These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, “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.” When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 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!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 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.
What is the Bible and how should we use it?
When we read that Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright, should we think: “This how we are supposed to behave – we are supposed to be deceitful in order to get what we want.”
This interpretation of the text comes from a presupposition that the Bible is a simple moral guide of how we are to behave.
Where did we get that idea?
My experience reading the Bible has taught me that the Bible is in part a history, but also in part, a history of people seeking, (and most often failing) to be in relation with the sacred, the divine, the presence of God. And these parts are inseperably interspersed in the text.
Most of us have come to realize that history is written by the victors of wars, not by the righteous. So this mixture of a history of a particular people, interspersed with their search for the sacred – their attempt to be guided by the divine, requires of us, who seek guidance and inspiration from this text, great patience, perspective, and something like prayer in order for this reading to be of value to us in our world. I believe it is a worthwhile effort, and that is why I continue writing this series, First Thoughts on the Lectionary.
Let’s first look at what we know about the writing of history. History is written by those in power to explain how the world came to be the way it is. It will always have a tendency to claim that the path that led to “what is” was inevitable and good. In our western culture, progress is the word that insidiously conveys all of this meaning onto what we read as history. Let me repeat the simple statement:
History is written by the winners, not the righteous.
We should not expect anything different from the writers of the Bible. The story in Genesis in today’s lectionary is about the birth of the twins, Esau and Jacob. It was the 5th century scribes of the Second Temple Period of Israel, descendants of David of the house of Judah, son of Jacob, who wrote, or more accurately, collected and collated oral and written tradition and put together in composite form, this story of the birth of Jacob, their ancestor, as a way to explain the world they knew.
Still looking at history, and at this text, there are other elements in the text that help us, living in the 21st century and attempting to make sense of our world, get some perspective on our lives. We read that Esau was a hunter, and Jacob lived in tents, and took care of domesticated animals. We read of the powerful custom of “birthrights.”
At this point I’m going to digress. I just did some reading in Genesis and I burst out laughing at one of the stories. Jacob went to live with Laban, his father-in-law. He gained wealth and left in the middle of night to consolidate his wealth. Unbeknownst to Jacob, one of his wives, Rachel, stole some idols from her father as she left. At a confrontation, Jacob, protesting his innocence in the case of the stolen idols, says to his father-in-law, “go ahead and search my belongings.” Rachel escapes being caught by sitting on the idols and telling her father she can’t get up because she is having her period.” You can’t make this stuff up!!
So where were we?
I want to parse out from the text, the part that is about justifying the winners. Let’s look at who the winners and losers were, culturally as well as militarily. In today’s story, it is the shepherd that wins over the hunter. In the Cain and Abel story, generally considered a later text, it is the farmer (Cain) who wins (survives) over the shepherd (Abel). In our contemporary experience, it is the urban culture and corporate farms that win over the family farms.
Hunters/Gatherers vs Domestic herders Domestic herders
Domestic herders vs Farmers Farmers
Family farmers vs Urbanites/Corporate farms Urbanites/Corparate farms
So in the histories, it is the domesticated animal keepers and farmers who are honored and the hunters who are vilified. We know this all too well in the way the European colonists treated the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas and Africa, calling the people “savages.” I am saying that we probably have things to learn from these hunter/gatherers. Just because their way of life has been wiped out, and recorded in the Bible, does not mean we can’t learn from their seeking out of the sacred.
This post is getting far too long. I didn’t know where I was going with it when I began, and it has been a wonderful experience thinking about this Genesis text and our world and our search for value and divine inspiration. So let me turn to the elements of the sacred, issues of values, the seeking of God’s inspiration.
Where do I see signs of this help?
Rebekah prays to God, asking the question we frequently ask, “Why am I suffering?” And the answer is given, that God, with this suffering, is breaking an earthly convention – in this case, the convention that the birthright and the blessing always goes to the eldest son. I am reminded of a quote from John Dominic Corssan , something to the effect that divine revelation is the radicality of God breaking the norms of civilization. This is a human story, as well as a mythic story of nations.
The other value I glean from this story is, perhaps, the opposite. I have often wondered why this idea of a birthright is so important in civilizations as they have developed over millennia. This concept was still dominant in western culture until a century or two ago. This idea that the eldest son should be preferred seems so strange to our Protestant value, which holds that everyone is equal before God.
I have travelled to a small village in Nicaragua in recent years, maybe 20 times. When I first went, I thought “this village is timeless. It is like the Nazareth in which Jesus grew up.” In many ways it was – except the village was founded less than 100 years old. I know Aquileo, whose great-grandchildren populate the village. Aquileo’s great-grandfather founded the village. Aquileo had 18 children. Those children are now raising their grandchildren because the generation of Aquileo’s grandchildren are in El Salvador, Cost Rica, Spain, and the US. A community cannot continue the practice of dividing the land equally among offspring for very long before the community is seriously compromised. I think there is some reevaluation that is needed in our Protestant values. I believe in equality before God. But I have to question the assumption that this means that equality gets expressed in material benefits. I believe Rabi Herschel once said that a human-based ethic which leads to the extinction of the species is non-sensical. Population explosion in our world may well lead to the extinction of the human species, and this “human right” that all deserve equal material benefits is part of the dynamic which is propelling us over that cliff. One way to express this is that individual rights have been elevated over the community.
Community values vs Individual values Individual values
By way of conclusion,
– I think we must diligently resist the notion that historical winners, be they political or cultural, won because they were righteous – because God favored them.
– I believe God is always available to us and was available to those who were responsible for assembling and writing the Bible, and available to those of whom the Bible speaks: winners and losers.
– I believe that reading the Bible requires thinking, feeling, praying, acting on ones convictions – doing all these things in relation to the text, and that this is a fruitful activity as we seek the divine in our world.
– I believe in this process, not necessarily in any of these conclusions. I would appreciate any thoughts any readers may have, on any part of this post.