Birthrights and Blessings

In the last post, The Sacredness of Siblings, we looked at the relationship between Jacob and Esau, and how it changed after Jacob convinced his brother to hand over his birthright. Today we move ahead in the story and watch Rebekah and Jacob use deceptive means to claim Esau’s blessing as well.

In Genesis 27, we learn that Isaac had grown old and that he couldn’t see very well. Rebekah overhears him tell Esau to go hunt in the field and prepare him some food, and after eating he plans to give Esau his blessing. Rebekah then intervenes.

Rebekah shares what she heard with Jacob, and tells him to fetch her two goats. She turns them into a stew for Isaac, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and puts goat skins on Jacob’s arms to make them feel hairy and coarse like Esau’s (v. 5-17). They expend a lot of effort to deceive the elderly and blind Isaac.

Isaac maintains a high level of suspicion while Jacob stands before him. Isaac asks how Esau could have prepared the meal so quickly, questions why he has Jacob’s voice rather than Esau’s, and even sniffs him to see if he has the smell of Esau or Jacob. After doing his best to verify that it was indeed Esau, Isaac offers the blessing (v. 18-29). Shortly thereafter, the real Esau visits Isaac, and they all realize that Jacob had deceived them (v. 30-40).

So Jacob had already taken Esau’s birthright, and then he and his mom scheme to ensure that he gets the blessing as well. In the ancient world, these constituted two separate entities. The easiest way to explain it is that the birthright (bekorah) involved a one-time transfer of physical goods (i.e. when Isaac died, Jacob would take all of the inheritance).

The blessing (berakah), on the other hand, held even more power, because it determined what would take place perpetually in the future. Isaac tells Jacob, “May God give you the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” (Gen. 27:28-30). Those are powerful words that shape the fate of Jacob and his house.

When Esau learns that his brother has taken both his birthright and his blessing, he becomes infuriated. He begs his father to offer him some sort of blessing, but Isaac tells him that he already gave the full blessing to Jacob, and there is no way to retract it. Esau plans to kill Jacob, and when Rebekah learns of his plan, she sends Jacob to live with her brother, Laban, who will hide him until Esau calms down.

The amount of family discord taking place is shocking. With each move that Jacob and Rebekah make, the family falls further apart, ending with Esau’s intent to kill Jacob, and Rebekah’s sending Jacob away.

Jacob and Rebekah’s actions add up over time. They don’t commit one act that leads to all of this tension; rather, it’s the culmination of Jacob grabbing Esau’s heel during their birth, Jacob taking Esau’s birthright, and finally Jacob taking Esau’s blessing that brought the family to this place of discord. Each individual action brought about its own set of consequences, but when placed together they created enough strife to damage the family as a whole.

Our actions matter. Every choice that we make either creates more goodness, connection, and love in the world, or it creates the opposite. We need to be intentional about the choices we make, and know that they have a lasting impact on our own selves, the relationships that we hold sacred, and on the world as a whole. And in every circumstance, every choice, may we focus on how we can foster love over hate, understanding over ignorance, and charity over self-interest. Because in the end, our choices will determine what our lives look like, and to some extent, the type of world in which we live.

The Sacredness of Siblings

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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.

When Love Makes Us Clumsy

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I remember my first date with my husband. We had been friends for months, but had never gone out on our own. By that point, we both liked each other quite a bit, and looking back now we laugh about how nervous we were. I remember tripping on my way into the restaurant, almost knocking over my water glass on multiple occasions, and talking a mile per minute. Luckily, he found that charming, and a couple years later we got married.

Those first moments, conversations, and dates can feel so exciting that we get a little bit clumsy. And that’s true even in Genesis.

In Genesis 24 we meet Rebekah. Abraham has sent a servant out to find a wife for Isaac, and the servant finds her near a well (for more on this, read We Met At A Well). The chapter is actually rather long (you can read it here), but this is my summary: The servant expects to meet a woman at a well who draws water for him and for his camels. Rebekah does exactly that, and he rewards her with jewelry. Rebekah’s brother Laban then sees Rebekah wearing the jewelry, and offers the servant hospitality. From there, the servant discusses with Rebekah and her family the possibility of her becoming Isaac’s wife. Eventually, everyone agrees, and the servant and Rebekah return to find Isaac.

Here’s where the story gets especially sweet: In verses 63 and 64, we learn that Isaac had gone out to the field to meditate, and he looks up to see Rebekah with the herd of camels approaching in the distance. Then Rebekah looks up, sees Isaac, and she falls off her camel. 

The English translations do a lot of work to try to make this scenario sound more dignified. The King James Version says she “lighted off” her camel, the English Standard Version says she “dismounted from” her camel, and the New International Version says she “got down from” her camel. They’re being gracious.

If the writer wanted to keep Rebekah dignified and controlled, he would have used the word tsanach. We find it in Judges 1:14, when Aksah gets down from (tsanach) her donkey to make a request of her husband. Rebekah doesn’t tsanach, though.

The word here is naphal — it’s the same word used to describe Abraham falling on his face before God (Gen. 17:3) and Joseph’s brothers falling down before Joseph (Gen. 44:14 and 50:18). In these instances, the people feel so overcome with emotion that they fall over. And upon seeing her betrothed, Rebekah naphal‘s from her camel as well.

This is a sweet and tender moment in the biblical story. One that demonstrates how those early stages of love can make us feel overwhelmed and even clumsy. And it tells us that those are holy moments. 

We are meant to feel surprised by God, and even by one another. Those remarkable moments when we feel caught off guard and overwhelmed by the circumstances we encounter can change what we know about ourselves and how we see the world. While we may feel embarrassed about our giddiness and joy, we see God in this text bless Rebekah for it. Let’s take the time today to remember a few of those joyful, silly, even clumsy moments, and celebrate them, knowing that God created us to feel overwhelmed and in awe of the love He has for us, and the love we find around us.

Understanding Joy And Grief On Mother’s Day

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This Sunday, May 8th, is Mother’s Day. Over the past few weeks, I have gathered cards and gifts for the mothers, grandmothers, and godmothers who I love so much. I look forward to spending the day celebrating the amazing women who have been my caregivers and role models throughout my life.

While Mother’s Day is a beautiful day of celebration for so many women, I can also think of the faces of many women who struggle on Mother’s Day. From women who want to be mothers, but struggle with infertility or who have lost a child, to women who may be facing another Mother’s Day after having lost their own mom. Mother’s Day is a complex day to feel joy for the moms we have in our lives, and also to recognize the struggle, sacrifice, and often grief that accompanies motherhood as well.

In Genesis 21, we meet two very different mothers facing very different circumstances. Back in Genesis 16, we saw the first fruits of conflict between Sarai and Hagar (read: When God Meets Us In Our Grief). We start with Sarah, who gives birth to Isaac and laughs that she has birthed a son at such an old age. God has fulfilled His promise to her, and she now has a healthy baby after years and years of barrenness. We see the blessing and joy of motherhood in the person of Sarah.

Shortly thereafter, in verses 8-21, we learn that Hagar’s son, Ishmael, laughed (presumably at Sarah), and offended her deeply. Sarah then instructs Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.

To Abraham’s credit, he takes the matter to God. God tells Abraham to follow Sarah’s instructions, and promises to care for Hagar and Ishamael in the wilderness. So Abraham gives Hagar a bit of bread and water, and sends her and Ishamael away. After wandering for some time, she runs out of food and water, and believes that Ishmael is going to die, so she sets him under a bush because she’s too grieved to watch. Hagar cries out to God, and God comes to meet her. In the midst of her grief, God offers her comfort, a well, and the promise of His faithful presence with her and her son throughout the rest of their lives.

Hagar experiences a different type of motherhood than Sarah. For the second time, Hagar found herself in the wilderness with a child (once in her womb, once in a sling she carried), wondering how she would ever survive her circumstances, let alone save her child. Motherhood causes her pain and suffering, and I think that’s perhaps why God meets her so often and in such a personal way.

Motherhood is a sacred gift. We are meant to treasure the mothers in our lives, and the precious roles we play as parents, grandparents, aunts, godmothers, and friends. As we approach this Mother’s Day, may we feel gratitude, joy, and love for those influential women in our lives, and may we also be cognizant of those who may carry a heavier burden on that day. Whether you identify more with Sarah or Hagar, may you know that you are loved and appreciated as a beautiful, strong woman of God. And may we all remember that God promised both Sarah and Hagar that He would never leave them nor forsake them, especially in their moments of greatest struggle and greatest joy.

The Restorative Power Of Pausing

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This last week I didn’t write any posts. I simply needed some time to pause, breathe, and be present to those around me. I felt restored and ready to write something new when I returned to Genesis this week; yet, when I opened to Genesis 20, I realized we weren’t in new territory at all.

Genesis 20 opens with Abraham and Sarah traveling to yet another location. As I read the text, I realized that they really haven’t paused much so far — in each chapter they’re working and living, and then moving to another land. In this particular instance they move to Gerar, and happen to make the exact same mistake they made in Genesis 12.

In When Our Heroes Let Us Down, we discussed the decision Abram made to abandon Sarai to Pharaoh in Gen. 12, insisting that she was his sister. God became very upset by that whole scenario, informed Pharaoh about what had happened, and Abram and Sarai left the land richer than ever. Abram acted in a way that felt disappointing, and we talked about what it means for those we love and admire to fall short of our expectations.

Here’s the bigger issue: today we watch Abraham make the exact same mistake, simply in a different household. Abraham lies to Abimelech this time, claiming that Sarah is his sister. So Abimelech takes Sarah into his household, and God appears to him to inform him that Sarah is, in fact, Abraham’s wife. Abimelech then confronts Abraham, gives Sarah back, and Abraham and Sarah leave the land richer than ever.

It’s odd to read Genesis 12 and Genesis 20 right next to each other. They really do feel like mirror images of the same mistake. God had to intervene on both accounts to inform the leader of the truth about their relationship and to rescue Sarah. Abraham’s willingness to commit this sin a second time is what really gets to me.

I wonder if their continued moving from place to place may have influenced the events of Genesis 20. At least for me, when I start moving quickly and forgetting to pause, I rely heavily on routine. It takes time to evaluate our decisions and make new ones, so if we’re in a hurry it becomes easy to simply do what we’ve done before. I’ve had certain phases of my life where I eat almost the same thing every day, simply because it would take time and energy to decide on something different.

Abraham’s situation is rather extreme. I would hope that Abraham would have taken the time to realize how much his decision hurt God and his wife in Genesis 12, but we have little evidence that he did. He chose to take the exact same route in the heat of the moment, and little to our surprise, he faced the exact same outcome.

We need to take time to pause. To reflect on the decisions we make everyday. None of us are perfect, and it can be tempting to choose the routes that are easiest and most familiar, all the while making life harder on God, those around us, and ourselves. Let’s take the time to identify one thing today that we can do or change that will bring greater peace and life to those around us. And in the end, may we find permission and space to pause.

What Every Christian Should Know About Genesis 13-18

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This week we covered the beginnings of Abraham and Sarah’s story, and took in some of the lessons that these incredible biblical texts have to offer. If you missed a few of the posts, but want to keep up with us, here is a synopsis of each of the lessons:

In Waiting on God, we looked at the role of Abram in Genesis 15 and 16. We saw how God went out of His way in chapter 15 to reassure Abram that he would have an heir and a great nation. However, in the following chapter, we watched Abram take the situation into his own hands by hastily impregnating Sarai’s servant, Hagar, in an attempt to bring about God’s promises. We discussed how difficult it can be to wait on God, especially when the stakes are so high, and found encouragement to have patience when waiting for God to fulfill His promises.

We then looked at the story of Hagar in When God Meets Us In Our Grief. We watched as tension grew between Sarai and Hagar, her servant whom Abram impregnated. As a result, Sarai treated Hagar so harshly that she ran away into the desert. While this pregnant, homeless slave mourned her mistreatment, God appeared to her to offer comfort. He asked, “Hagar, where do you come from and where are you going?” and as He sat with her, He named her son “God hears” (yishmael) and Hagar named God, “God sees” (El Roi). We marveled at God’s ability to show up for us in our most vulnerable and lost moments as well.

The following day we watched as God created a covenant with Abram in Covenant and Calling. We saw how God created the covenantal relationship with Abram, changing his name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah. Just after God established His covenant with Abraham, God then began growing the vision for how their relationship would change the world. We discussed what it means for our relationship with God to not only transform our own lives, but also the world around us.

Finally, in When God Answers Prayer, we looked at Genesis 18, when God and two other men appeared to Abraham and they began discussing the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. We watched Abraham slowly talk God down from His plan to destroy the land. We then considered how our prayers impact the heart of God, acknowledging that God said in Genesis 18 that he hears cries of injustice. We defined prayer as communing with God, and emphasized how important it is to converse with God about how we are feeling and what we are experiencing.

In the coming week we will start in Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which people have used in both helpful and very harmful ways throughout history. We will move forward from there. Thank you for joining me on this journey!


For those of you keeping up with our Hebrew study, here are the vocabulary words for this week:

avram — exalted father, also the name of Abram

avraham — father of a multitude, also the name of Abraham

saray — princess, also the name of Sarai

sarah — noblewoman, also the name of Sarah

hagar — the stranger, also the name of Hagar

ishah — wife, Hagar becomes a second-tier wife to Abram

yishmael — God hears, also the name if Ishamel

El Roi — God sees, or God who sees, what Hagar names God in the wilderness

 

Covenant and Calling

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Do you remember the first time you felt belonging with God? That feeling that God is with you, listening to you, and knowing you very deeply? When I was ten years old I remember laying under the stars and feeling for the first time that I could talk with God, that He would eagerly listen, and that I belonged with him.

Starting in Genesis 12, we see Abram belonging with God. God makes grand promises, leads Abram and Sarai to a variety of lands, and communes with Hagar in the desert. Then, when we arrive at chapter 17, Abram and God establish an even closer and deeper relationship through covenant.

After we leave chapter 16, we know that thirteen years pass before we pick up with chapter 17. We learn that Abram is 99 years old when God calls to him, explains that He will make a covenant with Abram, and that Abram will have innumerable descendants. God changes Abram’s name from Abram (avram), meaning “exalted father,” to Abraham (avraham), meaning “father of a multitude.” God also changes the name of Sarai (saray), meaning “princess,” to Sarah (sarah), meaning “noblewoman.”

In creating the covenant, we see an identity transformation occur. The Exalted Father becomes the Father of a Multitude; the Princess becomes a Noblewoman. Belonging to and with God changes who Abram and Sarai are, and what they represent to the world.

After that transformation occurs, God then promises Abraham that Sarah will birth a child for him, despite her being 99 years old. Abraham experienced such disbelief as to laugh at God, which then inspired his son’s name, Isaac (yitsaq), meaning “he laughs.” God promises that Isaac will carry on the covenant and become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

So once God transforms Abraham and Sarah, establishing a covenantal relationship with them, God then begins expanding it. He establishes that they belong to Him, and then He paints a picture of how their covenant will grow to impact the whole world. He instructs Abraham to circumcise all of the males in the household, and gives him other key directives about what needs to happen in order for them to maintain their covenant relationship. And with those instructions, God then shows Abraham all of the powerful ways He will use their relationship.

Finding a sense of belonging with God is such a special and sacred moment. We must savor our feelings of being found, known, and loved, and we must remind ourselves of that deep and endless relationship constantly. And after we have found our belonging in God, we must then open our ears to listen to what He has in store for us.

God can use us to transform the world, or at least the worlds of those around us. If we listen to His directions, and take the steps to continue following Him, we can watch the transformation of lives take place. This was never meant to be an insular relationship, one in which God changes us and we merely sit with Him for the rest of our days. Rather, God wants to use us as His hands and feet in the world. And if we allow Him to do that, we will create greater change than we ever could have dreamed before.

Let’s be found in Him today. And then open our hearts and hands, stand up, and follow Him.