God’s radical choice for humanity
As Rev Dr. Ockert Meyer continues his reflections on Genesis, this week he looks at chapter 25:19-31
“Religion is a fire – and like fire, it warms but it also burns. And we are the guardians of the flame.”(Jonathan Sacks: The Dignity of Difference, p11)
All religions are underpinned – not so much by blind faith, as we are often lead to believe – but by passion, by love. And love and passion choose. Always. If I love my husband or wife, it means that I have made a choice for someone to the exclusion of others. If I love my children, it means I choose to treat two or three or however many I have, in a different way than I would treat other young people. If I love my friends, it means some people are excluded from that. If I love my country, it means my loyalty to this group excludes others, etc.
This is both the reality and the rationale, not only of loving people close to me, but also the reason behind religious conflict.
Esau and Jacob’s story
Exactly therefore it is of crucial importance to look at a story like the one of Esau and Jacob, a story where favour plays such an important role, a story where only one is chosen, seemingly at the cost of the other. A story that pitches brother against brother…
The story begins (as does the stories of all the ancestors of faith) with barrenness. Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, could not conceive until Isaac prayed. The prayer is answered but almost immediately there is a hint of some trouble on the horizon: Rebekah had this notion of a struggle that was inside her and she went to the Lord. The Lord’s answer seems to ignite the beginning of the division of chosenness: “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.” (23)
The pinch in this promise is of course the last words: ‘the elder shall serve the younger.’ Up until these last words it could have been the prediction of any birth in ancient Israel. But being the eldest always came with certain benefits. Here those tables are turned and from the English translation it appears as if that is something that God had planned; predestined if you want.
However, the Hebrew grammar is much more ambiguous. It could be read, either as the ‘elder will serve the younger’ or as the ‘younger will serve the elder’. The reason why most (if not all translations) have it the way it is, is because of the way the story unfolded. The meaning was gained in hindsight – the translators knew how the story ended. In other words, this was not simply a grammatical clue that provided this translation, but an understanding of the way the story ended.
Does God choose?
But there’s more to it than this. Deeper down this stirs the question of God’s choices. Does God choose some and reject others? Isn’t that what the doctrine of divine predestination is all about?
What is perhaps most clear in the story of Esau and Jacob is that whatever God’s choice is based on, it is not based on moral superiority. Both Esau and Jacob had their own flaws. Jacob, according to the story was a “quiet” man (verse 27), better translated as a ‘civilised’ man, but he was also a liar and someone who could deceive both his father and brother. Esau, on the other hand is described as a skilful hunter, a man extremely loyal to his father, but someone who despised his birthright, someone who didn’t understand the value of things. (Someone that reminds us of Oscar Wilde’s famous adage of ‘knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.’)
What is exceedingly interesting and meaningful in these chapters about Esau and Jacob is the continuing wordplay between the words ‘birthright’ and ‘blessing’. In Hebrew they sound almost the same ‘bekorati’ and ‘birkati’. Esau was blessed with a birthright but he didn’t regard that birthright as a blessing. Jacob didn’t have the birthright and therefore he valued the blessing.
But in the end it is in these two words, almost the same, yet different, that the true unfolding of the story lies.
Isaac, it seems, fully understood the nature of his two sons. He loved Esau but this did not blind him to the fact that Jacob would be the heir of the covenant. Therefore Isaac prepared two sets of blessings, one for Esau, the other for Jacob. He blessed Esau (Gen. 27: 28-29) with the gifts he felt he would appreciate: wealth and power: “May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness – an abundance of grain and new wine” – that is, wealth. “May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you” – that is, power. So Isaac blessed Esau, but note very clearly: these are not the covenantal blessings.
The wellbeing of the covenant
But Isaac also blessed Jacob (Genesis 28:3-4). This blessing was different; it wasn’t about wealth but about a greater well-being; the wellbeing of the covenant (using almost exactly the same words that God used to bless Abraham).
So what we learn from this is that both sons were blessed even though not one of them truly deserved it. What we learn from this is that God’s blessings always involve a choice, but that choice is not a choice for or against. It is a choice for a particular service.
And both the choice as well as the blessing is not given on the basis of favour or merit. The rationale for God’s choices and God’s blessing can only be found in the hidden grace of a father’s love.
Comfort for those with little hope
The well-known Dutch historian, Heiko Oberman, (who taught at both Oxford and Harvard) wrote a book on the 16th century’s Reformation. In this he says that the word ‘Reformation’ is actually a misnomer. There was not one Reformation, but several waves of Reformation. The first happened around Luther, in the monasteries, the second in the cities, among ordinary people trying to reform their lives according to the Scriptures and the third was the result of a massive wave of refugees; people fleeing from violence, persecution and bloodshed, gathering for shelter in places like Geneva.
It was estimated that within a few years, two thirds of Geneva’s population consisted of refugees. This is what shaped the Reformer Calvin’s thinking about theology in general and predestination in particular. When he talks about God’s predestined grace, it is not meant to raise the theoretical question: does God choose some and reject others? It is meant to comfort those who have fled their homes, that arrived in a foreign place with nothing, also with a fractured faith and little hope.
What he wants to tell them is that God’s care and grace is not dependant on the strength of their hope or faith, but that God’s care and grace comes from the hidden depths of God’s own being, and that it will keep them and bless them, irrespective of their own wavering faith. In other words, the message that God had chosen for them before they had chosen for God. That God had loved them before they had loved God.
God doesn’t exclude
We choose and our love excludes. But when God loves, God love doesn’t exclude. God loved both Jacob and Esau; God gave them each a blessing. It was they who didn’t understand that one blessing does not take away something from another’s blessing.
This seems to be something that humanity struggle to understand. We claim God’s calling but to the exclusion of others. We believe in God and then think God only believes in us. We love God and think God only loves us.
In the early twentieth century a man approached Rabbi Abraham Kook, one of the most celebrated and influential rabbis of the previous century, with the following dilemma. He had given his son a good Jewish education and the son grew up in their faith. However, since he left home the son had drifted away from his faith. He not only left it; he rejected it. What should the father do?
“Did you love him when he was religious?” asked Rabbi Kook. “Of course,” replied the father. “Well then,” Rabbi Kook replied, “Now love him even more.”
We as a church listen to these words in the context of the message of the Gospels, the message that sounds loud and clear: in the Son God has expressed God’s love to all humanity in the clearest possible way. That it the whole point of the incarnation: God took on human form to proclaim to us God’s love for us. Not simply for ‘us’, in the sense of those who are like us, believe like us, and act like us. God loved us in the sense of all who share our humanity. It means that those who think different from us, worship in a different way from us, live and die different from us, sing and dance in a different way…they do not threaten us, nor do they threaten God’s love for us.
Can we see God in the stranger?
This is the most penetrating question Jonathan Sacks asks in his book “The Dignity of Difference”: “Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of the stranger?”
Can we see the face of God in the faces of those who are different from us, who believe different from us? Can we understand that God’s choices are not exhausted by one choice? Can we understand that God blessings are not exhausted by the blessing of one?
Do we really understand what we confess when we say we believe that God is the Lord of nations and that Christ is the firstborn of all?
It means that in and through Jesus Christ we know, all of us have one Father, who has chosen to love us all. As a token of this love, God has chosen us, called us, visited us in the presence of Jesus Christ; God’s enduring blessing for us and with us.
And this is the deepest difference between our love and God’s love. When we love, our love excludes, when God loves, God’s love chooses to include and embrace – also those that we exclude and those that we push away.
It means, as the Reformed theologian Karl Barth has said, that in Jesus Christ God has spoken God’s ‘yes’ to humanity, in Jesus Christ – God’s elected – we see the humanity of God, we see God’s radical choice for humanity. In Jesus Christ we see God’s fatherly blessing and God’s motherly love – a love that warms, but never burns.
Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer, United Theological College
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