Today is the third consecutive Sunday in the story of Israel’s great patriarchs. Week 1 was Abraham, the founding patriarch who nearly sacrificed his son Isaac. Week 2 was Isaac—or more exactly, Isaac’s wife-to-be Rebekah, who willingly left everything in Mesopotamia to become the wife of a man she had never met. Today we turn our attention to Jacob, the twin son of Isaac and Rebekah. But let’s go back in the narrative to the end of last week’s reading.  

After Rebekah agrees to leave Mesopotamia and move to the land of the Canaanites to marry Abraham’s son Isaac, we’re told that pregnancy and children did not follow right away for this couple. This was a big concern to Isaac. Like his father Abraham, who was promised by God that his descendents would inherit the land of the Canaanites, Isaac was understandably concerned about procreation and children. Then after much anxiety and prayer, Rebekah became pregnant with twins. And this is where the plot takes a fascinating turn to reveal family dynamics of conflict, scheming and sibling rivalry.  

Already even before they are born, the twins inside Rebekah are struggling with each other, making for a horribly unsettled pregnancy. In fact, Rebekah can’t bear the discomfort: “If it’s going to be like this,” she laments, “what’s the point of living?” In response, God explains, “Two divided nations are in your womb. One shall be stronger than the other; the elder shall serve the younger.” Rebekah’s difficult pregnancy is an indication that the years (and centuries) to come would be tumultuous.  

When the twin boys are born, they couldn’t have turned out more differently. Esau the firstborn came out distinctively red and hairy. Jacob, right after him, was hanging on to Esau’s heal—a symbol of trying to hold Esau back or to keep up with him. As the twins came of age, Esau liked being outdoors, in the field, hunting. Jacob was more of a quiet homebody. These differences precipitated a rivalry and even divided their parents. Isaac favored Esau because of his hunting abilities, but Rebekah favored Jacob, probably because she believed that he was destined to hold sway over his older brother.  

I’m an only child, so I don’t have any experience with sibling rivalry. I’m sure some of you do. Maybe you have a sibling who’s always been competing with you, trying to keep pace. Or maybe it’s the other way around: you’ve always felt pressure to achieve at the same level as a sibling. That was surely the experience of Esau and Jacob as they grew up. But there was more. Jacob wasn’t exactly competing with Esau; Jacob was actually a deceiver, who was plotting to supplant his brother. Esau, on the other hand, was short-sighted, careless and easily duped. He was a prime candidate to fall into Jacob’s trap.  

In the ancient Near East, the firstborn would inherit two times as much as each of the younger siblings. Esau, simply by virtue of being a minute or two older than Jacob, stood to inherit at least double what his brother would receive. That didn’t sit well with Jacob. No doubt his mother Rebekah had told him what she claimed to hear from God—that the elder twin would serve the younger. Jacob was determined to force this to happen.    

As the story goes, one evening Esau came home from a day of hunting. It wasn’t a successful hunt for him. He returned empty-handed with no game, no food. After a long day and a long trek back, he felt utterly famished. At home Jacob had prepared a simple red lentil stew. It’s curious that Esau was out hunting for game—meat—and he arrives home to find his twin brother stirring a pot of stew with no meat in it, just lentils. But it doesn’t matter to Esau. He’s so hungry that he doesn’t even bother to inspect more closely what Jacob has been cooking. He simply tells him, “Let me eat some of that red stuff. I’m starving!” Some of that red stuff. His words are both insulting and ignorant. Esau doesn’t even take a moment to appreciate what Jacob is making.  

Jacob, being the schemer that he is, picks up on Esau’s vulnerability in the moment. “Sure,” he tells Esau. “I’ll give you some of my stew. I’ll sell you a bowl in exchange for your birthright.” In other words, Jacob is pricing a bowl of his lentil stew at the value of everything Esau stands to inherit from their father’s estate. It’s a ridiculous proposition. If you stood to inherit a considerable amount of an estate, would you give that all up for a bowl of stew—just because you felt really hungry in the moment? That’s exactly what Esau did. He says to Jacob, as a way to justify his impulsiveness, “I’m about to die of hunger. What good is my birthright now?” And so Jacob makes a deal with Esau that goes down as one of the most lopsided exchanges of all time: Jacob will receive Esau’s birthright, and Esau will get a bowl of lentil stew with some bread. The episode concludes with Esau chowing down his stew and leaving to go about his business.  

There is a simple lesson in this story, which is more common sense than anthing else: do not act like Esau and make stupid, impulsive decisions. Don’t throw your future away for fleeting pleasure or satisfaction in the moment. I suppose that’s every parent’s worry. We want to raise our children to know what’s very important, what’s far less important, and the enormous gap between the two. In today’s story, Esau is a model of poor judgment and ignorance. He is not to be emulated.  

But there’s another lesson as well: do not act like Jacob and take advantage of others when they’re vulnerable. Jacob viewed Esau as a threat, as an obstacle to achieving stability. Whether it was his own insecurity, sheer competitiveness, or greed, Jacob seized the first chance to steal away his brother’s birthright at a time when Esau was overcome with hunger. Why couldn’t Jacob have simply practiced hospitality and freely shared his stew? But even more than that, Jacob was trying to force the will of God and fulfill what his mother had told him—that he would triumph over Esau. The lesson of last week was “the will of God is not forced.” When we force God’s will, the consequences can be painful. If we read further into Genesis, we find that Jacob’s life is marred by conflict—deepening conflict with Esau, conflict with his father-in-law, marital conflict, and conflict among his children, even conflict with God. Jacob is a model of distrust and conniving opportunism. Like Esau, he is not to be emulated.  

Remarkably, however, God is able to work in people like Jacob—an inferior twin who didn’t have skills as a hunter and gatherer; an impatient man who had a hard time trusting God and not forcing things along. Ultimately, Jacob, with all his flaws, becomes a vessel through which God fulfils the promise made to Abraham. God can work in the same way through each one of us, depite all our foibles. Let’s not force it to happen, at the expense of others. When we do the right thing—by being hospitable to those whom we encounter in need—God’s will is fulfilled.