David A. Davis
October 17, 2021
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We started our fall linked-in series this week: Together Again, Biblical Stories of Reunion and Restoration. This morning our story tells of Jacob and Esau in the Book of Genesis. Small groups this week talked about Esau and Jacob. In Adult Education, Dr. Anne Stewart from Princeton Theological Seminary is talking about Jacob and Esau. The audio recording will be available on Monday on the Adult Ed page of our website. And I am about to take my swing at Esau and Jacob. Next week we stay in the Book of Genesis and turn to the story of Joseph and his brothers. Dr. Dennis Olsen will be joining us for Adult Education. If you have not signed up for a small group, you can still have access to the study guide on the small group page in the Adult Education section of the website. I hope everyone who plans to join us for worship next week can take some time to read the chapters in Genesis that tell of Joseph and his brothers. It is always difficult to recap some of these Old Testament narratives and still have a bit of time for the rest of the sermon. That is exactly what I am going to try to do with Jacob and Esau.
Our text today is in the 33rd chapter of Genesis. But the story begins back in the 25th chapter when Isaac’s wife Rebekah, who had not been able to have a child, becomes pregnant with twins. Right away the reader learns that the two children “struggled together within her”. Then the Lord says this to Rebekah: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”. So we sort of have a divinely established sibling rivalry here.
When it came time for Rebekah to deliver, Esau was born first. He was according to the bible, red and hairy. Jacob was born holding on to his older brother’s heel apparently trying right from the get-go to be first. The name Jacob means: heel, or deceiver, or one who supplants. Esau was the hunter; a man of the field. Jacob, it says, “was a quiet man, living in tents.” Their father Isaac loved Esau because he was fond of game. Their mother Rebekah loved Jacob. Another bad omen for the boys’ relationship.
One day Jacob had made some stew and Esau came in from the field famished. “Let me eat some of that red stuff, Jacob.” The text actually calls it “red stuff”. Jacob told Esau he would only give him some stew only if Esau sold him his birthright. Esau was so hungry, birthright was the last thing on his mind. “I’m dying here of hunger, and you’re worried about a birthright?” Stew? Birthright? Stew? Birthright? Esau went for the red stuff.
“When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see” he called to his elder son Esau and explained that he was dying and that his wish was that the Esau would go out and hunt his father a delicious meal. “Bring it to me to eat so that I may bless you before I die.” You remember this part, don’t you? Rebekah, who loved Jacob more, she conspires with the younger son to trick the old man into blessing not the elder but the younger son. With food made by mom and wearing Esau’s own clothes that surely smelled like him, and an animal skin worn like a costume to feel like all Esau’s hair, Jacob goes into visit his father pretending to be his brother. Sure enough, Jacob flat out lies to his father and receives a blessing. Jacob lifted both the birthright and the blessing from his brother. Just as the blessing leaves Isaac’s mouth, Esau comes in from his hunting to share the fresh catch feast with his father. Isaac quickly realizes he has been deceived and that his blessing went forth erroneously. Esau, seeing he has again been the victim of his brother’s deception, cries out with “an exceedingly great and bitter cry” begging for his father’s blessing. But in way of the ancient world when it comes to the mathematics of blessings, Isaac only had one to give. Isaac had nothing left to give. Right there in scripture it says Esau hated Jacob and after his father’s death, he would set out kill Jacob.
Yes, of course, Jacob’s mother warns him and tells him to go live with Uncle Laban until “until your brother’s anger against you turns away and he forgets what you have done to him.” Part of the sending away plan was so Jacob would not marry a Canaanite woman. Esau saw Jacob’s leave taking and his father’s instructions about marriage and so he immediately determines he is going to marry a Canaanite woman apparently just to get back at his parents. And in a detail not to be missed in this drama, Esau marries Ishmael’s daughter Mahalath. Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Hagar. Sent off to make a great nation. And the Lord’s word to Rebekah come back to the reader’s mind: “Two nations are in your womb”.
Esau exits the bible’s stage while the story sticks with Jacob and Leah and Rachel. Years later (twenty years, two wives, and eleven children later) Jacob sends some messengers to try to get in touch with Esau, hoping to find favor in his sight. But he gets word back that Esau was coming to find him along with four hundred men. That scares the bejeebers out of Jacob because he assumes Esau is coming back for revenge. So he devises a plan to offer a bunch of his animals to his brother as a gift. Jacob thinks it is the only way he could see Esau face to face; the only way Esau might accept him after all the deception. The peace offering is sent on ahead to Esau.
The night before the show down at the OK corral of scripture, Jacob sends the family on up ahead a bit and he spends a solitary night wrestling with a mysterious man until day break. Tradition says he was wrestling with an angel. The two ask after each other’s names. In giving Jacob the name Israel, the man says, “You have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Jacob responds that he has “seen God face to face” and he heads into the day and rest of his life limping because of a bad hip.
The parable of the Prodigal Son, as it turns out, might be a more familiar account of a tear-filled, reconciling, family embrace. But it is clearly not the first. It must have felt like it lasted forever and Jacob convinces Esau to accept the gift he had sent earlier, telling him “truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” Esau, the estranged brother who wanted to kill Jacob for all that Jacob had done to him, all that Jacob had taken from him. Esau ran to meet his brother after decades. Esau embraced Jacob. Esau fell on Jacob’s next. Esau kissed Jacob. And Esau and Jacob wept. And in that moment, Jacob saw the face of God. “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” And in the embrace, in the reconciliation, in the forgiveness, in the restoration… the face of God.