Snagged

Preached at the Wheatland Mission on July 15, 2017. Text from Genesis 25:19-34.

“Jacob I have loved (but why) and Esau I have hated (really?).

 I am not a boatman. But, I do know, that when you are canoeing or paddling on a river, you want to avoid snags. Submerged tree limbs and sand bars. Am I right?

Reading the Bible is like taking a boat out on a river. As we make our way through the text we often get snagged, not by debris or limbs, but by a theme (such as slavery or violence) or a specific story (think of Jephthah’s daughter or the Levite and his concubine) that is so disturbing, strange, and seemingly un-Christian, that we don’t know how to proceed.

We are thus, snagged. We are stuck in our reading and perhaps in our faith and we don’t know how to proceed. When this happens, we get out of our canoes, wade to the shore, and give up on the river altogether. Getting snagged, for some, means quitting the faith or, at least, moving their faith to the backseat.

One of my snags has been a little verse in Malachi 1:2-3 and later quoted in Romans 9:13: “Jacob I have loved and Esau I have hated.” It just seems so unfair. Esau was tricked, mistreated, and ganged up on by his younger brother and his mother! The “snag-story” of Esau begins with this week’s Old Testament reading:

Genesis 25:19

19 This is the account of Isaac, the son of Abraham.

Abraham became the father of Isaac. 20 When Isaac was forty years old, he married Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.

21 Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 But the children struggled inside her, and she said, “If it is going to be like this, I’m not so sure I want to be pregnant!” So she asked the Lord, 23 and the Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples will be separated from within you.
One people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.”

24 When the time came for Rebekah to give birth, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out reddish all over, like a hairy garment, so they named him Esau. 26 When his brother came out with his hand clutching Esau’s heel, they named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born.

27 When the boys grew up, Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the open fields, but Jacob was an even-tempered man, living in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for fresh game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29 Now Jacob cooked some stew, and when Esau came in from the open fields, he was famished. 30 So Esau said to Jacob, “Feed me some of the red stuff—yes, this red stuff—because I’m starving!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)

31 But Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 “Look,” said Esau, “I’m about to die! What use is the birthright to me?” 33 But Jacob said, “Swear an oath to me now.” So Esau swore an oath to him and sold his birthright to Jacob.

34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and lentil stew; Esau ate and drank, then got up and went out. So Esau despised his birthright.

 “How long is that going to take?”

No one wants to be told, “be patient.” It is much easier to be the one who says, “be patient”, than the one who hears it said. So, let me take the easy road and say: “be patient.” (Of course, with every sermon, I’m saying this to myself first.)

Those snags in the Bible that I spoke of earlier are not overcome immediately. If your canoe gets snagged, in a real river, you wrestle it loose and move on your way. Scripture, on the other hand, does not let us go so easily and certainly not so quickly. So please, be patient. Those snags that we fight with are there by design. Maybe it’s best that we not get past them quickly.

Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow tells the story of a small town barber who began his young life wanting to be a preacher. By the end of the story, you discover that Jayber’s commitment to his craft and his community made him as spiritually deep as any of his preaching peers. But, Jayber’s story begins with snags in his faith. While at seminary he presents his snags to one of his professors.

‘I had this feeling maybe I had been called.’ – says Jayber

‘And you may have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions (dare I say snags) to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.’

‘And how long is that going to take?’

‘I don’t know. As long as you live perhaps.’

‘That could be a long time.’

‘I will tell you a further mystery’, he said. ‘It may take longer.’

The Bible provides an oddly similar story. It is the story of Jacob wrestling the angel by the river Jabbok in Genesis 32:22-32. We’ll return to this story later but for right now I want us to pay attention to the image of Jacob wrestling the angel.

In this story, Jacob fights the “man” until daybreak. He cannot overcome Jacob. In order to put an end to the fight, the angel reaches out and touches Jacob’s hip leaving him with a permanent limp. His wound is both literal and symbolic.

Jacob demands that the “man”, or angel or God himself, bless him. The blessing he receives is a new name. That new name is critical to our understanding of Scripture. It is critical to our task of wrestling well with Scripture. That name is Israel, which means, “the one who strives with God and humans and prevails.”

From this point on, Jacob’s name is no longer the “heal-grabbing trickster” but the “one who wrestles with God”. This becomes the name of God’s chosen people. They are the ones who contend against, argue with, and wrestle all night with God.

After wrestling with God and receiving his new name Jacob gives a name to the place where the wrestling match took place, Peniel. It means, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Israel, the former Jacob, sees God’s face again later in his story but in an otherwise unrecognizable place. (We’ll come back to that.)

Can we wrestle? Wrestle with the text? Wrestle with our circumstances? Wrestle with our doubts and our confidences? Aren’t those snags that we experience opportunities to wrestle with God?

Jacob wrestling with the angel is an icon of our faith. It is the image of us wrestling with God, engaged in battle all through the night, through to the dawn. It is the image of us staying engaged with Scripture even when we are in pain, even when we are, as Jacob was, wounded by God.

It takes time, not because time heals all wounds. Time does not. But, it does take time, often a long time, to unravel our tangles, save us from our snags, and answer our gnawing questions. I suspect that there are a lot of things that only made sense to Jacob in his twilight years. There were undoubtedly numerous ‘aha’ moments for Jacob as he looked back at his past and realized, that’s what God was doing! But, there were probably some real head scratchers that Israel took to his grave.

‘I will tell you a further mystery’, he said. ‘It may take longer.’

“As long as you live, perhaps.”

“Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.” That’s not my only snag when reading the Bible but it is a big one. It is a snag for me because it seems out of character for God to hate someone. I don’t think Esau deserves it. Maybe Esau was just horrible. But I don’t see it. God’s hatred of Esau seems misplaced for two reasons:

Reason One 

Jacob mistreats Esau. “Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated” forces us to assume that Jacob is the good guy and Esau is the bad guy. But this is not true. Jacob may be the “called guy” but he’s not really the “good guy”. At times Jacob is just flat out bad.

In tonight’s passage, Jacob uses Esau’s hunger and exhaustion to trick him out of his birthright. Should Esau have known better? Sure. But does that let Jacob off the hook? No. Jacob stole. Through trickery and manipulation, the “heal grabbing usurper”, took his brother’s birthright at a moment where Esau’s judgment was impaired.

(By the way, the rabbis think that the two of them may have been as young as fourteen at the time of this encounter. Thank God I am not being held responsible for my decisions at fourteen.)

But it happens again! Jacob steals a second time but now with the help of his mother. In Genesis 27, Isaac, sends Esau out to the field to kill some game in order that he might prepare a meal for him. Isaac then said he would give the blessing of the firstborn to Esau. This was the blessing through which Esau would receive the lion’s share of his father’s wealth and responsibility. It belongs to Esau. Note, by the way, how Esau is the dutiful son, fulfilling what his father asks of him.

His mother overhears this conversation and has her favorite son, Jacob, dress up like Esau, complete with hairy arms, and serve food to his father. Isaac suspects something but is convinced by Jacob and blesses him. (Is it possible that Isaac knows he is giving the blessing to Jacob?) Right after he gives the blessing Esau comes up with the food he hunted and prepared for his father. The exchange between them goes like this:

[Isaac] . . . said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” 36 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 37 Isaac answered Esau, “I have already made him your lord, and I have given him all his brothers as servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.

39 Then his father Isaac answered him:

“See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be,
and away from the dew of heaven on high.
40 By your sword you shall live,
and you shall serve your brother;
but when you break loose,
you shall break his yoke from your neck.”

41 Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”

Thus begins the story of Jacob fleeing from the Promised Land, back to the land of his mother’s people, to avoid being killed by Esau. On the way finds a wife, and an extra wife, and a couple of concubines. So maybe Jacob gets a little of what is coming to him for his treachery. But, Esau is left unblessed, rejected, hated, if you will because he was not as tricky or as manipulative as his brother.

So that’s reason one. Esau is tricked twice by his brother and denied what was rightfully his. Esau is the victim and, in this case, Scripture seems to blame the victim.

Reason Two

Esau is a better Christian than Jacob. Okay, there were no Christians then. Fair enough. But, Esau acts the better man when he and his brother reunite. In this way, Esau acts as God. For a moment, Esau is actually Christ-like.

After his journey to Haran, avoiding his brother’s revenge, gaining wives and family, and making a fortune, Jacob returns home to the land that belongs to him. To the land promised him by Isaac’s blessing, the land God promised Abraham.

Jacob is still tricky. He is still trying to manipulate the situation to his advantage. This, in spite of the fact, that he has had amazing experiences with God and has been protected by the Lord. (AKA, “The Fear of Isaac.”)

Jacob divides his flocks, his herds, his servants, his children, and his wives. Placing them at strategic intervals so that, if Esau slaughters them, his favorite wife, Rachel and her son, will be safe with him in the back of the pack.

As mentioned earlier, the night before he encounters his brother Jacob stays by himself at the river Jabbok and wrestles the angel. After that and the blessing that came in his new name Israel, Jacob limps away having named that location: Peniel, meaning, I have seen the face of God and lived.

And now Jacob, undeservedly so, sees the face of God again, in the most unexpected place; the face of his wronged and vengeful brother.

When Jacob goes out to meet his Esau he is prepared to bribe him in order to protect his life and the life of his family. But what occurs is not what he expects. Remember, “Jacob I have loved and Esau I have hated”, and now Esau turns the tables on our expectations.

Jacob looked up and saw that Esau was coming along with four hundred men. So he divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two female servants. He put the servants and their children in front, with Leah and her children behind them, and Rachel and Joseph behind them. But Jacob himself went on ahead of them, and he bowed toward the ground seven times as he approached his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, hugged his neck, and kissed him. Then they both wept. 

We must pause here for just a moment and ask what happened? It is a miracle of forgiveness! A more literal translation says that Esau “fell on his neck”. This implies intimate, affectionate, love. Look at that last line – “then they both wept”.

If we stay engaged with the Old Testament, if we hang in there, there are these amazing little “gospels” that appear. God’s ultimate work being revealed in small but powerful ways. God made ninety year old Sarah pregnant. That was a miracle. But, this little miracle of forgiveness is even more so.

When Esau looked up and saw the women and the children, he asked, “Who are these people with you?” Jacob replied, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” The female servants came forward with their children and bowed down. Then Leah came forward with her children and they bowed down. Finally Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed down.

Esau then asked, “What did you intend by sending all these herds to meet me?” Jacob replied, “To find favor in your sight, my lord.” But Esau said, “I have plenty, my brother. Keep what belongs to you.” 10 “No, please take them,” Jacob said. “If I have found favor in your sight, accept my gift from my hand. Now that I have seen your face and you have accepted me, it is as if I have seen the face of God.” 

More than twenty years have passed. Marriages have been formed, children have been born, and forgiveness has been forged between estranged brothers.

Can you hear Jayber Crow’s question being answered?

‘And how long is that going to take?’

‘I don’t know. As long as you live perhaps.’

I will tell you a further mystery . . .

It is easy to quit. When our boat gets snagged on a limb. To hop out, wade to the shore, sit down, and quit.

It is harder to wrestle, all night long if we have to, to get to a point of resolution. Life in Christ, a life spent listening to God means that we live in the in-between space, where we don’t always know how things are going to work out. My challenge to us all is, are we willing to wait it out? Are we willing to wrestle?

I can’t say that all of my snags over “Jacob I have loved and Esau I have hated” are resolved. But, I am now able to take this story in and make it part of the larger picture of my faith. I see now that God’s mission, his mission that involved Israel serving as priests to His world, and the people from whom the Savior comes, is saved by the one God “hated”. Esau saves the mission of God by forgiving his manipulative and tricky brother.

God’s grace moves in a slow powerful arc that can only be viewed fully with a lot of time. I’ve said before that Wheatland needs more old people. But, its not age alone that is important, but depth and depth comes with time. I want the kind of depth that only comes with time—with failures and successes, pains and joys, betrayals and reconciliations—depth that comes by time spent wrestling with God in his word, in our lives, and in our world.

You have been given questions (snags?) to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.’

‘And how long is that going to take?’

‘I don’t know. As long as you live perhaps.’

‘That could be a long time.’

‘I will tell you a further mystery’, he said. ‘It may take longer.’

Let us pray.

 

 

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