A Family Full of Firstborns, Genesis 25:19-34, 3/2/14

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Mar 032014

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

19 These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her,


“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”


24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.


27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.


29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30 Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me first.”  So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:19-34, NRSV)


So much has been written in recent years about birth order.  First born children.  The middle child.  The baby of the family.  The only child.  Each designation brings to mind a whole set of assumptions and stereotypes.


How many of you were firstborn children like me?   Keep your hand up if you liked being the firstborn in your family?  There certainly can be some advantages to being oldest.  There are also some definite downsides.  Specifically, any of you other firstborns ever feel like it was those younger brothers and sisters who get away with everything?  I mean, by the time number 3 or 4 comes along, mom and dad are just so worn out that all bets are off!  “Sure, take the car.  Credit card, why not?  Where are you going?  Vegas.  No problem, just be home by Tuesday.”  Lots of firstborns have to watch their younger siblings get away with things they never would have dreamed of getting away with.


On the other side of things, how many of you are the baby of the family?  Being youngest is a privilege, right?  Not always.  Not long ago our family pulled out some old home videos we took when our kids were little.  I had forgotten just how much footage we took of Isabel, our firstborn, when she was a baby.  Here’s 10 minutes of Isabel lying on the couch.  Here’s another 10 minutes of Isabel lying on the rug.  He’s 15 minutes of Isabel drooling.  I’m her own father and even I got bored of watching.  Finally we got to Noel’s part of the video, our second born.  Here’s 10 minutes of Isabel dancing in the living room and look, pause the tape, there’s a shot of Noel lying on the couch in the background!  You can only imagine how our youngest two feel!  Now, do we love our firstborn more than the others?  Of course not.  But it is easy to see how younger siblings can grow up feeling a bit lost in the shuffle.


While the birth order in families today certainly has ramifications, things are nothing like they were at the time when Isaac and Rebekah had their twin sons.  Back then birth order meant everything.  Specifically, if you were the firstborn son you were considered far and away to be in the position of greatest favor in the family.  In ancient Israel the firstborn son was held in high, high esteem.  He was regarded as the first fruits of his father’s strength[1] and dedicated to God for a place of special privilege in his life.[2]  When the father died, it was the firstborn who would receive the larger sum of the inheritance, twice as much as his brothers.  He would also inherit the role of head of the family.  You see, the birthright of firstborn son in those days was an extraordinarily valuable thing to possess and would have been the envy of every younger brother in the land.[3]


In the course of history people have been known to trade lots of things.  If times get tough, Great-Grandma’s wedding ring might end up in a pawn shop.  Prostitution is known as the oldest profession in the world because lots of desperate people have traded their bodies for cash.  Even today, we know of instances where people have become so desperate they have done the unthinkable and sold their own children into slavery just to stay alive.  In desperate times people take desperate measures, but for a firstborn son in the ancient world to trade his birthright and the place of great favor it afforded him was unheard of, no matter what it was he could get in return.  On the other side of things, a younger son would be willing to trade almost anything to get this place of favor if the opportunity to do so came his way.


Jacob spent his entire life striving to become the favored son.  The text tells us that even in the womb Jacob wrestled with his brother.  It’s as if he was vying for the position closest to the exit so that he could be first out the door.  He doesn’t succeed and when he is born he comes out clutching the heel of his older brother, making one last grasp for that place of privilege and favor.  His parents immediately named him Jacob, which in Hebrew literally means “heel grabber.”  He would spend the years to come living up to his name.


When the two boys grow up they are as different as night and day, as even twins often are.  Esau is what you might call a “man’s man.”  He liked the outdoors.  He liked to hunt.  He probably wore boots caked with mud and drove a truck equally caked with mud.  Jacob, on the other hand, was what you might call a “mama’s boy”.  He didn’t much like the outdoors, preferring to stay home and work in the kitchen.  He was a quiet man, sensitive and introspective.


Thankfully, nowadays we’ve progressed far enough so that we don’t have such narrow definitions of manhood.  In those days, however, the stereotypes were much, much more rigid.  It should come as no surprise to learn, therefore, that Isaac, who apparently liked his BBQ, favored Esau who always brought him home something for the grill.  And it didn’t help Jacob’s cause that his mother ended up favoring him.  All of this, of course, simply added to the crushing realization for Jacob that he was not in the coveted place of favor in the family.  Esau was in; he was out.


This likely helps explain why Jacob is not the most honorable character we meet in the Bible.  If you know the rest of his story, the man hardly does a single honorable thing in his life.  He’s a deeply flawed individual, but for reasons we can perhaps understand and sympathize with.  Perhaps reasons some of us can even relate to personally.  Even those of us who grew up as firstborns may have also grown up without the confidence that we were truly favored.  And just because others of us were fortunate enough to grow up knowing we were genuinely loved and favored by our parents, doesn’t mean that world around us hasn’t eventually forced even us into the place of Jacob.


The closer we look at Jacob the more all of us realize we are looking in the mirror.  If you’re honest about it, don’t you have to admit that one way or another you have spent much of your life as a “heel grabber” yourself, striving after some position or another of favor and blessing which you imagine others possess and so you long to possess yourself?  Some of us come out of less-than-perfect families, or even out of family systems that were downright broken and destructive and so that feeling our parents gave us that we never measured up has stuck with us our whole lives.  But even those of us who came out of comparably healthy families can still carry this burden around.


For example, how many people do you know who are killing themselves by working so hard every day of every week?  And a big reason so many of us do this is because we want to make ourselves into something we have always wished we could become so that others will admire what we have accomplished and their approval and applause will satisfy this long-held desire to find favor?  Do you know anybody like that?   Any chance you’re sitting next to somebody like that?  Or maybe the person sitting next to you sitting next to somebody like that?


As parents or grandparents, we often have so much riding on the success of our children or grandchildren turning out well.  Why is that?  Partly, of course, it’s because we love them and want to best for them.  Dig a little deeper, however, and we may begin to find that mixed in with our selfless intentions is this selfish desire to justify ourselves through the success of our children and grandchildren.  Do I feel better about myself when my children succeed in the eyes of others?  Honestly, I do.  Well why is that?  Is my desire to see them succeed all about them or is it at least partly about me?


This deep long-held desire to find favor and blessing even creeps into the church.  How many of us clean ourselves up so nicely when we come into this community that even our closest friends in the church have not been allowed to see some of the less honorable things, the bitterness, the envy, the lust, the self-righteousness, that prowl around up here in our heads and down here in our hearts?  Many of us worship next to people who have no idea the true state of our heart and life and we dare not let them see.  Worse, we learn to play this game so well and know how to disguise ourselves so cleverly that we can even trick ourselves into imagining that we might just fool God into thinking that at the end of the day we are pretty deserving and decent folks.


There is something deep within me that is dying to be blessed, dying to find favor, dying to be in that place of honor.  And I believe the same is true of you.  It has to be.  For this is how God made us.  Remember, in the creation accounts at the beginning of Genesis God made us in his image and placed us in paradise to be the most favored ones in all of creation, his very partners in the stewardship of his world.  We were created to dwell in the midst of God’s blessing and yet we turned our backs on God and forfeited our place of honor.  We traded away paradise for piece of rotten fruit.  We traded away the love of God for the love of the world.  And ever since, human history has been one tragic example after tragic example of heel-grabbing people striving in vain to regain that long ago forfeited place of blessing and favor.


So how can we blame Jacob?  When he gets the chance to grab a place of favor he takes it.  One day the brother he has always resented comes in from a long day out in the field of proving himself the favored son.  Jacob had been inside all day cementing his place as the out-of-favor son working in the kitchen and cooking a stew.  When Esau comes in he’s famished.  Food is all that is on his mind.  At once he begs his brother, “Please, Jacob, let me eat some of that red stew.  Come on, give it me!  I’m starving!”


Jacob doesn’t hesitate.  He’s been waiting, watching for this moment his whole life and his quick response betrays a ruthless and premeditated exploitation of his brother’s moment of weakness.  Every day Esau comes in from the fields with the fruits of his labor to receive the praise and favor of their father.  All his life Jacob has longed to be in that place.  He will now do whatever it takes to get a hold of it.


In a similar way, just think of the lengths each of us has gone to in our own ways to grab for ourselves a place of blessing and favor.  Personally, I cannot deny it.  I will admit to you that the hunger for favor in me has been very strong, strong enough to make me do things that have no honor but I do them anyway simply to gain this favor.  It occurred to me this week how many things I have done in my life simply so that others will think well of me.  If I do something for somebody, or compliment somebody, or stand up for somebody and at least part of the reason I do these things is so that people will like me, or admire me, or find favor with me, all I’m doing is using people in my endless quest to gain favor and blessing and though it looks honorable enough on the surface, beneath the surface there is nothing honorable about it.


There is nothing honorable about what Jacob does.  Sure, he only gives Esau what Esau wants.  No, he has no gun to Esau’s head, forcing him to make this trade.  And yet, this is his own brother, his own flesh and blood, who has been out working in the field all day long for the sake of the family.  His request then is not unreasonable.  He’s a very hungry man and all he wants is a bowl of stew.   Granted, he’s also a foolish man to make the trade that he makes, but Esau’s foolhardiness is no excuse for Jacob’s exploitation.


But that is what happens.  Jacob makes an offer nobody in their right mind would consider.  “Listen,” he tells Esau, “I’ll give you a big bowl of this hot stew if in exchange you’ll give me your birthright.”  What fool would ever think that was a good deal?  Apparently a fool like Esau, for he does the unthinkable.  Esau trades his birthright for a lousy bowl of soup.  And as we find out later, it’s vegetarian.  It’s full of lentils!  Lentils are okay, but if you’re going to trade away your birthright at least hold out for some beef stew or some chicken gumbo!   Get something of substance out of the deal!  Esau doesn’t even do that.  He gives away something of surpassing worth in exchange for something of no value at all.  As the text says, he despises his birthright.  He scorns it.  He spits on it.  And as a result Jacob receives from Esau that which does not, by any stretch of anybody’s imagination, rightly belong to him.


And all of a sudden we see it.  If you have the eyes to see it, this is the point in the story at which Jesus suddenly comes into focus.


In the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, there is a beautiful passage beginning in verse 15 in which Paul describes the nature and character of Christ.   Listen closely to the beginning of Paul’s description: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.”[4]  In John 3:16, the most famous verse in the New Testament, Jesus speaks about himself this way: “For God so love the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”  In the family of God who is the most highly favored?  Christ, and Christ alone.  Christ is not only the firstborn Son of God but also the only Son of God.  And since he was not created but, with the Father, eternal, that means that Jesus has lived for infinite time in the most enviable state of firstborn favor and blessing.


Those of you who are parents, think about how much you love your own children.  When they were young do you remember going into their room at night and sitting on the side of the bed as they slept and just watching them breath, putting your hand on their chest as it moves up and down.  And in those quiet moments when you gaze at your child and you stop to consider the gift that they are to you, you find yourself so filled with love and blessing for them that your heart aches.  You can barely stand it.  You may even get up from the bed and leave the room because the ache of love is almost too painful to take.  And just because your children are now adults doesn’t mean that ache goes away.[5]


Consider this.  As much as a father like me may love his own children, my love is only a tiny fraction of the love God the Father has for his Son, Christ.  Magnify the ache of love we have for our kids a thousand times and you will still not come close to the love God the Father has for God the Son.  When Jesus was baptized the very next thing that happened is the heavens open and the voice of the Father speaks from the clouds saying to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[6]


For all eternity Christ has been in the possession of the birthright which has afforded him the favored place of blessing in heaven.  And yet, what does Christ do with such a thing of immeasurable value?  He trades it away.  Just like Esau he trades it away to the one who, like Jacob, in no way deserves to possess it.  He trades it away to you and to me.  He does this for different reasons, of course, not to satisfy the ache in his belly but to satisfy the ache in his heart.  Nonetheless, he trades it away just the same.


Listen to how Paul puts this so beautifully in Philippians 2.

[Christ Jesus], though he was in the form of God, [that firstborn place of favor and blessing],
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.[7]


All his life whenever Jesus addressed his Father that is what he called him, “Father.”  On the cross, however, when Jesus is close to death, when he is close to fully exchanging his place of blessing and favor for our place of curse and dejection, at that point when Jesus calls to heaven he does not call out “Father”.  What does he cry out?  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[8]  For our sake he gives up the precious birthright, and with it the favor and blessing of God, and receives in its place something far less valuable or desirable then even a bowl of lentil stew.[9]


There is nothing in us that makes us worthy of this.  Nothing.  We are Jacob, as undeserving as can be.  This is a pure gift of grace and love from Christ.  And if we would come to believe this is true, to recognize our complete inability to ever earn or deserve favor or blessing on our own merit or striving or standing, then to confess our great sin and repent and turn in faith and cast ourselves on the mercy of God in Christ, then we will receive what nobody in their right mind would think could ever be granted us, the favor and blessing of God which was once only reserved for his eternal and beloved Son.


This week I came across a verse in scripture that I have never noticed before.[10]  In Hebrews 12:23 the writer is describing the church and does so by using a very curious phrase.  He calls the people of God “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.”  Imagine that.  What sort of family is filled with children who are all firstborn?  It’s not possible.  But it is!  This is the family of God.  This is how it feels when you come to place your faith in Jesus Christ and receive what he has offered.  Every Christian is meant to feel as if he or she is the one in the family the Father loves best.  Each of us, in Christ, comes to feel as if we are the firstborn, cherished, esteemed and blessed above all others!


I must ask you this.  As you sit there this morning, do you rest in the knowledge that you are God’s beloved son, God’s beloved daughter?  Do you experience in life the peace that comes to a person when he or she knows that they are a delight in God’s eyes, not because of their own performance but simply because of the gift of grace which Christ has exchanged?  My earnest prayer is that you would come to that place of faith, even today, even now, even in this very moment.  I pray that you would know God’s blessing and favor in Christ, not only in your head but in your heart, in your life.


When by God’s grace this happens, if this happens, everything in your life will begin to change and will begin to change forever.







The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

When you grew up, did you consider yourself a “favored” child?  Why or why not?


Read Genesis 25:19-34.  What’s your immediate reaction to this story?


After reading this passage how would you describe Esau?  How would you describe Jacob?  Which would you prefer to have as a brother?


In verse 23 God clearly elects to choose Jacob as the son through whom he will work out his purposes.  Why?


How do you recognize that you have spent your life as a “heel grabber”, always striving to put yourself in a place of favor and blessing with others and with God?  Sometimes maybe you have even done so in less than honorable ways.


Colossians 1:15 declares that Christ is the “firstborn over all creation.”  John 3:16 declares that Christ is the “only begotten Son” of God.  What would it mean to you if Christ were to trade to you his birthright as God’s favored and beloved firstborn?  What would you offer in return for such a trade?


Has Jesus, in fact, made such a trade?


Read Philippians 2:6-8 and consider these verses in light of the story of Jacob and Esau.  Now what do you see here?


When you consider your relationship with God as your Heavenly Father, do you consider yourself a favored and beloved son or daughter?  Why or why not?



[1] See Genesis 49:3.

[2] See Exodus 22:28-29.

[3] I found very helpful historical information about all this from Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 16-50, (Dallas: Word, 1994), 178.

[4] Colossians 1:15, NIV (emphasis mine).

[5] This example was inspired by Timothy Keller in a sermon entitled “The Problem of Blessing” (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, October 28, 2001.  Listen to it in full at https://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/problem-blessing

[6] See Luke 3:22.

[7] Philippians 2:6-8, NRSV.

[8] Matthew 27:46.

[9] Galatians 3:13-14 puts this beautifully.

[10] Pointed out to me by Tim Keller in the sermon cited above.