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Some Ancient Lessons About Living Together

July 16, 2017


July 16, 2017 (Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR



Genesis 25:19-34

19 These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’* So she went to inquire of the Lord.23And the Lord said to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,
   and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
one shall be stronger than the other,
   the elder shall serve the younger.’ 
24When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26Afterwards his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.* Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!’ (Therefore he was called Edom.*31Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ 32Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ 33Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’* So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

The Biblical account of the conception, prenatal existence, birth, and early years of Esau and Jacob present some lasting lessons that can help us better understand how to live together.  It offers timeless truths about the challenges we face in living together.  And this ancient account about the early life of Abraham’s grandsons contains deep lessons for us about ambition and justice.  


Isaac married Rebekah when he was forty years old.  They were unable to have children for a while.  The Genesis account reports that Isaac prayed for Rebekah to be able to conceive, and that Rebekah prayed after she conceived and experienced a difficult pregnancy.  Rebekah eventually gave birth to twin sons, Esau and Jacob.  The sons grew into manhood with distinctly different interests.  We might think of Jacob as a “homebody,” while we might think of Esau as an outdoorsman.  In doing so, we should not esteem one interest over the other.  


As Sylvester Stewart a/k/a Sly Stone famously wrote in a song, “different strokes for different folks.” Every gathering of people consists of people with different interests, perspectives, and aspirations.  This is true for family units, work groups, classrooms, neighborhoods, and societies.  We often overlook or ignore a more basic truth:  living in community involves learning to share.  


The struggle that Esau and Jacob carried on within Rebekah’s womb suggests that humans may struggle with the notion of sharing even before we are born.  The embryos who became Esau and Jacob struggled before they were born, named, and developed different interests.  They struggled before birth, long before they would learn anything about a birthright.  


Here’s the first takeaway from this passage for today.  Coexistence is not the same thing as community!  Esau and Jacob coexisted inside their mother’s womb, but struggled nevertheless.  There was strife between them even before they were born!  The Genesis record provides no hint that they developed a bond after birth, during childhood, or as they entered adulthood.  


Based on the Genesis record, Esau and Jacob coexisted as boys growing up with their parents.  They were part of the same household.  We can presume that they heard the same bedtime stories and ate the same meals.  Let’s assume that they played on the same ground.  


None of that seems to have influenced Jacob to treat Esau as a sibling rather than a rival because it seems that Jacob never learned to share with his twin brother.  Otherwise, why would Jacob, at manhood, refuse to give his hungry twin brother a serving of lentil soup?  Why would he use his brother’s hunger as an opportunity to purchase an inheritance he did not deserve based on their birth order?  


Esau and Jacob show that people can coexist in a place without becoming a community.  They can live in the same space, breathe the same air, drink the same water, eat the same food, and have other things in common yet find themselves unable or unwilling to cooperate and share.  


Esau and Jacob are not merely two names from ancient Hebrew history.  They are examples about a moral and ethical issue common to people everywhere.  


  • Esau and Jacob are examples of the age old struggle between men and women live together as equals rather than rivals.
  • Esau and Jacob are examples of the struggle between people from different religions, ethnic backgrounds, and incomes to live together in community rather than as rival factions.
  • Esau and Jacob are examples of the struggle for supremacy that humans have carried on in every place and time..  


Esau and Jacob show that coexistence does not automatically make people willing to share resources.  Coexistence does not automatically make people compassionate.  Coexistence does not automatically make people willing to put self-interest aside in favor of helping others do well.  


That leads to the second takeaway:  becoming a community requires that we confront the realities of difference.  Esau and Jacob teach us that people are different.  Becoming a community does not mean erasing what makes each person different from others.  Our differences make us unique.  


Community is not created by erasing our differences, but by our willingness to move from coexistence to shared and equal fellowship while affirming the differences that define our personhood.  Each person is different.  The moral and ethical challenge presented by our differences stems from the temptation we have to treat those who are different from us as rivals, if not threats.  


Differences do not require that we view others are rivals.  Differences do not make us rivals.  We choose to become rivals to others based on our personal ambitions, desires, goals, and objectives.  


Jacob chose to view Esau as a rival for their father’s attention and affection.  By the time they reached adulthood, Jacob wanted more than attention and affection.  Jacob wanted the inheritance that Esau was entitled to receive from their father as the firstborn.  


Which leads to the third takeaway of this sermon:  ambition is a driving force that we must not allow to become a demon.  


Ambition is a strong desire to do or achieve something.  Another word for ambition is “aspiration.”  It would be a mistake to think unfavorably of Jacob or anyone else for being ambitious.  After all, ambition is a driving force, to varying degrees, for everyone.  


There is nothing immoral or unethical about having goals, objectives, and being determined to do one’s best to attain goals and objectives. Wanting to improve one’s lot in life is not wrong or right.  That drive seems to be common to all humans.  


The moral and ethical problem arises when the drive of ambition takes on god-like importance for us.  When ambition becomes so important that we define living, relationships, and even our own worth by it, ambition then is more than a drive.  At that point ambition becomes oppressive to us and oppressive for others.  At that point, ambition becomes demonic.  


Jacob’s ambition appears to have reached that oppressive point.  He desired to be not only his best self.  He desired to overwhelm and rule over his elder brother at any cost.  The demonic nature of his ambition is presented vividly in our text by Jacob’s unwillingness to share food with Esau out of a sense of human (if not sibling) compassion.  Instead, Jacob’s ambition led him to view his brother’s hunger as a vulnerability to be exploited, and to sell food (the lentil soup) to Esau in order to get the two-thirds portion of the family inheritance Jacob did not deserve.  


Esau and Jacob knew that the law of their culture decreed that the eldest son was entitled to leadership in the family and a double share of the inheritance upon the death of the father (see Deuteronomy 21:15-17).  Jacob knew that Esau was not only his father’s favorite; Jacob knew that Esau was firstborn.  Esau’s birthright was not something to be bought and sold.  It arose from his birth order.  


But Jacob wanted to be head of the family when Isaac died.  Jacob wanted to have more property and prestige.  Jacob did not want to be who he truly was, the second son; Jacob wanted to be the ruling son!  

When ambition becomes demonic, things that should be used to bless others will be misused to entrap them.


When ambition becomes demonic, opportunities for compassion and mercy are employed as ways to exploit suffering, vulnerability, and weakness.


When ambition becomes demonic, the rightful claims, needs, and cares of others are not respected.  


Demonic ambition explains how Jacob turned a bowl of lentil soup for a hungry man into the beginning of a personal dynasty.  This was not a case of a man taking advantage of an honorable opportunity.  This was a case of a man using his advantage (food) to obtain an unjust benefit (the birthright) from his tired and hungry brother.  


At that point, Jacob’s ambition was more than a drive.  It was the demon he served.  In service to that demon, Jacob sacrificed his compassion.  In service to that demon, Jacob sacrificed mercy.  In service to that demon, Jacob sacrificed justice.  In service to that demon, Jacob turned food into a weapon he used against his own brother.  The demonic character of Jacob’s ambition allowed him to use Esau’s hunger and fatigue as an opportunity to gain an unfair advantage.   


One of the great ironies of Biblical history is that Jacob’s conduct actually followed what his grandfather, Abraham, had done.  Isaac was not Abraham’s firstborn son!  Abraham expelled Ishmael, his son by Hagar, at the insistence of Sarah, who did not want Ishmael to inherit anything from Abraham (see Genesis 21:1-11).  What an irony, therefore, that Isaac would have his firstborn displaced as he had displaced his elder brother.  


Now recall that the displacement controversy continued for Jacob.  Joseph was not the firstborn son of Jacob, but ultimately was the one who became leader of the family when Jacob’s clan moved to Egypt.  


And the irony continued when Jacob (who was by that time known as Israel) met Joseph’s sons Manasseh (the firstborn) and Ephraim.  At that meeting, Israel bestowed blessings on them by placing his right hand on the head of the second son (Ephraim) and his left hand on the head of Joseph’s firstborn son (Manasseh) (see Genesis 48:8-20).


  The bad news is that demonic ambition produces oppressive and unjust relationships that frustrate efforts to create community.  Jacob’s demonic ambition became the defining mark of his relationship with Esau for the rest of their father’s lifetime.  Demonic ambition is always a threat to building justice and community.  


Justice and community are not created by domination, but cooperation.  Justice and community are not created by exploiting others who are needy, vulnerable, or weak, but by sharing with them.


Justice and community are not advanced by self-serving gain – whether one calls it being enterprising, entrepreneurial, ambitious, focused, or some other term).  Justice and community result from caring for others, respecting others, and affirming their worth in our lives. 


The good news is that Jesus, not Jacob, is our role model for living together!  Unlike Jacob, Jesus did not use the powers he exercised as a way of taking advantage of needy, suffering, vulnerable, and weak others.  Unlike Jacob, Jesus shows us to give without trying to gain an advantage.  Unlike Jacob, Jesus shows us that we don’t need to use privilege as a weapon.  Jesus, not Jacob, is God’s best lesson to us on how to live together.  


Because we follow Jesus, not Jacob, we should not use health care as a weapon, but should work to make health care available for all.  We who have the blessing of health care should act so that it is available and affordable for everyone!


Because we follow Jesus, we should not turn our backs on immigrants and refugees, but should be leaders and activists who welcome them, protect them, and advocate for and with them.  We who call this place home should act so that others can find this place safe and welcoming as they flee war, famine, cruelty, oppression, and other suffering.


Because we follow Jesus, let us challenge our society and world to share what we have with others in need.  Because we follow Jesus, let us take care that ambition for success does not become demonic.  The way of Jesus, not Jacob, is the path we follow on how to love another, care for one another, help one another, defend one another, and live together in God’s love.  


This is the way to community.  This is the way to justice.  This is the way to peace.  




©Wendell Griffen, 2017