I grew up the oldest daughter with three siblings, and the four of us were constantly squabbling when we were younger about how we wanted everything to be equal and balanced. If one of us got a glass of chocolate milk, we all wanted a glass of chocolate milk – and no one had better get even a drop more than the others! Like with all siblings, there was jealousy and competition and a fair amount of sibling rivalry.
We see this exact same dynamic play out in the story of Jacob and Esau, told in Genesis 25:19-34. From the very outset, we see the conflict between the two brothers, noted in how they “struggled against each other” in their mother, Rebecca’s, womb. Even at their birth, Jacob grasped Esau’s heel, trying to force his way out of the womb first. Later, as young men, Esau foolishly gives his birthright over to Jacob for a bowl of stew. While Esau is criticized in rabbinic literature giving up his birthright much too readily, it is also true that Jacob knew his brother was famished and used that opportunity to exploit Esau, thereby procuring what he wanted. Later, the brothers’ mother encourages Jacob to disguise himself as Esau to steal Esau’s blessing from their father, thereby confirming his name’s meaning of “trickster.”
Yet it is Jacob, not Esau, who ends up as the hero of the faith, one through whom YHWH further establishes the Israelite people. It is Jacob who ends up with divine blessing in spite of his deceit. How do we reconcile that tension? And perhaps a question that hits a bit closer to home: how do we, individually and collectively, act like Jacob the trickster? What are the “birthrights” we have procured for ourselves through less-than-honest means?
The United States, less than two weeks ago, proudly celebrated its 247th birthday. There were flags and fireworks and cries of “God Bless America!” all across the country. The United States surely is blessed; it is the world’s richest nation, leading the pack with a whopping $106.0 trillion of global wealth, and makes up nearly a quarter of the world’s economy. It has a strong military and more natural resources, like navigable waterways and ports, than the rest of the world combined. To many, the United States is the hero of the story.
However, we would do well to remember how exactly it is that we got here. Though specific population estimates vary, “the Americas were home to tens of millions of people before the arrival of Columbus. Indigenous American societies ranged from small hunter-gatherer groups to large, technologically advanced polities. … Many indigenous cultures had advanced mathematics and architecture, sophisticated food systems, and a detailed understanding of their surrounding environment.” These Indigenous peoples were beloved by God, part of our human family. As Europeans began their colonization of the New World, they shaped virtually every aspect of the land and its people, including goods and ideas but also disease and genocide. As the demand for labor to cultivate America’s cash crops grew, so did racial and religious segmentation, giving birth to the era of slavery. Slavery, particularly the cotton slavery that existed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the Civil War, was a business with the sole focus of maximizing profits. Enslaved people – our brothers and sisters in the family of God — became machines that fueled the business, propelling the United States forward.
Yes, America is most assuredly blessed – but look at the cost. Look at what we did to our siblings to get here. We, as present-day Americans, are reaping the benefits of a “birthright” that we stole. I am not suggesting at all that America ought not to be celebrated, but what I am saying is let’s at least be honest and tell the whole story. We will never be able to move forward as a country if we’re not honest about our past.
Yet this is not only an American “problem.” Other worldly superpowers are engaging in the same kind of behavior by going after what they want by any means necessary. Russia continues its attack on Ukraine, threatening their country and their sovereignty, in an effort to amass more land for itself and deny Ukraine its statehood. Modern-day Israel is engaged in a brutal, bloody, decades-long conflict with Palestine over territorial claims. Nations rage against nations; brothers rage against brothers. All of it begs the question, “What belongs to who? Is it right to enjoy the fruit of what we have never harvested? And why do we, as a species, have such a hard time keeping our hands off what isn’t ours to begin with?”
Power – the promise of blessing – always carries with it the potential to corrupt. Jacob so desperately wanted the birthright and blessing of his brother because it carried with it the power and privileges that were awarded to first-born sons in the Ancient Near East. His crafty use of deception got him what he wanted, yes, but at what cost? In later chapters of Genesis, as Jacob and Esau’s story unfolds, we learn that Jacob flees in terror, essentially living most of his life as a fugitive from his family. We know that it was God’s plan for Jacob to succeed Isaac, but Jacob used deception, theft, and his own abilities to secure the rights he coveted rather than trusting in YHWH to keep the promise. As a result, the family went through a deep, painful alienation that lasted for years. Jacob believed in God’s promise, but he failed to live in faith in light of the promise. The blessings were meant to be gifts to be received, not plunder to be stolen. As such, Jacob’s signature moment in his story comes during his wrestling match with the mysterious stranger revealed to be none other than God (Gen. 32-24-30). Instead of craftily procuring the blessing, Jacob is forced to call out in his weakness for it – something he had never before done. But it was there that God blessed him.
What blessings might we unexpectedly find if we dropped it all, our hunger for power and privilege, fortune and fame, a legacy and lineage, the false gods of consumption and consumerism? What would happen if we, like the later chapters of Jacob’s life, confessed our wrongs and repented of them, trying to make things right wherever we could? A recent article I read reported that a Dutch museum has begun the process of repatriating nearly 500 objects looted during colonial times back to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. In a statement released by the Dutch Secretary of State, the nation acknowledged that it was giving back “objects that should have never been brought to the Netherlands.” In the United States, the National African-American Reparations Commission was formed in 2015 with a “common commitment to fight for reparatory justice, compensation and restoration of African American communities that were plundered by the historical crimes of slavery, segregation and colonialism and that continue to be victimized by the legacies of slavery and American apartheid.”
As Christ-followers, we are tasked with joining him in his ministry of reconciliation and restoration. We cannot do this if we’re unwilling to do the work of closely examining where the cracks are, though. We can’t repair what we’re too stubborn to admit is broken.
But there is hope. As Christians, our hope is in our God who faithfully redeems all things. Though Jacob’s story begins with trickery and deceit, it ends with honor. May it be so for our individual and collective stories as well.