Monday, February 6, 2012

A Bowl of Soup for a Birthright

Have you ever noticed what happens to older siblings in the bible? Cain and Abel. Ishmael and Isaac. Esau and Jacob. Given the ancient custom of oldest siblings being preferred in hereditary matters, one might expect them to be favored in the bible. Almost without exception, the opposite holds true in the bible. It is the younger child who is portrayed as the reader’s favorite. Today’s OT passage (Genesis 25:19-34) drives that point home.

Have I mentioned that I’m the oldest of three boys?

My wife and I had wills drawn up not long ago. Our lawyer asked us by what method we wanted our estate to be passed along to our descendants. The question was mostly a formality. Our lawyer asked because he had to, but he already knew the answer was per stirpes, which means that it is distributed equally to each branch of the family. I enjoyed pondering what might happen if we chose primogeniture, by which the eldest child inherits the entire estate. What might that do to our children? (Anyone who has experienced the whittling down and exactly equitable distribution of a parent’s estate to the last penny could get a chuckle out of that.)

In Esau’s day, the oldest male got it all—no questions asked. Yet he comes in from a hunt, famished, and his younger brother forces him to sell his birthright in exchange for some stew. Are we supposed to applaud Jacob for his craftiness? Are we supposed to weep for Esau for his misfortune? I struggle with this passage—not to mention the trickery involved with the paternal blessing in the chapters that follow. What does this passage mean for us today?

Let’s start with what you’re born with. What are you given simply by virtue of your birth? And what are you denied simply because of the circumstances of your birth? I might not like to admit it, but, like Esau, I despise my birthright. I take for granted all the things I was born with—parents who love me, the full use of my physical body and mental capacity, the ability to pursue my dreams with little standing in my way. How often do I stop and think about how differently things could have been?

I remember a political philosophy class from college in which the merits of affirmative action came up. After a student asked whether affirmative action had run its useful course, the professor replied, “When you think your life could have been the same had you been born a black female, then affirmative action will be finished in this country.” I don’t seek to debate the merits of the program in this space, but it’s worth asking…what if you had been born differently? What might you have missed out on?

Many of God’s blessings are bestowed on us before we are born. Do we attribute those to him? Is it mere chance? Is it divine providence? What does it mean to embrace and be thankful for our birthright? Esau’s folly is too often our folly. We place more value on a bowl of soup than a lifetime of opportunity. 

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