Deception and Stupidity - Reflections on Genesis 25:19-34
by Dr. John Holbert on Tuesday, July 11, 2023
Deception and Stupidity
I am continually amazed at the rich humor of many of our scripture passages, and just as amazed at many readers’ unwillingness or inability to hear it. What is so obviously intended as laugh-out-loud delight is too often in modern readings met with stone-faced seriousness and long-faced piety. How anyone could read Gen.25:19-34, the tale of the birth and rivalry of Jacob and Esau, and not spare at least a chuckle at the story, is quite beyond me. But then again, I have my whole life been very wary of those without a sense of humor, not quite knowing how to respond to them. This is doubly true of those who claim religious belief. I remember vividly a time of preaching at a church on a dark Sunday morning at an 8:00 AM service and using what I imagined to be a rather funny story from the book of Genesis. As I went through the tale, attempting to find in it humorous elements, presenting them in as many clever ways as I could, I was met with stony silence and too many furrowed brows. I thought I had completely bombed the homily, and hoped that the floor would open up beneath me and swallow me whole, whisking me out of that sanctuary toward an early flight home. After the service mercifully ended, several parishioners rushed up to me to tell me how much they had enjoyed my sermon. I was astonished! One person even said, “I almost laughed once!” She said that with evident pride. “Why not let yourself go,” I replied. “Oh, no,” she said; “one does not laugh in church!” They had all been trained that seriousness of purpose precluded laughter.
Quite wrong, say I! Our Bible is riddled with fun, from talking snakes to nude persons attempting to don fig leaf aprons to drunken ark sailors to mud-brick tower builders whose pretensions to god-like power lead instead to separation and incomprehension. If one does not laugh, one is left with a crushing sorrow. The fact is that the authors of the Hebrew Bible, and even on occasion the New Testament, write with their tongues squarely in their cheeks. One can only imagine what God thought when seeing the new human beings, wearing their fig leaves in an absurd attempt to hide from God and each other. They no doubt scratched themselves painfully as they confronted God just before God tossed them from the garden. But before God did that, God gave them soothing animal skins instead of those scratchy leaves to help them on their way. Fig leaves, indeed!
The humor of Gen.25 is palpable, as well as important for a fuller understanding of the tale. Rebekah, like her ancestor, Sarah, is barren, but after a prayer from Isaac, she conceives a child. But instead of one child, she discovers that she is to give birth to twins. She finds this out, because, literally, “the boys were crushing one another within her” (Gen.25:22). NRSV’s “struggled” is not actually incorrect, but it misses the real pain that Rebekah feels. The verb is also found in Judges 9:53 where a woman throws a huge millstone onto the head of Abimelech and “crushes his skull.” Rebekah’s response to this crushing agony inside her is to say, “If it is like this, then why in the world am I” (Gen.25:22b)? I read quite literally. So, she drags herself to YHWH, who reveals to her that “two nations are in your womb” (Gen.25:23). Well, no wonder she feels crushed! Two nations!
Finally, her birthdate arrives, and “the first one came out red (Edom), covered with hair like a cloak, so they named him Esau,” a name sounding rather like the word for “hair.” I have long thought that Esau could well be “translated” Hairy. Then out came his brother, with “his hand grabbing Esau’s heel, so they named him Jacob,” a name based directly on the word for “heel.” I have long called him Grabber since that is what Jacob will do subsequently in his life; he will grab for everything he can get, as the first story demonstrates!
Hairy and Grabber quickly grow up; Hairy is “a hunter, an outdoorsman,” while Grabber is “a simple man, a tent dweller” (Gen.25:27). NRSV’s “quiet” is a complete guess as a description of Grabber. The point appears to be to contrast the two boys wildly: one is a vigorous outdoor hunter while the other is a momma’s boy, living inside much of the time. At the same time, Grabber will all too soon reveal his true nature as a master of deception and trickery. One day, Grabber is “stewing a stew,” and Esau rushes into the tent famished. It has apparently been a poor hunting day, and Hairy simply must eat. “Let me stuff myself with some of that red stuff,” he shouts, “for I am starving” (Gen.25:30)! Amazingly quickly, Grabber responds, “First right now sell me your birthrite” (Gen.25:31). The birthrite is of course Hairy’s rights as first born, the right to property, goods, and all the future promise of leadership of the tribe. It is in short, his complete future existence. His reply to this ridiculous request is about as stupid and absurd as it can be! “Well, look! I am about to die; what in the world is a birthright to me” (Gen.25:32)? But, not so fast! Grabber says, “Swear to me now” (Gen.25:33), demanding from his stupid brother the ancient equivalent of a notary public.
With no hesitation, the doltish Hairy swears to him and thus gives him the birthright. The text then markedly speeds up. “Grabber gave Hairy bread and lentil stew; he ate, drank, got up, and left” (Gen.25:34). One can imagine a belch as he rushes from the tent. Thus Hairy “poured contempt on his birthright.” He surely did! The tale is marked by deception and stupidity; Grabber gets what he wants, the right of the firstborn, and Hairy is left alone in the field. Little wonder that Israel remembers its ancestors as “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” and not “Abraham, Isaac, and Esau.” Yet, in a truly marvelous turn in this story later in Gen.32, Esau will show up again to play a very different role in the ongoing story of Jacob. We will look at that wonderful account later this summer.
The story is rife with humor and fun, however serious the tale may obviously be. Allow your congregation to enjoy this rich humor just as the ancients did. After all, the most serious events in our lives are quite often laced with fun and laughter.