In the fall of my freshman year of college at PLU, my brother came to take me to lunch. I was excited to see him and share all of my news. A few minutes in, he revealed the true reason he came to see me. He wanted to tell me that he had been resentful of me my whole life. You see, I was the 6th child following 5 boys in a row. After four years of being the baby of the family, I had stolen his birthright and displaced him. And I had the audacity of being the only girl, not to mention being born on Christmas Eve, so my birthday always seemed to him to receive preferential treatment.
The stories we learned as children in Sunday school from the book of Genesis, remind us of jealousy & rivalry between siblings: Cain & Abel, Ishmael & Isaac, Esau & Jacob, Leah & Rachel, and Joseph & his brothers. Sadly, it is also the unfolding history of humanity.
The story of Esau and Jacob is one of privilege, preferential treatment, and imbalance in the family system. When there is an imbalance of power and of privilege, life and love suffer. Sibling rivalry can be a source of healthy competition which can motivate us or it can be destructive, creating despair, resentment and distrust throughout the course of a relationship.
Esau and Jacob’s dysfunctional family dynamics fuel the rivalry that began when they started jostling in the womb, jockeying for birth order position. Esau’s name is connected to both the color red and the nation of Edom, a nation with whom Israel will be in conflict. Jacob is born gripping his brother’s heel trying to get through the birth canal first. His name means heel-grabber, a trickster. Maybe he grew up seeing manipulation as his only way forward, to outsmart the traditions that favored his brother and put himself into a more favored position. For you see, in this ancient culture, the eldest son was the most valued. He would inherit twice what the next son would inherit. He would become the leader of the family if the father died and be expected to carry the family’s legacy. His life would be privileged based on birth order, not on any leadership skills or character development or devotion to his parents. God told Rebekah that the babies would be as two nations who have always been at war.
As they grow up, they represent two kinds of people. Esau was born ruddy and hairy. He grew up to be an outdoorsman. He loved to hunt, bringing wild game to his appreciative father. He is given the nickname Edom, a term meaning red, and would later . Jacob, “was a quiet man, staying among the tents.” We find him cooking in the kitchen with the women.
These twins didn’t quite live up to the ideal in Psalms 133:1:
“Here is what is good and what is pleasant, for brothers to dwell together.”
Aggravating their differences, their parents played favorites. Esau, a man of action, always outdoors bringing home meat his father loved to eat. Jacob, a thinker, stayed at home, was favored by his mother. The division between them permeates their lives and creates a house and family divided.
One day, Esau is famished rom the day-long hunt and sees his brother Jacob, cooking a red dish of lentil stew, and asks for some. Jacob sees his moment and demands his birthright in exchange. Esau answers, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me.” Esau desires food to fulfill an immediate need, while Jacob is interested in having what his brother has and calculates potential future gains. As the younger brother, Jacob understands that he does not have the same rights to inheritance as his brother does. Rather than care for his hungry brother, Jacob exploits his brother’s need by providing him with food only after Esau relinquishes his birthright. It must have been really stew good because it ended up costing Esau his future inheritance. Esau makes the worst trade of his life in his moment of weakness – family inheritance for red stew. Even if it was the best tasting stew in the known world at that time, it still wasn’t worth blowing the family farm over it.
And so, Jacob tricks his brother Esau out of the family birthright, which now gives him a double share of the family inheritance. Later, in ch 27, Rebekah plots with Jacob to deceive her own husband so Jacob would receive the first-born blessing. The birthright and God’s blessing, bestowed by their father Isaac, will belong to Jacob simply because he is scheming and devious enough to take them.
We can palpably feel Esau’s pain when he recognizes what happened and cries out to his father, “Bless me – me too, my father! Did you save a blessing for me?” When Isaac said, ‘Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.’ Esau burst out with a loud and bitter cry, ‘Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? Jacob the heel. This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: he took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!”
We can feel sympathy for both Isaac and Esau. Here is an old man who has been deceived by his son, and Esau feels cheated out of what was rightfully his.
Jacob & Esau’s conflict gets so bad – they’re estranged. “Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him. Esau said to himself, Let the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.” It will take more than 20 years of Jacob fleeing for his life and much soul searching for both Esau & Jacob before they reconcile. It would take many years before Jacob moved past his deviousness nature, at which point God changes his name.
Conflict, manipulation, rivalry are part of the ancient biblical story, but remain true today as well. What do we do with these familial dynamics? This on-going struggle between Esau and Jacob plays out throughout history in many relationships. There are age-old rivalries and manipulation on the world stage, with colleagues and friends, even relationships in places of worship, in churches. Not much has changed. Conflict can ruin relationships, create anxiety, and steal your peace.
Is there room for us to examine our own relationships in the context of these two brothers? Do we have the courage to learn about our own human propensity for conflict? Over the years, conflicts that continue to rage has led to tragic loss of life.
It’s easy to point the finger to blame others as the source of conflict. There are times, when we are called to assume a posture of humility and vulnerability? Do we have the courage to let go of our sense of righteousness, or our perception of being right, or start the process of releasing the woundedness of having been wronged or hurt? Each of us harbors hurt, anger and resentment that if not tended to, could ultimately lead to more conflict. Richard Rohr says, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and friends. Bring to mind the conflicts that you have been part of, complicit in, or may have even caused and ask God to be present in the tension and the pain.
When Kevin came to meet me at college and shared his resentment and anger of about my being born, I felt blindsided and hurt, but over the past 25 years since then, I have developed more compassion for what he experienced in our dysfunctional family because of my existence, and some of the ways I also contributed to it.
Many times, favoritism is painful not because of the actual opportunities lost, but because of what the loss represents: being less loved, taken for granted, undervalued and disregarded. Most people have experienced favoritism in one form or another: within family dynamics, at work, friendships. When we feel unfairly passed over, it is easy to become bitter toward the person or institution picking favorites, as well as the person who got what we feel we deserved. It is easy to feel cheated after we have experienced betrayal. But, sadly, we don’t solve anything by dwelling in our pain and bitterness.
Out of the depths, O God, we call to you.
Wounds of the past remain, affecting all we do.
Facing our lives, we need your love so much.
Here in this community, heal us by your touch.
Out of the depths of fear, O God, we speak.
Breaking the silences, the searing truth we seek.
Safe among friends, our grief and rage we share.
Here in this community, hold us in your care.
God of the loving heart, we praise your name.
Dance through our lives and loves; anoint with Spirit flame.
Your light illumines each familiar face.
Here in this community, meet us with your grace
Written by Ruth Duck
When we choose to see value in ourselves as worthy, beloved, and wanted people, we may be able to move past our hurt feelings and recognize our own blessings in life that transcend our painful experiences. We can choose to invite God’s healing, while taking responsibility for ourselves. Then, we can begin to accept what has happened, let go of our anger and resentment, and move toward wholeness and peace, despite what has happened in the past. It is in this place where we can discover gratitude for the blessings we do have, speaking life and peace to ourselves, which leads to the spiritual practice of speaking life and peace to those who have caused us pain. The ability to do so increases our understanding of ourselves. It also prepares us to be ambassadors of love in a world filled with conflict.
What would it look like to write a blessing for someone in their life who has gotten the advantage over you. Are you able to bring an attitude of compassion towards this person, speaking words of blessing over them to clear the air of any lingering ill will. Then, can you write another blessing for yourselves.
Unlike Jacob, in God’s economy, we don’t have to resort to manipulation to secure and receive God’s blessing. It is already there. For each of us there is a blessing that is ours. Blessing is for everyone. In the book The Shack, God says this about each person: “I am especially fond of that one.” At each baptism, I use the words of a poem by Ernesto Cardenal, Adapted by Rev. Kathlyn James.
Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique.
In all the world, there is no other exactly like you.
In all the millions of years there has never been another exactly like you.
You are a child of God. And you will be a child of God forever.
No one can take this birthright from you.
May you continue to grow into the fullness of life that is God’s intent for you.
And may you always know that you are loved.
We envision life and love flourishing in the world where all are valued equally and have a place at the table. Let us join in singing with AJ Rowatt, a song that speaks to this message. It is accompanied by Jeff with visuals by Don Thompson.
For everyone born, a place at the table,
to live without fear, and simply to be,
And God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace;
yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice, and joy.