In the middle of playing a game of Monopoly with the kids last Saturday, my daughter said, “You know what bothered me about the lectionary reading in church on Sunday?” “What?” She said, “When Esau wanted that bowl of soup so much, why didn’t he just beat up his brother and take it? He didn’t have to sell his birthright to get it. Esau’s all tough from being out in the field, he could have beaten up Jacob, got the soup, and kept his birthright. That bothered me the whole church service.”
I was, of course, delighted that she’d been not only paying attention, but thinking through the scripture readings. It also was a valid question. There are other examples in scripture where brothers do deal with sibling rivalry issues with physical violence. Cain killing his brother Abel comes immediately to mind. Joseph’s brothers tear off the precious coat his father gave him and then throw him into a pit to kill him. It is only later that one of the brothers persuades the rest to sell him into slavery rather than murder him. Loving each other like brothers can be sweet, but apparently it can also include fatalities.
So violence might have been one option available to Esau. But if I had to take a guess as to why he doesn’t immediately jump for that option, my guess would be that it simply isn’t how this family operates. The primary dynamic in this family seems to be not brute force but deception and trickery. Jacob knows exactly where his brother’s weaknesses are, and as soon as he gets the chance he pounces on it, by presenting the sly temptation, “First, sell me your birthright.” And when Esau agrees, Jacob pins down his victory, and says, “Swear to me first,” and Esau swears to him, and sells him his birthright. Our focus that day was on Esau, and on his faults, and on how all his problems would have been solved if only he’d been able to come to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Heathsville and hear the sermon on the 10-10-10 rule.
Today, however, our focus is on Jacob. And to get a better understanding of what’s happening in today’s passage, we’re going to back up and take a wider view of how today’s passage fits into the whole story. There are some passages of this story that are included in the Sunday lectionary that we’re reading this summer as we read Genesis during lectionary Year A. You can get the whole story in sequence by reading the daily lectionary. I’ll try to cover as much ground as possible this morning, so I hope you’ll pay attention and stay with me here. So we’ve seen Esau’s faults already, but we’ve also seen that Jacob is sly enough to slip Esau a temptation at a weak moment so he can get his brother’s birthright away from him. But that’s not all. Their father Isaac loves Esau, but their mother Rebekah loves Jacob. Rebekah connives with Jacob to get their father’s blessing away from Esau too. In this passage, Esau does nothing wrong, he simply goes out to hunt game as his father has requested. Rebekah and Jacob trick the blind, dying old man when he says he wants to give his blessing to his eldest son. They dress Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and since Esau’s arms are more hairy, they even put animal skins on Jacob’s arms to trick him. Rebekah slaughters a kid from their herd to trick her husband into thinking it’s game Esau has killed. Jacob lies to his father and says he’s Esau, and even when the old man asks him again if he’s really Esau, he lies again.
There is a vivid scene when Esau comes back and discovers that Jacob has deceived their father on his deathbed and stolen even his father’s deathbed blessing. Scripture tells us, “Now Esau hated Jacob.” And here is where Kendall’s expectations of violence come into play. Scripture tells us, “Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching ; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” Their mother hears of this and knows Esau’s not messing around. She warns Jacob that Esau is planning to kill him, and warns him to flee for his life and go live with her father Laban. She also worries that he’ll marry a foreign woman. Even Isaac warns Jacob to flee to Laban, and tells him to marry one of Laban’s daughters.
Interestingly, it is while Jacob is fleeing for his life after having tricked his own father and betrayed his own brother, that he gets the vision of angels ascending and descending on the ladder to heaven that we read about last Sunday.
So Jacob does arrive in Haran, and meets Rachel at the well. She takes him home to meet her father Laban and he stays with them. That’s where we pick up with today’s passage. Laban offers Jacob wages for his work. Jacob says he will serve seven years for his daughter Rachel. Laban agrees. Jacob holds up his end of the bargain for seven years. Then the sly Laban holds a feast and at the end of the night he tricks Jacob by bringing him Rachel’s sister instead of Rachel. Does this remind you of anyone? The guy who pulled a trick with one brother pretending to be the other brother now gets tricked by another guy who has one sister pretending to be the other sister. And when Jacob wakes up in the morning after the marriage has been consummated and sees he’s in bed with the wrong woman, it’s too late to change what’s happened. Laban has tricked him out of the woman he loves, after seven years of labor.
It is at this point that Jacob gets to experience what it’s like to be on the receiving end of deceitfulness and betrayal. It may seem that getting snookered by an unscrupulous uncle is not what we would call a holy moment. But this is where scripture invites us to drop into a deeper level of meaning, both in Jacob’s story and in our own. The reason that every moment is a holy moment is not that every moment is happy: quite the contrary. The reason that every moment is holy is that in every moment God has gifts for us.
The things we complain about in other people do turn out to be the things we struggle with in ourselves. Jacob has reason to be furious with Laban, but our sympathy for him is tempered by our awareness that he can be just as conniving and treacherous himself. I don’t know how aware Jacob is of these ironies, and I don’t know how aware he is of how these events are affecting him. I don’t know how much compassion he has for the women involved or whether at this point he is too self-absorbed to care much about anyone other than himself.
He does work another seven years for Laban to get Rachel, and as the story goes on the sibling rivalry between the two sisters intensifies. When two sisters are married to the same man, the sibling rivalry combined with wife rivalry reaches a whole new level, and extends to the children they bear. The relationship between Jacob and Laban does not get resolved; in fact it becomes even more deceitful as the two of them try various ploys to trick each other out of the best livestock, with spotted goats and black lambs and strong breeders, and all the money the various livestock are worth. Eventually, things get so bad that Jacob decides to sneak away without telling Laban, and flees with Laban’s daughters and grandchildren and all the flocks.
And where does Jacob flee to? He heads home. Home to his brother.
Jacob is terrified of the prospect of meeting Esau again. But he goes.
Scripture does not give us an analysis of what has happened inside Jacob. Scripture is true to life that way. We tell our life stories. This happened, and then he said that, and I did this. And yet, I have the sense that when Jacob makes that long, dreaded journey back home to Esau, he does it because these nasty experiences with Laban have somehow opened up in him a space for something other than arrogance and deceitfulness. And I have the sense that in those nasty experiences with Laban, the opening up of a space in Jacob for something other than arrogance and deceitfulness is the work of God.
Jacob is still a desperate man. He sends messengers ahead to Esau, to say that he’s coming and bringing his livestock and hoping to find favor. The messengers return saying that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. Jacob is terrified. He decides to divide his family into two groups, so that if Esau kills one group, the other might escape, and only half of his children will be slaughtered.
And he prays. He recalls the promises God has made to him. He admits to God that he is not worthy of the steadfast love and favor God has shown him, as he fled across the Jordan with nothing but a staff in his hand, and acquired so many flocks and possessions, and was blessed with so many children. He prays, “Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.”
What is it that has changed in Jacob, to make him able to pray that prayer? We don’t know exactly. Jacob himself may not know exactly. But the fact that the things that we condemn most in others are the things we struggle with most in ourselves gives us a clue. In Jacob’s resentment at the way he was tricked by Laban, there were two options open to him. One was to sink deeper into bitterness, blame, and anger. The other was to open up a sense of humility about his own sins, to see in Laban’s faults a mirror of his own, and to open up a sense of sympathy and even compassion for the brother he had wronged. Even when he is most corrupt, Jacob does not entirely forget God’s presence and God’s steadfast faithfulness. And I expect that sense of God’s presence and steadfast faithfulness is what enables him to find grace when he needs it most.
Jacob’s nasty experience of being mistreated turns out to be a gift from God, and exactly the gift he needed most. It gives us hope. It gives us hope that our anger at the sins of others can be for us a mirror of our own sins. It gives us hope that our painful experiences are not wasted on us, that they can be a way of deepening our humility and our compassion. It gives us hope that what seem to be the most unholy moments of our lives may turn out to be the holiest of all.
Jacob is a changed man when he goes back to his brother. He is still terrified. He is still desperate. He still has his children and their mothers divided into the two groups.
But Esau runs to meet him, and embraces him, and falls on his neck and kisses him, and they weep.
He had planned to offer presents in a desperate attempt to appease his brother’s fury. Hundreds of goats, hundreds of ewes, hundreds of rams, camels and their colts, cows and bulls and donkeys. He still gives them to Esau, to find favor with him. Jacob, who used to be the one who tricked his brother out of everything he could get, now pleads with his brother to accept all these presents he wants to give. Esau says, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob pleads with him again, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
This is not empty flattery, or even exaggeration. Now that he has looked into the dark side of his own soul, he knows what divine forgiveness looks like, he knows what unconditional love looks like, and to see Esau’s face truly is like seeing the face of God.
Could it be the same for us? That if we look into our anger, our pain, our worst, most unholy experiences, if we look into the dark side of our own soul, we might see what divine forgiveness looks like, what unconditional love looks like, and see, in the most unlikely places, the face of God.