A Walk Through the Old Testament, Part 4, Jacob and Esau

July 30, 2006



A Walk Through the OT, Part 4 (7/30/06)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

This is week four of our series on the Old Testament. Last week we left off with the story of Abraham. To very briefly recap, Abraham and his wife Sarah can have no children, so Sarah allows Abraham to father a child with her slave girl Hagar. Hagar has a child—Ishmael. Soon a very old Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant, and she gives birth to a child—Isaac. Sarah convinces Abraham to send her slave, Hagar, and Hagar’s child, Ishmael, out into the wilderness to die.

Hagar turns to the Lord, who promises that a mighty nation will arise through her son Ishmael. Meanwhile, the Lord instructs Abraham to murder his beloved son Isaac. It is only at the last minute, when the Lord is convinced that Abraham really will kill his son at God’s command, that the Lord intervenes and stops the process.

And through this chain of events two great nations of people are born from the offspring of Abraham. The Arab people arise through the children of Ishmael, and the Hebrew nation arises through the offspring of Isaac. And that’s where we will take up this morning, with the story of Isaac and his children.

Isaac marries Rebekah, and frankly, they are not the most exciting characters in the Bible. But their sons, Jacob and Esau, make up for that. Jacob and Esau are fraternal twins, born minutes apart but as different in appearance and temperament as night and day. Esau is the firstborn, and in that ancient, patriarchal world, being the firstborn male meant everything. The firstborn male was the primary inheritor of the father’s estate.

This plays importantly in the story of this dysfunctional family. Isaac, the father, loves Esau more than Jacob. Rebekah, the mother, loves Jacob more. And there is this constant struggle as Jacob, who is clever, tries to trick Esau, who is a rugged outdoorsman, out of his birthright. I’ll read from Genesis 25, which explains how Jacob steals Esau’s birthright:

When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
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Now, the Bible is not very clear about the difference between a birthright and a blessing, but even though Jacob had conned his brother out of his birthright, it seems that getting the blessing from the father, as he lay on his death bed, was even more important than the birthright. I tried repeatedly to paraphrase this story, and the fact is the Bible tells it better than any of my paraphrases. So here is the story of Jacob, Esau, and the blessing of Isaac:

When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.” He said, “See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. Then prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.”

Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game and bring it, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I heard your father say to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me game, and prepare for me savory food to eat, that I may bless you before the Lord before I die.’ Now therefore, my son, obey my word as I command you. Go to the flock, and get me two choice kids, so that I may prepare from them savory food for your father, such as he likes; and you shall take it to your father to eat, so that he may bless you before he dies.”

But Jacob said to his mother Rebekah, “Look, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a man of smooth skin. Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him, and bring a curse on myself and not a blessing.” His mother said to him, “Let your curse be on me, my son; only obey my word, and go, get them for me.” So he went and got them and brought them to his mother; and his mother prepared savory food, such as his father loved. Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob; and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. Then she handed the savory food, and the bread that she had prepared, to her son Jacob.

So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.” But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.”

So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him. He said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He answered, “I am.” Then he said, “Bring it to me, that I may eat of my son’s game and bless you.” So he brought it to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank.

Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” So he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, and said, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed. May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of 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 bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”

As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of his father Isaac, his brother Esau came in from his hunting. He also prepared savory food, and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father sit up and eat of his son’s game, so that you may bless me.” His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am your firstborn son, Esau.” Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him? —yes, and blessed he shall be!”

When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, me also, father!” But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?”

Isaac answered Esau, “I have already made him your lord, and I have given him all his brothers as servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. Then his father Isaac answered him: “See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck.”

Not too surprisingly, we are told that Esau hates Jacob, and vows to kill him. At the same time, Isaac and Rebekah don’t want their now favored son, Jacob, marrying any of the local Canaanite girls. So they tell him to travel east to the land of Rebekah’s brother, Laban, to find a wife. One can imagine that with a very angry brother hungering for vengeance, Jacob was more than happy to get away for a while.

It may seem that Jacob is a real trickster—one of those guys that seems to get away with anything, and who always comes out on top. Well, he gets more than he bargained for when he starts dealing with his uncle Laban. Laban has two daughters, and for Jacob it is love at first sight when he sees Laban’s daughter Rachel. He is so smitten with her that he agrees to work for Laban for seven years if Laban will then allow him to marry Rachel.

Seven years pass. Jacob goes into the tent to consummate his marriage to Rachel. But guess what. Laban has disguised his daughter Leah to look like Rachel! When Jacob wakes up the following morning next to his new wife, it turns out to be Leah who lies beside him!

Jacob is furious, but Laban explains that it would not be proper for the younger daughter, Rachel, to marry before the older daughter, Leah, was married. So the marriage stands. Jacob and Leah are wed. Jacob insists that he also wants to be married to Rachel, and Laban says, “Sure, no problem, all you need do is work for me for another seven years, and then you can marry her.” And that is exactly what Jacob does.

Well, Jacob remains a clever man, even through all this deceit, and he ultimately ends up with half of all that belongs to Laban. But as this is happening over the years Jacob is having children. And four women bring forth those children. Leah, Leah’s slave girl, Rachel, and Rachel’s slave girl all bear children of Jacob.

There are twelve sons among those children, and those twelve sons become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. That narrative is known as the story of Joseph and his brothers, and we’ll take up there next week. But before we end today’s sermon we need to tie up a few loose ends regarding Jacob.

The Lord orders Jacob to return to his own country, the land of Abraham and Isaac. Jacob has become a very wealthy man over the years, and has lots of children, livestock, and slaves to move back home after all those years. But he has an overriding concern: Esau. As it turns out, Esau is forgiving of his brother in spite of all that had occurred between them. But there is one more wonderful and strange story that involves Jacob on his return to Canaan.

One night Jacob sends all of his possessions and people ahead of him, and he lay down to rest by a stream. Suddenly a man appears and starts wrestling with him. They fight all night until the sun appears in the sky, and then the stranger strikes Jacob on the hip, which leaves him with a life-long limp. But Jacob refuses to let him go, and tells him he will not let him go until he blesses him.

The stranger asks him his name, and when he hears that his name is Jacob, he says, “From this time forward you will be called Israel, for you have struggled with God and were not defeated.” Jacob marvels that he has seen God face to face, and proceeds on his trip to Canaan.

A couple of years ago I did a whole sermon on that one little story. It is filled with meaning when you dig below the surface. But we don’t have time to go into great detail analyzing all these stories. This series is called A Walk Through the Old Testament. Today’s sermon is Part Four of the series, and we still haven’t made it through Genesis! Again, for this series, in large part, we’ll just let the stories speak for themselves.

We’ll end the morning by setting up for next week, listing the twelve sons of Jacob, whom we can now call the twelve sons of Israel.

Jacob’s first wife, Leah, gave him six sons: Reuben, the firstborn; Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun.

Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel gave him two sons: Joseph and Benjamin.

Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah gave Jacob two sons: Dan and Naphtali.

Leah’s maidservant Zilpah gave Jacob two sons: Gad and Asher. That is where we will take up next week, with the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel, when they were quite young. Between now and then, may our ancient stories shape us into more faithful people, and may God’s love work wonders in our lives.