As chapter 25 begins – remember, from previous weeks and the insert (this is also a good time to keep the Bible open to flip back a bit) – we are between generations. Abraham remarries, he and Keturah have children, then Abraham dies. In a really touching scene in Genesis 25:9, the text says, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him…” in a cave their dad bought a couple chapters back when Sarah died. After ALL the conflict at the beginning of Ishmael’s life, with Abraham and Sarah sending Ishmael and his mother Hagar away to die in the desert, we don’t hear anything about Ishmael after Genesis 22:21. But after all these years – Isaac is forty now – the hurt and anger and resentment, the sons stand together, burying their father. It’s beautiful. They bury him together.
After the funeral, verse 12 begins with a genealogy. The text begins with Ishmael, Abraham’s first son, and we get their names, villages, set as leaders of their tribes. Twelve tribes just like Israel. The Koran, Islam’s holy book, picks up Ishmael’s story, weaving it and Abraham’s to Mecca, near a spring where Hagar and Ishmael found water, a spot in the desert called the Kaaba, now a majestic black cube at the center of the holiest site in Islam. The narrative I grew up with in church about the child God chose (Isaac), and the child God didn’t choose (Ishmael), especially as evidence of Christianity’s superiority over Islam is much more complex. The stories of the three great Abrahamic faiths are bound up together, and we forget that at our peril.
Then Isaac. Verses 19 and following are structured differently, the heart of the promise unfolding in the midst of conflict. Isaac and Rebekah can’t have children. Isaac prays, Rebekah conceives. It’s always worth saying in these stories that the theological point, the purpose here, is to show God’s active role in continuing the promise. You and I know couples who have prayed and prayed. These verses make a point about God’s activity in this circumstance, and do not make a point about Isaac’s faithfulness or ours when we pray. What is important is that there is conflict from the beginning. The children struggled together within her – struggle, oppress, the verb literally means to crush. Painful strife literally from conception.
Rebekah, in an amazing scene, confronts God. WHY? This is the beginning of something bigger, God says. These two nations, nations that trace their roots back to Jacob and Esau, Israel and Edom, will be constant conflict. In the time of David and Solomon, much later, in II Samuel 8:13-14, Israel did rule Edom, but it wasn’t always the case. Again, the heart is in what is said to Rebekah. The elder shall serve the younger. She gives birth, Esau – red, hairy, a play on the name though the language isn’t clear. Jacob literally gripping his older brother’s heel, his name meaning ‘he who holds by the heel,’ or – isn’t this rich? – ‘he who supplants’. Isaac was 60 –they were married at 40 – 20 years of waiting. Esau and his brother grow up differently, with different gifts, which lead to very different relationships with their parents.
There are a lot of pieces moving in these stories, and earlier this week I got stuck. I got stuck on Isaac and Ishmael and the implications for Christianity and Islam. I got stuck on this dear family who can’t have kids for 20 years then get twins who hate each other. I got stuck on this odd encounter between Jacob, who is a manipulative SOB, and from Esau, who doesn’t seem too smart. But then I was reminded, by Walter Brueggemann no less, that it’s not about them: “Theological exposition will not focus on the person of Jacob. He holds our attention and warrants it. But finally the text concerns the God of Jacob….” These characters are so compelling, but ultimately – and this is a great rule for interpreting the bible – it is not about the characters, even though we see in these women and men and relationships much of ourselves. The best interpretive question is almost always, what is the text saying to us about who God is?
I think it starts when God says to Rebekah, “the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” People in this time, and for generations, would have stopped there. The older shall serve the younger?? This is about a system of primogeniture, in which the oldest male child is the one who inherits his father’s money and land. Not split among other kids, certainly not the daughters. We know this about the ancient world, we grew up learning about this in the feuds and battles and strategic marriages arranged throughout the world, a daughter of the king in one country marrying the eldest son of the king in another, knowing soon the crowns will be united. Feudal lands and lords and estates. This about the handing down and managing of class and privilege and control. There’s a longer quote on your insert that is worth reading:
Primogeniture is not simply one rule among many. It is the linchpin of an entire social and legal system which defines rights and privileges and provides a way around internecine disputes. But that same practice which protects the order of society is also a way of destining some to advantage and others to disadvantage. The world of privilege and denial is here disrupted by the God of blessing who will sojourn with the “low and despised” (cf. Luke 7:34). This narrative, then…dares to call into question a conventional settlement of power.
This text is about a God who upends all of our conventional arrangements. The text doesn’t make the whole case here, which will be expanded through much of Scripture, certainly in the chapters to come. This text, from the very beginning, is signaling something essential about God. This God doesn’t do what the world does – transfer power from oldest male to oldest male, privilege held the same way for millennia. This God, this story begins to argue, operates differently. I choose the promise, God says. I will do this in a way that the oldest and the strongest aren’t always the one who gets the spoils. God seeks out the powerless, tends to the poor, lifts up the outcast, binds up the broken-hearted. When we are down. And out. And hurt. And in conflict. And overwhelmed. This God is for us, them, and for all who weep and who struggle and who are so deeply alone.
Therefore, the church – and its people – should live our lives consistent with the character of this God. Not to protect what we have, but to share with those who don’t. Not to wall off access to the undeserving or those who haven’t achieved what we have, but to be about making sure that we are supporting who God supports. The God of the promise – the God I meet in the Bible – does NOT pick the people we would pick first for our team on the playground, because we’re not ever really that far from the jocks and popular people from high school. This God – and I think this is absolutely essential to know about God – is in the mess with us. In the mess. With the people in the mess, who are hurting, and exhausting, and mentally ill, or addicted to drugs or alcohol, or fighting a terrible battle with an eating disorder. With our neighbors who can’t find an affordable place to live as Durham becomes more and more hip. With neighbors who look like us and neighbors who don’t, who are from here and who aren’t from here.
I knew of Howard Thurman, mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr, dean of the chapel at Howard University and Boston University. I recently finished, “The Luminous Darkness,” what he called a spiritual mediation on the price of segregation written in 1965. He engages deeply issues of race, and then, in the final paragraphs of the book, points us forward:
“There is a spirit abroad in life of which the Judeo-Christian ethic is but one expression. It is a spirit that makes for wholeness and for community;
it finds its way into the quiet solitude of a Supreme Court justice when he ponders the constitutionality of an act of Congress which guarantees civil rights to all its citizens;
it settles into the pools of light in the face of a little girl as with her frailty she challenges the hard frightened heart of a police chief;
it walks along the lonely road with the solitary protest marcher and settles over him with a benediction as he falls by the assassin’s bullet fired from ambush;
it kindles the fires of unity in the heart of Jewish Rabbi, Catholic Priest, and Protestant Minister as they join arms together, giving witness to their God on behalf of a brotherhood that transcends creed, race, sex, and religion;
it makes a path to Walden Pond and ignites the flame of nonviolence in the mind of a Thoreau and burns through his liquid words from the Atlantic to the Pacific;
it broods over the demonstrators for justice and brings comfort to the desolate and forgotten who have no memory of what it is to feel the rhythm of belonging to the race of men;
it knows no country and its allies are to be found wherever the heart is kind and the collective will and the private endeavor seek to make justice where injustice abounds, to make peace where chaos is rampant, and to make the voice heard on behalf of the helpless and weak.
It is the voice of God and the voice of man; it is the meaning of all the strivings of the whole human race toward a world of friendly men and [women] underneath a friendly sky.”
I’d be interested – I know youth are heading to Montreat this week, as we all come and go in the summertime. I wonder what it looks like for you to live as a follower of this God, whose values fly in the face of so much of the world. Who is about compassion and welcome and grace, who seeks out unexpected people in unexpected places, upending conventional arrangements all over the place.
Might we participate in the work of THIS God. Open our eyes, that we will sing in a moment, that we might see. Illumine us. Spirit, Divine. All praise be to God. Amen.
 I am grateful to Reza Azlan’s “The god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam” (New York: Random House, 2005), pages 4-6, for this background. It’s a wonderful read.
 I am grateful to the language notes in The Discipleship Study Bible, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), page 35.
 Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation: Genesis (Atlanta: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1986), page 209.
 Brueggemann, 209.
 Howard Thurman, The Luminous Darkness (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 112-113.