Sermon: Hero? Villain? Victim?

Father, open our eyes to see you, open our ears to hear your voice, grant us always to put our faith and trust in you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

After last week, there were (rightly) a lot of questions during coffee time about whether it was right for Isaac to deceive Abimelech by saying Rebekah was his sister. However, that was Genesis 26. But now, we press forward into Genesis 27 and the question only gets harder. The presence and even the success of deception is even more vivid in this next story. What do we make of it? Hear now the word of the LORD from Genesis 27, verses 1 through 45:

When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son,” and he answered, “Here I am.” He said, “See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. Then prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.”

Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game and bring it, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I heard your father say to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me game, and prepare for me savory food to eat, that I may bless you before the LORD before I die.’ Now therefore, my son, obey my word as I command you. Go to the flock and get me two choice kids, so that I may prepare from them savory food for your father, such as he likes, and you shall take it to your father to eat, so that he may bless you before he dies.” But Jacob said to his mother Rebekah, “Look, my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am a man of smooth skin. Perhaps my father will feel me and I shall seem to be mocking him, and bring a curse on myself and not a blessing.” His mother said to him, “Let your curse be on me, my son; only obey my word, and go, get them for me.” So he went and got them and brought them to his mother; and his mother prepared savory food, such as his father loved. Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob, and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. Then she handed the savory food, and the bread that she had prepared, to her son Jacob.

So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am, who are you, my son?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.” But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the LORD your God granted me success.” Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands, so he blessed him. He said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He answered, “I am.” Then he said, “Bring it to me, that I may eat of my son’s game and bless you.” So he brought it to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank. Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” So he came near and kissed him, and he smelled the smell of his garments and blessed him and said,

“Ah, the smell of my son

is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed.

May God give you of the dew of heaven

and of the fatness of the earth

and plenty of grain and wine.

Let peoples serve you

and nations bow down to you.

Be Lord over your brothers,

and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.

Cursed be everyone who curses you,

and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”

As soon as Isaac has finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of his father Isaac, his brother Esau came in from hunting. He also prepared savory food and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father sit up and eat of his son’s game, so that you may bless me.” His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am your firstborn son, Esau.” Then Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came and I have blessed him? – yes, and blessed he shall be!” When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter try, and said to his father, “Bless me, me also, father!” But his said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” Isaac answered Esau, “I have already made him your lord and I have given him all his brothers as servants with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.

Then his father Isaac answered him:

“See, away from the fatness of the land shall your home be,

and away from the dew of heaven on high.

By your sword you shall live,

and you shall serve your brother;

but when you break loose,

you shall break his yoke from your neck.”

Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching, then I will kill my brother Jacob.” But the words of her elder son Esau were told to Rebekah, so she sent and called her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away – until your brother’s anger against your turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him, then I will send, and bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”

This is the Word of the LORD. Thanks be to God.

What do we make of this story? This is one of the more pivotal events in salvation history. Through his father Isaac, Jacob is given the blessing of God and it is Jacob’s family, Israel, who will be the chosen people of God and carry on the blessing, the promise, and the calling. This is a huge moment in the history of redemption. But it is also a complete mess. It ends as it should, with Jacob having the blessing of God. But can we say more than that? Should we? There are four people working in the story – Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau. Who is the hero? the villain? the victim? Who is in the right? Who has been wronged?

This morning, I want to look at each of these four people and work our way through what they did and what was done to them. Who is the hero? Who is the villain? Who is the victim? The answer, as we will see, is very good news.

Isaac: The Double Blind

First, let’s look at Isaac. In many ways, Isaac is a victim in the story. It starts with Isaac in his old age, his eyes dim and unable to see. He wants to bless Esau before he dies which, unknown to Isaac, is still some fifty to sixty years away. He asks for Esau, but Jacob takes advantage of Isaac’s blindness to receive the blessing that was meant for Esau. When Isaac finally learns of the deception, it says, Then Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came and I have blessed him? – yes, and blessed he shall be!” Isaac cannot take the blessing back. The word spoken cannot be broken.

However, this whole story only happens because of Isaac. While he is a victim, the whole thing is also his fault. If Isaac had not been blind, this would not have happened. Before the children were born, Rebekah inquired of the LORD and learned that the elder son would serve the younger. But Isaac did not trust his ears, the voice of the LORD, and instead trusted his stomach and became spiritually blind. He loved Esau over Jacob because Isaac loved the meat Esau gave him. If Isaac had not been spiritually blind, the family would never been in a situation where Isaac was planning to pronounce a blessing on Esau, a blessing so great that there was little to nothing left over for Jacob. As he grows older, Isaac’s spiritual blindness is soon matched by physical blindness, which makes the whole deception possible.

What’s more, the window for Jacob to deceive happens because Isaac refuses to bless his son on an empty stomach. Isaac is still thinking first of what fills his belly and so there is a delay between when he announces his plan to bless and when he will actually bless his son. It is in this window created by his hunger for savory food that Jacob is able to deceive him. We might say that it is part of God’s providence that this window of time was there so that the blessing was not given to the wrong son. There is truth there, but the desire for savory food and how often it is repeated that it was the food such as Isaac loved, raises serious questions about his judgment.

Furthermore, the deception goes through again, not only because of Isaac’s physical blindness, but because of his deeper blindness. Isaac has doubts about which son is standing before him. The son feels like Esau, smells like Esau, and the food tastes like the food he loves. But he does not sound like Esau. Jacob can mask his scent and his smooth skin, but he cannot mask his voice. Isaac again trusts everything but his ears, trusts everything but the sound of the voice in front of him. Like long ago when the children were born, Isaac’s blindness and coupled with his unwillingness to trust his ears.

What do we make of Isaac here? He is deceived and taken advantage of. The blessing he meant for Esau was instead given to Jacob. However, the whole crisis begins because of Isaac initial failure to pass on the blessing to Jacob and instead plan to give it to Esau. He is both a victim and at fault in this mess.

Rebekah: The Plotter

But what about Rebekah? In some ways, Rebekah seems a much better candidate for the hero of the story. From the beginning, Rebekah has trusted in God’s word about her children. While Isaac loved Esau because he was fond of game, Rebekah loved Jacob. Rebekah is constantly looking out for her son Jacob in this story. It is Rebekah who hears about the blessing and hatches the plan to help Jacob. At first, there is no indication of deception. Isaac only called Esau to make food and receive a blessing. Perhaps there was no plan to bless Jacob at all. Rebekah’s plan seems to be to make sure that Jacob is also blessed. However, it soon comes to light that the plan is not just to make a meal and get a blessing, but to impersonate Esau and receive the blessing meant for him. Rebekah puts Esau’s best clothes on Jacob’s back and covers him with goat skins so that he will feel hair like his brother. It is Rebekah who cooks the meal that Isaac likes and gives it to her son.

Rebekah continues to look after Jacob once the blessing is given. It is Rebekah who hears of Esau’s plans to kill Jacob and sends him away to safety.

Rebekah is a woman who trusts in God’s word about her children and is trying to correct a wrong. Isaac is going to bless Esau when he should bless Jacob. However, Rebekah tries to correct one wrong with another. Romans 12:21 tells us, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Rebekah is seeking the good will God has promised, but is perhaps, hoping two wrongs will make a right. I have a lot of respect for Rebekah and her desire to put God’s word first and work to see it fulfilled, but there are indications that all is not right with what she did. The result of her plot is one son trying to kill the other. Rebekah is forced to send her beloved son, Jacob, away and though she plans to call him back once Esau has cooled off, Jacob spends decades in the house of Laban and Rebekah will never see her son again.

Jacob: The Deceiver

What about Jacob? Is he hero, villain, or victim? Maybe Jacob is being shrewd and cunning here. After all, the blessing should be his by God’s promise. If nothing is done, it looks like Jacob himself will be cheated of the blessing. In the end, through his crafty words, deceptive clothing, and perfect timing, the blessing goes where it should. Jacob is blessed, even though he deceived his father to get it. There is a whole line of people in scripture who deceive the wicked and powerful in order to preserve and protect the people of God – Abraham does it twice with Sarah, we saw Isaac pretend Rebekah was his sister, the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah will deceive Pharaoh, Esther and Haman hinges on miscommunication and deception. Perhaps this is how we should view Jacob’s clever ruse to get the blessing.

However, the fallout of what Jacob does here is long and painful, which tells us that, though the end was right, the end did not justify the means. Multiple times, Jacob lies to his father’s face about his identity. Jacob is forced to flee for his life and spend decades in exile. During this time, Jacob will continuously struggle with the snake-like Laban, who will try and deceive Jacob and trick him out of blessing again and again. Jacob’s own sons will pick up their father’s pattern of deception. When they jealousy of Joseph, Jacob’s beloved son, boils over they sell Joseph into slavery and they, too, deceive their father. Just as Jacob deceived Isaac with the clothes of his beloved son and the blood and skin of goats, so Jacob’s sons will take Joseph’s coat and dip it in the blood of goats in order to deceive their father. Jacob will be deceived in a similar way that he deceived and will be cut to the heart.

So what about Jacob? hero, villain, victim? Yes, in some ways, to all three.

Esau: The New Cain

Lastly, what about Esau? As we hear the story this morning, I find it easiest to feel pity for Esau. He believes his father will bless him, goes out to hunt, comes back, makes food, brings it to his father, only to find out the blessing has been taken right out from under him. We can sympathize with Esau’s exceedingly great and bitter cry, that he lifts up his voice and wept. We ache to hear him say again and again, “Bless me, me also, father!’ and his question, “Have you only one blessing, father?”

Esau has, indeed, been wronged. Yet, Esau is not simply the victim here. Esau claims that Jacob took away his birthright, but we know by reading the story that Esau is not telling the truth. Esau sold it for a pot of stew and the Bible tells us that Esau despised his birthright. Then, at the very end of the last chapter – chapter 26 – we learn that Esau has married Hittite women, women of the land. Abraham gave explicit instructions and sent his servant hundreds of miles to make sure that the child of promise did not marry a woman of the land, but that is exactly what Esau does and we are told it made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah. Esau is not the right candidate for the child of promise.

This is confirmed because, in the end, Esau becomes a second Cain. Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, grew jealous of his brother’s favor with God, and killed him. Esau follows this same pattern, seeing the blessing of God upon his brother and plotting to kill him. It is only because of Rebekah’s intervention that Jacob is spared becoming a second Abel.

So what about Esau? victim? villain? Yes to both.

 

The family is a mess. The story of Jacob, the story of the family of God, is at its heart a story of God’s grace. This is not a family that deserves to be chosen. While in other stories and in other places, the family of Abraham can serve as faithful examples of life with God, everyone seems to fail here. At this pivotal moment, at the passing of the blessing from Isaac to the proper son, the whole episode is a disaster.

Maybe this story feels all too familiar to you. Maybe you have been or known closely an Isaac who is blind and also deaf to God’s word, a Rebekah who seeks the good by correcting wrong with wrong, a Jacob a deceiver whose sin ripples for generations, an Esau whose jealousy quickly turns to fury. Maybe you know this story far better than you would like.

It’s as we hear in Romans 3:9-18

“What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:

‘There is no one who is righteous,

not even one;

there is no one who has understanding,

there is no one who seeks God.

All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;

there is no one who shows kindness,

there is not even one.

‘Their throats are opened graves;

they use their tongues to deceive.’

‘The venom of vipers is under their lips.’

‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’

‘Their feet are swift to shed blood;

ruin and misery are in their paths,

and the way of peace they have not known.’

‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’

Is there a hero in the story of Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau. Certainly not Isaac, who had no fear of God before his eyes when it came to blessing Esau and Jacob. Certainly not Rebekah, who like all of us turned aside. Certainly not Jacob, who used his tongue to deceive. Certainly not Esau, whose feet were swift to shed blood.

There simply is no human hero in this story, even if it ends with the blessing going to the right child.

However, “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood,, effective through faith.”

Take heart. You are not the hero of the story. God is. God takes this broken mess of a family and claims the, not because of their goodness, but in spite of their sin. In Genesis 27, we see God who loves and uses blind Isaac, who loves and uses the plotting Rebekah, who loves and chooses deceiving Jacob.

If it was up to us, up to our scheming, our working, our posturing and position – if our hope, our salvation, our future depended upon our doing it all right, then there would be no hope. However, there is good news. Salvation belongs to our God and his will will never be thwarted. In the mystery of his providence, he takes the blindness of Isaac, the scheming of Rebekah, the lying of Jacob, and even the bitter cry of Esau, and turns evil to good.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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