Of course I choose the OT Lesson

Today should be easy. The gospel lesson is probably one of the most recognizable passages of scripture spoken by Jesus after the beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus gives us a parable and then we get a record of how he explained it to the disciples. The seed is the word of God, the soil is people, on it goes. Simple. Easy. So of course I can’t use it.

You see I have a problem. I studied English literature. If you drive a car making an odd noise past a mechanic and they’ll automatically go “huh” and try and diagnose the problem. Stick an engineer in a room with a comment along the lines of “yeah, the toaster doesn’t seem to want to work right” and they’ll have the contraption in pieces before you get turn around. Stick a complex passage in front of an English major and be prepared to not be able to get any sort of reasonable conversation out of them for hours. We can’t help it. We are trained to take language apart and put it back together in the same way an auto mechanic can take apart an engine and reassemble it with no leftover pieces.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to tackle Romans. That book requires a graduate degree workshop level of time and effort. It does mean, however, that we are going to play around with the Old Testament lesson for a change.

One of the catches we have in reading an English translation is that we lose out on understanding the word-play going on and this is especially true in Genesis.

When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

The passage of scripture does attempt to tell us there is something going on but it is subtle and requires an Bible with a set of really decent footnotes.

The first set of word-play deals with the name of Esau and the idea that he was the father of the Edomites in the land of Canaan. According to the notes I have read the name Esau in ancient Hebrew is admoni which sounds Edom which in turn sounds like ‘adom which is the word for red. So the father of Edom ate a stew that was ‘adom. Then we come across a mantle of hair which is called se’ar and plays off the fact that the Edomites lived in se’ir.1 The second set of word-play is Jacob’s name which is ya’aqob, which sounds a lot like the words for heel (aqeb) and supplanted (aqab). Those are the ones the Bible mentions explicitly; however, there is also another set lurking in the background. The words are bekor, bekorak, berakah, and rivkah which are translations of firstborn, birthright, blessing, and Rebekah.2 So we see the son of rivkah taking the berakah and bekorak from the bekor.

Why is this important? First, it lets us know that there is something important going on. The complexity of the language choice underpins the complexity of the situation. It foreshadows the subsequent part of the story where Rebekah gets involved with the deathbed blessing of Isaac on what he assumes is his firstborn son. Second, it reinforces the idea that the Kingdom of Edom, which was located just south of Judea, was supposed to be supplanted. Kings Saul and David both had significant battles against the Edomites and both were victorious. By the end of David’s reign it was a vassal state with a ruler in exile. This passage implies that the subjection of the Edomites was a divine action that started hundreds of years before. It is almost a form of spiritual propaganda which brings us to the next point.

Typically when you read through the wisdom books, the gospels, and the epistles you ask “how does this relate to my life.” However when you read the historical parts of the Bible you need to ask yourself a slightly different question: “what was the intent of the passage?” Given the amount of wordplay and the fact that the next section of Genesis deals with Jacob literally wrestling with God we tend to believe that this portion of Genesis belongs in what the call the Yahwist writings. These were typically  collections of older oral histories that were probably compiled during the reign of Solomon and it makes sense that the person or people doing this collecting would make sure to write down the ones that reinforce their own existence.

Eight chapters from now Jacob gets another name. Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, and Jacob became Israel. What better time to point out that Israel, the person, was not the first-born son, than during the time that Israel, the place, was being ruled by a Solomon, a man who was not the first-born son? What better time to remind people of the fact that Esau was the hunter and man of the field while Jacob was a tent-dweller and a thinker than during the time that a thinker had taken the throne of David instead of a warrior son who was second-born and had the army behind him.

The intent of this passage is to point out that divinely inspired inheritance is not necessarily bound by the strictures of society. Abraham tries to fulfill a prophecy on his own but ends up exiling Hagar and Ishmael. Jacob is the second-born son in a set of twins but he is the one chosen to be the starting point this new nation. David’s grandmother Ruth was a Moabite in a land where racial purity held a great deal of importance. Solomon’s mother was initially the wife of another man. David’s first-born son led a rebellion against his rule and was killed. Adonijah was second-born but Solomon became king.3

The writer wants us to remember that it is all well and good to make plans but keep in mind that God has plans as well and when the two do not coincide God has no problems in side-stepping your own.

  1. See notes in The New Jerusalem Bible, 1985. 

  2. Bandstra, Barry. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Second Edition. Table 2.2 “Birthright and Blessing Comlex.”  

  3. Kings 1