For the week of November 21, 2020 / 5 Kislev 5781
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19-28:9
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1 – 2:7
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Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” 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. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:29-34)
For much of history it was common that the first-born male inherited the entire or main share of his father’s estate. To us today this seems completely unjust, but it appears that part of the reason for the custom was not a matter of unfair material advantage, but responsibility. It fell upon the first-born male to oversee the future of the family line. Do note, however, that despite the general practice of this custom in ancient Israelite society, in the Torah it was often the younger or youngest who carried on God’s mission in the world, be it Seth not Cain, Isaac not Ishmael, and—from this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion)—Jacob not Esau.
This custom, which has come to be known as “primogeniture,” provides the background for the powerful lesson we may learn from this story. However distasteful we may find primogeniture, Esau, as the older of the two twins, was set to inherit their father’s estate. This would have included the promises that God had given to their grandfather Abraham via their father Isaac. These promises were divine guaranties of national greatness, the land of Canaan, and being a powerful positive influence (blessing) among the nations of the world.
Before I continue, I can hear the more theologically minded saying, hold on. Esau would have never inherited these promises because God had determined otherwise. The issue of predeterminism is way bigger than what I can cover in a message like this. Regardless, let me be clear that thinking along those lines completely misses the point. We don’t have this story to fill us in on how God manipulates human affairs, which I don’t believe he does, by the way. What we do have here is a serious warning against giving in to a common human tendency that lurks inside each one of us.
By virtue of the customs of their day, both Esau and Jacob expected Esau to inherit his father’s estate. Yet, this story tells us that in a moment of great exhaustion, Esau was willing to give up his future inheritance for a bowl of stew. For the reader who understands what’s at stake, this may seem ridiculous. Perhaps Esau didn’t understand the value of what was rightfully his. In his mind, he may have been trading something of little to no value for a single meal. That’s doubtful, unless somehow Jacob was aware of God’s promises, while his brother was not. If that’s the case, then Esau’s devaluing of his birthright started well before this incident. He either knew what it meant and didn’t care, or he didn’t take the time to know. By the reader not knowing the contributing factors, the story covers all sorts of possibilities that may lead a person to make such a rash and foolish decision. Whatever Esau’s understanding was, this still is a tragic story. His nearsighted decision to satisfy a momentary physical desire cut himself off from God’s blessing.
One may think that Jacob was not much better, having used his brother’s weakness against him for personal gain. Moreover, there’s every reason to believe that Jacob didn’t fully understand the implications of the birthright. He would have some difficult lessons to learn moving forward. Yet, unlike his brother, he knew that his father’s estate was worth contending for.
God will deal with Jacob’s issues later, but for now, let’s not miss the opportunity to learn from Esau’s mistake. Esau represents the age we live in. Never before are we able to satisfy our desires in an instant as Esau did that day. And like Esau, we don’t know for what we are selling ourselves out in return. We get we want when we want it and that’s without the level of desperation Esau felt. Note that it’s not easy access to goods and services that’s our problem. It’s that we have been taught for some time now that satisfying self is a virtue. We love instant gratification so much, not only because it feels good in the moment, but because to deny our desires is one of today’s greatest sins. We are taught that to resist our desires is to diminish the very essence of who we are. If it’s stew we want, it’s stew we must have, whatever the cost. Replace “stew” for your desires.
Every human being has a birthright. Made in God’s image, we are to be conduits of his blessing to the world. Called to be royalty under the Heavenly King, we too cheaply sell off our divine inheritance in order to satisfy our desires in the moment. If we are going to live effective genuine lives in the way God designed us to, we need to grasp the value of our birthright and resist the temptation to sell it off.
All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible