Renaissance Guy’s post today on The Birthright and the Blessing got me thinking about what heritage I have from my own parents – a rather mixed blessing, in some ways. I also read Eve’s post, to which he links, and from which he got the questions he is trying to answer.
Then I started thinking more about Jacob and Esau, and the rather mixed blessing of Isaac and Rebekah’s parenting. If you’re looking for advice on handling difficult family relationships, this family is not one to take as a role model.
Sermons on the subject tend to stress Esau’s spiritual blindness, that caused him to “despise his birthright.” But Jacob generally doesn’t come across much better, nor do his parents. Isaac is weak and easily manipulated, Rebekah is an expert manipulator, and Jacob learned well from his mother.
I’m not sure I ever gave much thought before to what Jacob wanted in taking the birthright and the blessing intended for Esau, but I always considered his motives selfish. He wanted whatever he could get, especially if he could get it by trickery rather than hard work and honest dealing. And he wanted more than what would have been considered his fair share (which, as that of a second son, would not be considered a fair share to us in our egalitarian society).
But when I read Orson Scott Card’s Women in Genesis series earlier this year, I saw for the first time a portrayal of Jacob as a deeply spiritual man. Card portrays him as loving God and the books that tell of God and his works, and he is dismayed by the prospect of spiritual leadership in the family falling to his decidedly unspiritual older brother.
The birthright was not just a matter of possessions and position in society, but also of being the one through whom God speaks to the family He has chosen. In Esau’s hands, the holy books would be neglected and the worship of God corrupted by pagan practices introduced by Esau’s Hittite wives. Purchasing the birthright was Jacob’s way of safeguarding the holy things so that true service to God would continue in the next generation.
In Card’s novel, even the deceit involved in getting Jacob’s blessing was rightly motivated – at least on Jacob’s part. He is dismayed at his mother’s scheming, but in the end he goes along because he senses that this is what God intends. Card’s Jacob is quite a different man from the unscrupulous deceiver I had always heard about before in Bible studies and sermons.
There really is not a lot in the text of Scripture to clarify the matter. It tells what Jacob does, but little of why. And experience tells us that the same outward actions can have quite a range of motivations behind them.
So what is the heritage that Jacob receives from his parents, in terms of teaching and example? My answers involve quite a bit of reading between the lines, and borrowing from what I have read both in novels such as Card’s and more scholarly treatments of the tradition.
- There is one true God, the God of Abraham. He is unseen, but created all that is seen.
- God rewards those who follow Him, with material blessings and promises of future blessings.
- The promises may seem impossible, but God does what He has promised.
- What God gives, He may demand back again. Following Him may be very hard.
- God puts spiritual leadership in the hands of men who are far from perfect, and may seem very unworthy of being entrusted with such a responsibility.
- It is normal to prefer one son over the other(s), and to show favoritism to him.
- The normal order of things sometimes has to be reversed when the person who should exercise leadership fails to do so.
- The end justifies the means.
- Open conflict is to be avoided. Bargain, work behind the scenes, or just move away.
Some of these principles were “caught” rather than “taught” – as is the case in every family. And some may not have been caught very well by Jacob, at least not in the early part of his life. But to some extent they would have been available for him to learn, growing up in Isaac’s household.
I’ll continue with these thoughts tomorrow, including some of the principles passed on by my own parents.