As Walter Brueggemann reminds us, there really isn’t much that’s morally fortifying about the Jacob saga. Kind of tough to admit to ourselves, isn’t it? Nobody in this story looks particularly good. Isaac and Rebekah take sides against their own sons, Jacob and Esau.
And the boys, themselves, don’t inspire a lot of sympathy from us. Esau comes off as the sweaty, Harley-riding Neanderthal you warn your kids against hanging around with. And Jacob is portrayed as a mama’s boy who’s always torn between looking for a way to stick it to somebody else and looking for a way to stay out of the hot sun.
Not much there to draw our sympathies. Perhaps the only discernible moral to this story is that when God steps into it with folks, God’s not very choosy about the folks. If we were picking up sides for the big game, we figure, we could do a lot better than God typically does. God’s forever calling losers and reprobates to accomplish God’s purpose.
“God, you promised we’d be a part of a great nation.”
“What are you getting at?”
“Well, we don’t mean to be picky. You obviously know what you’re doing . . . but Rebekah and I don’t, in case you haven’t noticed, don’t have any kids.”
“Kids? Oh, I can fix that. I have two in mind right now.”
Now, you know as well as I do that when “the Lord granted his prayer,” neither Isaac nor Rebekah had any idea about what they were getting themselves into.
But isn’t that the way with all of us when we hitch our wagon to God’s star? God’s promises, we believe—because they’re God’s, after all—will inevitably be sweetness and light. Modernity has succeeded in doing something that neither the Hebrew nor the Christian were capable of doing: It’s succeeded in making God nice.
The God of Scripture is many things—loving, righteous, merciful, wrathful, gracious, protective, jealous, powerful, patient, holy—but nice isn’t a fight in which the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has a dog.
Where did we get the crazy notion that if God’s mixed up in it, then there will only be happiness and wish-fulfillment. Jesus is proof enough that even the best among us isn’t safe when God gets mixed up in things.
So God gives a promise to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac’s mom and pop, that they would be forebears of a great nation. Isaac, not unlike his old man, appears—because of his inability to have a child—to be on the verge of goofing up the promise. But, of course, the promise isn’t his to keep or break. The promise is one made by God—and it will be by God that the promise is carried out. Thus, Jacob and Esau.
Here’s the interesting thing, though, the promise won’t play out in quiet, uninteresting ways out in the suburbs. No, if God’s wrapped up in it, there are bound to be fireworks somewhere along the line. Indeed, Jacob appears headed for a life of conflict—not just because he’s an annoying goldbricker (which, of course, he is)—but because he’s God’s man on the job. And God always seems to rely on the last, the least, and the lost.—the people on the sidelines everyone else has forgotten about—to realize the world God wants.
You might have reason to expect that a child given under the sort of promise that God has made will be protected from conflict. But this child, as one commentator notes, “Is called for the sake of conflict.” Jacob didn’t choose this conflict; he was chosen for it—and it was apparently chosen for him. “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” (25:23).
But what is this conflict Jacob is chosen for? What is this child of promise called to be?
The seeds of of the Jacob saga are sown in the very beginning—literally. He’s born second to his older brother, Esau—the Conan the Barbarian of the Hebrew Bible.
But even in the womb Jacob is trying to beat his older brother. In fact, as they’re born, Essau comes out first, and Jacob is said to be grabbing onto his heel—trying to pull him back in. Jacob’s name means something like “heel”—the heel grabber, the one who uses his heel to kick his way out of the womb. Jacob is the one born to conflict.
And this doesn’t bode well for Jacob because Essau has every conceivable advantage in this sibling rivalry. Essau, in a culture that prized masculinity, was a man’s man—all hairy and imposing, maybe a little thick but straightforward, guileless. Jacob, on the other hand, is a different breed—and a breed not much prized in his culture (or any culture, for that matter): He’s a used car salesman, a con man who hides behind his mom when the going gets tough.
Furthermore, all the manly-man stuff makes Essau Daddy’s favorite—which in a patriarchal society is kind of a big deal. Jacob, as we’ve said, has his mom’s affection—which is nice enough, but not especially helpful when it comes to making his mark on the world.
But perhaps most importantly of all, Essau is born first—if only by moments and inches. And in a culture where the custom of primogeniture is observed, first—no matter how close a shave it is—means everything.
“So, what is primogeniture?” you ask.
Primogeniture is the social custom whereby the oldest son inherits everything. Notice I didn’t say, “The oldest son inherits the biggest share,” nor did I say that “the oldest son gets first pick of the stuff before the estate sale.”
No. The oldest son gets it all—and everybody else has to fend for themselves. Lesser born males are in better shape than females, but still it’s got to be difficult when Dad finally shuffles off this mortal coil to watch your older brother move into the master bedroom and start driving Dad’s Buick.
Of course, from where we sit, this whole social convention seems a bit barbaric—like the accidents of your birth are more important than your gifts and abilities. One of modernity’s prevailing myths is that life is a meritocracy—which is to say, we get what we deserve in this life, depending on how hard we’ve worked for it.
It’d be hard to find an American who would argue that the way the world ought to work has nothing to do with our abilities, that what really ought to be important are the things that are out of our control—our parents, our social class, our race and ethnicity, the side of town we’re born on.
Who says, “I wish my talents didn’t matter; I wish I were judged solely on my DNA?”
But let me remind you that primogeniture has dominated patriarchal societies—which is to say most societies—throughout history, until recently. Most of history has been dominated by a world in which where and to whom you were born was always more important than how talented you were.
But lest we get to feeling too smug, all I-sure-am-glad-we-don’t-live-like-those-ancient-simpletons-anymore, I suspect I could make a case that our modern technological society has its own ways of conferring privilege upon a few based on their their birth—and then letting them think that that privilege is something they earned. As was said of one past president, “He was born on third base, convinced he hit a triple.”
Our current political life seems to make this point all too well. . . that being wealthy and powerful is prima facie evidence that you should be given more wealth and power. Not because your skill and intellect argue for your deserving it; but because you already have it, it’s assumed that you’ve gotten what you’ve gotten because you have some native wit or intelligence the rest of us don’t possess—and thus deserve more of what your privilege has already bought you.
But there you have it. It’s easy to feel superior to ancient cultures because of their brutish ways, all the while remaining blind to the fact that we live in a society not all that different, one that’s designed to keep wealth and power in the hands of the people who already possess them—not because of any real virtue on their part, but because we’ve been taught to believe that wealth and power are dispensed not by the accidents of birth, but through hard work.
Only, it rarely occurs to us to stop to consider that there are single mothers in our modern culture who work just as hard as any executive or professional—even as they’re still trying to scrape rent money together at the end of the month. Having the good sense to be born to the right parents doesn’t mean we deserve the privilege that belongs to us. That’s something all of us should bear in mind when we’re tempted to look down our noses at people who fight on battlefields most of us will never have to fight on.
Neither Jacob nor Esau deserve what they get. Jacob’s not good, and Esau’s not said to be bad. The issue this story forces us to grapple with is how God works in the lives of people to defy conventional wisdom, to turn the world on its head. Everybody assumes the world works this way, and then God comes along and lets us know that, according to the way God envisions things, it actually works that way. God chooses people everyone else ignores, and in the process challenges all the ways the folks in charge have designed to keep everyone else precisely where they are.
The story of Jacob shows how God is busy seeking to disrupt, to turn upside down the world that the people in charge find comfortable—a world in which it’s taken for granted that the first shall be first . . . and the last shall be last. A world in which the powerful and the favorite sons assume that God uses the wisdom of the wise to shame the foolish, and the strength of the strong to shame the weak.
But in God’s vision of the way things should be, those who’ve been born with the deck stacked against them are now the ones God seeks to make whole.
Those who’ve always been too easy to ignore, too easy to exploit occupy the places of honor.
Under primogeniture those who had no hope, whose bodies and labor had been used and discarded, who were born as something other than the favorite son can now see a future where their children have a chance to live not only free of fear, but in a world where true peace and true justice reigns.
In the old world everyone automatically assumed Essau deserved God’s blessing, while Jacob would just have to fend for himself in whatever way he could get by. But in the new world, God’s blessing falls on the disadvantaged and dispossessed.
Jacob’s story shows us that if we want to do God’s will, we must work toward a world in which our privilege is a tool we use to tear down the barriers for everyone else, a world in which we make space for all God’s children to flourish—not just for those of us born first.
And we who seek to live like Jesus have a pretty clear example of just what such a life might look like.
We’re holding out for a world where nobody’s born second. We who follow Jesus, we’re holding out for something better.