Abraham lost his beloved wife Sarah. She had given him Isaac, the son of God’s promise, and through Isaac, God would keep His covenant with Abraham to raise up a priestly nation to the world. Abraham married again to a woman named Keturah. She gave Abraham six sons. Yet God made it clear that the honor of being the father of God’s priestly nation belonged to Isaac. The LORD had a very unique and specific plan to bring salvation to humanity, and Abraham and Isaac were on board and willing to do what He willed. Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac, including the land. Abraham loved his sons through Keturah, so while he was still alive, he gave them many lavish gifts. Then he sent them away to a land far off in the east. Those sons had their own children, and their children had even more children, so that after many years, whole tribes of nations came from her children through Abraham. God surely kept his promise to make Abraham the father of many nations.
Abraham lived to be a hundred and seventy-five years old. The Bible says:
“Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age,
an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.”
By that time, Abraham had lived in the promise land for a hundred years. He had become a great leader of a formidable tribe of warriors. At the news of his death, the whole region mourned the loss of this powerful, righteous prince. His strength and honorable character had brought security and peace to the whole region. He had saved many of them from slavery, and his goodness and courage was known by all. The loss of his life would have been felt deeply and the world would have felt like a much more dangerous place without him.
Abraham’s honored sons, Isaac and Ishmael, took his body to the cave where Sarah had been buried. So many years before, Abraham had bought it at great cost from the Hittites to bury his beloved wife. Now his sons lay him down beside her, united at the death of their noble father. And after Abraham’s death, God blessed Isaac.
Now, we know that Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, had come from Sarah’s maidservant Hagar. She was an Egyptian. Her son was not the one that God meant to grow into a priestly nation. When God called Abraham into a special covenant with him, Abraham’s wife and their sacred union was a part of that promise, even if Abraham and Sarah made some foolish (and even cruel) choices in the midst of God’s calling. But God is compassionate, and he promised Hagar that Ishmael would also be the father of a great nation. Curiously, he also promised that Ishmael’s descendents would be warlike and hostile.
What God said came true as it always does. Ishmael had many sons. They had many children also, and from their children came twelve tribal nations. Ishmael lived to be a hundred and thirty-seven years, and then he, too died. The descendents of Ishmael moved to an area near the border of Egypt to settle down, far from the land of promise. And just as God said, they were a hostile group who throughout history has struggled get along with their neighbors.
If this was the way of Abraham’s first born son, what would happen to the son of the Promise? Would he grow up to be warlike, too? Would he have the violent, deceptive nature of the enemies of God, or would he stand in the beauty of Eve’s repentant transformation? Would Isaac learn to live in dependence on God like his father?
Rebekah and Isaac married when Isaac was forty years old. Time went on as Isaac oversaw the vast wealth he had inherited from his father. After twenty years of marraige, Rebekah still had no children. But they were wise to the lessons that God had taught Abraham and Sarah. They did not turn to Rebekah’s maidservants or anyone else to solve this terrible sadness. Isaac went directly to the LORD and pleaded with him for his wife. His first response was to turn to God. In his perfect timing, the LORD answered Isaac’s prayer, and Rebekah became pregnant. Imagine their happiness after such a long wait.
Just as with Abraham and Sarah, it must have been difficult and painful to look for a child and not receive one. But in many ways, that made the coming of the child far more special. This pregnancy was something they had thought about and looked forward to, hoping and praying over long years. All babies are a priceless gift from God, but because of their waiting, Isaac and Rebekah knew that this pregnancy was a very special answer to prayer. God was going to honor his covenant promise to Abraham.
This was no ordinary pregnancy in more ways than one. Rebekah was going to have twins, and she really felt it. Scripture says that she could feel them fighting each other. How uncomfortable that must have been. “‘Why is this happening to me?’” she wondered. She worried if all their moving and shaking was dangerous. What if she lost them both? What if all that fighting caused a miscarriage?
At this point, for those who are paying close attention to the story of Genesis, we are meant to feel this as a great crisis. This book was written to tell us how God planned to bring salvation into human history, and a child of Isaac and Rebekah was the way. But now we have two children, and they don’t get along. What is going to happen? How will we know which child is meant to carry on the covenant of Abraham?
So just as Isaac had prayed to the LORD for his wife, Rebekah went to the LORD and cried out to understand what was going on. Both Isaac and Rebekah had learned to take their lives to the LORD. They were totally dependent on him. And he was faithful to answer.
The LORD said to her:
“‘Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you
will be separated;
One people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger’”
Well, that sounds strange. And in many ways it should…we are reading about a culture that existed thousands of years ago. It was a very different world with very different needs and customs and challenges than the ones we face today. It makes sense that much of it will be strange and new to us. That is part of the wonder of the Bible…that its story crosses through so many centuries and yet it still stands true. We can learn from these ancient people. Their story is still our story, the sacred story of God. What does it mean that two whole nations were living in Rebekah’s womb? Is that possible?
Of course not. But there were two baby boys in there, growing and fighting against each other. One day, they would be born into the world. They would grow to be strong men, and they would have families of their own. God, who knows everything, knew the future of Rebekah’s sons. He had designed their future. They would not die in childhood, their wives would not be barren, they would not go to the grave by war or famine. The descendents of each of Rebekah’s sons would thrive and grow to become great nations.
Now, God knows everything. He understands everything that has ever happened perfectly, and he knows everything that is ever going to happen. He could have explained many things to Rebekah about her sons, but he didn’t. He reduced his infinitely vast archives of information down to a few necessary bits of information. He simply told her that they would both grow to be powerful, but that the older son would end up serving the younger son. That wasn’t a lot of news, but it was a very, very big deal. And because God made a point of telling Rebekah directly, it was something she was supposed to honor with special care.
In the ancient days of Isaac and Rebekah, as with many cultures today, the firstborn son was given many responsibilities and privileges. It was the oldest son that took the place of the father in the family when he died, and it was the oldest that inherited the most of the family’s wealth. He usually received a double portion. It was his job to protect the family honor and help each member in their time of need. The mother, his brothers and sisters and their spouses, and his nieces and nephews could all call on him and expect his care and concern throughout their lives. It was a great burden and a great honor.
The younger sons were supposed to honor their older brother and respect his commands. This held together the systems of order and loyalty in the early family clans of human civilization. It was how they established their community, understood their roles of responsibility, created a sense of belonging, and survived. It was often true in the family of God as well. But God told Rebekah that it would not be the same for her sons. The older son would serve the younger. That was a radical idea, but that is often God’s way. In his utter wisdom and sovereignty, there are times when the Lord breaks his chosen out of the normal conventions of human society and puts them on a unique path that challenges the status quo. Long before Rebekah ever held her sons in her arms, she knew that her second child would be the one who God used to raise up his holy nation.
When the boys were born, the first child came out and everyone was shocked. All they could talk about was how red and hairy he was. He was so hairy that it looked like he was wearing animal fur! They decided to name him Esau.
Rebekah didn’t have a lot of time after Esau came. The other son was following quickly behind. In fact, the hand of the second son was gripping Esau’s foot as he came out. So they decided to name him Jacob, because it means “heel.”
As the boys grew up, Rebekah and Isaac learned how very different each son was from the other. Esau liked to go out to the wilderness and hunt. Jacob liked to spend time among the tents where the family lived. He was quiet. Isaac enjoyed the meat that Esau brought him. He liked his big, burly son the best, and he didn’t make it a secret. But Rebekah loved Jacob more, and she carried in her heart the promise of God. In the future, the older would serve the younger.
One day, Jacob was among the tents cooking stew. Esau had been out in the open country, probably on a hunt. It is hard work, and when he came home he was so hungry that he had begun to feel weak. He smelled Jacob’s stew and that only made it worse. “‘Quick’” he said to Jacob, “‘Let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!’”
Jacob knew he had a chance to use this to get something he wanted. He had been thinking about this for a long time. He also knew how hungry Esau was when he came in from a hunt. He said to his brother, “‘First, sell me your birthright.’” Wow. Esau was the firstborn son, and that birthright belonged to him. It was a very precious, valuable thing. It was a high honor.
In those days, the first son would inherit twice what all the other sons would receive when their father died. For every two goats that Esau was supposed to inherit, Jacob would only get one goat. But if Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, that meant that Jacob would be the one who received more. Their father Isaac had received all of Abraham’s many animals and servants. They were a very rich, princely family. Jacob was asking Esau to trade hundreds of animals and great wealth in gold and silver for a bowl of soup. But you know what? Esau made the trade.
“‘Look, I am about to die’” he said. “‘What good is a birthright to me?’”
Jacob wanted to make sure that he would really receive all the extra inheritance, so before he let Esau eat, he made him take an oath. “‘Swear to me first.’” Esau swore an oath to Jacob, promising the birthright to him.
Finally, Jacob gave Esau some bread and lentil soup. Esau gobbled up the food. When he left, his stomach was full, but his birthright was lost to his conniving brother.