Readings: Genesis 25:19-34, Secrets of Heaven #3330 (see below)
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Photo credit: Frederic DuPont
Today we will begin a three part series on the story of Jacob and Esau. This first week we will explore Esau selling his birthright. The second week will focus on Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing. And the final week we will hear about their ultimate reconciliation.
Jacob and Esau, the disparate twins, are a well known story from the bible; it is detailed, suspenseful and deeply complicated in how it asks us to think about how God is present in the actions of the faithful. We know that Jacob will go on to father Joseph, who will eventually bring his whole family to Egypt, and bring us to the story of the Exodus. Jacob is an important, pivotal figure in the history of the people of Israel, and in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Yet, he acts deceitfully in stepping into his role as patriarch. How are we to understand this? That the end justifies the means? That God’s chosen can act however they want? Certainly, it cannot be so.
So the first issue that we bump head first into is the fact that these characters are so very flawed. Jacob and Rebekah, and Esau as well, do not act morally or prudently, or in any way in which we would hope people who bear an important covenant with God would act. But this is part of what makes the bible ultimately so powerful. It is not a litany of perfect people enacting God’s word perfectly. It is made up of stories of imperfect people living into God’s promises imperfectly. And yet God remains steadfast in the face of that imperfection. This does not mean that God condones our mis-steps or our selfishness, but rather, that God believes in the possibility of our growth. We human beings are the ones who want to declare definitively who is good and evil, but God makes no such ultimate declaration.
Now it is reasonable that we might want the Bible to clearly tell us what to do and what not to do. Part of what I find to be so overwhelming about figuring out how to act for good in a broken world is that it is not always clear what is the right and good decision, because often there are many intersecting implications. So course, we want the bible to tell us how we should act and give us people to emulate. And we do definitely get some of that from it. But the bible is also the story of humanity, the story of us, not just of what we can be but of what we are. And this is strangely comforting, because in this we can know that God is not with us only when we get to a certain level of perfection, but also with us on the journey of figuring all that out.
So the upshot is: human beings are messy. But God remains. (Thank goodness). The story of Jacob and Esau is even messier than it might at first seem. First, we need to appreciate the nature of inheritance in those ancient times. The firstborn received everything; all the family’s land and riches. Which left subsequent sons at the mercy of their older brother, or on the hook to figure out their own livelihood. Tradition is often important for keeping order; we can understand the wisdom of such a system, even as we recognize the unfairness of the burden it placed on younger siblings. But in this case, Jacob was only the younger by a few minutes; thus the unfairness of this particular situation is heightened. This is not so far away as we might think; fans of the book Pride and Prejudice might recall Colonel Fitzwilliam with telling Lizzie that he cannot marry for love; as a second son he was going to have to marry for money. We can criticize such an unromantic understanding now from the comfort of modernity, but for many in the past, especially women, questions of livelihood were questions of life and death.
While being the firstborn certainly conveyed a serious advantage, it also carried with it a lot of responsibility. And in this case, it carried with it the responsibility of taking forth God’s promise to Abraham into the future and partnering with God to bring it into fulfillment. So Esau would not just charged with taking care of the family, but shepherding an important covenant with God. And what we learn from the text, is that Esau despised this birthright. We don’t know exactly why he despised it but it becomes clear later in the story that Esau was of a particularly contrarian nature. We all have had the experience of rebelling against the expectations that our parents or society have put upon us. And we don’t always value things that are passed down to us, as opposed to things that we have built or discovered ourselves.
So while Jacob absolutely took advantage of his brother, Esau contributed to the way things turned out as well. He acted impulsively, without care for the future, intent on immediate gratification. We don’t generally give up things that we value so easily. For whatever reason, Esau did not care all that much for the important role that he would be stepping into. The gravity of it, the weight of the covenant with God, that did not concern him, or occupy his mind. So he sold his birthright for a bowl of stew. And in the moment, he was satisfied.
But satisfaction is not the ultimate mission of a spiritual life. In Swedenborg’s worldview, this ancient story tells timeless truths about each of our inner natures. Esau represents our natural will and Jacob our natural understanding. Or in other words, in our daily lives, Esau represents the desires that we have, and the things that we want, and Jacob represents the way that we think and the things we understand to be true.
Esau was the firstborn, and we see this reflected in the fact that our desires are primary, that we usually feel things more acutely and immediately than we think about things. Motive comes before thought. We can see the truth of this in the physiology of our brains. Our limbic system, which governs emotion, is evolutionarily older than the frontal cortex, which governs thought, and so our brain processes feelings more quickly than higher order thinking. And from experience, we know that if we were always guided purely by our feelings, we wouldn’t always do the right thing. Many times our impulses *are* loving; to give a hug, to take care, to defend. But just as often they are selfish: to lash out, to shut out, to dismiss, to take, or to hurt.
And so there are lots of examples in the bible of the regular order of things being inverted, from Jacob and Esau all the way to the cross, and this is always has the same representation, always paints the same picture. The way of spirit is sacrifice. Not martyrdom necessarily, not subservience necessarily, but recognizing privilege, priority, and advantage, and interrogating it, using it for the benefit of all. And specifically, in the context of this story, it is recognizing that the closeness, the intensity, of our feelings about something will always make them *seem* like the most important and truest possible thing…but it might not be so. We need to be able recognize when the intensity or the priority of our feeling is simply covering over the fact that those feelings are selfish. Not all feelings are selfish, of course not. But emotion is a gift, just as being firstborn for Esau was a gift, and with a gift comes responsibility, the responsibility to take a step back and question our motives.
Esau had already sold his birthright long before Jacob made him say the words. He was stubborn, and repudiated what being firstborn was going to mean. And what does being firstborn ultimately mean? It means being willing to sacrifice: in our external story, a sacrifice taken in order to shepherd the covenant, and take care of the family; in ourselves, a sacrifice taken in order to be transformed away from self-centeredness wherever possible.
So, while narratively, it seems like selling the birthright was not a good thing for Esau to do, spiritually it *is* something we need to be willing to do. Perhaps selling it is the wrong word, but we need to value our birthright enough that we understand what it means, and that means being willing to give it up when it becomes clear we are clinging to it for the wrong reasons. We have to be willing to give up the primacy of emotion when necessary, when it is stopping us from being loving.
Sometimes, we need to learn something new that has the potential to change how we feel. And this means that Jacob will need to be ascendent. And this is what we will explore next week. May God’s word continue to open our understanding and our hearts. Amen.
19 This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” 24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. 26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them. 27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom. ) 31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?” 33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.
Secrets of Heaven #3330
'And he sold his birthright to Jacob' means that in the meantime priority was conceded - to the doctrine of truth represented by Jacob…The chief reason why with the spiritual person truth has dominion first is that in their initial state delights that belong to self-love and love of the world are present. These they believe to be the goods which attach themselves to their truths and constitute the greater part of the affection for truth with them. Indeed at this time they suppose that truths are able to assist them in the acquisition of important positions, or of material gain, or of reputation in the world, or also of merit in the next life. All these arouse that affection for truth with him and also set it ablaze. These are not however good but bad.