When I wrote the previous post on this subject two days ago, I was thinking mostly of how Jacob might have viewed the birthright. But I’ve also given some thought to how Esau may have viewed it, and why he so readily agreed to sell it to his brother in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew.
I always thought of his wrong decision having taken place on that day, when he had a choice to take the stew and give up his birthright, or to go hungry and keep it. His action clearly shows that he did not esteem the birthright very highly. But when I read Orson Scott Card’s book about Rebekah, I realized that Esau’s decision that day was just a natural outcome of how he had lived his life.
Until I read Card’s book, I had always thought of the birthright as primarily a matter of possessions and status as family leader. But Card showed how the patriarch in that society was also the spiritual leader of his clan, and for family line of those who followed the one true God, it meant also the safekeeping of the knowledge of God, both what was written and what was passed on by word of mouth.
From Jacob’s point of view (according to Card), that was the most important aspect of the birthright, and why he dreaded seeing his older brother assume that role. Esau did not care for studying the holy writings as Jacob did, and he might not even trouble to keep them safe. He had married wives who worshipped other gods. How could he possibly lead the family in worship and service to the true God?
So how did Esau think of the birthright? He had most likely taken it for granted since he was old enough to know it would be his. He certainly would have known that his father favored him, and as this was the case in spite of Esau’s lack of interest in spiritual matters, he could easily have concluded that, even to Isaac, the spiritual aspect of the birthright was not so important.
In Card’s novel, Esau does not even think the transfer of the birthright to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of stew was even a valid transaction. Perhaps Jacob did not either – he intended it largely as a symbolic act to finally convince his father that Esau was unworthy of the birthright, since he would give it up so easily. Esau, on the other hand, seemed to laugh off the whole matter, confident that he still had his father’s favor and the expectation of inheriting as firstborn.
Perhaps to Esau, the whole question of inheriting spiritual leadership was a meaningless one. Imagine a modern person who does not believe in God or the existence of a human soul that continues after the death of the body. If he were offered something he wanted, in exchange for “selling his soul,” he could easily agree, certain that what he was supposedly giving up did not even exist. Why should Esau not agree to give up the responsibility for holy books that he did not want to read, and for leading the family in worship to a God who was perhaps nothing but the fantasy of his grandfather Abraham?
Of course, saying it was a natural choice for Esau to make does not make it a good one. I’m not sure it would have been any better for him to have chosen to keep the birthright for its symbolic value, while continuing to scorn the values it represented. At least in giving it up to his brother he was open and honest about his intentions. (One gets the impression that he and his brother differed in this regard.) But an open rejection of his family’s spiritual heritage is still a rejection.
And that brings me to think about my own parents’ values, and the extent to which I have accepted or rejected them. This is complicated by the fact that they did not share the same values in some areas, including religious faith. I have read that children of parents who do not share the same religion are more likely to be skeptical when it comes to religion. That makes sense, as a small child has implicit faith in what his parents say – but if they disagree on something as foundational as their concept of God, whom shall he believe? Perhaps neither.
My parents did appear to agree on some basics, though. God is good, God loves everyone, people are inherently good rather than sinful, people find God through many different paths, and helping the less fortunate is more important than the details of how one worships or what one believes. My sister and I always attended church (liberal Protestant) with our father (and his father, until his death in 1973), but at home I soaked up my mother’s teachings, in which God was more a force than a person, sin was merely immaturity to be grown out of, and reincarnation provided for many lifetimes in which to mature spiritually.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my sister and I both dismissed traditional religious belief by the time we reached our teens, but she rejected anything science could not prove, while I accepted the reality of a spiritual dimension but concluded I was agnostic when it came to the existence or character of God. Then we both converted to fundamentalist Christianity, and the next few years were a time of severe religious discord within our family. We argued about the Bible, about Jesus, about heaven and hell, and about whether praying for someone’s salvation was a loving thing to do.
It took several more years before I began to consider that there might have been some value in the spiritual heritage passed on by my parents. I say “passed on” because, while I rejected much of what they taught, I became increasingly aware of the ways in which they had nevertheless influenced my thinking and my behavior. Besides their beliefs about God mentioned above, they taught these values by word and/or action:
- Do what you believe is right, no matter what other people think or do.
- Always be honest.
- Think for yourself, make your own decisions – and expect other people to do the same.
- Conformity to social expectations is unnecessary at best, and often has negative results.
- Do everything in moderation – including this.
My mother, always much more vocal about her opinions, as well as simply being at home more when I was growing up, taught other lessons:
- Self-improvement is important, having fun is not.
- Healthy food is important, food that tastes good is not.
- New technology is probably dangerous.
- Natural is almost always better.
- Animals and even plants have rights. As much as possible, do not hurt them.
- We shape our destiny by our thoughts at least as much as by our actions. Thought alone can change external events. (There was little distinction in her mind between thought and prayer.)
In one particular area, her approach was nearly the opposite of my father’s. From him I learned that conflict is very unpleasant, so try to keep people happy. My mother, on the other hand, insisted that it’s more important to express your feelings than to worry about hurting someone else’s feelings. I didn’t plan on getting married, but I promised myself that if I ever did, I wouldn’t continually bring up his faults, including mistakes he had made long ago, as she did. In my husband’s opinion, I avoid conflict too much. I try to fight against that tendency, but I can certainly say that it is one area where the influence of my parents clearly shows.
Like Esau, though, I chose to go a different way than my parents in terms of religious values. (Obviously I think that, unlike Esau, I made the right choice in that regard.) It may be that, as my father believed, God will in the end reconcile all people to Himself, even those who, in this life, rejected His ways. But I find little in the Bible to encourage that belief – and much that warns of judgment that sounds very final. Like my mother, I think that the mind has more power than most people (at least in our Western society) generally think it does. But I do not equate prayer with the power of positive – or negative – thinking.
In terms of their overall values – honesty, doing what I believe is right, serving others, valuing substance over appearance – I think those are embodied in my own life, though hardly perfectly. I have never been inclined to be a conformist, though I decided as a preteen that there was no merit in being intentionally non-conformist like my mother, unless there was a significant moral principle at stake. I was surprised to be voted “Class Individual” by my senior class in high school – and not sure whether to take it as a compliment, considering that the other two so named were a guy who wore leather and rode a motorcycle, and a girl who seemed to have hippie aspirations and was rumored to smoke pot.
If I had to name one aspect of my spiritual heritage that I have “wrestled” over (see the questions in Renaissance Guy’s post to which I linked in my earlier post), it would be the matter of thinking for myself, particularly as it relates to religious faith. So determined were our parents to have us make our own decisions, it was sometimes difficult to get them to even offer their own opinion. While they held a rather low opinion of fundamentalist believers, they were surprisingly accepting of our decisions to embrace that tradition. (The arguments arose from our expressed desire that they come to believe as we did.)
But the belief that we had chosen was one that did not encourage independent thinking. Sermons and Bible classes emphasized that Christians were not expected to check their brains at the door – but they also left no doubt as to what conclusions we would inevitably draw from whatever thinking we did, because the evidence for the truth of the Bible (and its interpretation in the dispensationalist tradition) was so clear to anyone willing to examine the evidence.
Unlike my friends at church, I never just “knew” the Bible was true. I tried to believe it as unreservedly, but at some point I had to admit to myself that I believed it because I trusted the people who taught me that it was true. And didn’t that mean my faith was in those people rather than the Bible? At church I was taught that not believing the Bible was 100% true meant I was setting myself above the Bible (and therefore God) as a judge of the truth.
Yet I couldn’t see how there was any way to avoid this. Once I had examined whatever evidence there was – fulfilled prophecies, the testimony of changed lives, the writings of Biblical scholars, my own sense of what the Spirit was showing me about the Scriptures – no matter what conclusion I reached, wasn’t it going to be because it made the most sense to me? And didn’t that mean I was making myself in some way the arbiter of truth?
I’ve never come up with a good answer for that. And even if I were able to say I simply “know” the Bible is true, because the Spirit somehow impressed that knowledge on me, wouldn’t that be basing truth on either my own experience, or some form of mysticism (direct knowledge unmediated by anything outside myself)? Yet both of those ways of knowing (if mysticism was indeed a valid way of knowing at all) were to be subordinate to the Bible as the final authority.
So it’s something I keep wrestling with. But after years of agonizing over my own uncertainty, I eventually learned to set those vexing questions aside most of the time and get on with the business of daily life – my family, my job, involvement at church and in other community groups. If God’s grace is great enough to cover my sin, it is great enough also to cover the defects of my faith.
Because ultimately, the spiritual inheritance that matters is the one from my Heavenly Father.