Genesis – Lesson 27 Isaac and Rebekah

Genesis 25 – Isaac and Rebekah

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast on April 30, 2006

Craig D. Atwood


Synod: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I learned last week from some of the divinity school students that you can sing Amazing Grace to the tune of House of the Rising Sun. We did that in a chapel led by a Moravian student. In addition to reading final exams and papers last week, I was at the synod of the Southern Province at Black Mountain. There was a wonderful sense of joy at this synod that contrasted with the synod of 2002. All in all, this synod was a celebration of the good gifts of the Moravian Church, including plain old common sense and a desire to make the world a better place. I am very hopeful about the next four years and eager to get to work to strengthen the Moravian witness. I should mention that we also approved the preparation of a “Shorter Moravian Hymnal,” which sounds to me like it will be a hymnal for shorter Moravians. I do hope that it includes the Even Shorter Church Litany. Someone at synod suggested that we could use shortbread for love feasts.

Abraham’s Other Children                That’s probably enough about church matters. You’ll be hearing more about the results of synod in the weeks and months to come, I’m sure. Let’s turn our attention back to the book of Genesis. This week we come to the death of Abraham. We’ve taken a long journey with Abraham since the New Year, and now his story comes to an end. Many commentators believe that our lesson for last week implied that Abraham died shortly before the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. That certainly makes sense in the story since Abraham is absent at the end when Rebekah arrives. If that is the case, then the report of Abraham’s descendents by Keturah and his burial is a bit out of place here in Genesis.

That should not bother us too much. A good storyteller knows that you don’t interrupt the story to give a lot of extraneous details. The author of Genesis waited until Isaac had a wife and a future before telling us that Abraham had several children by a third wife, or a concubine if you prefer. This wife and children were simply not important for the main story, and we learn that they did not inherit Abraham’s property and status. Readers have been very critical of Abraham for having more than one wife and for treating these children different than Isaac, but that was the custom for many centuries. What is surprising is that the Bible names these children and reminds us that there were many descendents of Abraham who were not Israelites.

The most important name in this list is Midian. In Exodus, an Egyptian named Moses flees to the Sinai Peninsula. There he is taken in by a priest named Jethro, who is a Midianite. Moses marries Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, and it is while he is living with the Midianites that Moses encounters the Burning Bush and hears the voice of God. It seems clear from the Exodus account that the Midianites knew and worshiped the God of Abraham even when the Israelites in Egypt did not. We do not know much about these Midianites, but the evidence from Genesis and Exodus indicates that they were worshipers of the LORD even though they were not part of Israel. This is another indication that the Old Testament has more universal scope than you may have thought.

The Death of Abraham          There is another interesting aspect of this story of the death and burial of Abraham. According to Genesis, Isaac and Ishmael together buried their father. This is one of those things that I had overlooked my entire life until I was preparing this lesson. Abraham had driven Ishmael and Hagar away, but it was not a permanent exile. After the death of Sarah, Abraham and Ishmael appear to have reconciled. We learn that Ishmael himself was the father of 12 Arab tribes, just as Jacob would be father of 12 tribes. Abraham gave his son gifts before he died, and the two brothers were united again.

            We see this in our world today, do we not? How many times have estranged brothers, sisters, cousins, and others come together for the funeral? How many funerals will it take for Arabs and Israelis to recognize they are brothers and sisters? How many funerals until we recognize our neighbors and our enemies as brothers and sisters? 

Isaac               It is interesting that the story of Isaac moves immediately into this story of the struggle between Esau and Jacob. As soon as the birth is announced to the reader, we see the boys grown up and discussing dinner. Unlike Abraham and Jacob, we have no stories of Isaac when he is neither father nor son. This may simply indicate that Isaac didn’t do much in his life that merited stories. He simply did what men are supposed to do. He loved his wife, took care of his family, and built for the future. But he was overshadowed by others. It is hard to be the child of a great person, especially when that person places his hopes on you. It may be even harder to have a son who breaks the mold that you have prepared for him, which is what Jacob did. The fact remains, though, that we know little of Isaac other than as a son and a father. Perhaps Esau’s people recorded stories that were lost to the descendents of Jacob. Perhaps Esau heard his father laugh more than Jacob did. We will never know.

Rebekah’s Children               A new chapter in the history of Israel begins with the statement that Isaac’s wife Rebekah conceived. I’m not sure that there is any news in our lives that is more emotional than the news that someone is pregnant. My niece Jody just gave birth to her third child, named Caitlin Faith, by the way, so this is in my mind. Nothing changes your life like a having children. Pregnancies are never routine or ordinary. Even in the days when women had a dozen or more children, each pregnancy was a combination of joy and fear. The Bible relates several stories of pregnancy and birth, many of which begin with a barren woman. Each one is significant. Each one reminds us that the history of salvation includes women as agents of salvation. The Bible is not just a story about men. Each pregnancy story reminds us that our lives are connected to the lives of those ancient women who knew the same joy and terror we feel. These things are particularly true in the story of Rebekah.

            We hear that Isaac’s wife is pregnant, and we know that this is a good thing. We know that Isaac prayed for this event. Unlike his father who had to wait decades for the promise of descendents to be fulfilled, Isaac will see his children grow up. We can imagine the rejoicing that greeted the news that Rebekah had conceived, but we soon learn that this was an unusually difficult pregnancy. There were two children being created in the womb; two eggs growing into the form of human beings; two nations struggling against one another even before the patriarchs received the breath of life.

            For thousands of years, twins have fascinated and even terrified humans. In some tribal societies, twins were not accepted as genuine human beings. They were considered unnatural and even dangerous. In other societies, twins are sacred and almost magical. Whether revered or feared, twins were something special because they seemed to violate the natural order. They also confused the family hierarchy in which the oldest has the highest status. Should the first born twin inherit more than the child born just minutes later? Even in our modern society, twins will tease about which is the oldest as if that gives some priority. And in our society we are still intrigued by the phenomena of two infants emerging from one womb. So, this little statement in Genesis that Rebekah was pregnant with twins continues to resonate with us. We know that something special is about to happen in this story. These twins were struggling with each other before they even drew the breath of life, and we will see that the struggle continued.

Read: Genesis 25:21-34

Jacob and Esau          We expect twins to share many things in common, more than other siblings, but these two were quite different from each other. They were fraternal rather than identical twins. The first born was ruddy and hairy. You may have seen babies like this. Clearly this baby was healthy, if not  beautiful. I am reminded here of Bishop Schwartze who was very honest. He never wanted to offend a parent, but he also did not ever want to lie. So when people showed him their baby, he would also just say, “Now, that’s a baby!” I suspect that’s what people said of Esau: that’s a baby!

One of the major features of Genesis is that many stories tell the origin of names. This is called etiology by the way. We need to use words like that to prove that we went to seminary. The descendents of Esau were called Edomites, and Edom means red. The storyteller is trying to explain why this tribe was called red by connecting the name to Esau, but modern scholars think the name Edom probably had more to do with the color of the land in that region rather than the color of their ancestor. But I’ve always liked the red baby story.

The key point about the names of the babies, though, is that the twins were radically different. The biblical writer used an economy of words to paint a vivid picture of two types of manhood. Esau was a robust and hairy man, but Jacob was fair skinned. Esau was a manly man who liked the kill things, but Jacob was a momma’s boy: the bearded hunter and the pale scholar. Jacob and Esua are what scholars call archetypes – basic types that run throughout human literature and mythology. We still respond to these archetypes don’t we? If you are a Tolkien fan, you can see Esau and Jacob in Boromir and Faramir, or if you prefer Mario Puzo, think of Sonny and Michael Corleone. 

Supplanting Esau:                  We expect that Esau will be the patriarch of the family. He is the oldest, the healthiest, and the bravest, but he always has a younger brother grasping his heel. Jacob may be pale and cling to his mother’s skirts, but Jacob will supplant his brother. Genesis reminds us that the struggle of life takes place even within families, even among brothers. In this case, the younger, weaker brother will prove to be the most cunning and courageous. Genesis 25 ends with one of the shortest and yet most haunting stories in the Bible. This famous story of the lentils seems to be disconnected from the rest of the story of Jacob. It separated from the rest of the story of Jacob by an entire chapter about Isaac and Abimelech, and later there is no indication that Esau had given away his birthright.

            There have been many attempts to reconcile the problems raised by this story of the stew in the context of the Jacob-Esau saga, but none of them really work. What we have here is an ancient tale from a different tradition than the rest of the Jacob saga. We talk about this more in a couple of weeks. For now, we should note that even though the tale of the lentil stew is confusing within the larger story, we can see that the writer of Genesis included it here as a way to foreshadow the great saga that follows. In Gen. 25, we see Jacob and Esau as teen-agers. It is doubtful that this selling of the birthright was ever taken seriously as a legal bargain. I would not be surprised if this was not originally told as a funny story, much like other family stories. Tell us about the time that uncle Esau was so hungry that he “traded” his birthright for daddy’s stew.  I can even imagine folks saying, “wow, that lentil chili was good enough to sell your birthright for.”

            Like many family stories we tell today, this story reveals something about the two boys. Esau, the manly man, was too physical, and his appetites, as Augustine pointed out, were too strong. He was ruled by his body and its immediate wants and needs. Esau was stupid or unworthy to rule the family. We know that he became a mighty prince, but even in his greatness he was foolish. He was like many men and women today whose desires lead them to make very bad decisions. We like Esau and can understand him even as we criticize him for acting like a hungry bear.

            It is Jacob who haunts me in this story. If I were to make a movie of this, I would focus attention on Jacob’s eyes as he hands the stew to his brother: cold, cunning, pitiless eyes. At an early age, Jacob was shrewd enough to recognize his brother’s weaknesses and exploit them. Rather than acting in compassion, as a brother should, Jacob was selfish. But his saga is just beginning. Next wee we’ll continue with Isaac and Jacob.

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