Remember last week I said that Isaac suffered “middle child syndrome” or middle patriarch syndrome? Well let me give you some more evidence of this. This week’s reading, Genesis 25:19-34, is called “the toledot (generations or descendants) of Isaac” in the Hebrew Bible but biblical commentators usually call it “the Jacob Cycle”. How quick the baton is passed from Isaac onto Jacob and again either way of looking at it the title focuses on a man. Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-men. The issue I have is all of the characters from this story that take a secondary position; Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, his older brother, Esau, and later Jacob’s primary wives, the sisters Rachel and Leah.
Some may wonder what does it matter anyway? Why spend time on these ancient stories? They may be important to the Jewish people since they are part of their heritage, society, identity and religion but what difference do they make to us? I think they tell us a great deal about humanity and when these stories are read with all of the characters in mind and their relationships with each other we can see the depth of these stories. We can begin to see that they explore the complications of social constructs, the connection between family dynamics, social customs, and tribal or national conflicts.
Of course we need to be aware of the historical context. Although it is different from ours the stories and an awareness the role of culture can help us open our eyes to our own cultures and the social constructs that we may have in place in our time. All too often we take our culture and social construct for granted. If we open our eyes to these we may even be bold enough to ask ourselves if those constructs are manmade? And even more boldly reflect on whether God is happy with the construct that we have made.
Let’s look a little more closely at Isaac and Rebekah’s family. It turns out Rebekah, like Sarah before her, was barren. The word “barren” to describe a woman without children comes from a pre-scientific understanding of human reproduction. Using an agricultural analogy, people of the ancient Near East understood that the “seed” of the father was planted in the fertile field of the mother’s womb, where it grew into a baby. If the male seed did not take root, it must have been the fault of the mother’s “barren” womb. Offspring are essential in this cultural context and more so in the light of God’s promise to Abraham which is to continue through Isaac that he be a father of nations. Not a lot of time is spent emphasising her barrenness, unlike with Sarah. We are simply told that Isaac intercedes on behalf of his wife to God and God intercedes so Rebekah conceives. It is worth noting that her period of barrenness was not short.
In verse 20 it is said that Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebecca, and in verse 26 it is said that he was 60 years old when the twins were born. That’s 20 years of barrenness, of frustration, of failure and shame.
Yet God is still clearly very much involved and continues to make good the promise against the odds. But hers turns out to be a problem pregnancy in more ways than one. Rebekah’s condition creates such discomfort for her that she is not sure what the outcome will be. We are told:
“The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
The sons are born and named Esau and Jacob. Esau “the red one” is so named because he “came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle.” While Jacob, (ya’aqov), who is born holding on to Esau’s heel, has his name derive from the Hebrew ‘aqav, meaning “heel.” This term can also mean “to supplant” or “to cheat.” It indicates that from the beginning Jacob desires to upset Esau’s status as the firstborn son and to subvert the social customs and expectations that would favour the firstborn.
The social construct for the Ancient Israelites meant the firstborn son typically took on his father’s profession (Cain becomes a farmer, like Adam in Genesis 4:2), succeeds his father as the family patriarch, and inherits a larger portion of the family goods than his other brothers (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). These privileges make up the birthright of the eldest son and collectively provide a level of social and material security that the younger brother would not enjoy. The younger sibling would have to depend on the mercy of the older brother or make his own way in the world.
They boys grow up into very different people. The conflict develops and spreads through the family with Isaac loving Esau and Rebekah loving Jacob. We are then told the story of Jacob buying Esau’s birthright. The two meanings of Jacob, heel and cheat, suggest he was correctly named and it appears the words of God “elder serve younger” are coming to pass.
The unexpected ascendancy of the youngest son is a common pattern in the Bible. It is Isaac rather than his older half-brother, Ishmael, who remains the focus of the Abrahamic covenant. It is Jacob’s son of his old age, Joseph, who sees his dreams fulfilled when his older brothers bow down to him in Egypt. David, the youngest of all of Jesse’s sons, is anointed king by Samuel. When his elder brothers cower in fear, the boy David emerges as the amazing victor over the Philistine giant Goliath.
These and many similar biblical stories of the youngest son rising to prominence contradict the expectations, laws, and conventions of society. Being born second in the ancient near eastern world made one an automatic underdog.
What social constructs do we have today that make some the underdog while others are privileged?
The weak, the marginal, the underdog become the surprising means through which God works in Israel and in the world. While God loves all of God’s children these stories show that God raises up the underdogs. Although not to the exclusion of the older brothers, God does side with the oppressed.
As Jesus says:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18)
Rev Tammy Hollands