This Sunday, we’re continuing on a theme from last week:
When the Will of God Relies on a Mother’s Cleverness. (I’m sure no one who is a mother has ever felt that way).
Last week we explored Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding party. And we discovered that the real author of this miracle is Mary, Jesus’ mother. She was the one who saw the need at the party and who cared about it. And she was the one who saw this as an opportunity for her son to unleash the outrageous abundance God would give the world through him. When Mary first told Jesus to do something about the wine, he refused to do anything. So Mary even had to outwit him. She set a trap that forced Jesus into activating his God-given potential to manifest the Realm of Heaven on earth. The rest is history.
But there actually is a whole history before this of the will of God relying on a mother’s cleverness. In the long memory of the Hebrew people, in the history of their living relationship with the living God carried through the scriptures, there is a theme of God acting through smart, faithful, toughminded women who are not above pulling a cunning trick or two. It’s a theme throughout the Hebrew testament – one of many, many themes, of course, but one that hasn’t gotten enough attention.
So how about we look at another story when the will of God relied on a mother’s cleverness.
Let me first set the scene.
This is from one of the founding stories about God’s relationship with the people of Israel. This is about Rebekah and Isaac, her husband (son of Abraham and Sarah – the patriarch and matriarch of the Hebrew people) and about Rebekah and Isaac’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob.
The story goes that these twins, when they were in their mother’s womb, wrestled with each other. For Rebekah, of course, this was very painful. She cried out to God in her pain. And God responded with a message to her about the future of her twin sons: there are two nations wrestling within her, and it is the younger who will overcome the older. That’s what God told Rebekah.
This means that the younger is God’s chosen one.
Esau was born first. Jacob was right on his heels. So it was Esau, the older son, who would then be due to get his father’s inheritance. And because we’re talking about a sacred lineage from Abraham and Sarah, inheritance here means also receiving the blessing of bearing a living relationship of God’s self-revelation. That blessing was seen as a birthright that was passed down along with other inheritance.
We know now that it’s a much wider circle than that, those who can inherit the realm of heaven, as Jesus would put it. It doesn’t have to do with bloodline or with a father’s blessing. The way I see it, there is an evolution through the generations in what is reveled about the nature of God and of who may enjoy the grace of a living relationship with God. We know it’s universal. But in the ancient time we’re talking about, in the book of Genesis, there is a very formal hierarchy about who is blessed to be near to God. Well, that’s probably still true today, in most people’s minds.
But as the story of Rebekah and Jacob shows there is already slippage in this tightly structured expectation of how divine authority is handed down. It’s supposed to be to the elder son, according to the will of the father. But God here has revealed to the motherthat it’s the youngerson who will receive the blessing.
Rebekah loved best that younger son, Jacob. Isaac loved Esau best.
Jacob was a homebody and quiet. He was smooth, as the book of Genesis puts it, which has a double meaning, while his brother Esau was rough and rough-and-tumble, a man of the hunt.
So let’s hear how this plays out in the story from the book of Genesis
Genesis 27:1-31 The Message (MSG)
When Isaac had become an old man and was nearly blind, he called his eldest son, Esau, and said, “My son.”
“I’m an old man,” he said; “I might die any day now. Do me a favor: Get your quiver of arrows and your bow and go out in the country and hunt me some game. Then fix me a hearty meal, the kind that you know I like, and bring it to me to eat so that I can give you my personal blessing before I die.”
Rebekah was eavesdropping as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. As soon as Esau had gone off to the country to hunt game for his father, Rebekah spoke to her son Jacob. “I just overheard your father talking with your brother, Esau. He said, ‘Bring me some game and fix me a hearty meal so that I can eat and bless you with God’s blessing before I die.’
“Now, my son, listen to me. Do what I tell you. Go to the flock and get me two young goats. Pick the best; I’ll prepare them into a hearty meal, the kind that your father loves. Then you’ll take it to your father, he’ll eat and bless you before he dies.”
“But Mother,” Jacob said, “my brother Esau is a hairy man and I have smooth skin. What happens if my father touches me? He’ll think I’m playing games with him. I’ll bring down a curse on myself instead of a blessing.”
“If it comes to that,” said his mother, “I’ll take the curse on myself. Now, just do what I say. Go and get the goats.”
So he went and got them and brought them to his mother and she cooked a hearty meal, the kind his father loved so much.
Rebekah took the clothes of her older son Esau and put them on her younger son Jacob. She took the goatskins and covered his hands and the smooth nape of his neck. Then she placed the hearty meal she had fixed and fresh bread she’d baked into the hands of her son Jacob.
He went to his father and said, “My father!”
“Yes?” he said. “Which son are you?”
Jacob answered his father, “I’m your firstborn son Esau. I did what you told me. Come now; sit up and eat of my game so you can give me your personal blessing.”
Isaac said, “So soon? How did you get it so quickly?”
“Because your God cleared the way for me.”
Isaac said, “Come close, son; let me touch you—are you really my son Esau?”
So Jacob moved close to his father Isaac. Isaac felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice but the hands are the hands of Esau.” He didn’t recognize him because his hands were hairy, like his brother Esau’s.
But as he was about to bless him he pressed him, “You’re sure? You are my son Esau?”
“Yes. I am.”
Isaac said, “Bring the food so I can eat of my son’s game and give you my personal blessing.” Jacob brought it to him and he ate. He also brought him wine and he drank.
Then Isaac said, “Come close, son, and kiss me.”
He came close and kissed him and Isaac smelled the smell of his clothes. Finally, he blessed him:
“Ahhh. The smell of my son is like the smell of the open country blessed by God. May God give you of Heaven’s dew and Earth’s bounty of grain and wine. May peoples serve you and nations honor you. You will master your brothers, and your mother’s sons will honor you. Those who curse you will be cursed, those who bless you will be blessed.”
And then right after Isaac had blessed Jacob and Jacob had left, Esau showed up from the hunt. He also had prepared a hearty meal. He came to his father and said, “Let my father get up and eat of his son’s game, that he may give me his personal blessing.”
What happened next?
Well, Isaac said, “Who are you?” And Esau said, “I am your son, your firstborn, Esau.” And on hearing that, “Isaac was seized with a very great trembling.”
They figure out they’d been tricked. But with a blessing like this, there’s no take-backs.
The fall-out was quick. Esau was hell-bent on killing Jacob. So Jacob high-tailed it out of town. And Rebekan orchestrated his safe passage by talking Isaac into sending Jacob to her brother, Laban, in a foreign land. There’s a whole other story there.
But it’s important to say here, as we’re trying to get to the meaning of all this, that it wasn’t until years later that Jacob would dare to mend bridges with his twin. And it was only then, in approaching reconciliation with Esau, as grown men, that Jacob would encounter the living God. This is when we get the famous story of Jacob wrestling at night with a mysterious holy being. Jacob holds on to this angel even though his hip is broken, and from this holy being he receives a new name: “Isra-el.” This is the origin story of the meaning of Isra-el.
Isra-el means “One who wrestles – wrestles with the Holy One and with humanity.
It is this blessing, this blessing held in the new name, Isra-el, which would be passed down through Jacob to all the descendants of these God-wrestlers, not just the physical descendants, but the spiritual descendants as well, which through Christ includes us.
It is thisblessing that fulfills the vision that Rebekah received from the Holy One, the vision that required her wit and her wiles to bring into reality.
Rebekah had to wrestle in her own way to fulfill this vision from God. She had to use the powers that were available to her, as a woman in a world ruled by men, in order to fulfill the will of God.
So let us not be above employing some sacred grit and holy wit & wiles in this life of living into the Way of Jesus. Especially if we’re talking about somebody who doesn’t have power. That is where the Way of Jesus always calls us to look – God so often is most clearly at work among those who are not the winners in the formal structure of who is “blessed” in this world. It is those in the margins so often who know the true meaning of the realm of heaven on earth.
Thanks be to God.