We tell ourselves that we'd never sell our birthright for a bowl of stew. But do we just have a higher price?
The story of Jacob and Esau always troubled me when I was little.
Maybe it was because I was a firstborn myself and identified a little with Esau — you know minus the hunting and red hair and stench and all that. I just didn't like a fellow "first" getting the shaft.
Maybe it was my then-fanatical but now at least a little mellowed sense of fairness. I mean, how dare Jacob and Rebekah do the whole goatskin thing? Not nice!
In my eyes, Jacob was a downright deceiver, worthy of my childish scorn. And Esau. Well, Esau was just a big dumb oaf, and a hungry oaf at that.
Off and on through the years I struggled with the fact that Jacob was honored in God's Word while Esau was disparaged. But, reading Hebrews recently, I began to understand a little more why Esau's actions deserve disdain and, even more, how I need to repent of the Esau acts in my own life.
If you remember your Genesis, Jacob and Esau were twins. Esau, being the older twin, had the privilege of the firstborn — which meant he got extra money (a double inheritance share) and extra rights and responsibilities (family spiritual leadership). Jacob set out to gain both Esau's birthright and blessing. The blessing, Jacob gained by deceit. In fact, Jacob's very name means "deceit." But the birthright, Esau sold.
When Esau returned from hunting, he demanded some of the tasty lentil stew that Jacob was cooking. Not so fast, my brother, Jacob replied. There's a price for this lentil stew — your birthright.
"Look, I am about to die," Esau said. "What good is the birthright to me?" So he swore an oath that Jacob could have his birthright and all its privileges. Then, the Bible tells us, Esau despised his birthright.
Really, I saw, that's the crux of the matter: Esau despised his birthright.
He was given something of honor, something of spiritual significance, and he traded it away for something of little, and only temporary, value.
In Hebrews 12, the writer doesn't call Esau stupid, though it was certainly a stupid thing that he did. The writer calls him "godless" — ouch. In the King James version, it translates as "profane," from the Greek word meaning heathenish and wicked.
Esau wasn't a big red oaf. It wasn't that he didn't know any better or that he made an honest mistake. He wasn't a child. He knew that what he had was of value. But he chose not to value it.
In the past, I would try to justify Esau. Maybe he was just really, really, well, you know, really hungry. The Bible doesn't tell us, but I think what I've come to realize is that it doesn't matter.
Whether Esau hadn't eaten for hours or for days, he still had choices. He may have been able to get food from other members of the family, or servants, or grabbed some berries from the nearest branch. But even if we assume that Jacob's stew was the only thing to eat for miles, and that Esau was so weak he was about to faint — does that justify it?
God's Word is clear that it does not. Esau's birthright was something to be cherished, never sold.
As Bishop Joseph Hall, an English bishop from the 1600s, said, "There was never any meat, except the forbidden fruit, so dear bought, as this broth of Jacob."
So What's That to Me?
Once I was done justifying Esau, I then fell a little too easily into despising him. Doof! To sell your birthright for a measly bowl of stew? How could he even think of such a thing?
And then, as always, the Holy Spirit gave me the not-so-gentle nudge. Oh really, Heather?
I may flatter myself that I would never sell my inheritance for a bowl of stew. But haven't I done exactly that? God has made me an heir. Yet, haven't I prized the earthly over the eternal, in direct contradiction to God's Word?
During the first years of our marriage, my husband and I didn't tithe. Instead of following God's command to support His church, we paid off debt and saved for a home. It's not that there's anything wrong with paying off debt or saving for a home, but they are both earthly concerns and should not have taken priority over God's work.
Just this last Sunday, our church's mission team shared what they had experienced staying with long-term missionaries in Portugal.
"They are weary," one tripper reported. "They're living in a small apartment and their two small boys only have a concrete parking lot to play in. It's getting to be hard on them and they are weary."
As I watched my own two young children play on their wooden swing set on their plush, mowed yard, I had to wonder — had I dropped the ball? I had clothed and fed my own family, but had I forgotten to feed and clothe those who were spreading God's Word?
I certainly don't take the tact that our possessions are evil, or that to shop is a sin. But I do need to think eternally. There are few things that are really eternal, but they are precious and need to be my priority.
Do I offer God the "firstfruits" of my time and money — or the leftovers? Do I groan and roll my eyes when my church asks for volunteers for vacation bible school or to visit the elderly?
Just yesterday, I tore up a fundraising letter from a ministry without even opening it. It occurs to me that I never even asked God what He wanted me to do.
As a Christian community, we also need to examine what we're doing in the name of our own temporary comfort.
It seems commonplace now, even among Christian couples, to put off marriage or the blessing of children until the couple decide they are "financially ready." But when are we ready? And when does it cross the line into just whacking away at life's piñata — trying to get as much candy as possible before taking on eternal responsibilities?
Then once we have children, are we willing to sacrifice our responsibility to raise them so that we can earn more money for vacations and toys? Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with taking a trip or buying a fill-in-the-blank thing. But if my children's spiritual growth takes a back seat to my career or my entertainment, there's a problem.
My focus should never be on what I am gaining in this world. Instead, I should focus on what Christ is gaining and be especially cautious of anything eternal I may be sacrificing. Just as Esau should have had respect for his inheritance, I must have respect for mine. Because it would be a tragedy to face my Lord someday and hear Him say with sadness, "My child, were you satisfied with all that stew?"
Copyright 2006 Heather D. Koerner. All rights reserved.