“Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob…”
~ Genesis 25: 28
One of the best things about preaching at CHMF is also one of the worst things about preaching at CHMF: Every time you do it, you have to follow whoever preached the week before, you have to take the stage after the brilliance of a Meghan Florian or an Isaac Villegas or a Catherine Lee.
There’s this sketch comedy show on Comedy Central I like called Key and Peele. One of my favorite sketches reimagines how it went down on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. And the sketch begins right as MLK is ending the speech. You see on screen the famous, grainy, black and white footage of the massive crowd, clapping and cheering and weeping as Dr. King thunders his closing lines, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty I’m free at last!” and you hear as the echoes of those words sweep across the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, and then, as the words and the noise finally die down, a voice comes over the PA system: “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome your next speaker, Reverend Robert Jones.” We forget that part—Somebody had to follow that speech. The camera cuts back to the podium MLK has just vacated, lingering on that empty podium, uncomfortably, painfully, until this nice, middle-aged bespectacled preacher shuffles on screen, clenching a stack of notecards, mouth open, eyes wide in terror. He laughs nervously, and finally stammers: “You know, uh, Dr. King, uh ha-ha, he actually covered a lot of what I was gonna say…”
That’s what it feels like preaching at CHMF, shuffling into the pulpit in the wake of Meghan or Isaac or Tom or Catherine or Steve and so on…It’s awful, because it feels like being mediocre Robert Jones after magnificent Martin King — but it’s also wonderful, wonderful because I get to build from what they’ve done in this pulpit, and that’s how I want to begin today.
Two weeks ago Isaac preached about Abraham, and last week Meghan preached about Isaac—Isaac the ancient easily-tricked patriarch, that is, not Isaac the Kanye-quoting Mennonite Pastor. This week I want to preach about Jacob. Specifically this line: “Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob…”
Christians and Jews, we’re told, worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The repetition of these three names, representing three generations, is important. Through it scripture suggests to us the constancy of God, divine faithfulness across the lives of these founders and beyond.
So today I’d like to speak about Jacob in a way that continues two specific points that these previous preachers have recently introduced: first, Meghan’s emphasis on the problem of love in these Genesis stories, and the subdued agency of women in them, specifically Rebekah; and second, I want to connect my meditation on Rebekah and Jacob to a sermon Isaac gave a little while back, on Mary and Jesus.
I—Rebekah loved Jacob for reasons unknown
Last week, Meghan drew our attention to the problem of celebrating “love” in the simple way we often do, and especially with the way a lot of interpreters read “love” or romance into what’s happening when Rebekah becomes Isaac’s wife. Abraham’s servant walks up and there she is! Is she beautiful? Check. Does she come from the right family? Check. Is she watering camels? BOOM! God has spoken. That’s love and God is love and everything is perfect.
Except of course it isn’t: [to quote Meghan] “Don’t we, in different ways from our different lives and situations, know this isn’t always how love works? That love is not always a blessing. That love does not conquer all. That sometimes love takes more than it gives, and that trying to earn someone’s affections, or expecting another to deserve yours, is a recipe for all kinds of disaster.”
It’s not only women, Meghan notes, but it is especially women, who are taught again and again that “they must earn love through pain.” Through pain, you become useful, and through use, you will earn love. It is inside this sense of love earned by pain—and not anyone’s pain, not abstract pain, but Rebekah’s pain—that we meet our text for today:
“The children struggled together within her,” versus 22 says. Rebekah is in pain. They rumbled, tossed and turned. Rebekah is even, the Bible suggests, at the point of death. She says: “Why do I live?” So in pain she goes to hear a word from the Lord. And the Lord says, there are two worlds in your womb, two nations circling your belly. At war with one another, your progeny is divided against itself. One’ll be stronger. The elder will submit. Through your pain, through your anguish, Rebekah, a great nation will struggle into being.
This, we’re meant to recognize, is good news. But doesn’t this good news sound a little too much like that older, more familiar lesson, the one Meghan helped us see: your pain will pay off, Rebekah, because through your pain, and through your willingness to suffer, you will gain love from the men who will rule you, from your husband and son and your son’s sons.
Is this all the Lord permits her to hope for? The entanglement of love and use? It’s one thing to acknowledge that love involves need and help—love’s material, even practical. But it is another to be able to say, to have to say, as Rebekah may have said: You love me because I am of use: You saw me in the field, I watered the camels, I fit the terms and conditions, and so I am loved because I am useful. This is troubling, but maybe that’s not all there is to say. Maybe Rebekah herself has more to say.
But to hear it, we have to consider this: Look at what the Bible tells us about how Isaac loves. What and whom does Isaac love? Over the course of these chapters, the text reminds us several times that Isaac has a frankly bizarre obsession with savory foods. In the famous scene a little later on in chapter 27, right before Jacob just straight up lies to his father’s face, and steals his brother’s blessing, the aging patriarch says to his favored son Esau:
“See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. Then prepare for me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.” Esau disappears into the fields at once, bow in hand. But Rebekah was eavesdropping. She tells Jacob: “I heard your father tell your brother, Bring me game, and prepare me savory food to eat, that I may bless you before the Lord before I die.” Three or four times in that chapter, the text repeats the phrase “savory food, such as his father loved.”
In light of that, let’s rewind to the very first verse where we meet Jacob and Esau: “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.”
Savory foods. The text literally says that’s why Isaac loved Esau. Isaac likes meat. Esau kills meat. It’s a match made in heaven! But Rebekah’s love is subtler and stranger and more wonderful: “Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob…” That’s it. There’s no because. It feels like there should be a parallel clause here, another “because” statement. But instead, the text falls silent. Indeed, Rebekah falls silent. She offers no reason for her love. She names no use or value or labor by which to explain her love. Isaac loves Esau because Isaac loves meat, but Rebekah loves Jacob for no reason we can see. “But Rebekah loved Jacob.” That’s enough.
It would be easy to sentimentalize this love. To try to make it simple again. To say, oh, this is so natural, it’s “motherly” love. Every mother loves her baby, and Rebekah is every mother. For one, that’s not true: lots of mothers do not love their children at all. But more importantly, what if Rebekah’s love for Jacob is read instead through the lens of her own painful experience as illumined by Meghan last week: as a woman in this society, she gives a frail and partial yes within limited conditions of agency, of earning love through pain. She has experienced the entanglement of love and use. What if Rebekah loves the younger, the weaker, not from some general motherly affection for the baby, but specifically she loves Jacob because there’s no damn reason to love him and she doesn’t need a reason to love him. Maybe to her it feels not just good, but godlike to love and be loved in that way.
And perhaps this begins to make sense of what Rebekah sees that Isaac doesn’t: God has chosen the little, sneaky, soup-selling, birthright-stealing trickster over his big, cool, older by 2 seconds high school quarterback big brother. Rebekah gets that. Isaac doesn’t. It is not just that Rebekah hears the oracle about Jacob and “obeys” by loving him. Rather, in this case, Rebekah’s love, in a very straightforward sense, just is more like God’s love than Isaac’s. And that is because she loves Jacob in a way that’s a little more the way God loves you, because her love is a little freer, a little bit less tied to use, to labor, to “because.” God does not love you because you can provide him with savory foods or suffering. Her love and God’s love is freer and this, perhaps, is both good news and a little bit unsettling, because who can control or predict this sort of love?
And as the story continues, Rebekah acts on this love in a particular, very striking way. Here we can continue to think with Meghan’s sermon, as we deepen our sense of what Rebekah is doing, how her actions drive the plot forward, how the story itself would collapse without her agency. And the way that plays out takes us to the second thing I promised in this sermon: a connection to Isaac’s sermon on Mary and Jesus.
II—Rebekah taught Israel how to struggle
In a service for the Shenandoah Bach Festival a few weeks ago, Isaac Villegas began his sermon with these words: “Jesus must have learned his prophetic ministry from his mother. She was the one who said, ‘The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ (Luke 1:52-53). Jesus learned this gospel when he was a child, a baby, as he fussed at his bedtime. He learned his message from Mary, as she held him in her arms, rocking him, whispering a song, her song, comforting him with dreams of a new world — the magnificat as a lullaby.”
Isaac’s sermon makes a powerful proposal: We should understand Jesus’s ministry as an extension of his mother’s. In particular, her words in the opening of Luke must be seen as teaching the gospel to the son of God. It seems, from the text, that God would have it no other way. God couldn’t bear the thought of a non-human son, and so God couldn’t bear the thought of a son who wouldn’t learn from his mother. But again, there is nothing about motherliness per se that would guarantee this. It is Mary’s own determinate voice and life which gives shape to the will of God, which, indeed, frees God into the world God loves.
In closing, I want to suggest something similar is at work here in Rebekah. Jacob, we know, will come to be renamed Israel. He will come to have his name as the very name of the nation, the name of the very people of God. But the path that leads there, as suggested in the meaning of the name Israel, is struggle — struggle to attain, to press into, indeed, sometimes to scheme and plot to get what the world will not give, especially the world ruled by fathers and empires and patriarchy. It was Rebekah who fought to get Jacob a blessing in that world. Where else, then, did Israel learn to struggle this way, but from Jacob’s mother? Rebekah loved Jacob. And Rebekah taught Israel to struggle. And if this is true, may we always remember, that we do not only worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are also Rebekah’s people, Mary’s people — we belong to the faith of women whose voices are too often ignored, whose agency too often gets muted, and whose silences get explained away. Like Jacob, may we learn from Rebekah how to give and receive love without use, and may we learn from her also, how to struggle with God.