Re-reading the familiar story of ancient patriarchs Jacob and Esau (Genesis 32 & beyond).
Back story: Jacob and Esau are twins who wrestle with each other in the womb. Their mother Rebekah, mystified by this, seeks advice and receives a prophecy: there are two nations in her womb and they will be divided against each other; and the younger will serve the older. When the babies are born Esau is born first but Jacob is born holding onto his brother’s heel (the name “Jacob” means “he takes by the heel” or “he supplants”). As the boys grow into manhood, Jacob manages by various devious means to get his hands on both Esau’s birthright and his blessing – the entire inheritance. Esau is so angry he decides to kill his brother as soon as Papa Isaac is dead. Overhearing this, Rebekah sends Jacob away to her brother who lives in a foreign land. There Jacob works for 20 years as a slave to his uncle in return for two wives and some flocks. When his uncle begins to despise him, Jacob packs up his wives, kids, and flocks and escapes back home… where he must deal with Esau and his past.
While it’s true Jacob holds *legal* title to his father Isaac’s estate, in fact it is Esau who has inherited all of Isaac’s worldly goods. Jacob is not home when Isaac passes, nor when Rebekah passes, so everything falls into Esau’s hands. Jacob was sent to his uncle with nothing but the clothes on his back. Granted, Jacob has become a wealthy man during his 20 years of labor — though his uncle disputes his ownership (Genesis 31:43). So what does Jacob really have? The birthright (Genesis 25:31-34), and the blessing (Genesis 27:26-29)… promises and legal rights, nothing more. No wonder Esau goes to meet Jacob with a company of 400 men!
In his youth Jacob took what he thought was the easy road. He spent his time in the tents hanging out with the family while his brother was out hunting (Genesis 25:27), using his time to devise plots to get his hands on his brother’s inheritance. But as God begins to take hold of his life, and to form Jacob into the patriarch who will one day be named Israel, what looked like the easy road turns into a very hard road. The bookish young man finds in his uncle a man even more crafty and deceptive than himself, who wears out Jacob’s strength in manual labor, and who cheats Jacob out of his wages time and time again. Only as Jacob begins to see God’s hand in his life, and to obey God’s leading, does the prophecy begin to be fulfilled.
Parallel lesson for us today: The road of true spirituality is a hard road. The Christian faith — like the ancient Jewish faith — rests on God’s promises and God’s blessing. Esau represents the things the world values: physical strength, the family’s wealth, good looks, solid family man, married with lots of children, the leader of a nation (Edom). But God has not chosen Esau… God has chosen Jacob. And Jacob begins with nothing… nothing but a promise and a blessing and a very hard road. This is the man whose children become the nation of Israel, who becomes the ancestor of Jesus. This is the man who has a Promised Land to look forward to. And for those of us who are on a hard road, holding on to nothing but promises and a blessing… so do we.