Birthright

This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Isaac.

Abraham became the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.

Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.

The Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.”

When the time came for Rebekah to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau [which means Red]. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob [which means the trickster]. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.

The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is also why he was also called Red)
Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”

“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”

But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.

Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.

When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, “My son.”

“Here I am,” he answered.

Isaac said, “I am now an old man and don’t know the day of my death. Now then, get your equipment—your quiver and bow—and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.”

Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Look, I overheard your father say to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me some game and prepare me some tasty food to eat, so that I may give you my blessing in the presence of the Lord before I die.’

Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.”

Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man while I have smooth skin. What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.”

His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.”

So Jacob went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she prepared some tasty food, just the way his father liked it. Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob. She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins. Then she handed her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made.

Jacob went to his father Isaac and said, “My father.”

“Yes, my son,” he answered. “Who is it?”

Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”

Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?”

“The Lord your God gave me success,” he replied.

Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.”

Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he proceeded to bless him.

Genesis 25:19-34, 27:1-23

This is such an interesting story. It highlights some issues which we’re still dealing with today.

Esau and Jacob are brothers. They’re twins. They’re born in the very same hour, from the same mother. They couldn’t possibly be closer.

Esau and Jacob should have been best friends. They should have been each others’ strongest allies, all through their lives. It should have been “You and me, Jacob and Esau, standing together, against everything bad that could ever happen!”

But that’s not how the story worked out, is it?

Instead of being united, Jacob and Esau were divided. They were enemies, not brothers. They were born together, but they couldn’t be farther apart.

It may have simply been that they had different characters. It says that “Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.” Esau was a jock, while Jacob was a nerd. But that happens in lots of families, and the brothers don’t try to kill each other. Jacob and Esau were different.

It says that when they were born, that Esau was born first, but that Jacob came out immediately afterward, grasping at his brother’s heel. Maybe the family told that story to everyone, while the brothers were growing up. Maybe the boys heard that story so often, that their rivalry became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe if their family had just left them alone, they would have been friends.

I don’t know.

The story centers around something mysterious, called their “birthright.” It’s not 100% clear what this “birthright” is.

Throughout much of the early history of Israel, there was a special significance attached to the oldest child, especially the oldest son. The oldest son always had a special place, because it was assumed that the oldest son would carry on the family into the future.

See, God had promised to Abraham that his family would be a great nation, like the sands of the earth, like the stars in the sky, that nations and kingdoms would descend from him. So, the birthright had to do with the future.

It also had to do with the present. At that time, the inheritance always went to the oldest son, the one with the birthright. That meant ownership of land, property, servants, livestock, all the material wealth. The younger kids might get a little something, but basically being the oldest meant you got it all. The father said, “Carry it on, son! Carry it on!”

There was a complication in the story though. Don’t you just love complications? One day Esau came home, and Jacob was cooking. Esau stood there, drooling, and Jacob kept stirring the pot. Every now and then Jacob would lift out spoonful and sniff it. And then he’d take a little taste. He’d say, “Mmm, mmm! That’s good!”

Esau had been hunting all day. He was starving. He said, “Hey, gimme some of that!”

Jacob said, “Oh, I don’t think so. Tell you what. First sell me your birthright.”
Esau said, “You jerk. I’m starving to death! What good is a birthright to me?”
Jacob said, “Nuh-uhh! You’ve got to cross your heart and swear first.”

So, Esau swore away his birthright, and Jacob gave his brother some supper. I’m not sure who looks worse in that story – Esau, or Jacob. Neither one of them comes off very well, if you ask me. I’m not sure I’d want either one of them for an ancestor.

Now we come to the second half of the story. Isaac is old, and he can’t see any more. He calls his oldest son, Esau, to him, and says, “Go out and get me some game, son, and make me a good meal, so I can bless you before I die.”

Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, overhears this, and she comes up with a scheme so that Jacob can get the blessing instead. It’s not clear why Rebecca prefers one son over the other, but obviously, she does.

So, they go through the whole disguise thing, and they trick poor old Isaac. And the old man blesses Jacob instead of Esau.

Here’s how the blessing of Isaac went:

“May God give you the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons serve you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”

Genesis 27:28-29

That’s what Isaac said over Jacob. When somebody blessed you in the Bible, you were really blessed. It was like getting the keys to the car, and the deed to the ranch, and all the sheep, cows, goats and camels. It was the springs and wells, the fields and crops, the workers, the bank account, the whole works. And behind it all, was the promise of God that it was going to be permanent and last forever. It was some kind of a blessing!

But then there’s another part of the story. Esau comes back, and realizes he’s been tricked. Old man Isaac is all confused, and Esau decides to murder his brother. Jacob runs away.

I don’t want to get tangled up in all that part. Save it for another day. The central part of the story, the part everything revolves around, is the blessing, or the birthright. And what drives this story is that only one child, the oldest child, has the birthright and gets the blessing.

We still have quite a few conflicts going on, where the argument centers around the question, “Whose land IS this? Who got here first?” Israelis and Palestinians. Sunnis and Shiites. Native Americans and European Americans. White Americans and African Americans. English-speaking Americans and Spanish-speaking Americans.

The list could go on and on. Who’s the older sibling? Who gets the blessing? Who gets the birthright?

That whole idea of “birthright,” of getting the best simply for being born, is worth looking at.

Do some kids deserve to be rich, simply because our parents were rich? Or poor, simply because our parents were poor? De we belong, because our parents, or our grandparents, belonged? Are we outcast, because our ancestors were outcasts?

I think it would be helpful if we asked ourselves whether this biblical idea of a birthright or blessing has any other places it could apply.

Because in many places in the world, there’s not only inherited wealth, there’s also inherited poverty, and inherited misery.

Are all of us truly children of Go? Is every child equally meant to be blessed? This story raises a lot of questions.

In today’s world, with all resources and knowledge that we have, no child should be forced to grow up hungry. No child should have to have preventable diseases. Our society is rich enough, we can afford to vaccinate and inoculate every child in the country. Preventable diseases are not a birthright.

In the same way, I believe that children everywhere have a right – a birthright – to a good, basic education in a safe environment.

Children should not suffer their entire lives, or not have an equal opportunity to succeed in life, because their parents, or their community, failed to provide them with an environment where they can learn. Ignorance is not a blessing. Ignorance should not be considered a birthright.

At several points in the Bible, it says that God “punishes children for the iniquities of their parents, even to the third and fourth generation.” (See Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 5:9)

That seems both grossly unfair and depressingly true. Children whose birthright is poverty, tend to remain in poverty. Children who grow up abused, all too often become abusers themselves. Children whose mothers are addicted, can be addicted to drugs or alcohol in the womb, and these kids can suffer for the rest of their lives because of their mothers’ addiction.

There’s something in us which rebels against all this. There’s something in us which says that it isn’t God who is responsible for multi-generational misery. The gospel proclaims freedom from sin and brokenness. And Christians should be help everyone else to be free.

Our job, as Christians, is to help create a new birthright for people whose inheritance is nothing but poverty, suffering, injustice and violence. Their birthright should be opportunity, health, equal justice, and peace. Our job as Christians is to work for that.

I listen to so many young adults today, who tell me they can never get ahead. They’re willing to work. They’re educated and motivated. But the dream, the blessing, is forever beyond their reach.

They tell me they have student loans, which are like making an extra two car payments, every month, for the next 25 or 30 years. It’s like a ball and chain around their leg, and they feel despair over their debt.

They tell me they’d like to have a home, like the one they grew up in, even a little starter home, but they feel like they’re never going to be able to afford it, because wages have basically been frozen for the last 10 or 15 years.

They can’t afford health insurance. They can’t afford children. They can’t afford any of the things the older generation took for granted. They feel totally cheated out of the blessing, their birthright.

I want to look for just a moment at the word blessing. One of my dictionaries says that a blessing is “an active outgoing of divine goodwill or grace.” (Alan Richardson, A Theological Word Book of the Bible).

In some parts of the Bible, blessing has to do with health and prosperity. In other parts of the Bible, to be blessed means to be wise, to be good. Righteousness and peace are what blessing is about, not beauty or your bank balance. Blessing means passing something good on to another person, and it also means thanking God for the gifts God wills for everyone.

Jesus blessed people all the time. He blessed people who were sick. He blessed people who welcomed him. He blessed people who listened to what he was saying. And he blessed people who were suffering.

Our job, as Christians, is to try to be like Jesus. If Jesus blessed people, then so should we.

If we are parents, we need to give our children our blessing. So many children never really feel blessed. They never feel they have their parents complete, unconditional love. These kids bear scars from that lack of blessing for the rest of their lives.

Their parents were always critical. They always made their kids feel that whatever they did, it wasn’t good enough. Their parents never approved of them in school, they never approved of their career, they never approved of who they married.

They never approved of their children, or their grandchildren. Their parents may say they loved them, but it always comes with some criticism. They never gave the kids their blessing.

Not to be blessed is a wound that never heals. Children can spend their whole adult lives feeling the pain, the shame, of never being good enough. I hear people all the time who tell me this.

We’ve come a long way from the story of Esau and Jacob. We’ve come a long way in time, and we’ve come a long way in understanding.

The story is believable. Siblings do fight, and people do hold grudges, and parents aren’t always even-handed, and children do feel rejected and deprived of their birthright and their blessing.
But the story also points us towards something else, towards something better.

We believe that children everywhere have a right – a birthright – to be loved, to be wanted, to be fed, to educated, to be free.

Any time children don’t have those things, it’s our job to help them. If children are born with health conditions, it’s our job to love them, the same and more than the healthy children. It’s our job to walk the long mile to support them.

If children are disadvantaged, it’s our job to help them. If children have lost their parents, or if their parents have abandoned them, it’s our job to replace their parents, to the best of our ability.

It is our job to protect and to pass on the birthright of every child, and it’s our job especially to bless the children, not just once in their lifetime, but every day.
Let’s take these thoughts into open worship together.

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