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The True Tale of Two Brothers

• Vanessa Williams

The popular culture’s influence through media such as fairy tales, comic books, and movies has impacted how we understand stories from God’s word. For many, as we read popular Old Testament stories like Jacob and Esau we automatically look for a hero and a villain. We look for actions to imitate from the “good guy” and actions to avoid from the “bad guy.” Vanessa explores how this approach to biblical stories is misguided and gives context and insight to the complicated and messy, yet redemptive relationship between Jacob and Esau.

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As we try to apply the teachings of the bible to our lives, especially in the narrative genres, we often unconsciously classify characters in the story as heroes and villains – those whose actions we try to mimic and those whose actions we try to avoid. We often read biblical stories much the same as we would a fairy tale or comic book, where characters are usually either completely good or completely bad. This approach misses the messy reality that people are a complex mixture of good and bad choices. The characters from the biblical narratives were real people just like us influenced by their fallen nature making real choices. God worked with people right where they were at bringing their transformation and His kingdom through their situations.

It’s helpful to understand the story of brothers Jacob and Esau by understanding the family context they were born in to. Their grandfather Abraham had entered a covenant with God in which God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be many, become a great nation, and be God’s witness to the world. Abraham’s son Isaac and his wife Rebekah had twins Esau (meaning hairy) and Jacob (meaning heel grasper). Esau loved the outdoors and won Isaac’s admiration as a great hunter. Jacob on the other hand preferred the indoors, made his own clothes, and became Rebekah’s favorite son.

On two occasions Jacob fulfilled the prophetic meaning of his name (heel grasper was associated with deception, trickery, or metaphorically tripping someone up). The first came with his brother Esau as he opportunistically took advantage of Esau’s hunger and impulsive nature to trick Esau in to giving Jacob his birthright in exchange for a meal. This birthright the oldest son carried now entitled Jacob to a double inheritance.

The second instance was a joint venture by Jacob and his mother when Isaac grew old and prepared to give his sons their blessing and inheritance. While Esau was out hunting a meal for his dying father, Rebekah helped Jacob cook a meal, put on Esau’s clothing, and attach goat hair to his body to take on Esau’s appearance. As Isaac had lost his sight, Jacob’s deception worked on his father and he received Esau’s blessing and inheritance. Upon Esau’s return he became very angry realizing he had lost his inheritance and plots to kill his brother Jacob. Realizing his life is in danger; Jacob flees home and ends up getting married, having 11 sons, and becoming wealthy in livestock. After a decade away Jacob and his family return back home. Much to his surprise, Esau forgives Jacob and welcomes him back in to the family.

Instead of asking who the hero is, and who the villain in the story is, Vanessa proposes a couple more revealing questions that get to heart of the biblical narrative as a whole:

  • What does this story tell us about God?
  • What does this story tell us about God’s relationship to His people

In the end we realize that both Jacob and Esau could be either the good guy or the bad guy because both took actions rooted selfishness and self-centeredness. We learn that God keeps His promises even when peoples’ lives get messy. God works with us right where we’re at and brings good out of broken people. Through Esau’s forgiveness God is bringing transformation to both boys, by releasing Esau of the burden he has carried and freeing Jacob up to become a great leader of Israel. This story is an invitation to all of us to do God’s work right where we’re at.

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Topics: Blessings, Covenant, Forgiveness

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4 thoughts on “The True Tale of Two Brothers

  1. Dave Pritchard says:

    “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” (Romans 9:13).

    When considering the story of these two guys, this particular verse has always been a bone of contention for some. I think the verse would have clicked in well with the last series of messages where its meaning has often been “twisted.” The context of Romans 9 is all-important to get a grip on what is actually being said. Some have seen this as a “proof text” for Predestination and or Election – which it might in fact perhaps be; But….. perhaps not! Ha!

    It’s important to remember that it says – “As it is written”. Where ? So, if one turns to Malachi 1:1-3 you get –

    1 A prophecy: The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi. 2 “I have loved you,” says the Lord. “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, 3 but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.”

    The relevant fact to consider though, is that it was written at least 1500 years after Jacob and Esau were born. The prophet MaIachi was around during the “Persian Period” right after the restoration of the Second Temple. Even though one reads in Genesis 25:23 –

    “the older shall serve the younger.”

    I don’t think it was Gods will or intension to hate Esau before he was born, but rather to point out that he had chosen Jacob as the seed through which the Messiah would come and as an ancestral head in building the lineage of the nation of Israel.
 It doesn’t speak to Esau’s salvation.

    It was only after his bestial behavior and the irascibility of his descendants – the “Edomites” who perpetually caused trouble for Israel, that God would make this later declaration. King Herod the Great, who ordered the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, was also an Edomite. Eventually the Edomites faded from history as God had foreordained in Obadiah 1:1-21 and Ezekiel 35:15 –

    “As you rejoiced over the inheritance of the house of Israel, because it was desolate, so I will deal with you; you shall be desolate, Mount Seir, and all Edom, all of it. Then they will know that I am the Lord”.

    Some have cooked up fallacious genealogical links and claim they exist today in various groups – this certainly hasn’t helped the peace process and is geo-political quackery! I would say though that a wild and uncultured “Edomite Spirit” does exist today and is counter Kingdom.

    As Vanessa pointed out, in spite of Esau’s embitterment over being duped out of his birthright, after many years he seems to have come to terms with the situation based on his reaction in Genesis 33:4 –

    “But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him rand fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”

    It’s too bad that the reconciliation and good vibe that they had in that moment, didn’t transfer to the rest of his family and his descendants. The scene reminds me of Jesus’s parable of the “Prodigal Son” where the Father and wayward Son our mended after a long emotional rift, but his older brother remains bitter over the celebrations that are made upon the youngers return.

  2. Peter says:

    The history of Esau and Jacob contains so much mystery that, as indicated by the preamble to Sunday’s message, analysis can become trite if only done at the superficial or human level.

    Recently I came across a good commentary from which I will quote, that speaks to these issues including some raised by Dave and Vanessa.

    In some ways this is an epilogue to Sunday’s message and requires a commitment of the reader who will be rewarded with some interesting insights provided.

    “The divine plan begins with the call of Abraham. The call cuts him off from those to whom he was bound by family loyalty. He is sent from his father’s household. We have already asked: Why must the divine plan set son against father? Why does redemption cut against the grain of our worldly loves?(Gen 25:12:1b). But we have not fully confronted the question of particularity: Why Abraham? Why does the narrow path toward divine blessing run through the children of Abraham rather than through another man, another tribe, another nation? Why Isaac instead of Ishmael? Why Jacob instead of Esau?”

    These are all reasonable questions that come to most minds and we’ll see later what part they play in the commentary.

    “To a certain extent, the narrative gives its answers. Ishmael is the son of servant, while Isaac is the son of the wife; the one son from human efforts to overcome impediments, the other was the son purely of the promise. The circumstances that distinguish the two sons from each other thus made the choice of Isaac fitting. Paul makes much of the difference, linking the works of the law to slavery and the grace of the promise to freedom (Gal. 4:21-31). Whether we follow Paul’s reading, the divine plan worked out through the children of Abraham seems to have a coherent shape and logic.”

    Given this foundation, the commentator then moves onto Esau and Jacob.

    “Now, however, the element of arbitrariness in the divine project comes fully into view, one that pushes us back to Gen. 12 and redoubles the scandal of God’s unexpected investment in the sheer particularity of a single clan as the instrument for fulfilling his plan. The circumstances of Jacob and Esau in the womb allow us to see that questions of character and personality have no purchase. Both children are from the same mother and same father, coequal in so many ways. The question necessarily arises: why Jacob instead of Esau? The question points to a deep theological puzzle: What explains the seemingly arbitrary will of God? What can justify the apparent injustice of the divine decision to call Abraham in the first place, to confer his favour upon Jacob instead of Esau, to choose Israel instead of any other nation? These questions haunt both Christian and Jewish doctrines of election.”

    To attempt to answer these questions the commentator moves on.

    “One strategy is to read forward in in the narrative in order to find reasons that explain the fittingness of God’s choice. This involves identifying key qualities – negative for Esau and positive for Jacob – that explain the divine preference. Ancient interpreters were quick to exploit suggestions within the text. Esau’s preference for hunting and his hairy skin indicate a brutal animal nature. The scene of ravenous hunger when he gives his inheritance away for a bowl of soup seems a clear indication of Esau’s preference for transient material satisfactions over the lasting benefits of spiritual goods. Jacob, in contrast, has his eye on what matters most. Thus God foresees the bad character of Esau and the righteousness of Jacob, and he wisely chooses the one who merits his favour.”

    If it were only that easy…..the commentator continues.

    “The biblical narrative gives both Jacob and Esau personalities, but the problem is that the evidence is extremely mixed. While Esau may be impetuous and shortsighted in his hunger, Jacob is hardly the paragon of virtue. He appears to entrap his brother. Moreover, as the plot thickens, he participates in Rebekah’s strategy of deception and lies to his father. When all the evidence is in, a neutral judge would be hard put to declare Jacob innocent and Esau guilty. Both brothers seem less-than-ideal children of promise. Subject to the sin of Adam and Eve, they both participate in the end of inner-worldly human conflict. Wicked Esau does not afflict innocent Jacob. Rather, after their conception, “the children struggled together” within Rebekah’s womb. As Paul teaches, “none is righteous, no, not one”(Rom. 3:10).”

    Given this situation, the commentator returns to election.

    “There is a further reason why the problem of election cannot be resolved by recourse to merit. Paul explicitly addresses the question of God’s justice in election in Rom.9-11. The larger context is a long reflection on the shift in divine favour from the Jews (descendants of Abraham “according to the flesh” Rm 9:5) to the followers of Christ. Paul wants to be clear: the call of God operates according to no earthly measure, no human standard, no calculation of merit. He draws upon the story of Jacob and Esau to illustrate. Though they were sons of one man, Isaac, and though morally equal in Rebekah’s womb, one was chosen and the other not. Why? Paul’s answer is direct: “In order that God’s purposes of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call” (Rm 9:11). If we protest against the apparent injustice of simply choosing one and not the other, Paul’s reply is again uncompromising. He quotes Exodus 33:19, which concerns Moses’s intercession on behalf of the Israelites, whose faithlessness makes them entirely undeserving of their chosen role: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rm 9:15). Paul immediately provides his interpretation of the divine declaration. “So it depends,” Paul writes of the entire trajectory of divine election from Abraham through Jacob to Sinai and into his own time, “not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy”(Rm9:16). God elects for the sake of bringing his plan to fulfillment; he does not elect in order to recognize or champion our efforts or projects.”

    At this point the commentator looks at what has been argued to date and our own conversion.

    “In the Augustinian theology that has dominated the religious imagination of the Christian West, Paul’s reasoning is summarised with the observation that sinners are saved in Christ by grace alone, sola gratia. This principle takes its most rigorous form in Calvin’s doctrine of election: the circumstances of those brought into fellowship with God in Christ are no more relevant than the qualities or character of Jacob in comparison to Esau. Our destinies turn solely on the divine decision, not on our works or merit. Unlike Calvin and the reformed tradition, Luther and his followers put less emphasis on the doctrine of election and more on salvation by faith alone, sola fide. Although faith has warmer connotations than predestination and the remote world of God’s eternal decrees of salvation and damnation, the effect is the same: God calls whom he saves, and for no other reason than whom he calls he saves.”

    The commentator then turns to the nature of God’s choosing and how we reflect on that.

    “In view of this universal affirmation of the priority of grace, it is very tempting to fixate on the sheer contingency of God’s saving will and reject it as arbitrary. We imagine that there is nothing about Abraham and Isaac or any member of the covenant that explains his election, then God chooses on the basis of a whim or in an offhanded, thoughtless manner. Unless there is a clear “because,” we worry that the whole biblical account of salvation reduces to divine game of “eanie, meanie, mynie,mo.”

    “At work in this worry are assumptions based on our experience of human choices. In nearly all cases, we choose for a reason, but when we don’t care about the outcome, we simply let go of reasons and allow the choice to go where it will. “Coke or Pepsi?” someone asks. We reply, “I don’t really care.” We make our choice without really thinking about it. In other instances, the choice is not so much unthinking as endless changing. Our flittering, fickle will goes first this way and then that. On the spur of a moment we decide to drive to see a friend, only to change our minds halfway when we realize that we no longer want to see him. Not surprisingly, therefore, we think of arbitrary choices as unstable and unreliable, as without purpose or close attention. The arbitrary choice is indifferent. Thus the typical image of predestination: a remote deity moving lifeless pawns on a heavenly chessboard.

    “But is the typical image of predestination sound? Are we right to assume that all choices that cannot give reasons are indifferent, unreliable, remote, and thoughtless? Consider our desperate situation It is good news that God does not choose for the sake of the justice or righteousness or goodness or piety of those he elects. For if he did so, then none would be found worthy. Only God’s wanton disregard for our moral and spiritual worthiness makes fellowship with him possible. That God tosses reason aside does not signal that he does not care, but instead indicates a love that tosses aside the fact that the beloved does not deserve to be loved. Here our complaint against the inexplicable nature of election ends up in litigation against divine mercy, as Paul notes in Rom 9 and as Augustine points out in his defense of the doctrine of predestination.”

    Perhaps the recent point here was Greg’s view of salvation being more than a legal contract as indicated in Rom 10, however, Paul’s use of legal terminology may be to validate his arguments as picked up here by the commentator.

    “The universal stain of sin is not the only reason why God’s love invariably seems arbitrary to us. God could love us generically, according to general principles. He might identify a standard of judgement and allocate his blessings. But he does not want us in measured lots or carefully weighed loads. Instead, God’s love seeks to meet us face to face in our irreducible particularity, and this desire is necessarily made real by a spontaneous and not calculating will. It must be so. To love because of the quality of the person makes love conditional and therefore vulnerable. If it is beauty, then the beloved worries about the inevitable diminishments of age. Even if it is virtue, uncertainty remains. If I love my wife for her high moral character, then I might rightfully transfer my love when I meet someone more righteous still. In fact my reason for loving compels me to do so. Thus, it is no accident that as love predominates it discards reasons and reaches towards the purest particularity of a person. The highest romance is to say, “It is you alone that I love, and I love you just because you are what you are.” Love becomes fuller as it appears more and more inscrutable. Such a love is neither indifferent nor fickle. Quite the contrary, love without motive or reason invests everything in the particularity of the beloved, and this makes love invincible. Nothing can speak against a love that has no reasons.

    “Of course, no human love is free of reasons. I look into the eyes of another and embrace her in the sheer particularity of her individuality, but not for long. Soon enough the embrace ends, and I see and judge her appearance, her intelligence, and her character. But God’s love is omnipotent, and he can do what you and I cannot: love us forever in our pure particularity, and in so doing draw us to himself. Paul suggests this intimacy of espousal when he points to Deut. 30:14, which emphasizes the kiss of divine election: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”(Rom. 10:8). With the covenant begun in Abraham, God plunges into human affairs with a terrible determination. Only a sudden, reasonless love can strike so quickly, so deeply, so permanently. And we cannot enter God’s embrace without abandoning our objection to his lack of reasons.

    “To a great extent, the standard spiritual mistrust of the doctrine of predestination stems from a latent spiritual pride that encourages us to survey the divine plan from above and coolly judge its merits. In our minds, we observe God’s heedless love from the perspective of eternity. When we object that choosing Jacob over Esau is unjust, we are putting ourselves next to God, watching him move his pawns on the chessboard, challenging his strategy, questioning his rationale. And if we are beside God rather than before him, then how do we not be dismayed? For God can no more share with us his reasons than a close friend can explain a sudden, precipitous fall into love. Experience tells the tale. A man’s friends are those most offended by the arbitrariness of love. “What do you mean you can’t go out for a beer? What do you mean you’re skipping baseball practice? What are you thinking? Come to your senses! Don’t mess up our plans.”

    “The same offended sense of desertion holds for the common spiritual objection that predestination violates the principles of justice. We have our ideas about how the world should be run, and we’ve made our plans accordingly. We have made all sorts of commitments to live according to certain standards, and we have settled expectations. Thus, what seems like solicitous horror that God might leave somebody out of the plan of salvation masks a personal affront. The fierce purity of God’s love eclipses reasons, motives, and judgements we can share. We partake in God’s nature only insofar as we know that God reaches out to grab us – Christ crucified and risen – and not because we know why.

    “We need to press the analogy of human love one final step forward. Those who stand beside us rather than before us often worry about the strangely inscrutable character of our loves. Parents worry, “Are you sure she’s the right one?” Long-time friends who have consoled us when past loves have gone wrong offer wise counsel: “Be careful and think things through this time.” But amid all the sensible concern and good advice that surrounds our fallible, fragile adventures of love, the beloved himself or herself does not fear the blinding force of the love, at least not in the first heat of its flashing fire. The beloved is strangely reassured that the question “why me?” has no answer. The sheer fact of love sways the heart. Love’s reasonless abandonment to another is what gives love its burning necessity. This is why God’s name is good news. The name is not Perfect Justice or Everlasting Goodness or Sober Reason. The name is YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one who will choose whom he will choose. Far from pointing to a fickle or indifferent deity, the name directs us toward the deepest mystery, the mystery pronounced in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit: “God is love” (1Jn 4:8).”

    As indicated earlier, there are some interesting insights, given the line of argument used by the commentator, that open up, in one sense, those “choices” made by God in the formation of His family.

  3. Kouloud says:

    It’s so convenient, don’t you think? All we have to do is to go to a nerbay church service (one time) and ta ta our eternity is secured. But what this preacher you mentioned in your blog didn’t talk about was all those commandments of Jesus that we are to follow. Hmmm I do believe that Jesus really did say, If you really do love me, then you’ll show it by being obedient to what I have said. And what He said is cleary spelled out in that Book that we love to hate.Our US constitution reminds us that our Creator is the one who gave us this country where we can pursue live, liberty and happiness. I’m with you Scott let’s be careful about making more of the stew than it really is .stew.

  4. Perla says:

    Thank you, Vanessa, for reminding me that God can use me in spite of all my shortcomings. Not only that — He loves me, and He keeps his promises.

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