First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
“Liberal Bible Study”
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore November 6, 2005
Now Rebecca was barren, and Isaac prayed to the Lord for her. And Yahweh answered his prayer, and Rebecca conceived. And when it was time for her to give birth, twins came out of her womb. And the first one was red and hairy like a fur cloak; so they named him Esau, The Shaggy One. And then his brother came out, with one hand grasping Esau’s heel; so they named him Jacob, Heel-Grasper.
And when the boys grew up, Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the open country, and Jacob was a peaceful man who stayed near the tents. And Isaac loved Esau because he brought him venison to eat; but Rebecca loved Jacob.
One day, as Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came back from hunting, and he was famished. And he said to Jacob, “Give me a heap of that red stuff: I’m famished.”
And Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”
And Esau said, “I am dying of hunger: what good is my birthright to me?”
And Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him and sold him his birthright. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and got up and went away. That is how Esau showed how little he valued his birthright.
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Now Isaac was old and his eyes had grown so dim that he couldn’t see. And he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son.”
And he said, “Yes.”
And he said, “I am an old man now, and I may die any day. Take your quiver and bow, and go out to the open country and hunt me some venison. And cook me a stew, the way I like it, and bring it for me to eat, so that I can give you my blessing before I die.”
Now Rebecca had been listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. And when Esau went out to hunt venison for his father, Rebecca said to her son Jacob, “I just overheard your father telling your brother Esau to bring him some venison and cook him a stew so that he could eat and give him his blessing. Now listen and do exactly as I tell you. Go out to the flock and get me two tender kids, and I will cook them into a stew, the way your father likes it. Then you will take it in to your father, so that he can eat it and give you his blessing before he dies.”
And Jacob said, “But Esau’s skin is hairy, and mine is smooth. What if my father touches me and discovers the trick? I will bring a curse on myself, not a blessing.”
And his mother said, “Let the curse be on me, my son. Just do as I say and get the kids.”
So he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she cooked a stew, the way his father liked it. And she took Esau’s clothes and had Jacob put them on. And she covered his hands and the bare part of his neck with the goatskins. And she gave him the stew and the bread that she had baked.
And he went to his father and said, “Father.”
And he said, “Yes? Who are you, my son?”
And Jacob said, “I am Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you told me to; sit up now and eat some of my venison, so that you can give me your blessing.”
And Issac said, “How did you get it so quickly, my son?”
And he said, “The Lord your God brought me good luck.”
And Isaac said, “Come here and let me touch you, my son, to make sure that you are my son Esau.”
And Jacob came close, and Isaac touched him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” And Isaac didn’t recognize him, because his hands were hairy like Esau’s hands. And he said, “Are you really my son Esau?”
And he said, “I am.”
And he said, “Bring me the stew, my son, and I will eat and give you my blessing.”
And he brought it to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank. And Isaac said “Come here and kiss me, my son.” And he came close and kissed him. And Isaac smelled his clothes, and he blessed him and said,
How fragrant is my son’s smell,
Like the smell of the open country
That the Lord has blessed.
My God give you the dew of heaven
And the richness of the dark earth:
An abundance of grain and wine.
May you rule over your brother,
And may your mother’s son bow before you.
Cursed be those who curse you,
And may those who bless you be blessed.”
No sooner had Jacob left his father Isaac than Esau came back from hunting. And he cooked a stew and brought it to his father and said, “Sit up, Father and eat some of my venison, so that you can give me your blessing.”
And Isaac said, “Who are you?”
And he said, “I am your son, your firstborn, Esau.”
And Isaac shuddered violently and said, “Then who was it that brought me the other stew? I just finished eating it before you came, and I blessed him and the blessing cannot be taken back.”
And when Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out loudly and bitterly and said, “Bless me, bless me too, Father.”
And he said, “Your brother came and deceived me and took your blessing.”
And he said, “Didn’t you save a blessing for me?”
And Isaac said, “I gave him power over you, and made him your master, and granted him an abundance of grain and wine. What is left for you, my son?”
And Esau said, “Do you have just one blessing? Bless me too Father.” And he burst into tears.
And Isaac said,
“Far from the richness of the
your home shall be,
far from the dew of heaven.
By your sword you shall live,
and you shall be a servant to your brother.”
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When I first studied Genesis chapters 25 and 27, I was angry at Jacob. How could he listen to his conniving mother and take advantage of his blind father to betray his own brother and cheat him out of his father’s blessing? How low can cowardly Jacob stoop! This is the fellow who will become the father of Israel? Not much of an inspiring hero, if you ask me. I particularly feel Esau’s pain. He’s been robbed after all! My heart aches as he cries out, “Bless me too, Father.” Why would anyone want to study a story of cruelty and trickery like this?
Well, perhaps it does have some more depth than my initial gut reaction might suggest. A straight forward reading looking for a simplistic literal message will not disclose its layers of meaning. But if you’ll join me now on an exploration of this text, we can begin to peel the onion and find some meanings that may touch us, even inspire us.
The liberal approach to Bible study using individual analysis and a free and open search for meaning will not come up with one authoritative answer about what these texts are really trying to say. As we bring ourselves to the text, we will find meanings that we cannot prove or disprove were the author’s intent. To be sure there is a locus of meaning. The story of Jacob and Esau is not about how to raise twins, whether stew tastes better with lamb, lentils or venison, or about animal husbandry for that matter. These ancient stories, handed down orally for generations, honed by the telling and retelling, are masterpieces of great literature. These stories wrestle with the conflicts and contradictions of the human condition in ways that continue to be relevant to listeners today. While our technology has advanced, basic human nature is pretty much the same as it was when these stories were composed and handed down.
First, let’s look at family dynamics. Much as we rationally try to love our children equally, our emotions just don’t cooperate. We can choose to be fair and just with our children but we still feel emotionally closer to one than another. And they know it even if we try to hide it from them.
Isaac loves Esau more than Jacob. From what we know of Isaac, he isn’t in the best of physical condition. Esau is a man’s man, a man of the open country, a skilled hunter, strong and capable, a paragon of the virtues of ancient people living off the land. His hairiness suggests he may have the spirit of a lion. I wonder if Isaac loves Esau because he has all the qualities that Isaac has never had. Isaac thinks Israel needs a lion to lead it not a milquetoast like Jacob who likes to hang around the tents, spend time with his mother Rebecca and tend the herds.
But what we know and Isaac does not seem to recognize is there is something missing from Esau’s character. He is quite happy to sell his precious birthright to his brother for a bowl of lentil soup. His appetite, his desires rather than his mind dominates his values and commitments. The text suggests Esau does not have the right kind of temperament to be the patriarch of a people who will someday subordinate their passions to the rule of law.
The dilemma in the story is Jacob has no standing to inherit the blessing of his father due to the accident of his birth. Esau came out first and Jacob was clutching his heal. Even if their status as twins allows some doubt about Esau’s rightful position as primogenitor, he still came out first.
Rebecca is the one who recognizes Esau isn’t the right man for the job and decides to do something about it. She had no place to go to her husband and question his judgment. I doubt if Isaac would have listened to her if she did. His blindness is a powerful metaphor to his inability to recognize each son’s gifts and capabilities. So when she hears he is about to bless Esau, she decides she must create a deception.
What I want to know is: what has God been doing while all this is happening? God doesn’t seem concerned or isn’t willing to interfere in the situation to at least straighten Isaac out. Even a dream giving Isaac a divine message might have been useful. When Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, God stepped in and gave him a ram. You think God would care enough about the future of his covenant with Israel to make a suggestion about who should get the blessing?
Perhaps God does. Could God actually be acting through Rebecca in creating the deception?
We don’t usually think of the Bible presenting God as a trickster. Could that be a divine quality? Have you ever been deceived in a way that was for your own good? For the good of others you have power over? Oppressed people have been getting their needs taken care of by tricking their masters forever. Rebecca knows trickery is one way to bring her husband to his senses.
Jacob is wary of being part of this deception. He has smooth skin where as Esau is hairy. But more important, if the deception fails, he may suffer his father’s curse. The downside risk here is pretty significant. Jacob isn’t thinking about future generations, just about himself.
Rebecca is the real hero of this story. She takes full responsibility. If there are any curses to be made, she will step in and take them on herself. She sacrifices her own well being for the future of Israel. WOW! What a mom! What a gutsy, courageous women.
Indeed, Isaac is suspicious when Jacob comes in pretending to be Esau. How could Esau have returned from the hunt so quickly? The voice sounds like Jacob, but the hands are hairy like Esau. He does cook his meat the way Isaac likes it.
The acid test for Isaac to recognize his son is by smelling him.
I hope my father doesn’t decide I’m worthy of his blessing by how I smell. We’re talking about resorting to the most basic creaturely sense to divine worthiness and value. Isaac could have questioned him, used his mind. But he resorts to his nose. The deception reveals Isaac’s lack of judgment to pass on the all-important blessing.
That doesn’t mean Jacob is yet worthy of receiving the blessing nor does he escape the consequences of his deception. Sir Walter Scott put it well, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” To escape Esau’s wrath, Jacob must leave his father’s house and lodge with his mother’s brother Laban. He falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel and labors seven years as his servant to earn the right to marry her. On their wedding night, Laban sends his first-born daughter Leah into his tent. Only in the morning does Jacob wake up and discover he has been deceived. He must labor another seven years to get Rachel as his second wife.
The story of Rebecca’s and Jacob’s deception is messy and has messy consequences. But isn’t life like that? Esau, Jacob and Isaac’s character flaws draw us into the story. Jacob wasn’t perfect – maybe Esau would have made a decent leader for the Jewish people too.
We don’t know if Esau could have risen to the occasion. (In my heart I’m still rooting for him) Just about every Biblical figure we read about has flaws. Even Moses, good as he was, wasn’t without sin. The Bible teaches perfection is not a necessary qualification for service to the Lord. Nor can we exempt ourselves from life’s challenges by complaining of our weakness and inadequacies.
Jacob’s adventures culminate in the story of struggling all night with the angel, some say it was actually God. Jacob won that battle though he didn’t come out of it unscathed. Neither will we get out of struggling with the challenges life presents to us unscathed. The price of following the guidance of our inner light may cost us our lives.
Yet the story of Jacob’s struggle rings true to me as a life giving metaphor for the human journey. To do what is right and honorable may require tremendous personal sacrifice. Jacob doesn’t suffer his wound until the end of the struggle. And he only wins when he receives that crippling wound to his hip. The nightlong struggle, I imagine, is the struggle of his divided nature, his desires for himself and his desires for his people. His struggle between his animal nature and his higher intellect; His struggle with following others and becoming a leader himself; You can’t have it all, something must be lost, when you attain a new level of maturity. Literally, Jacob cannot run anymore, he must face his past. He must face his brother Esau, ask for forgiveness and make peace. Justice comes full circle. Now Jacob is ready to assume the name Israel.
Whether or not Jacob, Esau, Rebecca and Isaac were real people doesn’t matter. The vision of God they imagined will not exactly match our vision of God. Unitarian Universalists go to the Bible not looking for its authority over our lives but as a source of inspiration to help us lead our lives. These amazing stories are not the property of Jews or Christians. We Unitarian Universalists have claim to them as well. Along with the Quran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Buddhist Sutras, the Upanishads, the folklore of all the world’s indigenous people, these sacred sources are the inspirational heritage of all people. Some may be more easily accessible or interesting to us than others but they all have messages for everyone. The ones that are easiest for us to open up are the ones from our own religious and cultural heritage. And for most of us in this room, that heritage is Biblical.
Though we have grown far beyond the limiting Christian framework of the first Unitarians and Universalists, that framework remains the taproot of our religious tradition. To attempt to sever that connection has done tremendous harm to our movement. Like Jacob, we must struggle with our history and find a way to make peace with it. The maturity we seek as a denomination cannot happen while we reject our spiritual parents. I believe the Unitarian Universalism of the 21st Century must be willing to draw from Judaism and Christianity as well as reaching beyond them into the religions of Persia and the East and from the earth centered traditions as well.
This is why I’ll be starting a seven week Bible Study for Liberals class tomorrow night. We’ll be working with Genesis, opening up those important stories, identifying with the characters and finding new levels of meaning. Our goal is not conversion. I’m not leaving my Buddhism behind. But my explorations of Buddhism have made my Bible study much more meaningful. The collective wisdom we bring to these texts from many different areas of study and experience can create a rich and meaningful exploration of them. What makes Unitarian Universalism unique is this wide embrace. My greatest hope for us is that each of us can learn to go to any religious text and find significant meaning in it.
May you take another look at the Bible as one of the sources of truth and meaning for your own lives. There may be a blessing in it for you too!
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Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.