Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Birthright for Lentil Stew Genesis 25:29-34

Genesis 25:29-34: And when Jacob had cooked stew, Esau came in from the field and he was famished; and Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.” Therefore his name was called Edom. But Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?” And Jacob said, “First swear to me”; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

We do not know what the relationship of Esau and Jacob was as they were growing up, given their different characteristics. I am sure that their household would be most exciting at times as the two young boys kidded, fought, argued with, supported, and avoided each other at different times. They eventually learned to co-exist and go about their own preferences and responsibilities.

One day Jacob had cooked a lentil (small bean common to Egypt and Syria as well as parts of modern Europe) stew that filled the air with a most inviting aroma. Esau on the other hand had been out in the field working or possibly hunting, and he was famished. From my own experience, I know that when one is famished, priorities and the value of certain things change drastically. Not only do dishes one would normally pass on become most desirous, but also one is willing to pay extraordinary prices for an item of food. A good example is paying an exorbitant price for a hot dog at the ballgame. Esau was in that situation on this particular day that Jacob had prepared lentils. Notice that Esau asks for “a swallow” of the soup. At first one may think he does not want very much, just one swallow. In fact, the transliteration of Hebrew word la’at implies ‘to swallow greedily, devour’. Esau was basically asking to devour Jacob’s lentil soup. The text continues to state that it was for this reason Esau became known as Edom, which literally means ‘I will praise him’, for Esau was prepared to highly praise his brother Jacob whose soup satisfied his hunger.

But Jacob who was more attune to assessing the opportunities of a situation given his thoughtful character realized that something could be gained in return for his lentil soup. The fact that he very quickly asked Esau to sell him his birthright suggests that Jacob had been reflecting long and hard on the fact that Esau, born just split seconds ahead of him, actually had the traditional ‘first-born birthright’ over him. What exactly that entailed we learn about later in scripture, but suffice it to say here that its privileges included becoming the family priest and ending up with a double portion of inheritance.

Esau was not at all bothered by this request. One would have thought his reply would be, “Are you out of your mind, Jacob? Do you think, as hungry as I am, your lentil soup, as good as it smells, is worth my giving up my inheritance? You have to be joking, Jacob.” Instead, Esau, perhaps fixated on his starving state, or not caring for his birthright, or simply not thinking, responded as follows: “Some day I am going to die anyway and what good will my birthright and its privileges be to me then?” There is nothing in the text to indicate whether Esau was referring to his potential imminent death from starvation or his eventual death as any other human being. I prefer the latter possibility for two reasons. First, Esau had not been long without food and secondly, it reflects the mind of one who lives for the moment rather than one who considers consequences of one’s action for the future.

One of the most important things every growing child must learn in order to succeed in life is the process by which he or she overcomes the desire for immediate gratification and replaces it with patience and thoughtful consideration of how a given decision will impact his or her life both now and in the future. That is learning that many people continue to have difficulty with well into their adult years, yet it is a critical one for the Christian.

Now Jacob heard Esau say that his birthright would not be any good to him once he died, but realized the statement only gave reason as to why Esau may consider his request without any evidence that he in fact would turn his birthright over for the soup he was about to eat. With that in mind, Jacob proceeds to get that assurance by asking Esau to swear to him that indeed his birthright was now Jacob’s. Esau complied and the birthright was sold to Jacob for some bread and his lentil soup.

This short episode ends with Esau eating and drinking what Jacob had to offer, and then rising and going on his way. But there’s an epilogue to this account. It is the same type of epilogue that can be added to any man or woman’s story after they have made a bad decision in a moment of weakness. Here it is simply stated as: “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” He wanted nothing to do with it. Perhaps because he saw no value in it and he was trying to justify his decision. It is also possible that he despised it for it represented a spiritual right as God’s priest for the family that he wanted nothing to do with. He was in essence rejecting his family’s spiritual inheritance. His character and his decisions confirmed God’s right choice of Jacob to rise in history as more powerful and ruling over his brother, Esau.

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