July 16, 2023
They came from the same womb. They had the same parents. They even shared the same birthday. Despite these similarities, Esau and Jacob were very different.
Maybe you have a sibling like this. Maybe those of us who are parents have witnessed this with your own children. You thought you only made one type of human, but instead you have a wide variety of personalities in your house. If you have neither of these experiences, then surely, you’ve met a person who is human sandpaper to you. They are the oil to your water. If you know any of this, then you know the story of Esau and Jacob.
I am loving this trip back through Genesis because it reminds me how human of a document the bible is. Last Sunday, we had the meet-cute romantic comedy of Rebekah falling off her camel in love with Isaac. No previous characters in Genesis are described as being in love. Rebekah is then reduced to object status for a little bit in the story. She’s reduced to her functions: she’s a wife, and wives have children. Isaac prays for her, and then she becomes pregnant.
Rebekah is strong and won’t be reduced that easily. She regains her voice and talks about her difficult pregnancy. She gives voice to her feelings in a difficult-to-translate expression. “If this is to be this way, then why am I alive?” The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney translates her prayer as, “If this is the answer to our prayers, then I take the prayer back.” Once again, we here in the 21st Century often have discussions of pregnancy. We ask expectant mothers how things are going. We are interested in the details. We hope to provide any help we can with tips on how to manage heartburn or how to get a good night’s sleep when you’re actively turning food into a human. This would be shocking to ancient cultures and patriarchy in general who did not talk about this “women’s stuff”, and yet here it is encoded and passed down in Genesis to us. This is radical.
In verse 22 where it says, “The babies jostled each other within her,” The Hebrew actually says something more along the lines of, “one is crushing the life out of the other.” The sibling rivalry is center stage from the start. So much so that the answer to Rebekah’s hard-to-translate prayer is the answer directly from God to Rebekah, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated. One people will be stronger than the other. And the older will serve the younger.”
The book of Genesis is a very human story. It reveals something about what it means to be a human being. What it reveals today is that we have hierarchies and rivalries. Sometimes with siblings, sometimes with our friends and neighbors. Rivalry is something humans do naturally. It’s summer camp season, and summer camps are rife with hierarchy. The director is on top and then the camp counselors, and then the kids who have been there the longest, and then down to the newbies. I experienced this both at YMCA Camp Tippecanoe and at scout camp. At the Y-Camp, we had these colored bandanas that folks would wear. Blue for the first year, silver for the second, and so on up to the coveted WHITE BANDANA. It’s the top of the heap. It means you’ve been to camp seven times and have committed yourself to camp and living a clean and outdoor based-lifestyle. At Seven Ranges Scout Camp, there is the pipestone ceremony is a six-year program where you earn a clay totem. Having a full pipestone or a white bandana at these camps made one a rockstar and the top of the camp hierarchy.
We humans are always setting up hierarchies. Not just at camp but also in our societies. Theologian Rene Girard talks about how hierarchies are central to the human animal. Maybe it’s in our genetic coding. Imprinted on us from our mammalian lineage through the process of evolution. Most mammals like wolves, horses, the great apes, have pack or herd hierarchies. Ways of organizing for the success of the group.
Girard takes this and says that before there’s an “I” there is a “We.” Before we are individuals with choice, there is a group, a society, a family that predates us. We are in a story that is going on long before we arrived on the scene. Things like what we eat during the holidays, which holidays we observe, what language we speak… all of those things were decided for us. I’m not saying that we don’t have choice, it’s that some choices are made for us at a young age. That’s just part of living. When we set up hierarchies, we set up power structures and power structures lead to rivalry.
We tend to want things because other people have them and that leads to conflict. For example, I was raised in a family where jewelry wasn’t valued. My mom was a mechanic, so wearing jewelry wasn’t an option. It would get bent, dirty, or ruined. It’s something neither Kate nor I were raised with. Now there are those of you here who just love jewelry. You have a story for everything you’re wearing. Your earrings date back to the 1700s that an ancestor wore when she immigrated from your homeland to this country. The ring might be your grandfather’s class ring and it’s been passed down to the first-born male for generations. Maybe there were heated discussions or outright fights in your family about who got what passed down to them. That’s rivalry in action.
The rivalry between Esau and Jacob has a lot of rabbinic teaching around it. This story shows the truth of sibling rivalry and how parents love their children differently.
Esau is his father’s favorite. He’s a “man’s man.” He wants to hunt, kill, and eat stuff. He’s pretty simple. His name means “hairy.” There’s an element of earth, red, and dirt/earth meaning he’s an earthy, red man. Red being from the dirt and from being out in the sun. There’s an element of chiding and fun in his name. He’s not a complex character.
In contrast to Esau’s athletic bent, Jacob is a mama’s boy. He’s bookish and smart. A bit of a homebody. Jacob means “heel grabber.” The birth narrative has Jacob coming out holding Esau’s heel. We know this is medically impossible. This is a euphemism to mean that the births were in rapid succession. Jacob is the ideal Jewish male according to my rabbi, Rabbi Jack Pasckoff. Jacob is thought to be thin and pale, spending all day reading the Torah. He cooks and provides.
We read today a very familiar scene. Esau comes in from his day hunting and yells, “I’m starving! Give me some of that red stuff.” He wails and reacts like a teenager. There’s no higher functioning. He’s operating very dramatically. Esau trades his birthright for a bowl of lentils.
Being the firstborn was a big deal. The firstborn son got all the perks: a double portion of the inheritance and the role of the family’s leader. It was a position of privilege and responsibility. Esau traded his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew because he was hungry. That was a pretty impulsive move! Esau never considered the long-term. He’d operated with what felt right in the moment with no concern for long-term consequences or the impact on anyone else.
Jacob, however, was the logical one. He considers the long-term. He studies. He knows history and is concerned with the common good. Rebekah must have witnessed this scene as well. And the mother and second son then schemed Esau out of his role of being firstborn. Esau would do whatever he felt like in the moment. If war was easier, he’d go to battle against superior forces. If he was hungry, he’d trade away the family farm for a nice dinner.
Esau and Jacob were rivals in the womb. They spar throughout their lives. Maybe you’ve been locked in a similar struggle with a sibling, friend/enemy (frenemy?), or neighbor. Rivalry comes when we want something that someone else has. More attention and affection from a parent. More popularity and prestige from society. More likes and shares. A bigger endowment or congregation than the next church.
We could get into all the things happening in our nation and the struggle for power in politics and all the rivalry and impulsiveness vs. long-term thinking. There are themes of masculinity and role models. Rivalry between men and the argument about what being male means. Rivalry between men and women. Rivalry between the various expressions of gender, sexuality, race, class, culture. Rivalry between nations and “how did our oil get under their sand?” Or “Who went and created this separate country when they’re really part of our empire?”
We could talk about all these issues of how we treat each other and who should be in charge and such… But let’s keep it right here between these two brothers. For in their story, we just might see ourselves here.
Now, I don’t have all the answers on how to fix these rivalries, but here’s what I feel deep down: What we truly crave is for someone to look us in the eye and say, “Hey, I see you.” That’s the greatest gift we can give one another. So much violence and rivalry stem from feeling unseen, unheard, and unacknowledged. But if we can break that cycle, if we can truly see and understand others, we hold the hope for a better world in our hands.
This is what makes the story of Esau and Jacob so different than Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel because Abel was nothing to him. He just took what he wanted and asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The mark of Cain is one where you just acquire without counting the cost to your neighbor, the impact of the environment, or anything. That’s a sociopath.
Yet here, we have an intense rivalry. Then an amazing story of reconciliation. After all is said and done, the brothers reconcile their relationship. Esau seems to come out the better for it while Jacob has been through the ringer.
The story of Esau and Jacob is a captivating tale of sibling rivalry that reflects the complexities of human nature and relationships. It reminds us that we’re all capable of intense conflicts, but also of reconciliation. By recognizing our own rivalries and genuinely seeing others, we can contribute to a world free from violence and rivalry. So, let’s keep striving to be the ones who say, “Hey, I see you.” That’s where hope lies. Amen.
 Womanist Midrash on the Torah, page 48.
 See The Girard Reader by James G. Williams, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by Rene Girard, and I See Satan Fall Like Lightening also by Girard, and Wanting: The power of mimetic desire in everyday life by Luke Burgis.
 Rabbi Jack is the head rabbi at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, PA. He taught my “Jewish Commentary on Genesis” in 2008. Sermon largely based on my notes from him.