My brothers and sisters are some of the most encouraging and wonderful people in my life. I grew up with a brother, and when I was eight I got a sister; when my brother married, I got another sister, and in marrying my husband I gained two more brothers. That’s quite a network of siblings to turn to for wisdom, laughter, and strength. During childhood and adolescence, though, it can seem common for brothers and sisters to focus more on competition than the gifts they are to each other.
For example, this past weekend as we celebrated Mother’s Day, my mom shared a story about when I took the ACT test. Apparently, I studied really hard, and after I got the score I wanted, my brother celebrated, saying, “Great for her!” while I responded, “I beat his score!” Ouch. I’m not sure why I cared about beating his score, but regardless, it was not my best moment.
In the biblical text we see sibling rivalry all over the place. It makes a bit more sense in the biblical context, given that the eldest child typically inherited all of the father’s lands and goods, while the younger children received a single gift and may not even stay in the father’s land (see Genesis 25:1-6). Siblings had a lot on the line regarding their own wellbeing and security after the father died.
On numerous occasions, Genesis subverts the tradition of granting the birthright to the eldest son. Abraham gives his to Isaac, despite Ishmael being the eldest (Gen. 25:5), Jacob grants his to Joseph, rather than to Reuben or to any of his other sons (Gen. 49:22-26), and in the text we read today, Jacob takes the birthright from Esau.
In Genesis 25:19-26, Isaac pleads to God on behalf of his barren wife, Rebekah, and she conceives twin boys. They struggle within her, and God explains that the two boys represent two nations, and that the eldest will eventually serve the youngest. When she births them, Esau emerges first, but Jacob grabs on to his heel (side note: Jacob’s name, yacov, actually means “heel holder”).
We learn that as they grow up, Esau is a hunter, and Jacob stays in the home. One day, as Jacob is cooking a lentil stew, Esau enters the home and asks for some of the stew. He states that he is so hungry he is at the point of death (v. 32). So Jacob uses Esau’s hunger and weakness to convince him to sell Jacob his birthright for the bowl of stew.
Reading sarcasm into the biblical text gets tricky, so I’ll just lay out the two options: either Esau really was at the point of famine in which he would die, and Jacob chose to withhold the stew from his dying brother until he attained the birthright. Or, Esau was acting like a child who says, “I’m starving!” to simply express that he was hungry. Either way, Jacob turns the tables by offering Esau stew in exchange for the promise of his birthright. And in doing that, he chooses to damage his relationship with his brother.
I know that not all families are like mine. I have been blessed with great relationships with all of my siblings. Yet in other families, sibling relations are often one of the biggest points of tension. Differing beliefs, lifestyles, locations, and a whole host of other factors can create dissonance and difficulty between siblings and within families. But as we see in the text today, we make choices to either assuage those differences or to escalate and perpetuate them to their greatest extent.
God has given us siblings as a blessing, and we are meant to feel gratitude for them. If you have a great relationship with your siblings, give thanks for them today, and let them know how much you care. If you have a more complicated or difficult relationship with your siblings, consider one thing you can do today to make your relationship just a bit happier and healthier than it was yesterday. In either scenario, we can be a voice of love and encouragement in the sacred relationships of siblinghood.