Sibling Rivalry – Oct. 25, 2020
A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
October 25, 2020
Main Idea: God works for reconciliation
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
One of the great gifts of our Scripture is that it contains stories of real people with real problems, who, even though they are not perfect and they make mistakes, sometimes monumental ones, they are loved by God and chosen by God to share God’s love and purpose in the world. The story of Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau is a story with which we can empathize. Many of us know about sibling rivalry. All of us know about anger and division which can arise when people feel betrayed. This morning, instead of parsing each verse of today’s text, I am going to tell you the full story of Jacob and Esau for it shows both the negative consequences of breaking trust and the incredible power of God’s redeeming love.
The story begins with Isaac and Rebekah who loved each other. For twenty years they prayed to God for a child and eventually Rebekah was pregnant with twins. Their prayer was answered but the pregnancy was difficult. Rebekah gave birth to twins; Esau, a redhead, and Jacob, born clutching his brother’s heel. From the very beginning these twin brothers were in competition with each other, forming their identities in opposition to each other. Esau was a “man of the field”, a skillful hunter while Jacob was quiet and like to stay at home. The story tells us that Isaac love Esau because he was fond of game but Rebekah loved Jacob. This is where the story starts to go awry. Picking favorites never turns out well.
One day, as teenagers, Jacob was cooking red lentil stew when Esau came in from a hunting expedition. “I’m starving” said Esau, “give me some of that red stuff.” “Sure” said Jacob, “if you sell me your birthright.” All the rights and privileges of being the first born son. Now perhaps Esau thought that Jacob was kidding. “Sure, whatever, just give me some stew, I’m hungry.” Jacob pressed the point, “Swear to me first.” “Fine, whatever, I swear.” said Esau, “Now give me the stew.” A bowl of lentils cost Esau his birthright.
Years later, when Esau and Jacob were grown men, Isaac, who was old and blind, called Esau to him and said “My son, see, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now go hunt game for me and then prepare it for me the way I like it. Bring it to me to eat, and I will bless you before I die.’ (27:2-4) A deathbed blessing from one’s father was understood as a powerful gift, like a large bequest from a will. Isaac wanted to enjoy a delicious meal with his son and to bless him while he still could.
But Rebekah was listening to this conversation, and when Esau went out to hunt, Rebekah went to Jacob with a clever and cruel plan. She would cook up a meal for Isaac to eat and Jacob would dress up in Esau’s clothes, with goat skins on his hands and neck so that Isaac would think he was Esau. Jacob agreed to the plan and brought the food to Isaac in disguise. He said to his father, ‘Hello Father, here is Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.’ But Isaac said to his son, ‘How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?’ Jacob answered, ‘Because the Lord your God granted me success.’ Then Isaac said to Jacob, ‘Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.’ So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, ‘The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau. Are you really my son Esau?’ Jacob answered, ‘I am.’ Then Isaac said, ‘Bring the food to me, that I may eat and bless you.’ So Jacob brought it to him, and he ate; and Jacob brought him wine, and he drank. Then Isaac said to him, ‘Come near and kiss me, my son.’ So Jacob came near and kissed him; and Isaac smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, saying
‘Ah, the smell of my son
is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.
May God give you of the dew of heaven,
and of the fatness of the earth,
and plenty of grain and wine.
Let peoples serve you,
and nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
and blessed be everyone who blesses you!’ (27:18-29)
Just as Isaac had finished the blessing and Jacob had left the room, Esau came in with a beautiful meal for his father. He said, “Here I am, Father, sit up and eat so that you might bless me.” “His father Isaac said to him, ‘Who are you?’ He answered, ‘I am your firstborn son, Esau.’ Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, ‘Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all – before you came? I have blessed him—yes, and blessed he shall be!’ When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with a great and bitter cry, and said to his father, ‘Bless me, me also, father!’ But Isaac said, ‘Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.’ Esau said, ‘He surely is Jacob, the supplanter. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing. Father, do you not have some blessing for me?’ Isaac answered Esau, ‘I have already made him your lord, and I have given him all his brothers as servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?’ Esau said to his father, ‘Have you only one blessing, father? Please bless me, me also, father!’ Isaac said ‘See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be,
and away from the dew of heaven on high.
By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother;
but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck.’
And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. (27:33-38) This is such a heartbreaking moment in the story.
Now Esau hated Jacob with a white hot passion. He said to himself, “Once our father is dead, I will kill my brother Jacob.” Rebekah heard of this and warned Jacob. ‘Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now listen to me; flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him for a while, until your brother’s anger against you turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send, and bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you [to violence] in one day?’ (27:42b-45)
So Jacob went to Haran and eventually married Leah and his true love, Rachel. They had many adventures which are told in the book of Genesis. They had 12 sons and were very successful, acquiring large flocks of animals and many possessions. Eventually, Jacob wanted to go home. Isaac had not yet died and Jacob wanted to see both parents again. But to go home, would require going through the land of Esau and this frightened Jacob very much. He was haunted by the wrong he had done to his brother and he was frightened of what Esau might do if they were ever to meet again. So he sent messengers to Esau instructing them to say “Thus says your servant Jacob, “I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.” (32:4b-5) Please allow us safe passage through your land so that we may come home.” Esau did not send a message back, instead he and 400 of his men started out toward the place where Jacob and his family were. This caused Jacob to become even more frightened. He knew the extent of Esau’s anger because he knew Esau and he knew how much he had harmed his brother. Jacob prayed to God. “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to me, your servant. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all. Yet you have said, “I will surely do you good” so please help me.” After the prayer Jacob then decided to send gifts to Esau as a way of apologizing and appeasing him. These “gifts” were extraordinary! Two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. First he sent the goats with a servant saying “‘When Esau my brother meets you, and asks you, “To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose animals are these?” then you shall say, “They belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord Esau; and moreover Jacob is behind us.” (32:17b-18) Jacob then sent the sheep with the same instructions, then the camels, then the cattle, and then the donkeys, all with the hope that somehow Esau would be appeased. Jacob moved his wives and children back across a stream for more protection and he waited by himself to see what Esau would do.
That night, while he waited, a man came who wrestled with Jacob all night. During the encounter the man dislocated Jacob’s hip but Jacob hung on. As day was breaking the man said “Let me go.” But Jacob said “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” The man asked for Jacob’s name and then said ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ (32:28) The man blessed him and Jacob felt that he had been wrestling with and blessed by God. Certainly, through the night Jacob had wrestled with the consequences of his actions toward Esau. Perhaps it was even Esau who came in the night to grapple with him just as they had struggled together since before birth! Whatever the identity of the nighttime wrestler, Jacob was forced to face the reality of his broken relationship with his brother. From that day forward Jacob walked with a limp because of the hip injury. His every step was a reminder of what had happened.
In the morning Jacob looked up and saw Esau in the distance, still approaching with 400 men. Jacob quickly gathered his wives and children behind him and went forward bowing to the ground seven times. Jacob was terrified, certain that this would be the end to him and all of his family.
But when Esau saw Jacob, he ran to meet him and gathered him up in a enormous embrace. He kissed him and they both wept with relief, and joy, and sorrow about all that had happened between them. Esau was introduced to all of Jacob’s family, who all bowed down before him. Esau asked Jacob about all the animals sent to him and Jacob admitted his hope for appeasement. Esau said “I have enough, my brother, keep what you have for yourself.” But Jacob said “No, please, accept my gift; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (33:10). Think about that. To see the face of his brother who he had wronged, to be welcomed and forgiven by that brother was to experience the limitless love and presence of God.
Jacob and Esau live the rest of their days in neighboring lands. Together they buried their father Isaac (who had lived much longer than expected). They both became patriarchs to nations. Esau to the nation of Edom and Jacob to Israel. Things were not perfect between the two families, disagreements and disputes still arose but the two brothers’ bond was mended.
We live in divided and divisive times. Rivalry and division come from fear; fear of scarcity, fear of loss. Siblings become rivals because of competition for attention and love. Let us take the story of Esau and Jacob to heart so that we might be worthy of the trust others put in us. Let us seek to mend the bonds that are broken rather than further fracture our community through thoughtless or selfish pursuits. Healthy families and healthy communities can have disagreements without division. May we remember this in the days ahead and may God continue to guide and sustain us.
Let us pray, God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Esau and Jacob, remind us that there is no limit to your love and blessing. Help us to treat each other with love and grace. Empower us to let go of the past and embrace the future you have planned for us. We ask all this in Jesus’ name. Amen.