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Genesis 25:19-34
July 13, 2014
Year A 6
th After Pentecost

This summer the lectionary follows the Genesis story.

Last week Isaac married Rebekah. Today we hear that after twenty years of marriage, and after Isaac prayed to God then Rebekah conceives, and we learn she is going to give birth to twins. Rebekah like Sara was well past her time of bearing children and like Sara her prayers are answered and she conceives.

Rebekah has a difficult pregnancy. She struggles with what is happening to her; and she prays to God and asks why this has to be? And God said to her: there are two nations in your womb and they shall be divided, one shall be stronger than the other and the elder shall serve the younger.

This is the somewhat confusing piece in this story. God pronounces to Rebekah that Esau will serve Jacob. Esau the first born is not going to inherit what is legally and rightfully his.

There is no indication that Rebekah ever shares God’s pronouncement with anyone, not even her husband Isaac. When the time comes for the birth Esau came out all red and his body was covered in hair, Jacob followed clutching the heel of his brother and he had soft smooth clear skin.

From the beginning Esau becomes Isaac’s favourite and Jacob is Rebekah’s favourite.

The family conflict is set up from birth and the conflict started long before the birth as we talked about last week. The conflict starts with Abraham, Sara, and Hagar and then it is passed on to Isaac and now Rebekah is involved. I am going to tell you the rest of Rebekah’s story. I feel we need the whole story to make sense of Rebekah. We could have had it read in its entirety, but it is very long.

The story goes like this:

Esau makes some serious mistakes - like selling his birthright to Jacob for a meal of beef stew. The issue of birthright might not mean much to us, but the issue was a big deal in ancient Israel. The birthright is the eldest son’s inheritance, usually a double portion. The eldest son assumes the leadership of the family when the father dies. To lose his birthright is to lose his claim on his father’s estate.

Esau is the hunter, he is the one that provides food for the family and when he returns home from hunting he asks Jacob to cook for him. Jacob agrees and at the same time he asks for Esau’s birthright. Jacob is the opposite of Esau. He is mild mannered smooth skinned and a homebody. And he is like his mother in that he is a trickster. Jacob is waiting for the right moment to act.

When Isaac is ninety years old and he is blind - he wants to bless Esau so that he can inherit his estate. Remember, Isaac knows nothing. It would seem that the selling of the birthright for a dish of stew is not a serious commitment. Rebekah overhears the conversation between Esau and Isaac where Isaac says to Esau go and catch wild game and bring it back so we can eat together and I will bless you - you are the first born son and all that I have is yours. Esau leaves on his hunting trip and Rebekah makes her decision to act. Rebekah goes to Jacob and has Jacob dress up in Esau’s clothes, the clothes smell like Esau and then she covers his hands with animal skin covered with hair. Rebekah prepares food and Jacob takes it to his father saying that he is Esau. Jacob had almost no problem with this trickery - his only concern was that his father could catch on to what is happening and curse him. But Rebekah promises that she will take the curse herself.

The plan works; Issac is a bit suspicious but he is easily convinced that Jacob is Esau, the first born. So, Isaac blesses Jacob. Of course when Esau returns from hunting he is furious, and he says that when Issac dies he will kill Jacob. Rebekah protects Jacob and she tells Jacob that he must go to Haran to live with her brother Laban. In the midst of all this Esau pleads for a blessing and he receives a blessing of sorts. But it has no power and no material goods attached to it. Now Issac decides to send Jacob to Laban’s so he can find an Israelite wife. Jacob’s departure looks like it is Issac’s idea and not Rebekah’s. There is never any evidence in the plot that Issac knows about Esau’s threat to kill Jacob.

Esau marries Ishmael’s daughter. He marries within the family, Remember that Ishmael is Issac’s older brother. Esau marries within the family, but within the outcast part of it. Later he marries two Canaanite women.

This is the last we hear of Rebekah until we hear of her burial site in Genesis 49:31.

Rebekah is cast as a deceiving, lying woman who stops at nothing to see her favourite son get the benefits reserved for the elder son. After all God told her that this was how it would be - she is only carrying out the prophecy. This makes her the active player in the family. She speaks her mind, she develops and implements courses of action and she is willing to deal with the consequences. Rebekah lives her life in ways that we have not seen other women live thus far in the Bible.

Her freedom is limited by the patriarchy and she understands what that means for her life but even so she pushes the boundaries. In the midst of using her power she dutifully goes about her chores, makes her trips to the well, and extends hospitality to strangers. She shows us how a life of faith and prayer works. And really she is the major player in Isaac’s story. Rebekah overshadows Isaac. I’ll say more about that later.
Everything she does she does for herself and she does so because it was what God asked. And she does it for her favourite son, Jacob.

So, what are we to learn from Rebekah?

She could have done things differently. She could have worked to develop a healthier relationship between her sons. She could have allowed Isaac access to both his sons in a more open and honest way. We probably can’t condone her manipulation of Isaac.

But we can try to understand why she did what she did. She might have harboured some real hurts of her own. She left her family to marry a man she didn’t’t know. On their wedding night Isaac took her to his mother’s tent rather than to a tent he had prepared for her. Four times in the text we are told that Rebekah replaced Sarah - so she became a mother figure for Isaac. She had a difficult pregnancy. And perhaps that says a lot. She certainly wouldn’t’t have had an epidural. She had twins in a time when many women would have died in childbirth. I believe that suffering, that pain changes us.

If you read this story in its entirety you will learn that what Abraham did with Sara, Isaac does with Rebekah.

Isaac sacrifice’s Rebekah and her sexuality to save himself from possible death. (Same story as when Abraham lied about Sara being his sister to save his own life). Psychologically there was plenty going on in Rebekah’s life. In the midst of all these challenges Rebekah proves to be a strong woman. She takes matters into her own hands and works her plan to perfection. She is brave, courageous and bold. Unfortunately she pays a price for her freedom: She never sees her beloved Jacob after she sends him away. She does not see him claim his birthright or his blessing. She never sees her grandchildren.

Perhaps Rebekah is a reflection of many women who love unwisely. If we are to see beyond the hurt that Rebekah causes her family and herself, we see a woman with remarkable skills. She is intellectually gifted and able to see a bigger picture.

She is a logical thinker and can figure out what is going to happen and why it will happen. She is willing to take chances and thinks well on her feet. And she tries to do the right thing.
We are left to wonder what would have happened if she had not taken matters into her own hands.

In another time Rebekah might have been a political leader or a shrewd business woman. She used her power within the limits of her status. And she was a reflection of a woman, especially mothers, the world over who seek the highest good for their children.

I suspect that the story was told to serve as a catalyst to tell the story of Isaac - who really doesn’t have a story. Isaac is known mainly for the sacrifice. The story had to be bigger than that - a mere attempted sacrifice wasn’t going to keep him in the picture long enough to develop a nation. Hence, we have Rebekah.

What is the theological function of this story?

I believe that it serves to remind us that we are all Rebekah’s. We all make mistakes, we all quite likely have a favourite child, and we all strive to do what is best for them and most of us quite likely at one time or another lie to our spouses our partners our husbands. And maybe you don’t.

However, I know I have participated in all of the above and I will assume that most of us are familiar with some part of Rebekah. So the story serves to remind us that we are human. That we all have weaknesses. Llife goes on. As for women who had some power I am reminded of a story from some time back regarding Kim Campbell and her involvement with Joyce Milegard who went beyond what most of could endure to free her son, David. This story holds up an interesting power dynamic - I remember watching Kim Campbell sometime within her short term in power shun Joyce Milegard on National television on the street in Winnipeg. She refused to speak with Joyce Milegard about the release of her son David, from prison.

On that day Kim Campbell is the part of Rebekah that most of us don’t want to contend with and Joyce Milegard is Rebekah too as she does everything in her power to save her son. She did that at the expense of her marriage and she was separated from her family entirely for many years.

And I ask again: Theologically or perhaps spiritually what is it we want from the story: We agree I suspect that we understand Rebekah - and this is her story, how do we make it our story? - what does it offer us?

I don’t think it is a particularly easy story. I have unpacked it as much as I can for you. These stories are my favourites. I like them because there are no clear answers. We have to delve deep to discern the answer for ourselves. And God doesn’t give reasonable responses to prayer.

God tells Rebekah, well your first born won’t inherit the estate. What sort of God does that? Indeed, what sort of God would throw everything off kilter like that?

Perhaps a God that wants us to think outside the box.

Perhaps a God that surprises us. Maybe a God that wants us to think about how the world could be different.

Or maybe God just wants us to be like Rebekah and live on the daring edge of our own private world where we do the best we can with what we have and we forgive one another for mistakes and in the midst of all that we are free women and men living as though we understand what it is God wants from us. And we reach out and say, yes, I can live on the edge, what was it God, that you asked of me?

S. Ferguson-Hood