THE COST OF DESPERATE DECISIONS
Genesis 25: 19-34
The saying “Desperate times call for desperate measures” occasionally has made an action-taker into a hero, but more often than not it has led to a choice among regrettable choices. Sometimes people do very dark deeds—or ones that torment them later—in the pressure caused by making a desperate decision. Ages ago, a story called FAUST describes a man who tells people he psychically talked to the dead. In an effort to know more about people’s personal lives, he agrees to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for that paranormal knowledge; knowledge he could use for hurtful power or for blackmailing others. Later versions of the story made some changes in the Faust character; the newer editions were written by Goethe, and, in this century, Thomas Mann in his work called Doctor Faustus.” In my college English Literature classes I also remember reading Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, in which the New Hampshire farmer, Jabez Stone, receives a decade of wealth from selling his soul to the devil, who Benet called “Mr. Scratch.” These stories didn’t just come from the fervent imaginations of their authors; they are morality plays and stories, whose lessons and consequences are rooted in our human decisions between right and wrong. The spotlight especially shines on the actions people choose in times of great duress: facing time pressure, carnal lust, extreme hunger, or torture to name a few; some make decisions that they often regret later, sometimes for a lifetime. If they have a conscience, they most often feel isolated from God and others by their actions: for example: persons overcome by sexual desires and act on them may regret their actions in the morning, actions that make them feel cheap and causing others to feel hurt, angry, or betrayed. Some people, under tormenting peer pressure, may decide to try crack cocaine, letting its hellish tentacles squash good moral judgment and replace it with an addiction. Still other persons, marooned in a small boat heading to America for freedom, may run short of provisions, and with the heat of the summer and the length of the voyage, get so thirsty that they drink seawater, an action that does not quench thirst but hastens death. Yes, sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures, but the results often radically change or end one’s life.
In today’s story from Genesis, we have an ancient description of a desperate situation. It reminds us that boys (and girls for that matter) have different temperaments, aptitudes, natural abilities, and interests. One son loves football while one loves music; one daughter loves dolls while one wants to be an astronaut. One man loves hunting while another despises it; one woman loves working in the home while another loves the work place. We have such a situation with Jacob and Esau. Some have even suggested that the story is an allegorical portrayal of the tension between Jews and Arabs: Jacob is portrayed as the status-climbing and intelligent Jew, willing to do what is necessary to receive a reward and a sense of status; Esau, they suggest, caricatures the Edomites, who were the darker skinned inhabitants of the desert who some perceived to be less schooled, more rustic, and generally uncouth warriors. Setting that image aside for now, lets go to the story: One of two sources for this story says that Isaac was 40 years old when he took Rebekah as his wife; since children were seen as God’s blessing, it is a likely assumption that they tried to have children right away. According to one source, it was actually twenty years before Rebekah began her difficult pregnancy. The Bible says that God told Rebekah in a prayer that she not only was carrying twins, and that they were certainly not identical, God said that she was carrying two nations, which meant that they would be competitors, against each other in all things. In fact, God said they not only would become two nations, God had already seen the future and the younger one, almost like Joseph in Genesis 37, would be the greater than the older one. When Rebekah (who knows God’s preference) later expresses a preference for Jacob (whom she and Isaac descriptively named “he who grabs the heel,” for that’s what “Jacob” means) over Esau (with the equally endearing, name: “The red one”), she ends up disagreeing with her husband, even usurping his authority, to honor the greater authority told to her by God. What an unusual turn of events! So this isn’t just a story about a hungry hunter and a feisty farmer; this story describes the birth of two nations, told about one of the branches of Abraham’s family tree!
In spite of being a chosen son of Abraham, Isaac doesn’t have the ambition or skills of his father. He seems to like Esau, either because he loves the barbeques that his son’s hunting made possible, or he admires his skills that he himself didn’t have. Isaac had not been privy to the divine explanation about his sons shared with Rebekah, so naturally he poured his nurture and encouragement mostly into son number one: the inheritor, the good son who, by the way, looks like a rough, raw woodsman in the slight interaction we get from him. Hunters, like wolves, and bears, and lions, go for a kill and live off of it for days; but the ones who go without a kill can get desperately hungry. If a hunter captures and kills no animals on which to survive, while an animal might do something desperate like eat it’s young or eat unnatural foods, Esau also did a desperate things as he came upon the aroma of a pot of food: not used to asking his farm-loving brother for anything, he, in a delirious sentence said, (according to one translator of the original language) “Let me cram my yaw with this red-red!” No wonder God wanted the other son to lead his people! Jacob, who must have let it be known that he wanted the blessings of the first born, would do whatever was necessary to get them. He saw an opportunity, staring him right in his face! Perhaps he made his offer in a cunning manner or in an off-handed way: “Let’s trade what dad plans to leave you, and what dad plans to leave me!” Jacob knew the custom of the first born getting the blessing; he also knew that dad liked Esau best! Esau, perhaps without giving it much thought so he could eat, simply said “Okay.” Jacob knew that Esau was physically stronger than he, and their father was on Esau’s side, so his brother might renege on his offer. Therefore, he made him promise with an oath- a binding agreement- which was as good as having him sign papers in the presence of a notary. The birthright with all of its privileges was transferred by Esau, who had it as the older son, to his younger brother who had no hope of getting it without being sly. Jacob’s mother would soon conspire with him to trick his father into passing God’s blessing and his own possessions on to him.
There are plenty of Esaus in this world: people who will do something that they can’t undo: in it they gain instant gratification, but they lose connection with and respect from others, and their soul feels heavy. Could Esau have gone to his father instead and asked some food? Could his father have told Jacob to share? We’ll never know; nations are divided over that fleeting decision. In the decisions in your own life, as you are able take a step back, seek wise counsel, consider well, pray, and then make your choices. Our life choices can change our lives forever: for better or for worse. Choose wisely.
Jeffrey A. Sumner July 13, 2008