The story continues. The promises made to Abraham and Sarah now find life in later generations. Our reading for this week stretches through a few of those generations and takes on a new dimension in Jacob, the uncharacteristic patriarch. Rather than go through his story line by line, or even chapter by chapter, let’s look in at a few of the important parts of this piece of God’s story.
Did any of this story sound familiar? A barren wife, a miraculous birth, two antagonistic brothers, a wife passed off as a sister, a foreigner becomes wealthy, and even the return of Abimelech all start to sound like a retread of what we’ve read before. It’s difficult to know what to make of it. Some have tried to explain these revisits as evidence of stories told repeatedly by different sources, leading to pieces making their way in to stories where they didn’t originally belong.
Others have considered that maybe these are simply battles that generation after generation fights. Barrenness leads the chosen people to trust in God’s miraculous promises. Warring families reveals the brokenness still present in God’s good creation. A husband unwilling to stand next to his wife shows that even trusting people who have heard of God’s faithfulness can still try to talk their way out of something. The struggles we face as God’s people in the world remain the same. From generation to generation, we show that we cannot save ourselves, and that God’s promises always come to us fresh.
Whenever I hear people talk about a Biblical model for marriage or God’s plan for family life, I get the giggles. While I understand what they’re trying to say, I cannot but think of the model we have in Genesis. Men with multiple wives – sisters, servants, and outsiders alike. Brothers pitted against each other by scheming parents. Inheritances stolen or unevenly shared. Even families torn apart by murderous vengeance. This is what a real, Biblical, honest family looks like.
Genesis does not apologize for this mess. It doesn’t explain it, excuse it, or exclude it. It keeps it in the front of the story and simply presents it as part of the story of God’s action in the world. Even as Jacob steals Esau’s blessing and runs from his brother’s anger (and can you blame either of them?) the story considers it simply the truth of human life. For that matter, it’s simply part of the work God must do even in the chosen family. Being the heir of the promise does not prevent one from being a total mess.
But there’s some comfort in that, right? God doesn’t wait until we get our family lives in order to use us. God doesn’t pick the neat, pretty, easy family to bear the promise. God doesn’t give up on people when stuff gets nasty. God’s promises are real and true even when God’s people are a real, true mess. At the very least, feel some peace knowing that your family finds its place among all those families before it that really must have been awkward at holiday gatherings.
God promises a blessing to Isaac in exchange for his faithfulness (26:3). That blessing finds evidence in Isaac’s wealth and prosperity (26:12-13) as well as water (26:24-25). God promises that the world will be blessed through Jacob and his offspring (28:14). But Isaac also has the power of blessing. That power is so vast and specific that it causes Rebekah and Jacob to conspire against Esau, and ultimately, to create a lethal animosity between the two brothers (chapter 27). He even calls down God’s blessing on Jacob once the blessing has been made (28:1, 3).
So what is a blessing? Does it come only from God? Can any human bless another human? What kind of favor or privilege does a blessing bestow?
Scripture, and this passage in particular, appear to tell us two important things about blessing. First of all, blessing comes from God. Blessing is God’s choice of a specific people or action for the sake not only of that chosen person or people, but for the sake of the entire world. God’s particular choice means a universal good. However, humans also bless. A blessing from a person also gives power and meaning, as we see from Isaac. Isaac doesn’t have the power to bless because he’s received it special from God, or if he has, the text certainly doesn’t tell us that. The text indicates that this blessing is simply a particular promise that Isaac has reserved for his chosen son. It just so happens that he gave it to the wrong one, and having given it, he cannot take it back. But set that aside. Consider that you have the power of blessing. You are also able to give a specific, powerful promise and prayer to one you love. This holy prayer marks the person you bless and invokes God’s action.
The question isn’t whether humans can bless other humans in faith and love. The question is why we don’t use this holy power more.
We can’t get away from it: Jacob isn’t the patriarch we want, but the patriarch we deserve. We began with Abraham, faithful man of obedience and awe. We moved to Isaac, from whom we hear little, whose brief narrative includes a miraculously chosen wife and a prosperous abundance of blessings. And then there’s Jacob.
Jacob baits his brother out of his birthright. Jacob shamelessly colludes with his mother against his dying father. Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, that last thing that Esau might be able to claim. Jacob runs away from his brother instead of facing up to his deception and trying to mend the family’s brokenness. In short, Jacob isn’t exactly an upstanding figure. And yet, Jacob is God’s own chosen one.
What should we make of this? How should we understand a model of faith who is no model at all? We get to hear more of Jacob as the story continues, so perhaps you’ll find more of redeeming value in him. For now, let’s rest in knowing that God can use anyone, at any time, under any circumstances. God commits even to liars and rogues. In fact, as we hear in 28:10-22, God’s continuing faithfulness even to those who don’t deserve it can turn rogues into preachers. Finally, miraculously, Jacob learns to profess faith in the one God and shows signs that even a trickster such as himself can be used for the good of the world.
The Lowly Are Lifted
This theme introduced in Genesis becomes a theme throughout scripture. God has a habit of taking those who deserve nothing and giving them everything. This is the entire point of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55): God does not give as the world gives. In fact, God looks at what the world gives and subverts it, ensuring that those who should get most get least and those who should be worthless are worth most.
The primary subversion in Genesis to this point is the law of primogeniture. Maybe you’ve heard that if you follow the British royal family; in that case, it speaks to the way that an heir can ascend to the throne. More generally, the word refers to how children inherit from their parents. For about as long as history can recall, that law states that a first-born son of the father receives all. However, both for Ishmael and Isaac and Esau and Jacob, the promise came not to the first-born but to the younger son. God willingly denies what the world expects for the sake of God’s own will.
This denial reminds us that God does not give as the world gives (John 14:27). What we might expect or demand will not necessarily be how God acts. Don’t expect God to give you what you’re owed. God turns that on its head, and has since the beginning of God’s own story.
The Outsider Is Beloved
For any who feel like they don’t quite belong or fit in, who aren’t even sure that God is for them, take heart: God shows love and favor even to those who aren’t part of God’s promise. Both Ishmael and now Esau find unexpected love and faithfulness from God in this story. Both received promises from God, both remain in the narrative, both find their own way in the world. God does not reject or deny those who aren’t part of God’s specific promise. Just as God watches and cares for the outsider, so too does God call us to those who are not part of our explicit community.