Chasing Esau (Genesis 28:10-19a)

Chasing Esau
Genesis 28:10-19a

Craig Barnes writes:
“Jacob and Esau were twins. But they were far from being identical twins. Esau was a hairy man of the field. Jacob was a quiet, thoughtful, schemer…”

Jacobs’ name in fact means Grasper since he came from the womb grasping, hanging on to his twins heel. And the whole rest of his life, he was hanging on,chasing just behind, trying to be like his older brother. And who wouldn’t want to be like him? With his muscles from working the fields all day and his striking reddish coloration, Esau must have been a sight.

So here’s the captivating looking Esau, his manliness exemplified by the hair that covered his body, the first born, obviously the blessed one.

Except, his mother knows different. Unlike everyone around them who (Craig Barnes again) “assumed that these blessings would naturally fall to Esau, the first born… the twins’ mother Rebekah, remembered that God promised to give the blessing to Jacob when the boys were still in her womb.
Surely Rebekah told her son about this promise. God himself repeated it to Jacob on several occasions. But Jacob just couldn’t believe it, because everything in the world proclaimed a preference for Esau. The scriptures make it clear that Esau was Isaac’s favorite son. Probably when they were boys Esau was chosen first when their friends were picking teams for games. Esau was also picked by the teachers in school. Esau got into the best colleges, he had the highest paying job when he graduated with all those honors. Esau’s grass was always greener than Jacob’s. Esau’s career was off on a meteoric path. His name was in the newspapers. His family was beautiful.
So maybe your mamma thinks you’re pretty special, but Jacob, you are no Esau.
That’s the message he constantly heard.”

This is a story of two twins, brothers. The younger coming into the world hanging on to the elder, trying to get what he has, trying to be who he is. But you don’t have to be a younger brother to get this story. Because somewhere in your life, you have an Esau, too, I bet. Could be another person you’re always trying to catch by the heel – a sibling, a cousin, a neighbor, an athlete, a movie star…

This is such a universal experience that a print comic ran in a New York newspaper for 25 years in the early part of the 20th century depicting the McGinnis family, always trying to be like their neighbors. The comic has faded, but the title, Keeping up with the Joneses is such a common experience that the phrase is still in usage 100 years after the comic is no longer in print.

It could be that you’re trying to keep up with some Jones of your own – always grasping the heel of some external Esau.

Or it could be your Esau is an internal one. Maybe in your case stronger, more beautiful, obviously blessed, just BETTER twin is not another person, but that impossible standard – someone a parent or a teacher or a coach or a pastor or your own internal voices told you could or should be, but whose accomplishments are always just one step ahead of your talents, your knowledge. Maybe it’s not another person. The internal Esau is the coulda/woulda/shoulda of your own life, who’s always been just SLIGHTLY out of grasp.

When I was an undergrad, I had a friend whose plan was to prepare for his phd so he could be a college professor himself. His other plan for college was find the woman he was going to marry. By the time we graduated, it was clear that he was not going on for phd studies – and the woman thing hadn’t really worked out either. At the ripe old age of 22, over a piece of a pie at a late night diner we frequented in those days, he shook his head “My life has just not turned out like I planned.” He bemoaned. We kept in touch after that, and it took him most of his 20s to get over it, and figure out what he WAS going to be, after all. That guy he had been preparing his whole life to be – the professor who married young – was his Esau. He kept grasping after that guy, trying to be him, long after it was clear to those of us who knew and loved him that was not Esau, but was instead someone very different, someone wonderful in his own way.

So Jacob has spent his whole life being…Not Esau. Look, he tries to be him.

(Again, Craig Barnes) “When Isaac, their father, had grown old and blind and knew his days on earth were coming to an end, he summoned Esau. It was time to pass the blessing on as Abraham had given it to him, as God had given it to Abraham. But Rebekah heard her husband’s instructions, and while Esau was still in the field she summoned Jacob, dressed him up in Esau’s clothes, put goat’s wool on his neck and hands so he would feel hairy like his older brother. Then she told him to go into Isaac, pretending he was Esau.”

When his deception was found out, Esau was so furious, he threatened to kill Jacob and their mother sent him away, out of the path of danger.

And that’s where we meet him in the story we heard today. All alone. Away from his mother and his father and his Esau for the first time. No one to compare himself to. No one to strive after after. No one to grasp. Only himself, Jacob – the schemer, the mama’s boy, the liar and cheat.
And yes, the beloved child of God.
The against-all-odds chosen one.
The one who God would use – just as he was – to be the father of nations.
And finally, when Jacob was not distracted trying to be the one he was not, when Jacob was not grasping after his Esau, God could get his attention.
There is a beautiful ladder – really a ramp is a better translation or a stairway like the hold song says, if the stairway is a spiral one – and on that ladder the angels of God moving constantly between heaven and earth. God is either – depending on the translation – right there beside Jacob or on top of the mighty structure. Or maybe God is both above and with him. Its such a glorious moment and if you think about it, God could have used this glorious moment to say anything, to promise anything, to explain anything. But here is the message that Jacob receives.
You matter to me. You are important just as you are, and you are the one I have chosen in this very particular way.

And at last, at long long long last, Jacob heard and understood. Really understood that he no longer had to grasp after someone else – he could be, really he HAD to be just who he was, and his Jacob-ness was not just Good Enough for God, his Jacob-ness was exactly, in fact, what God had in mind.

The old story tells us:
A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, “Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you Solomon or why weren’t you David?” But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, “Why weren’t you Zusya?” (Martin Buber)

“Look,” God is always trying to get you to be still long enough to say,
“I made you who you are. You are already my beloved, already chosen, already a blessing. You don’t have to be Esau or or Moses or Zusya or Bryce Harper or Meryl Streep or Stephen King. You don’t have be a doctor because that’s what your mom thought you should be, and you don’t have to be your cousin, the really successful one with the gorgeous Christmas card pictures who somehow really nice, too. You don’t even have to be that guy down the block who mows his lawn two times every single week. You just have to be yourself, exactly how I made you to be.”

No wonder Jacob was struck with fear when he finally got the message. As frustrating as it is to always be grasping, it does also tend to let you off the hook. If you’re always trying to be Esau, it doesn’t leave you much time to really BE Jacob, to really look at who you are, at how you have behaved until now, and how you want to be going forward.

So I’m not trying to say that it’s easier to be who you are made to be than to chase after whoever you think you SHOULD be. It’s not always easier, but the struggle is worth it, because in the end you know you are who God made you to be. And, really, in the end, that’s all that is asked of any of us. Even Jacob.


This sermon owes much to the interpretation of the text in Craig Barnes’ sermon All American Dreamer. All quotes by him also from this source.

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