Have you heard of two brothers named Rudolph and Adolph Dassler? They grew up together in a small town in Germany where their mother put them to work in her laundry in the 1920s. Their family bond was strong, and they spent their youth imagining what they could accomplish in business together. They started a shoe company, and in 1936 they got their big break. The two designed a shoe that was worn by US Olympic athlete Jesse Owens. Several years later, after both had joined the Nazi party, Rudolph was captured by allied troops and was convinced that his brother turned him in. By the end of the war, they were estranged and their successful shoe company was divided. Today, both resulting companies still make shoes and are both still headquartered in that small German town. One company is called Adidas, and the other Puma. Sadly, despite the international success of the two companies, the town was divided by its loyalties, and the respective families of the two brothers have engaged in feuding for much of the past seventy years. It’s been reported that the feud came to an official end recently when Frank, the grandson of Rudolph, took a job with the competing company, Adidas.
Sibling rivalry is an old story. Even the Bible story that is our text for today isn’t the first example in Scripture. Cain and Abel didn’t have a lot of choices about who to play with when they were kids. They were it! But somehow jealousy overcame the pressing need to get along, and eventually one killed the other over a perceived slight when God liked the offering of Abel and not Cain. Later in the same book, Joseph’s brothers took sibling rivalry to new heights when they sold Joseph into slavery and allowed their grieving father to believe he had been killed by wild animals.
What is it about the relationship between siblings that is potentially so volatile? I guess so much of our identity, and our value and sense of security is tied to our perceived place in the world, and that world is first defined by the narrow but formative environment of the family. It’s no wonder that family relationship are often so challenging.
I love how the story of the struggle of Esau and Jacob starts way back in the womb. It’s got to be hard enough to have two babies growing in there, but imagine them fighting constantly, struggling to get ahead of one another. And that’s exactly what is described when the hours of labor result in the emergence of one child, whose twin is firmly gripping his heel. In other words, Jacob was not about to allow Esau to be born first without a challenge.
The order of birth was critically important. In the case of multiple births, only one of the children gets to be the first born. And when this story was written, the first born was the one to forever hold the highly valued birthright. Birthrights were all about position and inheritance. The one possessing the birthright received twice as much as any siblings when a parent died. There were also religious benefits like serving in a priestly role for the family, and social benefits from the respect given to the position. No wonder Jacob grabbed hard and held on to Esau’s foot in utero. There was a lot at stake!
And then Esau gave it all up for a bowl of stew. Have you ever been so hungry that you thought you would die if you didn’t get a meal soon? I doubt that many of us have experienced what deep and dangerous hunger is really like. And I doubt that Esau had either when he came into the house one day after working hard outdoors and declared that if he didn’t eat he would just die. I don’t know if Jacob had spent extra time in the kitchen concocting the most delicious and aromatic stew imaginable in order to snatch the birthright that he missed out on by mere seconds. Or whether he suddenly saw an opportunity and used it for his great advantage. Either way, Esau burst into the house, said “Let me eat some of that red stuff!” and impulsively traded his birthright for some soup made of bread and lentils. I wonder how long it took before Esau was hungry again and kicked himself for being so foolish.
Maybe one of the lessons here is to not make important, potentially life-altering decisions when you’re hungry. Or angry. Or tired. Or desperate. What is so valuable to you, that it could be like the loss of a birthright if foolishly given away? What circumstances could cause you to do so?
I’m always fascinated by the descriptions of Jacob and Esau. As Esau grew, he became a stereotypical man’s man, and he gained his father’s attention and approval at a young age. He liked being outdoors with Isaac, while Jacob preferred to spend his free time inside the tent with his mother. He liked to hunt, and Jacob apparently preferred to cook. Today’s story says that he emerged from the womb with red skin and hair covering him like a mantle. Later in Genesis, Isaac was apparently confused about who held the birthright, because at the time of his death he planned to officially confer it on his firstborn, Esau. Jacob connived with his mother to trick Isaac, and they covered the smooth and delicate complexion of his arms and neck with goat skin. He asked his father, now blind in his old age, to bless him. He did so after touching his son to confirm it was Esau, and when Esau arrived later to retrieve his blessing, it was too late and the birthright was gone forever.
When I’ve thought about the word birthright, another word that comes to my mind is “entitlement.” That word has a lot of baggage attached to it these days. We think of programs like Social Security as entitlements. After all, we’ve paid into that particular entitlement for years and we expect to receive our birthright, or inheritance, at the age of 62 or 65. Regardless of how people might want to massage Social Security benefits and allotments in years to come, few would argue that those who have paid for this benefit are not entitled to it.
There is another way to look at the word entitlement that has a less positive feeling attached to it. Persons who believe that they are entitled by virtue of position or wealth or other measures of privilege often express a sense of entitlement that not all would recognize or agree with. Both Jacob and Esau felt entitled to the family birthright. Esau on the basis of his position as first born. Jacob on the basis of his cleverness and belief that he deserved it more than his brother. Which was right? Maybe neither one deserved it, but one or the other was ultimately going to end up with the power and assets that flowed through the clan of Abraham and Isaac.
I have been really concerned, as have many of you, at recent news coming from our nation’s capital. I think it is important to withhold premature judgement about the intent and motivation of those who have had dalliances with Russian officials. I also believe it is critical that we know the truth and that our nation’s highest values are upheld.
Who holds our nation’s birthright? Who determines what our legacy will be and who gets to benefit from the value contained in who we are as a people? Birthrights are rooted in something that is bigger than who we are individually. It’s the ongoing expression of the values and worth of a community, whether that community is a family or a country.
When Abraham Lincoln spoke of the devastation of war at Gettysburg, he concluded with worlds about the future, predicting a new birth of freedom in the wake of the Civil War. I believe he referred to our national birthright by saying that “Government by the people, of the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Our birthright is freedom… and justice…. and truth; it is everything contained in our constitution that protects the value of each citizen. The story in Genesis concludes by saying that Esau “despised his birthright.” We cannot be silent when any political leader despises the birthright we share as Americans. It is not an entitlement to be squandered by one or a few, but it is the inheritance of all.
This past week, a Church leader who has been loved by Evangelical Christians for his many books on spirituality and for his enormously popular translation of the Bible was interviewed at the age of eighty four to share about his life and his legacy. He reflected on his work as a pastor, theologian, and author. At the end of the interview, he was asked if his views had changed on the red-button topic of homosexuality. He replied that he had known many gay and lesbian persons whose spiritual life was just as genuine as his own, and that it was no longer a theological issue for him personally. When asked if he would marry a same sex couple today if he was still a pastor, he said “yes.” Within hours of the release of the interview, the largest Christian book retailer in the country threatened to stop selling his books if he did not recant his statements. The next day he did just that. Many have rejoiced in his return to fold, and many LGBTQ Christians have felt betrayed, again, by someone they trusted to speak the truth on their behalf. People of great influence hold a birthright in their hands. They are entitled to do as they wish, but a true legacy means sharing their inheritance generously, even if it is at a personal cost.
The pages of the New Testament speak of birthright as something we all share in the common life of Jesus, who is described as the firstborn of creation.
What are you doing with your birthright? Do you value position and privilege as gifts to be shared rather than entitlements to be kept for yourself? The future depends on our wise stewardship. May we fully realize who we are as children of God, and as God’s children may we pass blessing on to others. Amen.