Fathers and Sons

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Genesis 27:1-46

The sad truth is: sometimes people of faith don’t live very faithfully. As the saying goes: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

The writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews selects two rather unusual incidents from the history of the Old Testament patriarchs to illustrate the nature of faith.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

(vv. 20,21, niv)

The common link in these two blessings is the involvement of Jacob, in the first case as a son, and in the second as a father. These verses invite us to think about faith across the generations as fathers bless sons, thereby placing them under an obligation to receive the promises of the covenant and to live lives of faith themselves.

ISAAC AND JACOB

The story of Isaac’s blessing of his sons, found in Genesis 27, is neither a very attractive tale, nor is it flattering to anyone involved. After many years of a childless marriage, Isaac and his beautiful wife Rebekah finally had twin sons. The firstborn was Esau, and the younger son was called Jacob, a name related to the Hebrew word for “heel,” because when he was born, his hand was grasping the heel of his twin. That came to symbolize Jacob’s whole life as a young man. He was a supplanter, an amibitious and aggressive kind, and devious schemer.

Throughout their lives the brothers Jacob and Esau struggled in a fierce rivalry for their parents’ affection and their father’s blessing, which would convey the family birthright. Esau had the edge as the firstborn; moreover, he was his father’s favorite. Esau was strong and active, a hunter, a man of the field and the chase, a “man’s man,” as they say. Jacob, on the other hand, was quiet, settled, domestic, introspective. Esau was a prince and a leader of men, a warrior. Jacob was clever and unscrupulous, preferring to use guile to get his way. In an age like ours, he would have been a good politician. Isaac was drawn to Esau because of his strength and skill – and because he loved to eat the game his son brought in from the field. But Rebekah preferred her younger son, Jacob.

This family’s history became a struggle for dominance and power, pitting the strength of Isaac and Esau against the cunning of Rebekah and Jacob. What a sad tale it was: of ambition, intrigue, jealousy, treachery, and all along the threat of violence running just beneath the surface. It was like a Hollywood drama.

Everything came to a head on the day that Isaac, now old and frail and blind, decided to bestow his final patriarchal blessing on one of his sons. His choice, of course, was Esau, so he told Esau to go out hunting, bring back his favorite food, prepare it for him and then receive the blessing. Rebekah, meanwhile, heard the plan and substituted a scheme of her own. She prepared a kid from the flock just the way Isaac liked it, had Jacob dress in his brother’s clothes, even going so far as to cover his hands and his face with goat hair to simulate Esau’s appearance, and having him imitate Esau’s voice.

While Esau was still in the field, Jacob came into the tent with the meal. There sat old blind Isaac, drooling in anticipation of another feast. In the background stands Rebekah, his once loving wife whose life now is devoted to deceitful attempts to promote her own favorite child. And here comes Jacob, trying to sound and smell and feel like his brother Esau in order to trick his poor blind father into bestowing the blessing on him. It is all quite disgusting – and very true to life. Welcome to the real world, the world of the Bible!

These are heroes of faith? As far as I can see, there are no heroes in that tent. There are selfish, indulgent parents who play favorites with their children and end up destroying their family’s love, harmony and integrity. There’s a wife who no longer loves or even respects her husband. There’s an old man, Isaac, who was once young and strong in faith but now seems to care only about satisfying his appetite. And don’t forget Jacob – sneak thief, liar, and coward, who never missed an opportunity to cheat his brother out of his birthright. “In modern terms,” comments one writer, “he was a heel by name and spent most of his life living up to it” (G. B. Caird). The only person in this story who comes off well, strange as it may seem, is Esau – and he was an unbeliever who cared nothing for the things of God and had no use at all for faith.

What are we to make of all this? This is the event the writer of the letter to the Hebrews selects as an outstanding example of faith! “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau.” That is a remarkable statement, to say the least. But it does say something very important. It says that you can be deeply flawed and at the same time, faith-filled. “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” goes the saying. Isaac had made a mess of his life. He had lost his wife’s affection, failed as a father, given in to self-indulgence, but despite all that, somehow still at the end he believed in the Lord and he was living for the promises of God. He still looked forward with sightless eyes to the things that cannot be seen. And so he blessed his sons to try to bring them into the covenant love of God too. And even when that didn’t turn out as he intended, he recognized the overruling hand of God in his life and submitted to it. Rebekah may have been a shrew and Jacob a heel, but they still cared about the things of God too. At least they knew they needed God, while Esau, for all his manly strength and admirable qualities, thought he did not.

Have you ever heard the criticism that the church is full of hypocrites? “Who needs Christianity when Christians act the way they so often do?” people say. Maybe you’ve even said that yourself. And, of course, it is true. Believers are real people, which is to say we are sinners, deeply flawed. Our lives never measure up to our professions of faith. But think about this: if people have to be perfect before they profess to be Christians, who would ever qualify? It has always seemed to me that criticizing the church for being full of hypocrites and sinners is like criticizing a hospital for being full of sick people. Where else would you want them to go? Having faith does not mean all your problems have been solved, and your life is all together, and you automatically and instantly becomes a shining example of virtue and righteousness. No. Having faith means admitting you are not perfect and seeking God’s help to change.

It is easy to find an example of a bad believer who compares unfavorably with a good unbeliever; Esau is more appealing than Jacob. But if you want to test faith to see whether it is worth trying for yourself, whether it really makes a difference in the end, don’t compare Jacob with Esau. Don’t compare the worst Christian you know with the best non-Christian. Compare Jacob with Jacob: Jacob at the beginning of his life with Jacob at the end of it. The thing to do is to look at what the Lord makes of Jacob after a whole lifetime, during which Jacob’s walk of faith and submission to the Lord’s discipline do turn him into the person he was meant to be. Jacob, you see, was changed from a heel into a hero – by faith.

JACOB AND JOSEPH

That ending of Jacob’s story is also mentioned by the writer to the Hebrews. “By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped.” This later story is as beautiful and moving as the earlier one is shameful. It is told in the 48th chapter of Genesis. Jacob and all his family had been settled for some years in the land of Egypt. The long story of how they got there and how God prepared the way for them through Jacob’s son Joseph is one of the most striking examples of the providence of God in all the Bible. But now the end has come for Jacob. Now he is the weak old man whose eyes are dimmed with age. When word was sent to Joseph that his father was dying, he hurried to see him, bringing his young sons Manasseh and Ephraim with him to receive the old man’s last blessing. Events in Jacob’s life have come full circle.

Joseph and his sons entered the bed chamber. Jacob, lost in memories of the past, as the old so often are, looked up as they came in and, gathering his strength, he sat up on the bed. In the dimly glimpsed lines of Joseph’s face, in the tones of his voice, he could see and hear once more his beloved Rachel, and the sadness of her death so many years ago came flooding over him as if it were yesterday. Then someone stirred. “Who’s that?” asked old Jacob. “These are my sons,” Joseph answered. And Jacob took them up, and stretching his arms out over them, he blessed them, adopting them for his own sons as he did so.

There was something odd, though, about the blessing. Normally the eldest son received the chief blessing as an indication that the family line would continue through him. When Joseph brought his sons forward, he made sure that Manasseh, the firstborn, was in position for Jacob to lay his right hand – the symbol of the primary blessing – upon him. But Jacob crossed his arms and reversed the natural birth order. Joseph thought his father had made a mistake and tried to correct it, but the old man’s action had been deliberate. By faith, looking ahead to the future God promised, Jacob knew somehow that Ephraim was destined to play the larger role, and that is exactly how it turned out.

And then after he blessed them, Jacob leaned on his staff and worshiped God (see Heb. 11:21). I like to think it was the same staff he carried all through his life. He held it in his hand as a young man when he fled from his brother Esau’s murderous anger. He used it during the years he served his father-in-law Laban to earn his wives and wealth. He carried it back to Canaan when he returned with his own family; “I am not worthy of all the love you have shown your servant,” Jacob prayed; “with only my staff I have crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies” (Gen. 32:10, rsv). Now at the end he leans upon it to worship the Lord. That staff was a constant companion through all the ups and downs, all the blessings and banishments of Jacob’s life. It became a symbol of the constancy of his own faith, and the life that faith produced. This man, so crooked and devious, now at last was as straight as the staff that pointed him to God and reminded him of God’s gracious dealings with him.

Do you want to know something wonderful? Faith means you don’t have to be a captive to your past. Faith means you can have the power to change. God’s promises and presence and strength and blessing are not inherited by birth, nor are they dependent on character or circumstances. They are received by faith. It does not matter who your parents are, or whether you are the firstborn or the last, or if your family is prominent or unknown, any more than it matters whether you are a good person or a bad one. Your past does not matter. All that matters is whether you have heard and accepted the promises of God in Jesus Christ. All that matters is whether you are living by faith. You or I or anyone can be changed from a heel into a hero through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.