This week, many of us will settle into our pews or plunk into our chairs or, for the more trendy, take our Starbucks and lounge in our church couches, and listen to a sermon on Jacob and Esau. If you belong to any sort of traditional church that follows the lectionary, a prescribed series of readings from throughout the Bible, the text this Sunday may be the start of the story of Jacob and Esau.
Like so many stories in the biblical book of Genesis, this one is at once funny, troubling, and provocative. It strips the veneer from the perfect family of four and embeds serious sibling rivalry in some very early stories.
And, like so many stories in the Bible, it thrums to the tune of our experiences now. For my wife Priscilla and me, it has a haunting resonance. Here’s why.
Priscilla and I had three miscarriages before we had our daughter Chloe and son Jeremy. We waited, not decades, of course, but in the uncertainty of whether we could have children at all. Countless visits to doctors, to geneticists. Countless walks. Countless cups of coffee.
Then Chloe was born after twenty-seven hours of labor—and whisked off to pediatric intensive care even before we knew her gender. But she soon thrived, and we had the distinct, unexpected pleasure of raising our daughter.
Four years later—after plenty more conversations, doctor visits, and cups of coffee—our son Jeremy was born, so quickly, in fact, that I drove honking and swerving to the hospital (cursing a pickup in front of me that wouldn’t pull over). Jeremy was so ready for life that he popped out less than ten minutes later in the emergency room.
Chloe and Jeremy couldn’t be more different. Chloe loves books; Jeremy loves cars. Chloe has piercing brown eyes; Jeremy has clear blue eyes.
There you have it: this week’s lectionary text—and the topic of a podcast Reverend Tommy Williams and I have produced—in a nutshell. Genesis 25:19-34 is a reservoir—or swamp—of sibling rivalry. Here is how the story goes.
Rebekah and Isaac waited, not knowing whether they could have children. The situation became so dire that Isaac—typically passive, almost invisible Isaac—actually took some initiative. He prayed.
When his prayers were answered, Rebekah bore twins as different as night and day.
Esau was a hairy man and a hunter. Heck, he was even a hairy baby. Jacob was a smooth man. Jacob wasn’t just smooth of skin. He was smooth, slick, someone who, from the start, was out to get his firstborn brother.
How intense was this rivalry?
- So intense that the twins exasperated Rebekah by wrestling in her uterus.
- So intense that Esau was born with Jacob's hand grasping his heel.
- So intense that Jacob wouldn’t give his brother a bowl of soup without having Esau forfeit his birthright.
Now that’s sibling rivalry. Jacob and Esau apparently never got along as kids. (There is no small solace in that for parents.)
I won’t say our kids never got along, but I will confess that they shared very little growing up. They weren’t twins, like Jacob and Esau. They weren’t both boys, like Jacob and Esau. But still, we’ve had some dashed hopes over the years that they’d get along.
One time, in fact, we were moving cross-country from Durham, North Carolina, to Seattle. Chloe was nine, Jeremy five. We packed our Honda Civic to the hilt, with a car-top carrier, an overstuffed trunk, and every square inch covered. I made Masonite desks for the kids, with little containers for their pens and crayons, which they could put across their laps. We made it through Cincinnati and a stop to see grandparents, the vast fields of southern Minnesota, a spectacular, starry night in the Badlands, a Fourth of July at Mount Rushmore, and a horseback trek just outside Yellowstone.
Sounds like the perfect trip.
Then, somewhere in Montana—or was it North Dakota?—Chloe bit Jeremy on the ear. Nothing serious. She just up and bit him.
Sheer frustration, not with that moment, but with years of having a little brother. An older sister for five years. The back seat of a Honda Civic for a week.
We laugh about it now. It’s one of our treasured family memories.
But then, at the time? We’d wondered, worried, and waited for kids. And now, when we had them, they couldn’t get along even for a week, despite fireworks and corn palaces and horseback rides.
Jacob and Esau couldn’t get along either. How much better if there had been a measure of cooperation, an appreciation of difference, if Isaac had said, “How about, Esau, you hunt and I cook, and we start a great restaurant with exotic grilled meats?”
We begged for this, too, at times. “Find something in common!” “Do something together!”
No such luck.
I wish to goodness, just once, the biblical storyteller had said, “Rebekah and Isaac sighed.”
Just once. Now Isaac and Rebekah looked upon Esau and Jacob—and sighed.
All that waiting. All that worrying. All that wondering. And now helplessly watching their twins’ sibling rivalry on steroids. Sigh.