Jacob and Esau: A Theology of Pathology

For Sunday July 10, 2005

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Genesis 25:19–34 or Isaiah 55:10–13
           Psalm 119:105–112 or Psalm 65:1–13
           Romans 8:1–11
           Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23

The birth of Esau and Jacob, Master of Jean de Mandeville, French, Paris, about 1360-1370.
The birth of Esau and Jacob,
Master of Jean de Mandeville,
French, Paris, about 1360-1370.

           Since my maternal grandmother Hildred was an identical twin, and since two of my nieces, Rachel and Rebecca, are fraternal twins, my mind gravitated this week toward the Genesis 25 story about the most famous twins in the history of redemption, Jacob and Esau. I don't normally anticipate a case history of infertility, obstetrics, genealogy, wills, and family dysfunction when I pick up my Bible, but such is the case for this week. Reading this Genesis narrative feels like walking into a county court house and sifting through a musty box of birth, marriage and death certificates, not to mention public records of lawsuits born of family pathology and resentful letters never meant to be read by others. But such are the places and manner of our redemption.           

           Both Sarah and her daughter-in-law Rebekah suffered from infertility. I don't know the figures for ancient Palestine, but according to the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, about 10% of the reproductive age population in the United States suffers infertility (affecting men and women equally). Multiple births are even more rare. Twins, like my daughter's close buddies Lisa and Hillary, occur in about 1 out of 80 pregnancies, and roughly 3% of live births. Triplets, like my son's good friends across the street from us, occur in about 1 of 8,000 pregnancies, and about 1.8 per 1,000 live births.

           Whether ancient or modern, infertility is a tragedy for those who experience it. You do not normally expect good things to materialize out of infertility. Infertility, I suspect, feels like the absence of divine activity rather than its presence, but the the lectionary for this week reminds us that such a conclusion is not necessarily true. For their part, multiple births bring special blessings, but also unique challenges. Can you ever treat "identical" kids equally? Should you even try? How can such genetically similar people be so different? Statistically-speaking, both infertility and multiple births are rather uncommon, but that is precisely where Yahweh chose to act in the lives of Isaac and Rebekah with the birth of the fraternal twins Jacob and Esau.

           The Genesis story this week about Abraham's extended family encompasses roughly 50 people, almost all of whom are male because females in that time and place did not count, literally or figuratively, as they rightly do today. I suspect that if you drew a family radius that reached to your fifty closest kith and kin your story would include the colorful in-laws and outlaws, the strained relationships, that we read about here. It is not all pretty, and hardly the stuff of a Hallmark family reunion, but it is still the arena of God's saving activity.

Jacob receives Esau's blessing, anonymous Flemish tapestery, early 16th century.
Jacob receives Esau's blessing,
anonymous Flemish tapestery,
early 16th century.

           Abraham fathered at least 8 children by 3 women. We know of Ishmael and his mother the Egyptian slave Hagar, and of Isaac who was born to Sarah. This week we read that after Sarah died, Abraham married Keturah, with whom he fathered 6 more children. For some reason the genealogist of the "book of records" (so it is called in Genesis 5:1) names all 6 of Keturah's children, then identifies the offspring of just 2 of those 6 (Abraham's grand children), and then, finally, tells us how just 1 of those 2 grand children gave birth to 3 clans (Abraham's great grand children). This is a spotty record that feels patchy, random and incomplete, glaring with significant gaps. Nor does the record-keeper comment on any of its significance, if it had any significance. Details about Keturah's children with Abraham sputter out in a genealogical dead end.

           We do learn one dirty little detail. Upon his death, "Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac" (Genesis 25:5). While he was living he patronized "the sons of his concubines" (not the concubines themselves, mind you) with a few trinkets, after which he "sent them away from his son Isaac." So much for maintaining warm family relations. Abraham actively disinherited seven of his eight sons and their families, and then disowned them as if they might "contaminate" the others. It is hard to imagine a better way to perpetuate family animosities.

           Similarly, we learn precious little about Ishmael, the one son born to Abraham and Hagar. Ishmael fathered 12 children, and the chronicler lists each of their names. He adds that Ishmael died, and then the ominous observation that "they lived in hostility toward all their brothers." Given how Abraham disenfranchised most of his offspring when he disposed of his massive wealth, and how Sarah and Hagar bickered jealously from the beginning, I suppose sibling rivalry is what we might have expected, along with effectively erasing you from the written record of family history.

Meeting of Jacob and Esau, 11th century Old English Bible by Aelfric.
Meeting of Jacob and Esau, 11th century
Old English Bible by Aelfric.

           That brings us to the infertile couple Isaac and Rebekah, and the birth of their famous twins Jacob and Esau. During Rebekah's pregnancy the twins "jostled each other within her," like some harbinger of further family feuding. True enough. In a reversal of that culture's conventional wisdom, Yahweh announced that the older boy would serve the younger. From birth the fraternal twins were different. Esau was born rough and ready, a hairy boy who grew up to to be a rugged hunter who loved the open country. Jacob, we read, "was a quiet man, staying among the tents." We find him cooking in the kitchen with the women (25:29). Aggravating these differences, the parents played favorites, Isaac favoring Esau, and Rebekah doting upon Jacob. Jacob eventually conned his brother Esau of the family birthright, which under normal Semitic conditions gave the bearer a double share of the family inheritance. Later, Rebekah would deceive her own husband so that she and Jacob could swindle the family blessing. Jacob learned his lessons well, too, for a few chapters later we read how he too played favorites, loving Rachel more than Leah.

           Now baptize this family pathology with a dose of religion: "God blessed Isaac" (26:3, 12). Which is to say He chose to carry out His plans for human redemption through one of the twin boys but not the other. Jacob, not Esau, would become the father of the nation Israel. Through the the sisters Rachel and Leah, and their slaves Bilhah and Zilpah, Jacob had twelve sons who became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. Esau became the titular head of rival Edom (Genesis 36).

           There is mystery and an odd sort of encouragement in this Semitic family history that is so central to the story of salvation. We don't know why Yahweh chose Isaac instead of Ishmael, or one of Keturah's 6 boys, or Jacob instead of Esau. It is not clear why we learn so tantalizingly little about Keturah's 6 boys or Ishmael's 12 sons. No explanation is offered. His choice appears entirely random and arbitrary, and in that all of these undeserving characters are so deeply flawed, so entirely human, God's choice was clearly not based upon merit.

           None of the players in this story come off well. None appeared to offer better mettle for the history of salvation. Far from it, and therein we can take encouragement, for these people and their families look, feel, sound and act like us. But Yahweh worked just as mightily through the statistical improbabilities and practical challenges of infertility, multiple births and deviant behavior. In His hands the incidental, the accidental and the ordinary became the material of redemptive history. Likewise, we today find our own place and role in Yahweh's story of salvation.