LORD God had declared before Esau’s birth that the ‘elder will serve the younger. Likewise Reuben, the elder son of Jacob, lost his birthright and Joseph received the double portion of the inheritance. Many in the world lose out on their birthright because of something that they never did or were accused of doing. But why does a righteous God permit such injustice being meted out to innocent people?
Why God blessed Jacob instead of Esau? – Rebecca enquired of the LORD about the struggling of the twins in her womb and received the reply about both brothers bringing two nations into the world, but that ‘the elder shall serve the younger’ (Genesis 25:22-23). Why did God decree this before either had committed a good or an evil deed? Tradition defines Jacob as perfect and Esau as evil but Esau was loved by Isaac, his father, for he honored his father and thus Esau should be seen as a role model. Moses commanded the Israelites, ‘Do not despise and Edomite (Esau’s descendents) because he is your brother’ (Deuteronomy 23:8).
Esau is not evil but impulsive. Jacob prepared lentil broth and Esau, being very hungry, sought some but Jacob asked him to sell his birthright first, for a bowl of broth (Genesis 25:30-34). Esau’s reply defines his nature, ‘Look, I am about to die. What good is the birthright to me’. He immediately swore an oath and sold his birthright. The Scripture words describe Esau’s nature, ‘He (Esau) ate and drank, and then got us and left. So Esau despised his birthright’. It is straight without any explanations and his impulsive nature, driven by the emotion of that moment, is seen in his hunger, parental devotion, seeking revenge or generosity.
God created man to operate above the control of our five senses but sin changed that and like Eve we tend to be guided by the moment. Jacob does not give way to his feelings but thinks and acts long term, in buying the birthright, in dressing with Esau’s clothes and getting blessed by Isaac, in agreeing to work for seven years for Laban to marry Rachel, even agreeing to work another seven years after being cheated. He detested impulsiveness in his children also for acting in anger and for the moment, which is considered a sign of an unworthy personality which he rebukes. But the result of the fall has caused man to be guided by his emotions, feelings and desires without even being conscious of it. We make choices even before being aware of the same.
Daniel Hahneman in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ says, we have a two track brain, one is rapid, instinctive, emotional and subconscious while the other is slower, conscious, deliberate and calculating. All animals have desires but only human beings are equipped to rationally handle desires. Quick reaction saves us from danger but deliberate actions save us from crimes. The Book of Genesis teaches us that impulsive behavior leads to violence and this is the message from God to Hagar about her son, Ishmael, ‘He shall be a wild man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him’ (Genesis 16:12). Isaac is different from him and even after being bound by Abraham to be offered as a sacrifice, there is no mention of any act of rebellion or hatred against his father.
The story is told by an old man to his grandchild about the ongoing fight within each one of us of two wolves, the one fighting to lead to envy, anger, vengeance and greed etc while the other is slow and leads to love, compassion, forgiveness and a caring attitude. The one we feed more in our daily life is the one who wins. The Jewish sages call this ‘yetzer hara’ and ‘yetzer tov’ where yetzer means to plan and ‘ra’ is evil and tov meaning good. Thus the inclination to do evil and to do good is in everyone but the one who controls his impulses wins. We have to decide who we want to be. To be Jacob we have to let go of Esau within us, the desire to fulfill the immediate hunger of the body while foregoing eternity and its blessings for generations.
Why did Jacob curse his elder son Reuben? Jacob says on his deathbed, ‘Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power’ (Genesis 49:3). It recognizes impressive physical presence and a great personality. Reuben is the most morally sensitive of the twelve brothers, Jacob’s sons. Jacob’s mother Leah, Laban’s elder daughter had weak eyes while Rachel was ‘beautiful of form and appearance’ (Genesis 29:17-23). Jacob served Laban for seven years to marry Rachel but on the day of marriage, Laban changed Leah for Rachel on the ground that the younger cannot be married till the elder is unmarried.
Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah and ‘When the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb’ but Rachel was barren (Genesis 29:30-35). Leah bears three sons and instead of Jacob, who probably never cared, she named each one with a specific desire each time. While naming Reuben the firstborn, she said, ‘The LORD has surely looked on my affliction. Now therefore, my husband will love me’. The second, Simeon, ‘because the LORD has heard that I am unloved’ and at the birth of the third, Levi, ‘Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons’.
Reuben was sensitive to his mother’s heartache. During the days of wheat harvest, he found mandrakes that incite sexual desire, in the field and brought and gave them to his mother. He saw this as a way to win love of his father for his mother, a gesture of great love. The second incident is after Rachel’s death (Genesis 35:19-22). ‘Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (Bethlehem). ‘When Israel (Jacob) dwelt in that land, that Reuben lay with Bilhah (Rachel’s maid) his father’s concubine and Israel heard about it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve.’ Seen literally this was an unforgiveable sin and an act of treason against his father but the Jewish sages (Shabbat 55) do not take it literally. Their interpretation is that after Rachel died, Jacob moved his bed with Bilhah which was hard for Leah to bear that her husband loved her sister’s maid also more than her. Reuben felt this a serious insult of his mother and he moved Jacob’s bed to his mother’s tent – Hebrew word ‘vayishkav or shakab’ should be translated not as ‘slept with’ but ‘changed the sleeping arrangement’.
In the same verse the next words after such a serious matter are, ‘Now the sons of Jacob were twelve’, this bears no connection with the previous contents of the same verse and is rare. It implies total breakdown of communication between the father and the son.
Reuben’s character is again seen when the other brothers decide to kill Joseph for Jacob’s attitude of favoring Joseph over the others and even giving him a special coat of colors. Reuben is the only one who resisted and suggested that they do not shed blood but throw Joseph into a cistern (dry well) in the wilderness and leave him to die (Genesis 37:21-22). But Reuben planned to ‘deliver him out of their hands, and bring him back to his father’. Reuben was away for some time and his brothers sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites. When he returned to rescue Joseph from the cistern, and ‘Joseph was not in the pit, and he tore his clothes’, a sign of pain and grief.
But why did Reuben lack the courage to do what was right? He should have spoken to his father about his sleeping arrangements or stood against his brothers to save Joseph and take him home. Right from his early life, Reuben was aware of the humiliation of his mother at the hands of his father. He never felt encouraged to lead and became hesitant by nature while Judah was over-confident. Reuben accepted the state of his mother as his for if we want our children to be leaders, we must empower, encourage and praise them. No one is perfect and when we identify the weakness of a child, we must help him/her overcome that through guidance and prayer seeking God’s intervention. The delicate balance between neglect and favoritism must be maintained.
Like Reuben, Joseph also never tried to communicate with his father after reaching Egypt as a slave. Shechem had raped Dinah, their sister, and Simeon and Levi went and killed not only Shechem and his father Hamor but all the males and plundered their city (Genesis 34:30-31). Jacob rebuked them that the people of the land will gather together ‘and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed’. The two brothers still countered him ‘should he treat our sister like a harlot?’ and we keep quiet.
Jacob cursed the three elder sons on his deathbed, to Reuben, ‘Unstable as water, you will no longer excel’ (Genesis 49:4-7). To Simeon and Levi, ‘Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly… I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel’.
Joseph presumed that Jacob was well aware of his brothers’ hatred towards him and still he sent him to them in the valley of Hebron (Genesis 37:14). He accepted this as a fact that probably his father wanted him sent away due to his dreams. After having become number two man in Egypt, he wanted to forget not only his brothers but also his father. He named his firstborn son Manasseh saying, ‘It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s house’ (Genesis 41:51). Later, Judah told Joseph about Jacob saying to them, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. One of them went away from me, and I said, ‘He has surely been torn to pieces’ (Genesis 44: 27-29). It is then that he realized that his father was grieved by his disappearance and had not rejected him. ‘Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out’ (Genesis 45:1-3). His first thought was not about Judah’s repentance to be held hostage for Benjamin but about his father to ask, ‘Is my father still alive?’ When there is no or lack of communication between a father and his children problems arise which affect not only that but even future generations as it happened with Reuben, Simeon and Levi.
Ensuring fulfillment of destiny – God ordained life for all believers is, ‘that you may prosper in all things, and be in health, just as your soul prospers’ (3 John 2). The most important aspect of development of any relationship is communication, both vertical with the Creator and horizontal with family, friends and others. Praying and worshipping together as a family helps in setting common goals and praying for resources, strength and guidance for fulfillment of the same. This is not only about spiritual growth but also about spiritual bonding. Moses commanded the Israelites to place God’s word in their hearts and also to ‘teach them to your children, speaking to them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up’ (Deuteronomy 11:18-19). This teaching is about worship as also about regular communication with the children and other family members in every activity of life.
Horizontal communication within the family and with others – How do we react to what others say about our children matters the most? Albert Einstein, the great scientist, was thought to be mentally retarded by his teachers in early years and he was expelled from school. His mother took on his education at home and her prayers and loving care ensured his proper intellectual growth. Do we encourage our children in a positive manner and try and understand the reason for any of his failures by helping him/her analyze the events? Do we rejoice and appreciate their success, even if these are in very small things, for from there one will get prepared for bigger things?
Derek Redmond, one of the promising athletes of Britain, in 1992 Olympic Games at Barcelona, pulled a muscle during 400 meters race. Since he was trying to finish the race anyway, his father jumped in from the stands to help his son limp up to the finishing point. Are we willing to do such a thing or do we get embarrassed by our children’s failure?
Words of encouragement –God created everything through the power of His spoken word and since we are created in His image and likeness, our spoken words carry weight. Be careful about what you speak to or about your children and others. ‘Tongue has the power of life and death’ (Proverbs 18:21).
Sharing resources equally –Jacob loved Joseph more than all his children and ‘made him a tunic of many colors (Genesis 37:3-4). As a result his brothers ‘hated him and could not speak peaceably to him’. Such favoritism results in an unequal use of resources causing resentment that may last a long time. This resulted in Joseph being sold as a slave by his own brothers.
Atmosphere at the table – Families that share a strong bond with each other pray together and enjoy their meals together, of abundance or scarcity. The command for all Israelites to travel to Jerusalem for the three festivals every year with their offerings and participate in eating of the sacrificial offerings, created a personal bond with the LORD as well as with others. Do we encourage our children to share their fears with us and with their siblings to receive help? Dinner time must be a time to discuss everything in love and then make plans to move forward. Most families do not eat together or even if they do, they get together only to eat.
At King David’s intervention, Mephibosheth, the lame grandson of King Saul, was restored all of that belonged to him and invited to dine at King David’s table everyday (2 Samuel 9:13). Affected by King David’s generosity at his table, Mephibosheth offered to give all his land to Ziba, the servant who had lied against him. He was glad that ‘the king has come back in peace to his house’ after Absalom’s rebellion and was sure of his generosity (2 Samuel 19:29-30). Such sense of personal sacrifice and compassion, even after being wronged, can only be there within the family members for each other, when they see the attitude of gratitude of their parents.
Our daily life affects everyone around us in ways that we cannot imagine and can take them to great heights or repeated failures. The words that we speak to our Father in prayers and to our children and other family members daily carry weight beyond imagination. God answers the prayers and the devil answers our words of condemnation and we affect their destiny in a big way. Lord Jesus permitted Apostle Peter to step out of the boat, during the storm, to walk on water to fill his with faith and confidence in His word. The disciples could believe in the promise of the Lord that ‘the works I do you will do also, even greater works than these’. Like our Lord we also must not be found wanting in speaking words of encouragement to others. Who knows which word of ours may unleash in him/her belief in their own persona and God’s word!