Archive for July 10th, 2011

Introducing the Heel-Grabber






“Introducing the Heel-Grabber”

Genesis 25:19-34

Daniel J. Ott


You might find all of this talk of the behavior of the fetuses in Rebekah’s womb being predictive of the future behavior of her sons a little far-fetched, but I don’t.  When our Isaac was in Teri’s womb he was constant motion.  He’d wake her at night with a mighty kick.  You could sit and watch as his elbows and knees poked at the surface of Teri’s belly.  During one of our ultrasound appointments, the doctor was actually having a little trouble getting good visuals on various parts, because Isaac was moving around so much – perhaps playing a game of hide and seek with the sensor.  The doctor looked up at Teri and said earnestly, “You’re going to have your hands full with this one.”  And he was not wrong.

Rebekah, too, would have her hands full and she knew it.  The twins clashed so much in her womb, that it caused her to cry out, “Then why me?”  Now remember, this isn’t just any pregnancy.  Rebekah had been barren for twenty years.  Isaac pleaded with God on behalf of his wife and God had granted this miraculous pregnancy.  What’s more – while Rebekah may not know it, this pregnancy is not just an answer to Isaac’s prayer but it is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.  God promised Abraham that he would make him the father of nations and that his people would be blessed in Canaan.  Abraham begat Isaac.  Isaac begat Jacob.  And Jacob would father the twelve tribes of Israel.

But this promise comes with its problems.  God answers Rebekah’s cry of “Why me?” with an ominous oracle:  “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”  Rebekah won’t have just a typical sibling rivalry on her hands.  Her sons will father nations and the nations, too, will clash.

Strange, isn’t it, that God should fulfill the promise in this way?  Why should the promise come with such problems?  Why do the brothers have to clash so?  Why must the older serve the younger?  Wouldn’t it have been better for God to do things in a more orderly fashion?  Why must God cause problems even as the promises are fulfilled?  Well, I’m not sure why, but it does seem to me that this is a truthful telling of the way things usually go.

I’m not sure whether I’m more jealous or suspicious of people who seem to have God’s ways figured out.  Some people report that they get a clear word from God.  Some give testimony of how God worked things out perfectly for them in their lives.  Some talk of the peace they have when they but trust in God.

I remember reading a letter from a pastor to her congregation that gave the news that she would be moving on to answer another calling.  The letter was beautiful in many regards.  She extolled the church’s strengths.  She enumerated some of the lessons that she had learned as their pastor.  And then it came – She went on to say that she knew “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that the move that she was about to make was the right move and that God would be ahead of her paving the way.  Wow – ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt.’

I’ll be honest:  I’m not sure that I’ve ever known anything ‘beyond the shadow of a doubt. ‘  Maybe the only thing that I’m really so sure of is that I sure never knew God’s mind beyond the shadow of a doubt.   For me, being faithful has always been a struggle.  I’ve rarely had any peace.  Almost every time I try to follow God, I’m riddled with doubt.  And even when I look back at my life and see that God has been at work in my life, I also see that it’s been a messy business.  Following God included risks.  Following God included my own faltering and failing.  Following God included twists and turns.  Following God included great promise and even the fulfillment of that promise, but following God, at least in my life, has always included problems.  Maybe it’s been the same for you.

It certainly was the case that following God included problems and struggles for Jacob.  It’s such a vivid image that he came out of the womb grasping Esau’s heel.  The heel-grabber’s birth foreshadows not only his clash with his brother and his nation’s future clashes with its neighbors, it foreshadows a life of striving and struggle.  The heel-grabber will wrestle with God and men.  He will have doubt and fear.  He will falter and fail.  His way will be crooked.  And yet, his name will be called Israel and he will father a nation.  In him God’s promise will be fulfilled and God will be present to him powerfully.

But how far does this line of thinking go?  Surely God is present in our failures and our struggles.  But is God also present in our jealousies and our conniving?  Does God work out his purposes through theft and fraud?  Well, at least in Jacob’s story, it seams so.

Poor Esau.  When I read about Esau I imagine the naïve, innocent monster – maybe like the hunchback of Notre Dame or Frankenstein’s monster from the movies.  Esau’s a beast of a man and a child all at once.  It doesn’t take much for Jacob to trick him out of both his birthright and his blessing.  In our story, Esau comes in from the field famished.  Jacob waits with his savory stew.  Esau grunts, “Let me gulp down some of this red, red stuff.”  Jacob says succinctly, “Sell now your birthright to me.”  Esau howls, “I’m about to die, what do I care about birthrights.”  Just to be sure Jacob insists, “Swear to me now.”  Esau swears, he eats, he drinks, he rises and he leaves.  The deed is done – easy as you like.  And God’s oracle is fulfilled.  The older shall serve the younger.

The stealing of the blessing in Chapter 27 is a little more involved.  There is some costuming involved and Jacob has the help of his mother, but the upshot is the same.  God’s purposes are served through treachery.  God’s promises fulfilled through less than pure means.

Well.. what are we to make of this?  What does this say about God?  This might begin to make us a little uncomfortable.  We want God to be present to us even in our failures and struggles.  But do we want God to get quite this messy?  Can we see God at work even in the heel-grabber?  Can we see God at work in the conniver, the rogue, the rascal?

One of my favorite films is A River Runs Through It.  If you haven’t seen it, you must.  I won’t be able to describe it adequately because some of the characters in the movie are the rivers and vistas of Montana.  The story is about another set of brothers:  Norman and Paul Maclean.  They are the sons of a Presbyterian minister who educates them in religion, poetry, writing and fly-fishing.  Actually, the lines between religion, poetry and fly-fishing are intentionally blurred in the film.  Often the viewer is treated to the religious poetry of a man standing alone in the middle of a flowing river gracefully swinging his pole back and forth causing his line to dance through the air before the last exacting flick of the wrist that sends the line sailing.

As the boys grow up they take diverging paths.  Norman goes off to Dartmouth College and studies literature.  He begins a career teaching Romantic poetry.  He falls in love with a nice Methodist girl.  And though he doesn’t follow his father’s footsteps into the ministry, he lives the kind of life anyone would certainly call good.

Paul, on the other hand, can’t leave the rivers of Montana.  He graduates from a local college and gets a job as a journalist in Helena.  He makes a name for himself and becomes known as the fishing newspaper-man.  He tackles tough stories.  And lives a bit of a tough life.  In addition to fishing and writing, Paul takes up drinking and dancing, and gambling.

The plot focuses on a month or two that Norman spent at home after graduating from Dartmouth and before beginning an appointment at the University of Chicago.  Norman and Paul get to spend some time together – fishing mostly, of course.  We see how dear their love is for one another.  Their father, too, spends some time with the boys and we can see how proud he is as he watches them coming of age.

The story concludes, though, with Paul’s early death.  He is beaten and left in an alley as a result of nonpayment on his gambling debts.  Little is made of the family’s grief, but one poignant conversation between Norman and his father is recorded.  Sometime after his death, Paul’s father was asking Norman for further detail, something to hold on to.  Finally, Norman responded,  “Maybe all I really know about Paul is that he was a fine fisherman.”  “We know more than that,” his father said, “He was beautiful.”

What I love about the film is how human the story is.  That’s what I love about the Jacob story, too.  These stories tell truthfully how being human is both messy and beautiful at the same time.  Both stories also tell us that God is somehow mysteriously present in our messy, beautiful human lives.

Maybe we try to clean God up too much. Maybe we shouldn’t expect God to be present only in the clean parts of our lives.  We talk about God’s presence when things go well – when a plan comes together – when our lives seem to be well ordered.  But in Genesis God is present in and through barrenness and birth, sibling rivalry and reconciliation, the founding and the falling of nations, the failures of the faithful as well as their triumphs.  God is present in the messiness and the monumental – the mundane and the magnificent.  Perhaps we should look for God even in the messiness of our own lives.


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