Preached on Sunday, 16.07.2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
This story of Esau and Jacob is set in the lectionary to be read alongside the passage we heard from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Listen again to some of that:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
So it would be easy, probably has been easy over the years, for a preacher to put into those words of Paul the contrast between Esau and Jacob, to speak of Esau who could think of nothing but his hunger being the one with his mind set on the things of the flesh – and to see in Jacob one who had his mind set on higher things, on the future, and on the birthright of which Esau was seemingly so contemptuous, the birthright which we are told he despised.
And that is, in a sense, what we are meant to take from it. But more than that, we are meant to take the message that the descendants of Jacob (who later was named Israel) are the ones who now have the birthright, and who still have their eyes set on higher things; and that the descendants of Esau, the Edomites, are still people of the flesh, venial, ignorant and contemptuous of anything that does not put food in their stomachs.
And so we need to notice that this story of conflict between brothers is in fact a story of conflict between neighbours, between those who have been long separated but who are really part of the same family. The story is one that seeks to explain why the Edomites, a Semitic people, who might have been ‘us’ are instead ‘them’; and it seeks to tell us that the separation and the feud and the ancient enmity is, in fact, all ‘their’ fault. The inheritance, the birthright, has passed to the descendants of Jacob because Esau and those who came after him were not worthy of it, could not be trusted with it.
On one level, there is here the recognition of how easily jealousy and ambition and rivalry get in the way of human relationships. Right back at the beginning of the story is the account of what happens when another two brothers feel they are being unequally treated, when the achievements of one are thought of as inferior to the achievements of another, the offerings of one as less worthy than the offerings of another. Right back at the beginning of the tale God’s favour, or even favouritism, is seen as sewing the seed of human conflict, bringing murder into the world – and punishment and banishment and estrangement.
So from the beginning of this foundational tale that we read in the book of Genesis is the idea that God likes some brothers more than other brothers (sisters, by the way, only become of relevance when they become wives and mothers!); and the tale is told, as later history will mostly be, from the point of view of the winners. ‘History,’ said Churchill famously, ‘will be kind to me, because I will write it.’ So the tale of Genesis is told by those who have become the winners – and their winning is ascribed to the favour of God even when, as with Jacob, the winning is achieved by trickery, by desperation, by taking advantage of weakness.
The tale, then, to put a slightly more modern spin on it, refuses to feel sorry for ‘losers’. But today I want us to look a little at this one set of losers – the Edomites – because they may tell us a little about the way the world still tends to work unless the people of God look with better eyes at tales of winners and losers; there is another level to understand.
Edom is not only mentioned in the bible, it also is listed in the records of ancient Egypt and of Assyria. There is some dubiety about the exact territory it covered, but basically it is an area south of Judah, spreading out from the southern end of the Dead Sea. Its most well known place is Petra, now in Jordan. It is not an area blessed with fertile arable land, but it does straddle important trade routes between Egypt, Lebanon, Mesopotamia, and Arabia; so the Edomites made their living mostly from trade.
Their most famous exports were salt and balsam, which was used as the perfume in temples – we even sing about it in the hymn ‘Brightest and best of the sons of the morning’. And, notably, we sing about it in order to take up the Israelite notion that what came from Edom may have been expensive, but wasn’t actually worth much to God:
Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion,
odours of Edom, and offerings divine,
gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean,
myrrh from the forest or gold form the mine?
Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
vainly with gifts would his favour secure;
richer by far is the heart’s adoration;
dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
The Edomites probably came from further east, pushed toward the territory we think of as theirs by the advance of others. They were around, according to archaeological evidence, about the 14th century BC, and part of the array of Semitic peoples of whom the people of Israel (or of Jacob) were also a part. Over the centuries there was much contact between these related tribes, with laws having to be drawn up about the rules of intermarriage between them (including, in particular, a dispute about whether laws of exclusion applied only to men or also to women). The Edomites were, according to the Hebrew bible, asked for safe passage through their land by Moses, were defeated by Saul, and may have been part of the army that sacked Jerusalem with the Babylonians. And there is a tradition in the Talmud, the post-Jerusalem temple Jewish writings, that the Edomites became the Romans, and indeed all Europeans.
But salt and perfume were not all that the descendants of Jacob received from the descendants of Esau. There is another tale to tell when it comes to worship and to the understanding of God. The Edomites were converted to a form of Judaism, joining other Semitic peoples, by the Hasmoneans; but like the other Semitic tribes they worshipped a variety of gods, such as Baal, Asherah, El, and their own early god Qaus. From the southern Edomites, however, came an understanding of God that would eclipse all the others – and a name that would rise high above all other names: Yahweh. And this name, this understanding, was later adopted by Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel.
So something far more important than the perfume with which to sweeten the stale air of a temple in the oppressive heat of an arid region was exported. The very name of God that would come to run through the Hebrew scripture is likely to have come from Edom – Edom the despised, Edom the suspected, Edom the estranged. Might it be true, then, that what our story is about is not about either a bowl of soup, or a birthright plainly understood, or an inheritance, or a promise? Might it be that what has been prised from Esau’s grasp, and grasped as Jacob’s prize, is God?
When the writers of the Hebrew scripture refer to ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ do they do so in order to emphasise and reinforce the ‘ownership’ of God by the descendants of Jacob – lest anyone remember that the birthright, the divine inheritance, was first that of Abraham, Isaac – and Esau? And might it just be that this tale is told to justify the understanding of God as having come through Jacob – because Esau, that is the Edomites, could not be trusted to look after that inheritance, because it was a birthright they were said to have despised? If so, was it the case that the Edomites were far too concerned with material gain, as traders have often been known or thought to be, and became careless with an inheritance whose value they could not begin to understand? Or was that tale, like the red soup, a concoction designed to give a better taste to what was basically deception and theft – the rewriting of history by those who have come out on top?
Of course, there are other situations to which the same kind of analysis can be applied. Perhaps the most obvious one is the way in which, over the centuries and from quite near the beginning, the same kind of tale has been told by Christianity about Judaism. It has been said in different times and in different places that though the understanding of God came to us through the Jews, they were not worthy to care for that understanding.
They were, we were told, or we told ourselves, careless with their inheritance – they despised their birthright. After the fall of the Jerusalem temple, and after Judaism was dispersed, the Jews (like the Edomites) often became traders – and became the object of the same kind of accusations that seem to have been being levelled at the Edomites: they were more interested in material gain than in faithful witness; they were greedy, untrustworthy, cunning, willing to sell anything for anything, and anyone for anything.
They were, says Matthew’s gospel, the killers of Christ, the slayers of God – and their children and their children’s children would pay the price of that betrayal. And so the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (or Esau) has again been transformed in our understanding, now away from the patriarchs to being the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And for many centuries Jews were hounded from place to place, and from pillar to post, accused of plots and treasons, portrayed as villains and thieves (just think of Shylock and Fagin).
It is still true that those most closely related run the biggest risk of being most severely estranged; disputes over inheritance still split families – and they do the same among the families of religions, the brothers and sisters in faith among whom birthrights are still disputed, and who still squabble for bragging rights over who carries their divine Father’s favour – and their divine Father must despair.
A small footnote: Mary and I spent this past week visiting the place of my next employment. I was reminded in preparing this sermon of a book written by Umberto Eco about a tale of plots and threats, a tale invented in the nineteenth century to justify the persecution of the Jews, a tale of their threatened takeover of the world – ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’. The Protocols purport to be the minutes of a secret meeting – and these so-called ‘minutes’ justify every anti-Jewish sentiment the world has ever come up with, every excuse anyone might need to say that the Jewish people, like Esau, had despised their birthright, sold it for a mess of potage, or the mess they might make of the world. The venue Umberto Eco gives for this secret meeting is the title of his book: ‘The Prague Cemetery’.