The Stew Is Divine
The Stew Is Divine
Jacob, at 130 years of age, stood before Pharaoh, the great ruler of Egypt. Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and the son of Isaac. He was the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob was Israel. God had given him that name, which means "he struggles with God."
That day, when Jacob's son, Joseph, introduced Jacob to the great Pharaoh, the ruler asked, "How old are you?" Jacob replied, "The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers." Then the text says, "Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from his presence."
Here was a man on whom God fixed his love even before he was born. He was a blessed man. Yet Jacob says, "My years have been few and difficult." He implies his father and grandfather had it better than he did. Then this sad, old man does something really bold: he puts his hand on Pharaoh—this great king—and blesses him. This poor, old man—a refugee from famine in his own country—gives Pharaoh God's blessing.
At first, I thought about preaching on Jacob just because I never had—because he is interesting. Then I found myself asking a more important question: Why does our church need to think about this man, Jacob? How would his stories help us be better disciples of Jesus Christ?
I thought about the people who come to see me at the church. They tell me of marriages that are a terrible disappointment. Some have endured cruel blows of ill health. For others it is joblessness, no matter how hard they have tried to find work. Sometimes the problem is a job that is sucking the very life out of them. There are kids who break parents' hearts. Loves that are lost. Tedious seasons of helplessness. The sense I get from people I talk to is, "This is not the way it is supposed to be when God promises to bless your life." In fact, I think it is safe to say that to know God is to struggle with him.
When Jacob said, "My years have been few and difficult," he could be speaking for a lot of God's people. In some ways, God himself made Jacob's years difficult, and in other ways—mostly by taking things into his own hands—Jacob made his life with God especially difficult. And that's why we are going to study Jacob's stories.
The life God blesses may not be the life you'd choose.
By the time we get to Genesis 25:19-34, we've already heard the amazing story of Genesis 12:1-3—how God promised Abraham to make a great nation from him and that "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." That is the great God-promise that drives Genesis. And the tension in Genesis is what these patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—will do when that promise seems threatened. Will they trust God or will they take matters into their own hands?
By this point in the book, we've already seen how, true to his word, God gave Abraham and Sarah a child in their old age—a boy they named Laughter, Isaac. If you know nothing else about Abraham, the Bible repeats this one thing four times: "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness."
Look at verses 19-21. Rebekah was childless for 20 years. Even though God had promised Isaac and Rebekah that a great nation would come from them, there were, as one commentator puts it, "a lot of anniversaries without a baby." The same thing had happened to Rebekah's in-laws, Abraham and Sarah. But where they had done all kinds of crazy things to have the child God promised, Isaac simply prayed. I'm sure he prayed hard and long, but he prayed. He waited and trusted God.
Imagine the joy after 20 years when God answered their prayer, and Rebekah became pregnant. But then, trouble. Look at verse 22. The Hebrew could be translated this way: "But the children almost crushed one another inside her." Rebekah didn't know she was carrying twins. Other mothers would talk about how they could feel their babies kicking, but for Rebekah, it was like a scrimmage was being held in her belly! It wasn't just uncomfortable; it was terrifying. Her words are hard to translate. "Why is this happening to me?" could also be something like, "I can't live like this!" She's finally pregnant, but her pregnancy is unbearable.
To Sarah's credit, she inquires of the Lord in her distress. In verse 23, the Lord explains what is going on. This verse is an oracle—a prophecy—that shapes all that will follow in the Book of Genesis. If this verse was omitted from our Bibles, what follows wouldn't make sense. The real "kicker" in this declaration from the Lord is the last line: "and the older will serve the younger." That's not how life is supposed to work! In ancient culture—indeed in most cultures—the firstborn child would get a double portion of the inheritance. The firstborn would be seen as the next in line as the head of the family after the father. I'm sure that when Rebekah heard this word from the Lord, she winced. She probably though, Oh, that's really going to complicate things! After all, her husband, Isaac, was living with an older half-brother who had been cut out of the will, you might say. It wasn't a happy arrangement.
Then, when you read verses 24-26, verses that speak of Esau and Jacob's birth, you cannot help but go, "Eeeoww!" Imagine this, mothers: you look up from your labor, and you see that your firstborn is "red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment." That's Esau. The second boy, then, has a firm grip on the heel of the first like a crawdad, bawling his lungs out that he didn't get to go first. About that time I wonder if Rebekah was thinking, If this is the blessed life, I'll take a little less blessing! As someone I once visited said, "You've got to wonder sometimes, why does God make it so hard?" But here's the takeaway for us: the life God blesses may not be the life you'd choose.
Like Isaac and Rebekah, God has brought Christians into his blessed family because of our faith. We are descendants of Abraham because, like Abraham, we "believed God and it was credited to us as righteousness." We have inherited the blessed life. That's why I can pronounce over you, "The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine upon you, the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace." That is your birthright, because you have put your faith in Christ, and God has brought you into his blessed family.
But when we determine to live by God's promise instead of what we see now, life takes on a precarious feeling. God himself makes it precarious. Consider that in the text God arranges Rebekah's barrenness. He ordains the sibling rivalry. We can only assume, then, that he might be the one who pulled the plug on the job, brought the lingering sickness, allowed the heartbreak or the failure—all so that we can't see how his blessing will come and therefore will live by faith that this is indeed the life God blesses. It's in the struggle that we learn to treasure God's promises, to keep walking toward the glorious city we cannot yet see, to believe that if God is all we have, we have enough.
When God himself seems to complicate the life you thought he would bless, what should you do? Do what Isaac and Rebekah did—pray, inquire of the Lord. Review God's promises with God in the room. Tell him again and again that you're putting your full weight on those promises—that you don't have a backup plan, and you refuse to take matters into your own hands. And then you wait and trust God.
Have the faith and foresight to treasure the life God blesses.
Back to our story. The feuding brothers have been born. Esau, this strange, hairy, red baby—apparently the victim of what is known today as transfusion syndrome in twins—is given his name because it means "hairy." Jacob's name could have meant "God protects," but it also sounded like the Hebrew word for "heel." This is what his family would have thought of when they called his name for supper. They were calling out for the "heel-grabber"—the one who would walk behind his brother and step on his heel to make him trip. Jacob is the "tripper-upper." He's the brother who will do what it takes to take the lead.
Verse 27 tells us more about the nature of Esau. We learn that his life song would have been, "O give me a home, where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play." But not Jacob. Jacob liked civilization. The description of Jacob as "a quiet man" uses a word that elsewhere means "blameless." But "blameless" doesn't fit the context. I get the sense of a man who is pleasant, likeable—who goes along to get along, even while he quietly makes his plans to get ahead.
In verse 28, the plot thickens. The writer doesn't paint a very complimentary picture of Isaac. In a sense the writer is saying, "Isaac loved Esau, because he put wild game in his mouth." In other words, the way to Isaac's heart was through his stomach. And since Rebekah loved Jacob—no reason is given or needed—Isaac and Rebekah's fairy-tale romance took a turn for the worse. Consider what happens in verse 29 and following.
Esau comes in from the open country, and he has a raging hunger. Jacob, who is making some stew, sees an opportunity. Jacob will give Esau some food if Esau will give him the birthrights in return. In ancient culture, the birthright was the package of legal privileges that belonged to Esau as the firstborn. For example, he would get a double portion of the estate when his father died. The birthright also meant that the eldest son would become a makeshift family priest when the father died. He would be entrusted with the family's relationship with God. But remember that what was really important in this family was that God had given them, two generations earlier, a holy heirloom—a family treasure to be passed down.
Imagine that in my family we have a valuable heirloom—say, a Stradivarius violin that my great, great, great grandfather played back in Sweden. When my parents die, who gets the Strad—me or my brother? That would be me, because I'm the eldest. Isaac's family had something far more valuable than that—the promise that God would make a great nation from the seed of Abraham. That promise had been passed along from Abraham to Isaac, and now Esau stood next in line to be the carrier of God's blessing for the whole world. And that is what Esau sold for stew!
We are inclined to focus on Jacob here. What a jerk to con his poor, starving brother! Jacob was sly—no doubt about that. But in this story the camera really should be focused on Esau. We know that to be true because of the last line, a bit of pithy commentary by the author: "So Esau despised his birthright."
Just because Esau says, "I'm so hungry I'm going to die," doesn't mean he was. He was being a bit dramatic, really. The sense of his reply is this: "All I care about is eating. I don't give a hoot about some old birthright. What good is that to a hungry man?" And when Esau gulped down that very expensive stew, the text implies that he never gave it another thought: "He ate and drank and got up and left." Badda bing, badda boom. Time for a nap!
Hebrews 12:16 says, "See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son." Esau's failure was not that he was hungry or impetuous. It was that he was godless. That doesn't mean he didn't believe in God, but that God didn't matter to him. Having God's blessing on his life wasn't worth the price of a single meal. He just didn't care! Here's the takeaway for us: while it is true that the life God blesses may not be the life you'd choose, have the faith and foresight to treasure the life God blesses.
Jacob, for all his conniving, saw what mattered in life. He understood how valuable God's blessing was. His chief failure was taking things into his own hands, rather than trusting God's promise. But again, our focus is Esau. Beware of the tendency in all of us to be like Esau—to value only what satisfies you now. It wasn't that Esau didn't want his birthright; it was that he wanted Jacob's stew more. He despised his birthright by putting a garage-sale price tag on it. God didn't matter to him; he was godless. The New Testament calls this tendency in us the flesh or the old man. Our human nature drives us toward satisfying ourselves at any price. We suffer from the overwhelming bent to care nothing about what God says is valuable.
This tendency is the very thing Jesus saves us from. In response to our faith, God implants his own Spirit within us to counter those base, selfish, here-and-now desires of the flesh. We can live by the prodding of the Holy Spirit within us—living for values that are the exact opposite of the world's, living for what we cannot see, even at the expense of suffering. All of this requires great faith, of course. And this life of faith is precarious, often complicated by God himself. Satan constantly puts some immediate pleasure before us, some savory stew, and asks us to choose between obedience to God and the quick fix. Again and again, he whispers, "What's it worth to you?" The good news is that God will turn that temptation into a faith builder for us.
Is there anything you'd take over your Christian birthright? Would you give up the Lord if all your money troubles could be over? Would you sell your Christian identity to get your health back? Have you looked at your marriage and said, "I can either be happy, or I can obey God, and I'd rather be happy?" Do you find yourself thinking, What good is being a Christian if I've got to live this way?
I once read about a military chaplain who took his family to see the Easter festivities held by a great cathedral in Manila, Philippines. There was a big square where vendors were selling all kinds of religious merchandise—candles, incense, veils, rosaries, prayer books, and jewelry. They soon came face-to-face with a man standing in the street selling crucifixes. Both hands were filled with his wares, and from his neck hung a hand-lettered sign that read, "CHEAP CROSSES FOR SALE." Esau would have bought one of those. What about you?
The way of Esau is not the way we choose to go—the easy, quick-fix route. The God-blessed life may not go the way we'd choose, but we will not sell out. We will pray. We will inquire of the Lord. We will wait. And we will trust the Lord. As John Wesley says in his "Covenant Prayer":
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.