From the very beginning, they were rivals. In fact you could trace their rivalry all the way back to the womb. Their mother described her pregnancy as a wrestling match going on inside of her.
She was so troubled by the difficulty of her childbirth experience that she wondered if motherhood were really worth all the pain that she was experiencing. Wouldn't it be better to die than to suffer as she was suffering?
The message God gave to her in the midst of her pain was that her trouble was due to the struggle of her sons and that their struggle would in time divide their descendants into two nations. And that the older would serve the younger. In other words, God was pronouncing his blessing upon the youngest child in her womb.
But that's just not the way it worked in Hebrew culture - everyone knows that the first born is the blessed one, not the youngest! But God decreed it and Rebecca heard it.
Even as they were entering the world as new born infants, they struggled.
The first of the twins to arrive was red and hairy and so they named him
- Edom which means "red"
- Seir which means "hairy"
- But the name they would call him was Esau which meant "to press or to squeeze".
They chose this name because his parents thought that he was the more aggressive of the two sons because he had pressed through to be born first.
The second child to be born was named
- Jacob which means "may God protect".
His parents chose this name because they assumed that since he was the second born, he would not be as aggressive as the first born. They expected that he would need more help and encouragement and that the Lord would need to protect him. But this name - as we will soon see - was not fitting for his storyline.
However, a shorter form of the word from which Jacob's name was derived means "heel" which signified the way Jacob was born, "holding onto the heel of Esau". This name would fit him throughout his storyline.
As the twins grew older, they developed differently.
Esau became a free-spirited hunter, who lived off the land and moved at will because he didn't have possessions or a dwelling to stop him. He was a man's man, a rugged guy who smelled of the outdoors and who was cherished by his father. And because Esau was the older of the sons, the birthright belonged to him, which meant a double portion of the inheritance and the privilege of succeeding the father as head of the clan.
Jacob was the complete opposite of Esau. He became a herdsman, who lived a more mature, quieter, settled and ordered life. He was favored by his mother and he worked alongside her to help keep the house in order.
But although Jacob seemed to have it all together, he had a tragic flaw from the offset. He believed that if he was going to get ahead in this life he was going to have to hustle - unfairly grab the heels of people in order to get ahead - even if it meant hustling or grabbing the heel of his own brother.
And so he did.
One day, a convenient situation arose. Esau had been hunting and was very hungry, so hungry that he felt that if he didn't get some food in his body immediately, he would surely die.
Jacob had a tempting pot of soup simmering. It smelled so good that Esau was willing to do anything just to get a bowl full. And so Jacob proposed a deal.
He said, "I will give you a bowl of soup, if you give me your birthright"
Esau thought for a moment . . . and decided that this was a good deal. After all, what good would his birthright be if he starved to death? And so he agreed to the trade.
And with this deal, Jacob had succeeded with half of his plan to win the rivalry between him and his brother.
Some time later, when Jacob and Esau were 40 years of age, their father Isaac was becoming frail enough that he thought that his life was coming to an end and he decided that it was time for him to give his blessing on Esau and turn over the leadership of the clan to him.
This is how it was supposed to go down . . .
Esau was to go out and prepare a savory meal of game he had killed. His father would then take part in a ritual feast in preparation of giving the blessing. And in the end, Esau would receive his rightful inheritance and blessing and everyone would live happily ever after, as it should be in Hebrew culture.
But that is not what happens . . .
Rebecca over heard the instructions Isaac gave Esau and she realized that now was the time to act if Jacob was to receive the priority place in the family as God had decreed.
And so she came up with a plan . . .
While Esau was out hunting, she would send Jacob out to get two goats from the flock and she would prepared them to taste like the food that Esau was to prepare. Her plan was for Jacob to disguise himself as Esau, take the food to the nearly blind father, and get the blessing for himself before Esau returned.
In theory, it sounded great but Jacob knew that in reality there was a problem because there were stark differences between the two brothers. Esau was a stinky, hairy man's man who was dearly loved by his father and Jacob was a clean-cut, smooth mama's boy.
How could Isaac be fooled with such a scheme? And Jacob knew that if he were to get caught, not only would he not receive the blessing he might actually be cursed.
But his mother persuaded him to go along with the scheme by declaring that she would be willing to accept any curse that might come.
Meanwhile, old man Isaac is waiting in his tent for his eldest son, Esau, to return. After awhile, he hears someone enter.
"Who is there?" Isaac asks.
In the disguise of Esau's clothes and goat hair covering his face and hands, Jacob boldly lies to his father . . . "It is I, your eldest son, Esau."
Isaac almost believes it but he questioned the quickness with which the meal was prepared.
But Jacob lied again and said that God had helped him have quick success.
Isaac couldn't question God's help but the voice he was hearing . . . it sounded much more like Jacob than Esau and so he summoned the boy to come near him. And when he did, Isaac felt the goat hair on his arms and face and was persuaded that it must just be his hearing that was going.
Isaac then ate the ritual meal but he still wasn't completely convinced that this was his eldest son, Esau and so he called his son to come near enough to him that he might kiss him. At that close distance Isaac could recognize the smell of the field on Esau's clothes and that was enough to convince him.
He gave the blessing to Jacob, thinking that it was Esau. This blessing was legally binding and it gave to Jacob clan headship and a double share of the family inheritance.
Jacob finally got all that he wanted . . . he had won the rivalry and now he had the birth right and the blessing.
But it came with consequences.
For the next 20 years of his life, Jacob had to hide from his brother. This scheme ultimately would cost him years of frustration. He would never see his mother alive again, not even able to attend her funeral - all because he couldn't keep his eyes off of being like his brother.
The strange irony to this whole story is that Jacob did not have to hustle. God had already promised him the blessing. If you remember, while he was still in the womb God proclaimed to Rebecca that the younger would be the blessed one.
The problem is that Jacob didn't believe it - even though he must have heard it many times from his mother as he worked alongside her - but he just couldn't believe it.
All he could see was
Esau - the strong one
Esau - the popular one
Esau - the first born
Esau - the skilled hunter
Esau - the preferred one of his father
And he figured that the only way he would ever be blessed would be to steal it from his brother.
I wonder how many of us are like Jacob, always watching somebody else, coveting their gift in spite of the gift that God has given us.
The apostle Paul understood this when he counseled a young preacher by the name of Timothy. He said these words to him:
"Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress" 1 Timothy 4:14-15
And now, may you who have the blessing of God not neglect the gift that God has given to you. Be diligent in these matters - give wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.
And may you be yourself, because everyone else is taken!