Unending Waves of Justice
A sermon based on Genesis 25:19-34
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 16, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A dad sternly pulled his oldest, a four year old boy, aside and pointed to his crying brother and said “You ate all the cookies and your little brother got none. What does that tell you?” The older brother smiled gleefully and answered “That . . . I won!”
Siblings have a long history of trying to win more than just their parent’s cookie supply, but all of their estates, or the lion’s share of it. There are even laws and traditions that promote it. Since our nation started out as an English colony most of America’s laws are taken from old English law. Male Primogeniture is the English Law term for the rule or tradition of giving the eldest son the lion’s share of an inheritance. In English law this often meant that entire estates went to the oldest son. England and Colonial America were not the only cultures to practice this give all or most of it to the first born son. Thousands of years ago Deuteronomy 21:17 codified the practice in the Mosaic Code requiring the first born son receive 2/3rd of the father’s estate. Today’s lesson, is an even older account of the practice. So primogeniture has a long history.
There is one thing for certain most theologians can agree on about God’s nature in the Bible, that God doesn’t get stopped by man-made laws or customs or thinking. I’ve spent a great deal of my life living near the ocean. I have made many a sand castle. You know what happens to seaside sand castles? Waves of water always knocks them down . . . somehow . . . some way. Sometimes a quick –what we call a sneaker wave in Oregon– takes sand castle walls out in an instance, but more often than not wave after wave erodes the castle walls away. God reminds me of those waves when it comes to injustices. Whatever unjust human law or way we make in the sands of time, none of them can stop God from knocking them down, with waves of justice. I am not the first to see the symbolism. In The Book of Amos (5:24) God actually calls for humans to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Those waters are meant to tumble down unjust privileges provided by law or custom or the way things are.
Today’s story occurs in a time and place where first born sons were privileged above all others when it came to the future. The mantle of not just family wealth, but clan and even national leadership were traditionally passed onto them. First born daughters did not get this privilege, no daughters did–and only the oldest sons were entitled to it. They did not have to earn it, or otherwise deserve it. Wealth or leadership was just passed on to them.
And curiously even though this was the way of the times and of the Hebrew people, it was not how it plays out in the initial patriarch stories in the Bible. Abraham, who is the first born, nonetheless leaves his father, abandoning – at God’s request– the family estate and leadership role. In exchange he does things God’s way, he gets promises from God – not his father– about land and a nation and progeny and most importantly about being a blessing well beyond his own people. Here is how God puts it in that Genesis story:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
There’s irony in God asking the founder of religions who was a first born son to go from his father’s land and family giving up the promises he already had through primogeniture, in order to gain promises from God of land and family and leadership. But God makes the offer and Abraham takes it. And sure enough he gets land and wealth and power and leadership over family and a nation. Abraham then works at passing all that he was promised on to his progeny.
The irony is that the land and leadership and family line never seems to go in the Genesis patriarch’s stories where the man-made rules or human attempts at intervention want them to go. Sarah and Abraham get impatient waiting for offspring and so force a coupling and a child out of a slave, Hagar, to make a line of inheritance out of Ishmael Abraham’s first son with Hagar. But the inheritance goes instead to the second son Isaac, the son he has with Sarah.
Isaac is impatient too. He and Rebekah are barren. They have no progeny. But instead of trying to end run God, what happens? Isaac does not force the issue instead he prays to God. Turning to God is always a good thing. We are told it caused Rebekah to conceive. And interestingly like Hagar – whom God speaks to when she is pregnant with a first born– God also speaks to Rebekah. She prays as the pregnancy seems to be a rough one, with twins causing a struggle in her womb and God answers her prayer not with action –like God did with Isaac causing conception– but with words, an oracle . . . and a very curious one at that. We are told that
[T]he Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
And to illustrate this point we are also told that
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.
I am going to name some word play in the text, please do not blame me for these puns, the authors of Genesis love puns and lace stories with them. We can sort of hear them in the text. Esau means hairy, not as in Harry Potter, but as in lots of hair. The story also says Esau is red and the word play on that is that Esau’s nation becomes known as Edom and the Hebrew word for red is “adum??” Edom . . .adum. A pun.
And we heard Jacob means heel and that’s because he holds onto Esau’s heel but we can also hear it as meaning as a second son he is culturally lower– significantly lower– at the heel of his older brother And frankly even when the story plays out God’s way Jacob also behaves like a heel, at least to Esau and the patriarchal order of things. Jacob finds a way to defeat male primogeniture, his mom helps him later, but the story today ends with the first step getting Esau to part with his birthright.
Just a side note, non-first born sons, Isaac and Jacob, get the inheritance and leadership roles in the first two generations, but so too in third generation when Jacob’s eleventh son Joseph, not his first son Reuben gains the birthright.
There is this deep and clear posture in the Genesis text against cultural rules of privilege. That tells us that God’s way is meant to prevail and will prevail. God will side with the less privilege to help God’s will be done– which is to call us to do things the best way, for God’s idea of betterment of all. Preeminent Old Testament scholar, Walter Bruggemann notes that in this Genesis story
God has taken one who is “low and despised” and has overturned conventional power arrangements.
But it is also this designation by God that begins the trouble that is to mark Jacob’s entire life . . . Even as the designated of God, Jacob lives a troubled life. He has conflicts with all those around him. . . . Apparently it is the commitment of God to this trouble man which causes the conflict . . . the election is both a blessing and a burden. 1
Dr. Bruggemann goes on to note that
The conflict of Jacob is a conflict not with “spiritual realities,” but with the ways in which human life has been institutionalized. Primogeniture is not simply one rule among many. It is the linchpin of the entire social and legal system which defines rights and privileges and provides ways around internecine (in-ter-knee-sin) disputes. But that same practice which protects the order of society is also a way of destining some to advantage and others to disadvantage. The world of privilege and denial is here disrupted by the God of blessing who will sojourn with the “low and despised.” This narrative, then, is a radically revolutionary announcement. It dares to call into question a conventional settlement of power.”2
So the theme we can hear is justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream! God’s got this wave after wave thing, this perpetual water of justice, going that erodes inequities, cultural inequities. If mankind (and it has almost always been man-kind) builds up walls intended to thwart justice by denying people what is due, they are like sand castle battlements, to God. God’s will works to undermine them, to wash them away.
In the part of the Jacob and Esau story we heard today the lowly of the two uses what he has to be a part of that flowing justice. Jacob has some food. Esau has a need for it. Esau has rights to wealth and leadership that we know God wants and plans for Jacob. Jacob needs the rights Esau has. Esau needs the food Jacob has. They trade. They got what they needed. Jacob though is looking to the future. Esau we are told did not care about the future, he “despised his birthright.” So while WE know it is a lopsided trade, in the moment it is win-win in the minds of the deal makers.
And in the scheme of things, as an evolutionary Darwinian, survival event who would we want to lead our clan? A seemingly dull boy who lacks the sense to not sell his birthright for stew and not consider the future? Or the clever boy who finds a lawful way to get what would be best for the family, clan and nation . . . for the future? In this scene a modern character who strikes me as a lot like Jacob is the clever rogue in Star Wars, Han Solo who uses moxie and wit to plan for the future . . . Or almost always does. Esau reminds me of Chewbacca, not only are they both hairy, but, they both seem to act out of primitive needs in the now.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Chewy, but I think I’d follow Captain Solo the guy with the moxie and wit . . . AND AT the end of the day a good heart and a sense of the future. And in the story that is who God seems to want to be the leader of God’s people, the one who is not dull and only interested in the now, the one who is clever and thinking about tomorrow. So we can hear the story as God’s way to override human rules to get God’s people – us and everyone else– on a path to betterment. God’s people are better off for Jacob’s moves in the story, so is his family. So is the future. WE are better off for God’s call and Jacob’s answering moves in the story.
Justice is defined as getting that which is due. We are due betterment. The waters of justice and the rivers of righteousness seep in and work their way, God’s way, always toward what is better, that which leads to well being. Not just for the those the cultural and laws give privilege to. Not just for any one person, but for all of us, everyone . . . for all creation. Jacob is led to find a way to be what God wanted. The way to be the leader of the family God intended from the start to be a blessing to all families . . . and look how it worked out.
We need to help it to continue to work out. We need to help erode false constructs of institutionalized privilege that prevent the culturally “low and despised” from advancing as God wills. What God wills is for all to get that which is due. What is due is a better life for everyone and all the world. Which is shalom . . . God’s peace on earth good will to all. AMEN!
1. Bruggemann, Walter, Interpretation, a Bible commentary on Genesis, p 205
2. Ibid., at 209
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