A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
July 5 2020
As a mother of sons, not twins, but sons, I confess that this passage gives me pause. My boys are wonderful young men, and I can’t quite imagine Elliott trying to buy Alden’s birthright for a chicken burrito, but I also did youth ministry for 12 years, back in the day, and I do know that adolescence can change people. I have known adolescents who have figuratively sold their birthright for less than a pot of lentils.
But you get the sense, after reading this text, that it wasn’t adolescent angst that led to the split between the brothers. These brothers had been struggling against each other before they were even born. You wonder if, in utero, they knew what they were going to be in for as the children of Isaac and Rebekah. One of them would be loved by mom. One by dad. The affection of their parents would be handed out at a cost. They experienced love that was divisive and bred scarcity.
But, before I bad mouth Isaac too much, we should have some sympathy for him. Isaac, we recall, is the son of Abraham, who was promised to be the ancestor of many generations. Abraham was the receiver of the covenant and the promise. And the narrator of this text makes sure we remember Isaac’s connection to Abraham from the beginning: “These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Abraham was the father of Isaac….”
For all of Abraham’s fame, he did, we should remember, hike Isaac up a mountain, tie him up, and prepare to sacrifice him on an altar. God intervened at the last minute, offering a ram as a substitute. So, perhaps that is why the narrator reminds us of Abraham. Isaac’s difficulty in relating to his own sons, could be directly connected to his relationship as a son to his father Abraham.
Despite what I suspect was also a conflicted relationship with God after that whole sacrifice plan, Isaac and Rebekah both turned to God and prayed for children. Despite the experiences he had in his own life and his own faith, he prayed to God for descendants, so the promise could continue.
In the story of our biblical ancestors, we can see how trauma gets passed down from one generation to the next. It is easy to blame one person for one action, which is often how our society functions. It would be more honest to recognize the bigger systemic ways our behavior is informed by our upbringing, our social location, our race, our class, etc.
Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Rebekah, may rise above the trauma of their family systems later in their stories, but here, they seem trapped. I’m reminded to have compassion for people who can’t yet break out of their past stories. I’m reminded to do my own work of healing, too.
The notion of primogeniture, the law that allowed the eldest son to inherit the ranch, has a shaky record in the Bible, beginning with he first inheritors of Genesis, Adam and Eve’s children. Cain murdered his younger brother, Abel, leaving brother #3, Seth to carry on. And on it goes. Isaac was, after all, Abraham’s second son, inheriting the promise instead of Ishmael. And it will happen later with Jacob’s children too. Reuben, Simeon, and Levi are passed over in favor of Judah, son #4.
And Joseph, Jacob’s 11th child, will be annoyed when Jacob gives a grandfather’s blessing to Joseph’s youngest son instead of his firstborn. When Joseph tries to stop him, to get him to give the blessing to Manasseh instead of Ephraim, Jacob says, “I know, my son. I know; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” (Gen 48:19) What God said to Rebekah when she was pregnant, Jacob then repeats to his son.
The right of the firstborn to inherit is described in Deuteronomy—21:15-17 if you are interested—but it is not spelled out as a law there, only explained. This right was so prevalent across the world that it was just assumed. And as we see in these texts this morning, it was assumed as a reality, even by the men who were the beneficiaries of a subverted inheritance. Isaac, the second son of Abraham was planning on handing on his blessing and inheritance to his oldest son, Esau. Did he forget the grace he received as second son? The sons of Joseph, Jacob’s grandchildren from his 11th child, should never have received their grandfather’s blessing. Yet, when they did, Joseph didn’t notice the grace of that unmerited blessing, and tried to restore the societal order, bringing the blessing to the firstborn.
What does primogeniture have to do with us?
My husband and I are planning on dividing our assets equally among our children, as I suspect most of you will too. This practice, so prevalent throughout the world, even today, has lost ground in 21st century America, although I’m sure all of the oldest male children in the grove might convincingly argue for its return. No, this isn’t a sermon about estate planning.
Rather, let’s consider how we as Christians, Americans, and Southminster-ans are recipients of the blessings of God. Because the other piece that is almost always at play when you read these narratives from Genesis is that while the stories are told about individuals and families, these stories are never just about the individuals. Jacob, we recall is given another name. After wrestling all night for a blessing by the river Jabbok, Jacob will be renamed Israel. The stories of Jacob are the stories of the creation of the people of Israel.
And there is other etymology at work in this text as well. Esau, covered in red hair and famished for red lentils has another name too—Edom, which means “red”. And Edom was also the name of a people. Their territory was south of the Dead Sea, south of the territories of Judah and Moab. Today you would locate Edom in Southern Israel and Southern Jordan. In the New Testament, the region is referred to as Idumea.
Israel, the people, received the favor of God, the inheritance of the promise, at the cost of their brothers and sisters, the Edomites. But like the characters in Genesis, they seem to forget the grace that has gotten them where they are. Here is a reference to Edom in the Psalms: “Moab is my washbasin; on Edom I hurl my shoe…”(Psalm 60:8 and Psalm 108:9)
I’m not surprised a brother would say that to a brother—we heard comments like that at our house when the kids were young—but I think we should be aware of our propensity to assume that we are somehow deserving of the unmerited grace we have received while other people are not.
Christians, as we know, are relatively late comers to the Covenant of God. Yet, as soon as we were received into the Promise, what happened? Anti-semitism. You don’t have to dig deeply in the pages of history to see that sad story played out, and playing out again this week in Boise when men with Nazi symbol tattoos interrupted a peaceful protest downtown. We forgot how God had included us in the Promise and began to act as if God’s favor had always been for Christians alone.
I confess to being disappointed by recent behavior of some people in our country. After all of these many years of blessing, do we sometimes hear in our political discourse that assumption that our blessings are somehow our birthright? Or the idea that we are the only country that is blessed?
People declaring they have the ‘right’ not to wear masks in the middle of a pandemic, or the ‘right’ to point guns at people. The ‘right’ to say whatever they want. We’ve capitalized on the idea of individual rights and have completely abandoned any notion of responsibility or common welfare.
At the core, a birthright is a communal responsibility as much as a private blessing. When the father died, the heir of the birthright took over responsibility for the safety, flourishing, and provision of the family.
While Jacob is known as the Trickster, and this story offered as an illustration for why, the truth is that Esau spurned his birthright. He gave up a lifetime of responsibility for an impulse in the moment, a pot of stew. We see Esau playing out today when people demand short term comfort at the expense of long term relationship or responsibility. I suspect Esau would be at the “you can’t make me wear a mask” protests.
For us to live into the blessing and responsibility of our birthright, we need to find a way to pass on the grace we have received, and we need to care as much about the well being of the community as we do about our personal rights.
I think it is also past time for our country to contend with the way we have stolen other people’s birthrights and blessings. There have been protests across the country for over a month now. And while they started in response to the deaths of a few people, I think they are actually much bigger than that. 400 years ago, the white settlers of what would become our country, started enslaving Black people and taking the land of indigenous people who were already here.
We can say that our ancestors didn’t own slaves, or that we wouldn’t have owned slaves if we’d been alive then. And maybe that’s all true. It’s hard to say what we would have done had we been alive then.
But it is also true that many of our founding fathers owned slaves. And in the Declaration of Independence, they wrote “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal….”, and by that, they meant white men who owned land. We are the inheritors of a system that was built to benefit white people. We can see it in our prison system, our educational system, our policing system, our economic system, our housing system. The list goes on.
The protests going on right now are partly about particular deaths and actions in recent months. They are mainly, I think, a nation needing to reckon with stolen birthrights and denied blessings.
The birthrights of white Americans has been assured. The birthrights of other Americans have been delayed, deferred, or denied.
The Presbyterian Church has been complicit in our country’s history. Many “good Presbyterians” owned slaves and preached a subverted gospel that defended and supported slavery, acting as if stealing birthrights from other people was, itself, blessed by God.
We have been trying to repair that in recent years, and General Assemblies have made important statements affirming anti-racism work. But we haven’t yet changed the culture and structures of our church. We haven’t listened to the voices of Black people, indigenous people, and other voices of color. Even in our most recent GA, the struggle was visible.
While we contend with the struggles we are in, as a nation and as a church, it is important to look at how we have been blessed too. I love our country. There’s no place I’d rather live. I’m grateful for the blessings we have here. I love our church. There’s no denomination I’d rather serve. In our history, we have become a church that reaches out to its community, sharing the gospel, and passing on the grace we have received.
And over the years, we have continued to include people when other denominations would say no. As an ordained woman, I am thankful to be a Presbyterian, knowing that my sisters from some other denominations do not have the opportunities to respond to God’s call in their lives as I do. I am thankful that society’s tradition of inheritance has been subverted in the Presbyterian Church to make room for me. In the time I’ve been your pastor, our denomination has expanded that inclusion even further, allowing for ordination of people who are LGBTQIA, supporting same gender marriage, and affirming the gifts of gay and transgender Christians for ministry.
The problem with the model of birthright and blessing is that it involves a scarcity model. I get the blessing. You get nothing.
In truth, there is enough blessing to go around. Later in Genesis, Jacob will encounter Esau again. And he finds his brother with flocks and herds and wives and children. Esau may not have kept his birthright, but he did okay for himself. They didn’t need to make it all or nothing. The world was wide enough for both of them.
We don’t need to make it all or nothing. We can change our country so that everyone has access to the American Dream. And we won’t lose out when the blessing is extended.
That’s the thing about blessings. If we do it right, they expand and overflow. They don’t run out.
As you move forward into your future, I hope you’ll remember abundance. We don’t have to be like Jacob and Esau, fighting over birthrights and blessings because they couldn’t overcome the trauma of their family system. God’s grace has already included us in God’s family. Our birthright is already secure.
The God who created you and called you to be here, to make up the community of Southminster Presbyterian Church, has blessed you to be a blessing. You have extended your blessing to the community, and to people around the world. And you have extended your blessing with me, and I am forever changed by it, and thankful for it.
It is easy, and perhaps understandable, during a global pandemic, or a pastoral transition, to live into scarcity. When you don’t know what the future holds, our tendency is to hold on even tighter to what we have. But you, through this pandemic so far, have continued in your generosity, allowing the church to pay the staff, and to support mission partners. Keep being the blessing.
We gather around God’s table each month, the ultimate sign and symbol of God’s grace. Where we are invited to a table we have not prepared, to a meal prepared for us in the life and death of God’s own son, Jesus. At this table, God again disrupts the order of inheritance. Even though Jesus should have been the inheritor of God’s blessing, we are the ones who receive the promise. Let us today, like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, claim our promise. And let us remember that there is room enough for all at this table. There is room enough for all in God’s favor. Amen.