If you have been following along in our readings from Genesis week to week you may be noticing certain patterns.
First, we have the infertility of the biblical mothers. God promised to make Abraham a great nation. His wife Sara was unable to conceive, but miraculously, in her old age, God grants Sarah a child, Isaac. Now in today’s reading we hear that Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, was also barren. The Lord hears the prayer of Isaac on behalf of his wife and they conceive.
This is a theme that repeats throughout the Bible. Many of the great heroes of the Bible are born of infertile mothers. Their births are miraculous. This is true of Isaac’s mother Sarah, Jacob’s mother Rebekah, Joseph’s mother Rachel, Sampson’s mother, Samuel’s mother Hannah, and John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth. All of these stories foreshadow the miraculous birth of Jesus, whose mother was not merely infertile, but a virgin!
But the theme I want to focus on this morning, is the theme of sibling rivalry. We have already seen the rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac, now we read of the conflict between Jacob and Esau.
Any parent knows that siblings don’t always get along! They bicker and they argue with one another, but they also often compete with one another. Sometimes such competition is a healthy and friendly rivalry, but other times it is bitter, corrosive, and even deadly. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that siblings behave the same way in the Bible, but there is such a definite pattern to these sibling rivalries that we must conclude that something beyond natural family conflict is being represented.
It was the custom in the ancient world, including Israel, for the firstborn son to inherit before his siblings. The firstborn son is given pride of place. This is called the law of primogeniture, and the Bible mostly takes it for granted. The odd thing, however, is how consistently this custom is undermined in these stories of sibling rivalries.
In these stories, it is almost always the second that enjoys God’s blessing above the first. In this morning’s reading God declares, “The elder shall serve the younger.” God speaks through the prophet Malachi more starkly, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” God chooses the second, but he rejects the first.
I’m not just saying this because I’m the second born of twins either! There is a pattern.
The first sibling rivalry in the Bible is between Cain and Abel. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but he rejected Cain’s, which provoked Cain to murder his younger brother. Ishmael was Abraham’s first born son, but Isaac was the son of promise. God also chose Jacob’s youngest son Joseph above his older brothers.
In the story of the prodigal son the oldest brother has always been faithful, but it is the younger son—who returns after squandering his inheritance—that receives the lavish love of his father.
It doesn’t seem quite fair does it? God seems to be depriving the elder son of what is rightfully his by law and custom. So why do we find this pattern so often throughout the Bible?
The reason is because it is a type. A type is a kind of prophetic symbol. It is a person or thing from the past that foreshadows a person or thing in the future; it is an earthly reality that corresponds to a heavenly reality. We have already seen in the last couple weeks how the binding of Isaac was a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection and how Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage was a type of Christ and the Church.
Saint Paul wrote that the stories of the Old Testament occurred as types and they are written for our instruction. (1 Cor 10:11)
He identified Ishmael as a type of those born of the flesh and living under the law and Isaac as a type of those born of the spirit and set free by the Gospel. This basic pattern holds true in general for biblical stories about the struggle between the younger and the elder. It is especially apparent in the story of Jacob and Esau.
These two were twins but they couldn’t have been more different. Esau was a real guy’s guy. He was strong and athletic, an accomplished hunter. He spent most of his time outdoors away from home. He was the favorite of his father Isaac who enjoyed eating the game he caught.
Esau was the jock, but Jacob was the shy introverted type. He was a homebody and a bit of a mama’s boy. While Esau is noted for his physical prowess, Jacob is noted for his intelligence and cunning.
Esau is the first born and the description of him is striking. He is almost bestial, red, and covered in hair even as a baby. He represents our lower nature which is driven by appetite and animal instinct. He is the natural man which cares nothing for spiritual things. He is the mind set on the flesh which is hostile to God.
His color, described as red, is also significant. In fact he is often called Edom, which simply means red, not only because of his pigmentation but the mess of red pottage he sold his birthright to obtain. Edom comes from the same Hebrew root word that Adam does. Adam is also named ‘red’ after the red clay of the earth that he was made of. Esau represents the first man, Adam, who was made from the earth.
Jacob is born second, after Esau, and comes clutching his heel. His name means “the supplanter,” because although younger, he was destined to rule over his brother. He is a type of the second man, Christ, who was born of the spirit from above. Although the Son of God was from everlasting, Jesus comes after Adam. While Adam bares the curse, Jesus—the second Adam—bears the blessing.
This isn’t to say that Jacob is all virtuous and that his motives are always pure. As we shall see, Jacob himself is a divided person. Jacob, the supplanter, is later changed to Israel, which means “may God prevail.” He is both the one who struggles but also the one who at last is victorious. His brother Esau is the reflection of his own lower nature which he must overcome.
These two brothers, the flesh and the spirit, the lower nature and the higher nature, the first Adam and the Second Adam, were struggling within one womb. Their struggle was so intense that Rebekah said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”
Don’t we sometimes feel the same? Don’t we sometimes feel these two principles at war within ourselves? For what the flesh wants is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit wants is opposed to the flesh. They are opposed to each other, and so you do not do what you want to do.
We feel ourselves divided and at war with ourselves. Sometimes it feels like our lower nature is stronger. We can’t win against it and so we try to outsmart it.
Maybe we devise certain strategies to stay one step ahead of our wayward urges. We hide the Halloween in the cupboard so as not to be tempted… Sometimes our lower nature needs to be placated with the promise of a reward before we do the right thing. Its like a child who only eats her dinner because she knows there will be ice cream if she does.
To those of us caught up in the battle, God reminds us, “The elder shall serve the younger.” Although our flesh sometimes feels so much stronger than our spiritual nature, the lower nature was made to serve the higher. Despite the appearances, “the one shall be stronger than the other.”
Saint Paul says, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death… you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you… If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”