Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bible Couples, Pt. 3: Isaac and Rebekah


To relatives and friends, guessing who was the favorite child in my family was not difficult. Growing up, my sister was daddy’s girl. The family included two boys and a sister in the middle, each a year apart, but my youngest son status was in vain.

The stark reminder in Asia of who the golden child is usually occurs on festive occasions. At the Chinese New Year dinner time, my saliva would drip at the sight of every child’s favorite part of the boiled fresh chicken – the drumstick – and but my heart would sigh knowing on whose bowl it would land on. My father would use his chopsticks, lift the first piece and the masterpiece from the plate before anyone could dig in, sticking to the same old text as he explained to the boys: “Sister is a girl, the middle child; so she deserves the drumstick.” The boys would alternate the other drumstick, but it usually ended up on my brother’s bowl, because he wore the eldest son mantle in the family and because I had no voice in the family. I would sit glumly, act brave but fume inside. The subtle rejection was another blow to a child whose parents were divorced by then. Drumsticks were not to blame, the lack of self-esteem, security and status in the family was.

Favoritism in the family is common, subtle, hurtful and destructive. Francine Klagsbrun in her 1992 book “Mixed Feelings” reported that 84% of 272 people surveyed said one or both of their parents had shown favoritism when they were growing up. Only 16% deny that. In the case of a perceived doting mother, 66% of the men compared to only 27% of the women felt favored by her. In the case of an accused father, 62% of women, compared to 49% of the men, felt they were favored. The twist in the study is that 13% favored by father also felt “resentful” and an even higher 18% favored by mother resented the burden (p. 174).

The favoritism Isaac showed Esau and Rebekah to Jacob is one of the best-known stories in the Bible. The guilty party was the parents, not the children, but the burden was passed on the children and the behavior was picked up by the children.

What can parents and spouses do to raise healthy children? What kind of godly and moral character and example do you leave behind for your children? How are you preparing your children for their growth and independence?

The More Communication You have, the Less Concerned You are
27:1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, “My son.” “Here I am,” he answered. 2 Isaac said, “I am now an old man and don't know the day of my death. 3 Now then, get your weapons--your quiver and bow--and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. 4 Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.” (Gen 27:1-4)

A reader who identified herself as Marlene’s daughter wrote to “Dear Abby” after she had just lost her mother to a lengthy illness and told the columnist of her parents’ beautiful marriage that sparkled through its almost fifty years of marriage. She never heard them say an angry word at each other. While sorting through her mother’s papers she came across the “Rules for a Happy Marriage” saying the mother had kept. She did not know how long she got it or when she had it, but she passed the advice to other readers:
1. Never both be angry at the same time.
2. Never yell at each other unless the house is on fire.
3. If one of you has to win an argument, let it be your mate.
4. If you must criticize, do it lovingly.
5. Never bring up mistakes of the past.
6. Neglect the whole world rather than each other.
7. Never go to sleep with an argument unsettled.
8. At least once every day say a kind or complimentary word to your life partner.
9. When you have done something wrong, admit it and ask for forgiveness.
10. It takes two to make a quarrel, and the one in the wrong usually is the one who does the most talking. (Dear Abby 2/1/96)

Isaac and Rebekah’s problems began long before this incident occurred and the episode began. Two chapters ago, the Lord told Rebekah that the older will serve the younger (Gen 25:23) and Isaac was witness to the grabbing instincts of Jacob at birth when he came out of his mother’s womb grabbing his brother’s heel (Gen 25:26). Bible commentators debated on whether Rebekah told his husband what the Lord had told her, but all agreed that their communication method was unhealthy, nonsensical and broke. Not only did they fail to keep the communication channels open on the welfare of their kids, their partisan and polarizing support for their favorite child forced the succession issue, poisoned the home environment, clouded the family’s future. Their communication was so unwholesome to the point that Rebekah eavesdropped and spied on his husband’s talk with the older son.

Genesis 25:28 – two chapters ago - had already established the family dynamics and pattern of behavior: “Isaac…loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” The fundamental parenting principle of fairly treating and loving all children was sabotaged by the parents themselves. Genesis 27 is merciless in depicting their continual bias towards one son with the gross neglect of another. Isaac doted over Esau, calling him “my son” as many as eight times (Gen 27:1, 18. 20, 21, 25, 26, 27, 37) – five times mistaken identity though (vv 18. 20, 21, 26, 27), and Rebekah fawned over younger son, Jacob, calling him “my son” three times (Gen 27:8, 13, 43). Both parents have their favorite son, both sons modeled after their parent and the parents played one son against the other. Also, Esau was “his son Esau” in verse 5; Jacob was “her son Jacob” in verses 6 and 17; Isaac called the fake Esau (Jacob in disguise) “my son” in verse 20 to show who’s daddy dearest, and to end the name-calling with a bang or climax, twice in Hebrew Isaac lovingly called the pretender Esau “my very son Esau” (v 21, 24), the word “very” in Hebrew is missing in NIV.

Isaac’s irresponsibility as a parent and husband is signaled by the Hebrew word “love” (vv 4, 9, 14), translated as “like” in NIV. This word is mostly used for human love. Up to Genesis 27, this word is based on relationships, accounting for Abraham’s love for Isaac (Gen 22:2), Isaac’s love for Rebekah (Gen 24:67) and for the two parents’ love – Isaac’s love for Esau and Rebekah for Jacob (Gen 25:28). This word is viewed negatively in the Scriptures when love is showered on “things” and not people, such as loving pleasure (Prov. 21:17), loving a quarrel (Prov 17:19), and loving the untamed tongue (Prov 18:21). Loving children is not wrong, but loving only one child is bad.

Three times the text exposes Isaac’s love for tasty food, or “wild game” in Hebrew (vv 4, 7, 9, 14, 17, 31). Isaac’s love was fleshly, carnal and worldly; not healthy, inclusive or unconditional. His strong craving, insatiable appetite and unbridled mouth for wild game made him pit one son against the other. His love for Esau (Gen 25:28) was compared in Hebrew with his ridiculous love for the wild (v 4). He pampered and spoiled Esau the same way he indulged on and hungered for the exotic. His ideal son was a Dirty Hairy kind of guy – dirty and hairy; a man’s man, not a girlie man; a handy man, not a hairless man; and a chip of the old block, not or a Mama’s boy tied to her apron strings.

The More Conniving You are, the More Condemned You’ll Be
18 He went to his father and said, “My father.” “Yes, my son,” he answered. “Who is it?” 19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game so that you may give me your blessing.” 20 Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?” “The LORD your God gave me success,” he replied. 21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.” 22 Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he blessed him. 24 “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked. “I am,” he replied. (Gen 27:18-24)

It’s been said, “Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”

The Chinese say, “When the family is harmonious, thousand things prosper; when the family turns ugly, mouths will not stop.”

Jane Bluestein’s “The Parent’s Little Book of Lists” has a list of “22 of the Worst Things an Adult Ever Said to a Child” but also the best things adults said to them.

Some of the worst things submitted include:
“You’ll never amount to anything.”
“I wish I’d never had you.”
“How could you be so stupid?”
“You're useless (or hopeless).”
“I can't stand you.”
“You’ll never be college material.”
“You're lying.”
“You'll never be any good at that.”
“Why can’t you be more like your brother or sister?”
“You're fat and ugly.”

Some of the best things include:
“I love you.” (top of the list)
“How are you?”
“You are a good person.”
“You can do anything you choose to do.”
“I’m so glad we got you.”
“You are very special (or terrific).”
“When you make up your mind to do something, you always follow through.”
“You are number one.”
“You’re beautiful.”
“You’re more responsible than a lot of adults I know.”
“You'll go far. I'll never have to worry about you.”

Fundamentally, Rebekah did not trust his husband and his son Jacob’s way of doing things, so she took matters into her own hand and made things come true by herself. The worst indictment on Rebekah was not that she was an eavesdropper, a meddler and a handful, but that she pushed Jacob to help himself. Twice she ordered her son to obey her with the daring expression and direct command “Obey my voice” (vv 8, 13), taking responsibility for the actions and consequences. The translation “tell” in verse 8 is softer and lighter than the original Hebrew word “command.” Not only could she direct her son like a general, she could read her husband like a book. Even when Rebekah took two domesticated animals (v 9), not really wild game, she knew her husband could not tell or smell the difference.

Jacob was not a natural born liar, but a parent emboldened liar. At first, he was horrified and helpless (vv 11-12), but when the time came, he did not gulp in reply, break a sweat, bat an eye, lose his composure, register any unease or fluff his lines. The rookie never took a false step, gave the wrong answer or strayed from the plot. The younger dressed the part, looked the part and perfected the part. The mother did not count on the father to ask so many questions, but she needed not worry. Jacob calmly handled the questions like a pro, handling one question at a time, saying more than he should at first (vv 18-20), but improvising along the way and telling his father what he wanted to hear, including invoking God’s name, which was perfect assurance to the father, offering three convincing imperatives to fool his father: arise - KJV, sit, eat (v 19).

In fact, the only one who trembled was the older. Esau did not just “tremble” or “tremble exceedingly,” but “trembled very exceedingly” (v 33), the only time this phrase occurs in the Bible. His “loud cry” (v 34) in Hebrew is comparable to two other instances - the loud wailing over the death of the first-born in Egypt (Ex 11:6) and the enslavement of Jews by fellow Jews during Nehemiah’s time (Neh 5:1). This is the first use of the word “bitter” (v 34) in the Bible. Esau practically defined bitterness. He was not only bitter, but “exceeding” bitter (v 34) – the word “exceeding” dropped from NIV. The word “bitter” occurs 41 times but the phrase “exceeding bitter” occurs only once in the Bible.

Jacob escaped condemnation presently, but faced heartbreak a generation later. The favor he received from his mother was transferred upon his son Joseph, yielding a ten-fold repayment when his ten other sons’ hatred (Gen 37:4), more hatred (Gen 37:5, 8) and jealousy (Gen 37:11) boiled to the top and spilled into the open in their conspiracy to kill Joseph (Gen 37:18).

The More Controlling You are, the Less Custody You have
41 Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” 42 When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is consoling himself with the thought of killing you. 43 Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran. 44 Stay with him for a while until your brother's fury subsides. 45 When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I'll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?” (Gen 27:41-45)

When Mac and Barbara Bledsoe had their first child, famed NFL player Drew Bledsoe, Jim Cobb, the family doctor who delivered the baby on Valentine’s Day, 1972, in a country hospital in Central Washington, said as he handed the baby to the father for the first time: “I want you to remember something. This child is not yours. Never has been, never will be. He’s on loan to you for eighteen years.”

The people who lost the most in the end were not Isaac or Esau, but Rebekah and Jacob. The polarized family openly shared and vented of their distrust of one another, dishonor in the family and their disgust with its members. The brothers did not trust each other before, but now they could not tolerate each other. The word “grudge” (v 41) is softened from its traditional translation of “hate” in KJV (Gen 49:23, 50:15, Job 16:9, Ps 55:3), meaning mistreatment, the same word for the “persecution” Joseph endured at the hands of his brothers (Gen 49:23, 50:15). Before, they hid things in their heart, now it was out in the open. This “grudge” is an open grudge, not a hidden grudge. Jacob and his mother’s actions opened a can of worms in the family. All in all, Rebekah directed a whopping nine imperatives on her son: listen (v 8), go, bring (v 9), do, go, get (v 13), and do, rise - KJV, flee (v 43).

The father and the older son duo practically invented new and colorful words in the Hebrew lexicon for Jacob (v 35) – the father called him “deceitful” and the older called the younger “supplanter” (v 36). News that Esau the hunter had vowed to hunt for Jacob’s head at his father’s death reached the ears of the mother. The mother also coined a new word in Hebrew at sight of his son’s mounting anger – “fury” (v 44), which is different from the traditional word “anger” (aph) in verse 45, which means anger that can be seen on one’s face or nose or even forehead compared to the word “fury,” which means hot displeasure, poison and rage. Previously, life at home was quietly unsettling; now it was open warfare. Jacob had to watch his back, look over his shoulders and keep an eye on Esau.

Rebekah lost the most in the end. Esau’s loss was property, but her loss was personal. She had already lost her older son’s affection and allegiance; now she was about to lose the son’s acceptance. Her younger son’s innocent and carefree days were over, but now his time with her was also numbered. She was about to lose him forever. The mother did not think it would come to an end this way, this fast. No wonder she acknowledged that she lost two sons in a day (v 45). A mother’s dream of reuniting with his son, seeing his son married and meeting his wife would not materialize. Jacob would never see her mother again or attend her funeral.

Conclusion: God's way is the best way. The way to trust God is submission to Him, giving Him all your fears and hopes; and the consequence of distrust is suspicion, subversion and spite. Parents, are you raising your children in godly instruction and with biblical values? Do you teach them to value brotherly love, neighborly love, and God’s love? Are you discouraging or exasperating them, dismissing or fearing your responsibility, dishonoring and misrepresenting God?


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