It was Abraham Lincoln who said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
The story of Jacob and Esau is a test of character for both men who have power in different ways-- Jacob who has momentary power over Esau's well-being with a pot of soup, and Esau who has fraternal power over Jacob in being the firstborn. The character of both men is tested, and both fail.
In order to understand our lesson from Genesis, it is important to note two things. First, Jacob and Esau were fraternal twins who were raised by their parents to be competitive. In most English translations of this passage we are told that Isaac loved Esau but Rebekah loved Jacob. The Hebrew word translated "love" is better interpreted as "favored." Surely Isaac and Rebekah loved both of their children, but each parent did play favorites, and sought out any possible way for their preferred child to gain favor over the other son. Jacob and Esau were raised in a home where they were taught not to be trusting and true brothers, but cunning and conniving competitors.
Jacob and Esau could not have been more different. They did not look alike and they did not share the same interests. Jacob was a homebody; Esau was adventurous. Jacob helped out with the chores at home; Esau was out hunting game and providing food for the family. Jacob was more like his mother; Esau was more like his father. Isaac and Rebekah each had their favorite son and they did not attempt to hide their preferences.
Second, in the ancient Near Eastern world in which our story is based, the birthright was given to every firstborn son. According to custom, all male children inherited an equal portion of their father’s estate upon his death, except that the oldest son received a double-portion. So, after his earthly days, Isaac's wealth and property would be divided into thirds with Esau receiving two-thirds to Jacob's one-third. It must have angered Jacob, (who was encouraged to be so by his mother) that he would not inherit an equal portion of his father's estate, even though he shared his mother's womb with Esau, and simply had the misfortune of being born just seconds after his brother. This sets the context of our story.
Apparently Esau has been on an extended hunting trip without any luck. Jacob appears to be away from home as well, likely with one of his father’s shepherding camps where the livestock grazed in fields that were rather far away from home. This explains why Jacob is doing the cooking. With Isaac's wealth servants they would prepare the meals at home. So, when Esau says he is famished, he probably is. It may be that he has not had anything substantial to eat in several days, and the only food in the vicinity is what is available in the shepherding camp.
Jacob turns Esau's hunger to his advantage. He will indeed feed his twin brother in exchange for his birthright. Reasoning (without much thought) that his inheritance will do him no good if he is dead, Esau trades it in exchange for lentil soup, no doubt not satisfying to a "meat and potatoes" man like Esau. In his behavior, Esau gives the double-portion of his inheritance to his younger brother who will now receive two thirds of Isaac’s wealth.
There is no doubt that both Jacob and Esau are deeply flawed characters; Jacob in utilizing his brother's famished condition in order to receive something that was not rightfully his, and Esau in his inability to appreciate and therefore squander what he had received by grace-- his birthright. And while we could devote much discussion to Jacob's appalling behavior, we need to focus instead on Esau's terrible decision to trade and therefore despise his birthright.
Two important things need to be said about a birthright. First, one received a birthright, not on merit, but on grace. It was by virtue of the birth order that Esau was to receive a double-portion and nothing else. At the end of the day Esau could not state that he deserved it, nor could he claim it as an accomplishment.
Second, Esau's birthright was a reminder that he was not a lone individual whose destiny was to be determined only by him, but that he was born into something larger than himself-- a family that contributed to his identity, that helped form his character, and that had expectations of him that he was obligated, by virtue of nothing other than his birth, to fulfill.
Esau had not taken sufficient stock of the fact that his status as first-born was to have been received as a very special gift, and that it was to be cherished in gratitude revealed in the way he lived, and in fulfilling the obligations that he had. In not doing so, he literally despised his birthright. His status as first-born meant nothing to him because he lacked a heart of thanksgiving.
One of the great and early Christian preachers and theologians, John Chrysostom, writes of what we can learn from Esau, "Let us learn the lesson never to neglect the gifts of God or forfeit important things for worthless trifles." People who are grateful for the blessings they have received are people who understand what is important. I have come to believe that gratitude is the result of a centered and grounded life consisting of well-ordered priorities, and ingratitude is the consequence of a wayward life that emphasizes the inconsequential.
As a pastor, I have officiated at funerals for thirty years. When grown children stand up to pay tribute to their deceased parents, not one has ever said, "I sure wish my Dad had made more money." Or, "It would have been nice if Mom had spent less time with us." And when they eulogize the qualities of their now gone parent, they don't talk about the stock portfolio or the fact that the cars got washed weekly, or that the grass was always cut so nicely, or that the carpet was always vacuumed. Instead they highlight character-- they speak of love and commitment, they talk of faith and faithfulness, they reflect upon values and the instructions they received for living. In other words, they speak of their birthright. They talk about what they have received in order to live a faithful life; they reflect upon what they now owe to others as a grateful response to what they have graciously received.
It all comes down to this: If we are grateful for the blessings we have received, it will be revealed in our attitudes and actions. If we are not grateful for the blessings we have received, it will be revealed in our attitudes and actions.
We have a birthright. It is a blessing that God wants to use that he might bless others. Let us not despise what we have received, but use it in our church in our community and in our world to give birth to what is right.
Adapted from Allan R. Bevere, The Character of Our Discontent: Old Testament Portraits for Contemporary Times (Gonzalex, FL: Energion Publications, 2010).
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)