectations, we develop resentment. Thus, Esau despised his birthright.
The second thing I want to point out is even the best parents mess up. Isaac loved Esau because he ate his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. These were people of great faith, people we wish we could be like, yet they were not perfect. They fostered favoritism and resentment. Even though Jacob was more qualified to lead the family, the favoritism of his father toward his brother brought out the worst aspects of Jacob’s personality. And the favoritism of the mother later would solidify it. And they could not stop themselves from doing it.
Parent’s cut yourselves some slack. Those of us watching other’s parent children, offer grace not judgment. Isaac and Rebekah were good parents. They encouraged their children to live into their own personalities. Isaac allowed Jacob to live in the tents and did not force him to go hunting like his brother. But even the best parents are not perfect.
And the third thing. Our actions have consequences. Jacob’s name became a synonym for deceiver. This is exactly flattering, and I do not think God allowed the writers of the Torah to include this as something to aspire to be. Jacob’s deception and manipulation did not encourage his brother’s praise, it caused him to hate the system and his place in it. These brothers would eventually be so torn and jaded that Esau would seek to kill Jacob and Jacob ran out of fear for his own life. You can live in the moment and find yourself wishing you thought things through. And you can plan and scheme only to get all you wanted, only to find that the very thing you desired was already there.
Like I said, this story is the story of human life. A psychologist would diagnose Esau with borderline personality disorder. Jacob would be bullied at school yet would eventually be the manager you beg for a job. Isaac likes a good meal. And Rebekah just cannot imagine her child doing anything wrong. We are all human; we make mistakes, and we face consequences. It does not mean it is all good, it means we should be mindful of our own actions and look out for those around us. If you tend to be boisterous and live in the moment, slow down and consider if you are hurting yourself or those around you. If you are quiet and systematic, step back and stop yourself from taking advantage of a situation that you know that person will regret. And for us parents, be intentional and fair.
To Donate to Willow Creek Friends Church Click here:
To donate directly to Pastor Warner click here: