"Esau the Hedonist, Jacob the Opportunist"
July 3, 2011 Genesis 25:19-34
THE GOOD LIFE / THE ANGST OF AUSTERITY
Ah, summertime! Here in Canada we like to head off to the campground or beach, kick our shoes off and live it up. Sun toasting us as our fingers play aimlessly in the sand. The snap and crackle of a campfire and songs wafting into the starry night. The delicious chocolatey sweet squish of smores against the roof of your mouth. Laughter and games with family or friends, time to while away and not an appointment or ringing phone in sight. Can it get any better than this?
But change the picture or location and things could be so much different. What if we were in Greece and, instead of 'the good life', faced the 'austere life'? This past week there were riots in the public squares, rocks hurled at police and tear gas at protesters, as the country's government voted to accept internationally-imposed austerity measures in order to continue receiving external financing. It's fun to 'live it up' as long as you have the resources to do it. But what if there's a lack? Then a different kind of person emerges as the dominant force. Shopkeepers may hoard commodities, trying to corner the market to gouge those who are desperate to buy. Those who've disciplined themselves to conserve or 'do without' may condemn or despise others who suddenly find themselves without supplies. "Suck it up! Be tough with yourself," they may say, priding themselves on their survival ability while others wail.
Which is more likely to be your motto: "Live it up" or "Suck it up"? Are you a hedonist - one who lives for the pleasures and experience of the moment; or an opportunist - one who holds back on appetites to capture some advantage over the next guy, and come out ahead of the game?
In today's reading, we travel nearly 4000 years back in time to visit a dysfuntional family that's not so very different from some people today. We meet two imperfect parents who are trying to honour God but find their boys a challenge; and two widely different boys who have yet to learn how to live together and govern themselves in a way that pleases the Lord.
PROBLEMATIC PREGNANCY, DIVINE DISTINCTION
Abraham's son Isaac married Rebekah, the daughter of his first cousin, when he was forty. For 20 years they had no children because Rebekah was unable to conceive; but Genesis 25:21 says Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, the Lord answered his prayer, and Rebekah became pregnant. However it wasn't smooth sailing. V22, "The babies jostled each other within her": other translations, they 'struggled', they 'were fighting': the Hebrew root means 'to crush or oppress.' It tenses a parent up to hear Child A tell Child B, "Stop it! You're hitting me!" But that was already going on inside the womb.
V22 has Rebekah's response, "Why is this happening to me?" NRSV may better suggest the exasperation when it says, "If it is to be this way, why do I live?" (!) I imagine this poor mom must have been just about at her wit's end over the discomfort, sleeplessness, and torment that went on day after day right inside her, about which she was powerless to do anything.
But Rebekah believed in the God of Abraham and Isaac. She didn't stop at just complaining; she turned her yelps into spontaneous prayers. V22b, "So she went to inquire of the Lord." And Yahweh answered (v23), "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger."
Something big and momentous was about to be hatched: something that would affect the history of the planet throughout the centuries. A rivalry between the ancestors of the Jews and the Arabs was about to see the light of day: a rivalry and competition that continues to our present time. Abraham was to become the father of many nations, but it translated into a preborn wrestling match inside poor Rebekah! But the Lord let her in on a wonderful secret. There was a purpose behind her problems. His favour was going to rest on one of her offspring, based not on that offspring's accomplishments or works but on God's sovereign choice and mercy. He had a purpose in election, in choosing. Paul wrote in Romans 9(10ff), "...before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad-- in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls-- she was told, "The older will serve the younger.""
He who fashions the hearts of all (Ps 33:15) knows us before we're even born; He detects whether we will receive or reject Him. Those whom He foreknows, He predestines to be conformed to the likeness of His Son (Rom 8:29). A choice was being made between baby 1 and baby 2, and that choice had repercussions that would long outlast Rebekah's own life.
When you have problems, what's your response? Do you just complain and keep on complaining? Or like Rebekah, do you re-direct those complaints into prayers to God? Maybe His purpose in allowing those problems would so totally blow your mind that it's hard for Him to boil it down to an explanation your limited mind can understand. Philippians 4(6f) advises us, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
IMPERFECT PARENTS: FAULTY FAVORITISM
Now, when the nine months was up, Rebekah made Isaac the proud father of twin boys. But not identical twins; boy, were they different! V25 says, "The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau." (Meaning, 'hairy') New Living Translation describes this first one as "very red...covered with thick hair like a fur coat"! (Can imagine the midwife muttering, 'Boy, did you ever hit the wrong climate!') But the second one wasn't about to let him get away out of that enclosure without offering a leg up. V26, "After this, his brother came out with his hand grasping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob" (meaning, 'he grasps the heel' - by extension, trips up, deceives, overtakes.)
The contrast only became more obvious as the boys grew up. V27, "...Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents." Can you see them? Esau the outdoorsy type, a crack shot with the bow like Robin Hood or William Tell. No sooner was the bunny or buck in his sights than it was in his bag, on the way home for supper.
Jacob on the other hand was happy to hang around home, learning domestic engineering, how to have a garden that supplies veggies year-round, understanding and capitalizing upon the subtle differences between dill and thyme and just what they can do for a savoury dish. He's more reflective than adventurous; I can see him with a chef's apron on, or happily hoeing the garden, browsing the internet for a new recipe to try out (oops - anachronism).
But with the differences comes a danger. Mom and Pop were praying types: Isaac had prayed for Rebekah to conceive, Rebekah had prayed for an explanation to the internal pregnancy somersaults; but they weren't perfect parents. And their personal penchants left them prey to picking favourites between their very different sons. Isaac - who'd sort of been born with a silver spoon in his mouth and always had things handed to him, including God's rich blessing in herds and flocks - Isaac had a weakness for meals featuring wild game. V28 NRSV (akin to KJV), "Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob." Isaac would have liked venison sausage and roast partridge, rather than round-home out-of-the-garden fare. Later in chapter 27(3f) when it's time to bless the boys before he dies, he asks Esau, "Now then, get your weapons-- your quiver and bow-- and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me.Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die." This was entirely unnecessary - there was absolutely no reason why he couldn't have blessed Esau then and there! But the delay caused by the hunt provided the opportunity for Jacob to slip in and cut Esau off at the pass.
Isaac had his weakness, so he favoured Esau; Rebekah the mother likewise favoured Jacob, the homebody, who was more reflective and thoughtful and sensitive than his excitement-pumped bro. Jacob had the 'inside track' to Rebekah's heart. So these imperfect parents indulging the fault of favouritism unwittingly set the scene for family conflict, heartbreak, and decades of separation. Paul commands dads in Ephesians 6(4), "Fathers, do not exasperate your children..." Favouritism can be very exasperating. It's not fair for one child to be favoured or given special privileges over the other. Romans 2:11, "For God does not show favouritism;" James 2:1, "My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favouritism." Love your kids: don't spoil them, and especially don't play favourites!
ESAU THE HEDONIST: LIVE IT UP!
We live in a culture that cries out to us, "Live it up!" Advertising keeps companies in business by appealing to our appetites, urging us to rush out and buy that latest craze, gadget, beverage, etc that's going to make a 100% difference in our life. Or so they try and tell us. So Western culture, egged on by constant media barrages, lurches from high to higher in a surfeit of hedonism. We are Esau, living it up, adventurous, taking risks (like, what's the next thrill after zip-lines, bungee-jumping, whitewater rafting, and the newest drop/whirl ride at the big amusement park?). Esau can't wait to be out there wherever the excitement's happening.
But as Esau found out, the risky high-rolling approach to life can have its downside. Vv29f, "Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished.He said to Jacob, "Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I'm famished!"" The consumer lifestyle has its costs; unfortunately sometimes families indulge in lavish vacations that leave them with burdensome bills to pay after. What about excessive reliance on booze or drugs? The substance-hooked lifestyle leads the addict into seeking ever more powerful and expensive choices that leave them bankrupt and hollow.
Jesus told about a similar adveturer in Luke 15(13-16): "...the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything." He 'longed to fill his stomach'; Esau said, "I'm famished!" The fast lane can leave you famished and fainting. What is the New Testament's verdict about Esau? Hebrews 12:16, "See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son." Longing for pleasures in life can make us godless, profane, alien to Christ's Kingdom.
Scripture counsels us to praise God for good things in life but to not become dependent on them. The Lord is the only One who can truly satisfy our inmost needs, by His love and faithfulness and grace. Ecclesiastes 11:9, "Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment." In the midst of our consuming, remember God's holding us to account.
Also, Ecclesiastes 5:19: "...when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work-- this is a gift of God." If you want to be a hedonist, be what John Piper calls a "Christian hedonist" - find your ultimate delight in God; everything else is a subordinate gift from the Lord. Let God give you and shape in you the desires of your heart. Paul counselled Timothy, "Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart." (2Ti 2:22)
JACOB THE OPPORTUNIST: SUCK IT UP!
However, there's also a danger in reacting to the pleasure-seeking lifestyle by becoming self-controlled, reflective, and restrained like the other twin, Esau's brother Jacob. I suspect but can't prove Jacob was somewhat smarter than his testosterone-boosted hairy brother: after all, would anyone with half a brain sell their birthright for a bowl of stew? (The 'birthright' in that culture entitled the oldest son to an extra share of the inheritance, in some cases TWICE as much as another's portion.)
But with mental superiority comes other temptations. Jacob learned he could get away with playing tricks on his not-too-bright brother. Later we see him 'putting one over' on his blind father and his conniving uncle. Yes, Jacob could 'con' the best of them! And because he didn't go in for wild parties or being out all night, he was able to put away savings for a rainy day. Esau may have come in famished from the hunt, but Jacob was putting yummy-smelling food on the table. Why, he was such an expert with the seasonings, he could even make lentil stew seem appetizing! Hard times didn't face him; his motto was 'suck it up' not 'live it up'. And because Jacob was tough on himself, exercising self-control, he could make a sucker out of Esau who was almost out of his hairy skin with hunger.
Jacob's the shrewd businessman, driving a hard deal in vv31-33: "Jacob replied, "First sell me your birthright." "Look, I am about to die," Esau said. "What good is the birthright to me?" But Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob." Now who's the wise guy? Now who's got the upper hand? "Esau despised his birthright" (v34) - did Jacob have feelings of contempt or disdain for his brother for doing such a despicable thing?
Sometimes there's a lot of Jacob in us church folk. You won't find us out living the wild life with Esau, hootin' it up - we've learned self-control. We don't waste our resources, squandering them on wine women & song. But we risk falling into the trap of disdaining those who do, becoming judgmental, and missing out on the Kingdom due to our sinful pride and hardness of heart.
It was the older brother in Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son that got left out of the celebration banquet. He refused to go in and join the party, he was so angry. Luke 15:29f, "...he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.But when this son of yours [CATCH THE DISDAIN HERE!] - when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'"
On another occasion, Jesus rebuked a Pharisee, a religious man who 'had his act together', for a rather cool reception when a woman who had led a sinful life locally busted a jar of expensive perfume to anoint his feet, while kissing them and washing them with her tears. Jesus said to him (Lk 7:44-47), "Do you see this woman? I came into your house.You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven-- for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little."
Did you catch that last line? We may look down our nose at those more 'sinful', the "Esaus" who've fallen prey to their own lusts and longings; but do we LOVE LITTLE? So little as to, like Jacob, try to get one-up on our brother, even prop ourself up in our moral estimation because of their famishedness? Instead of always trying to get the better of the deal, maybe we need to risk loving more lavishly. Instead of profiteering from 'a mess of pottage' - remember Him who dealt with our mess, our famishedness spiritually, by spending Himself at the cross. Let's pray.