The Old Testament lesson for this coming Sunday is the tumultuous story of Esau and Jacob, the twins who struggled from birth. Favoritism and deceit figure prominently in the narrative, and the reader is drawn into layers of an ancient saga that give a sense of historical identity.
Coming in from the field, famished, Esau requests some of what Jacob was cooking. Jacob’s response was treacherous: “First sell me your birthright.” Instant gratification outweighed rational consideration, and Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for bread and lentil stew. “Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34).
Being the eldest son had its privileges, which entails leadership within the family and a double share of inheritance. Since Esau managed to be born first, the birthright was his, and Jacob opportunistically seized it.
Kinship was a critical aspect of survival in the ancient Near Eastern world. Eventually these brothers will become allies, but only after years of alienation. Jacob’s encounter with God prepares him for reconciliation with his brother, and spiritual kinship comes through forgiveness.
Two Central professors will be heading to Israel next week to participate in the Christian Leadership Initiative, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee in collaboration with the Shalom Hartman Institute. Wallace Hartsfield II, Fred E. Young Associate Professor Hebrew Bible, and Sally Holt, Professor of Theology and Ethics at Belmont University and director of Central’s site in Nashville, will have the privilege of rich study and fellowship with other scholars.
As an alumna of this program, I can attest to the transformative nature of this experience. Christians and Jews bring their unique prisms of understanding to our shared texts, and spiritual kinship is mined in the process. An ongoing inter-familial conversation is good for all concerned.
My sense of inheritance as a Christian theologian is deeply linked to the narratives of the First Testament. I could not interpret humans as created in the image of God, our most profound birthright, without the foundational narratives of Genesis. I could not understand that election, covenant, and adoption have profound theological grounding as Scripture tells the story of God’s intimate, but not exclusive relationship with Israel.
Part of the reason for the protracted internecine campaign within both Judaism and Christianity is the sense that factions can claim God’s favor exclusively. This simply cannot be, for God loves the whole world and gives it abounding life through the Spirit. As the New Testament lection encourages, to set the mind on the Spirit “is life and peace” (Romans 8:6b), our spiritual birthright.
Molly T. Marshall
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*Stomer, Matthias, 1589 or 1590-approximately 1651. Esau and Jacob, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55880 [retrieved July 7, 2014]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Matthias_Stom_-_Esau_and_Jacob_-_WGA21805.jpg.