The Older Will Serve the Younger

Here in Genesis 25 we come to the end of Abraham’s earthly life. Sarah has died, Isaac is married, and so the author of Genesis records Abraham’s death and the direction of his family. Or rather, his families. Abraham, in one sense, has multiple families. He is the father of many nations. And so in 25:1-6 we see a limited genealogy of his sons by Keturah, the woman he marries after Sarah’s death. And the accent of that genealogy is on the fact that, while Abraham gives them gifts, he does not divide Isaac’s inheritance. Isaac alone inherits the Abrahamic blessing, and the other family is sent away to the east.


Then we come to Abraham’s death and his burial with his wife in the cave of Machpelah (25:7-11), which is immediately followed by the genealogy of Ishmael’s sons (25:12-18). In this genealogy, we see God’s faithfulness to his promises to Hagar and Ishmael. In Genesis 17:20, God promised to bless Ishmael for Abraham’s sake, specifically by making him into a great nation with 12 princes. And so, here in Genesis 25, we see that not one of God’s promises falls to the ground. Ishmael has 12 sons and then is gathered to his people. And again, this family of Abraham settles away from Isaac toward Assyria. And so Abraham’s descendants are scattered.


But even in the midst of this scattering of the many nations from Abraham, we see a little note of hope. When Abraham dies, both Isaac and Ishmael bury him at Machpelah (25:9). The two brothers, who have had a rocky relationship, have a moment of reunion at their father’s tomb. And this reunion perhaps has a deeper significance in the history of redemption. Even though, Isaac is the bearer of the Abrahamic blessing, that blessing is meant to extend to all the nations. “In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” And so, it’s no surprise that Isaiah, when he describes the future glory of God’s people in the gospel era, in a passage that is very fitting for Advent and Christmas, says this,

Isaiah 60:1–7

            [1] Arise, shine, for your light has come,

                        and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

            [2] For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,

                        and thick darkness the peoples;

            but the LORD will arise upon you,

                        and his glory will be seen upon you (cf. Isaiah 9:1-7).

            [3] And nations shall come to your light,

                        and kings to the brightness of your rising.

            [4] Lift up your eyes all around, and see;

                        they all gather together, they come to you;

            your sons shall come from afar,

                        and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.

            [5] Then you shall see and be radiant;

                        your heart shall thrill and exult,

            because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,

                        the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

            [6] A multitude of camels shall cover you,

                        the young camels of Midian and Ephah                       (cf. Gen. 25:2, 4)

                        all those from Sheba shall come                                (sons of Keturah, cf. Gen. 25:3).

            They shall bring gold and frankincense,

                        and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.

            [7] All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you;

                        the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you               (sons of Ishmael, cf. Gen. 25:13)

            they shall come up with acceptance on my altar,

                        and I will beautify my beautiful house. (ESV)


The people who dwell in deep darkness have seen a great light. And so the sons of Abraham, scattered to the four winds, will return—are returning—to the glory of Yahweh with gold and frankincense in order to beautify his beautiful house.

What Kind of Man Is Jacob?

All of that is by way of prelude. The real focus of today’s sermon is on the two sons of Isaac. We have seen Isaac the son, offered to God at Mount Moriah. Last week, we saw Isaac the husband, receiving Rebekah his bride by God’s sovereign direction. And now, we see Isaac the father of twin boys. Isaac is 40 years old when he marries Rebekah. And like Sarah before her and Rachel after her, Rebekah is barren. Genesis is the story of the promised seed, the offspring of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head, the offspring of Abraham who will be blessed to be a blessing to the nations, who will put the world to rights and rescue us. And in these stories, God is determined to demonstrate that man is impotent to bring about his own rescue. The barrenness of these women is a testimony to God’s merciful power in bringing life out of death, joy out of sorrow.


Isaac prays and Rebekah conceives and gives birth to twins—Esau and Jacob. Now here’s the common understanding of these two brothers. Esau is a strong, powerful man’s man, a mighty hunter, and Jacob is a shy, quiet mama’s boy. But the shy quiet mama’s boy is also very good at deception and trickery. Jacob is the liar, the deceiver, the cheat, who seizes the opportunity to swindle (even steal) his brother’s birthright, just as later he will trick his father into giving him the blessing. Esau the fool. Jacob the trickster. Jacob the swindler.


Now the difficulty with this understanding of the story is that it’s only partially true. But the story is so puzzling that the translators of your Bible have, in my judgment, obscured what this passage is saying to us. The key offending verse is Genesis 25:27. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.” There it is: Jacob, the quiet, shy, perhaps unmanly mama’s boy. The only problem is that the word translated “quiet” doesn’t mean quiet. So far as I know, everywhere else it is used, it means “blameless, whole, having integrity, innocent, upright.” Listen to a sampling.


It’s often parallel with the word “upright”:


Job 1:1 There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.


Psalm 37:37 Mark the blameless and behold the upright, for there is a future for the man of peace. (ESV)


Proverbs 2:7 [God] stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, (ESV)


It’s often the opposite of the wicked or the crooked.


Job 9:20–22 Though I am in the right, my own mouth would condemn me; though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse. I am blameless; I regard not myself; I loathe my life. It is all one; therefore I say, ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’


Proverbs 13:6 Righteousness guards him whose way is blameless, but sin overthrows the wicked.


Proverbs 10:9 Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out.


Proverbs 28:6 Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways.


But perhaps that’s simply what the word means in Job and Psalms and Proverbs. Maybe in Genesis it means something different. Well, tam and the related word tamim show up a few times in Genesis.


In Genesis 20:5-6, it refers to the “integrity of one’s heart” and is parallel to the “innocence of one’s hands.”


Genesis 6:9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.


Genesis 17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless,


And the connection of blamelessness and walking with God under his protection is made elsewhere in the Scriptures.


Psalm 84:11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.


Psalm 119:1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!


So now the question becomes, “Why do the translators of the ESV (and many other translations) render it as ‘quiet’ in Genesis 25?” And the answer is plain. They see Jacob’s conduct in this passage and they say, “There’s no way he’s upright, innocent, and blameless.” And so they try to find some other way of construing it. “Integrity and blameless-ness is related to complete-ness, which is related to contented, which could be quiet or peaceful. Let’s go with that.”


So now we feel the tension. Look at the story. Esau comes in from a long day of hunting. He’s tired and famished; he says he’s about to die. He sees Jacob’s pot of stew and demands some. Jacob, seeing his opportunity, decides that he won’t simply give him the stew. He wants to trade. And Esau, in his hunger, does so. He signs away his birthright. What’s a birthright? It’s his right, as the elder brother, to inherit a double portion of his father’s house. Jacob drives a hard bargain, and comes out way ahead. Given how Jacob obtains the birthright, how can he be called blameless, innocent, or upright? I’d like to show you how. Let’s begin with Esau. The description of Esau in the passage has a number of resonances with previous stories in the Bible.


1)    He’s a skillful hunter. This immediately reminds us of Nimrod, the mighty hunter against the Lord in Genesis 10:9. Nimrod is the great city builder, the founder of Babel, Nineveh, and Caleh. Many scholars regard him as the first tyrant, the warrior-king, the man of violence who subdues others and makes a name for himself. And Esau is described using similar language.


2)    Esau is a man of the field. So we have an older brother who is a man of the field, which again reminds us perhaps of another older brother, who worked the ground, and slew his brother in the field—Cain.


3)    Some scholars think that he desires the “red stuff” because he thinks it’s a blood stew. It’s not; it’s lentil stew. But a desire for blood stew would not be praiseworthy in Genesis, since God tells Noah not to eat flesh with blood (Gen. 9:4), meaning don’t eat blood stew (which may have also had to do with certain magical beliefs that eating or drinking blood would give one powers).


4)    The word for “red” is “Edom” and so Esau is called Edom, which in Hebrew looks very similar to the word Adam. And that accents another resonance. Adam forfeited life with God for the sake of forbidden food. Esau forfeits his birthright for the sake of [forbidden, perhaps] food.


Nimrod, Cain, a man of blood, and Adam—the descriptions of Esau do not echo favorably in Genesis.


One more resonance—if Edom is like Adam, seizing what he thinks is a forbidden food, then what does that make Jacob? It makes Jacob a serpent. And in fact, Jacob is crafty and cunning like the serpent. But the difference is that the Bible says that this serpent is blameless. Jacob is wise as a serpent, but innocent as a dove. And the last verse confirms that Jacob is upright and Esau is not. It doesn’t say “And so Jacob stole the birthright.” It says, “Esau despised his birthright.” In other words, the biblical author doesn’t blame Jacob for obtaining the birthright in this shrewd way. He blames Esau for treating his birthright so lightly, as if it is worthless.


Now to understand why Jacob is faithfully and blamelessly shrewd and Esau is sinfully guilty, we have to see this event in light of the rest of the passage. A few things to note.


First, there is the struggle in the womb. These boys are wrastlin’. Rebekah, sensing something is amiss, inquires of the Lord. Notice what God says.

            “Two nations are in your womb,

                        and two peoples from within you shall be divided;

            the one shall be stronger than the other,

                        the older shall serve the younger.” (Gen. 25:23)


The two boys are two nations, two peoples. They will be divided. How will they relate to each other? One will be stronger, and, contrary to all of the ancient customs, the older will serve the younger. This is crucial. Before they are born, God promises that the younger twin will rule over the older twin. That’s what God says. But then, notice what happens as the boys grow up. “Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob” (25:28). Despite God’s word, Isaac prefers Esau, the strong, skillful hunter, the mighty man, over his younger son. That will be very important when we come to Genesis 27.


When you couple Isaac’s sinful preference for Esau with Esau’s sinful disregard of his birthright, now we see why Jacob is faithful and blameless in his shrewdness. God promised that the blessing of Abraham would pass to Jacob. The fate of the Abrahamic blessing, and with it the fate of the world’s rescue and redemption, rests on that promise. So when Jacob sees that his father, contrary to God’s word, seems to favor his older, Nimrod-like brother, who doesn’t give a rip about the birthright, Jacob uses his craftiness and cunning to secure what God promised. He out-serpents the serpent.


In sum, Jacob’s craftiness in securing the birthright is not sinful swindling or blameworthy deceit. Nowhere does the Bible condemn Jacob for what he does here. Instead, the Bible says that Jacob is a blameless man—like Noah, like Abraham, like Job. But he is also a shrewd man, crafty like the serpent. And he takes advantage of his brother’s folly in order to preserve the promise of God.


So, what relevance does this story have for us? Three elements jumped out at me—two based on the New Testament’s use of this passage, and one based on a repeated biblical pattern.


First, in this passage we see the harmony of God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s real freedom. Just as Pastor David said last week, we marvel at the sovereign and providential hand of God as he uses his people to accomplish his purposes. Paul, in Romans 9, draws attention to the fact that God chose Jacob over Esau before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad (Romans 9:10-12). In this passage, the choice is about two nations, two peoples, and which one will be the bearer of God’s blessing for the world. But Paul sees in it a deeper principle of how God always works. God always works to magnify the sovereign freedom of his mercy. God’s selection of Jacob was not based on Jacob’s blamelessness or Esau’s sinfulness. God’s choice happened before all of that.


At the same time, the choices and decisions of Jacob (in growing up into integrity) and Esau (in treating his privileges so lightly) confirm God’s choice. There is no conflict between God’s sovereign choice and man’s freedom. The passage is clear—God chose Jacob over Esau, and Esau despised his birthright. Obviously, there is much more to be said, but for now it’s good to simply see that the biblical authors celebrate both the sovereignty of God and the freedom and responsibility of man. They do not pit them against one another, but hold them in harmony. Someone once asked Charles Spurgeon how he reconciled God’s sovereignty with man’s freedom. He responded, “I do not try to reconcile friends.” That’s exactly right.


Second, if Paul accents the sovereignty of God behind and before the decisions of Jacob and Esau, the author to the Hebrews (whom I suspect is Paul as well) accents the responsibility of Esau. And the lesson is: Don’t be like Esau.


Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. [15] See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; [16] that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. [17] For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Heb. 12:14-17)


Esau was governed by his appetites, by his passions. He wasn’t about to die. As soon as he has a bowl of stew, he gets up and walks out. Esau was starving in the sense that kids are starving when they skip snack-time. His hunger, his desire for the red stuff, overwhelmed his reason, his judgment, his common sense. And it led to his ruin. Esau is described here as sexually immoral; we’ll see why at the end of Genesis 26. He is also described as “godless,” that is, vile, irreverent, profane. He treats precious things lightly. For all of his strength and skill, he is a hollow man, an empty man, who has no regard for the most valuable realities in the world. “What good is a birthright to me?” Brothers and sisters, do not treat precious things lightly. Your marriage. Your children. Your friendships. Your baptism. Your fellowship with the living God. These are unspeakably precious realities. Don’t treat them lightly. Don’t trade them away to gratify your appetites.


Finally, the pattern. This passage makes explicit something that we’ve seen again and again in Genesis, and that continues to show up throughout the Bible. “The older will serve the younger.” That’s not just about these two brothers. Jacob surpasses Esau. Isaac, the second son, surpasses Ishmael. Abel is accepted, and not Cain. We see a similar theme with Joseph and his brothers, and then later with Saul and David. We can see it in the New Testament emphasis on the Jews and the Gentiles. The promises are to the Jews first, but the Gentiles are grafted in as well. This theme—that the younger, the last, will be first and highest and greatest—may even be present with the angels and mankind. One day, Paul tells us, we, the sons of earth will judge the angels, the sons of heaven. For a little while, we were made lower than the angels, but now, in Christ, we surpass them. This is a beautiful and majestic theme in Scripture. It’s God’s way of constantly overturning our sinful expectations. The older is stronger than the younger. But why has God given the older his strength? In order to make the younger strong. The older serves the younger. The first becomes last, so that the later is greater.


The Bible is a story of glory to glory. And it is the glory of the first to prepare and give way to the second. This is not identical glory. There is a glory in being first, in being the older. But that glory serves and strengthens and then relinquishes to the glory of the second, the last, the younger. And we catch glimpses in the Bible. We see Jonathan, Saul’s son, gladly give way to David, God’s anointed king. We see Elijah give way to his disciple Elisha, who has a double-portion of his spirit. We see John the Baptist, the older cousin, decrease when the Younger, who is truly Greater, arrives. And we must have our imaginations shaped by this pattern.


Parents, you are older. You are first. You have more strength than your children. Therefore, gladly spend and be spent for their souls. Pour out your glory so that theirs can surpass yours. How tragic when fathers keep their children under their thumb, and chafe at the first sign of independence and maturity in their children. Or when mothers refuse to let their children grow up because they desperately need to be needed. Or when a teacher or a pastor or a mentor grieves and clings to their position of authority, rather than gladly decreasing that the next generation might flourish.


Whether we’re talking about raising children or making disciples, the glory of your strength is to protect the weak and make them strong. Bend up every spirit to its full height, and then let others stand on your shoulders and see farther than you ever dreamed.


Now it’s easy to apply this to parents and children, or to teachers and students, or to mentors and disciples. It’s much more difficult when it’s brother to brother or sister to sister, or peer to peer, whether in a family or in a church. We are so prone to cling to our privilege and our position and our strength.


So I’m going to speak to the kids, especially to the older brothers and sisters. But I’m not just speaking to the kids; I’m speaking to all of you, so make the necessary adjustments. Older siblings, do you know how sometimes your dad will put you on his shoulders so that you can see farther? He uses his strength to increase your strength? What your dad is doing for you, God wants you to do for your little brother and sister. Older brothers exist to make younger siblings awesome. Older sisters exist to make younger siblings awesome. Don’t fight with them, or lord your abilities over them, or make them feel bad because they can’t do what you can do yet. Use your strength and glory to make them better, to lift them up, and be glad if, because of your help, they get even better than you. That’s what God wants.

The Lord’s Table

And the Lord’s Table can remind you of that. This is the Table where the first becomes last and the last becomes first. Before Jesus established this Table, do you remember what he did? The older brother, the greater one, the first, knelt down and became the servant of all. He washed his disciples’ feet. And then he said, “Go and do likewise.” That’s why it is the joy of the pastors and deacons to serve you every week at this table. It’s a symbol of what we believe pastoral ministry is all about. We are workers for your joy. We want to use our strength and wisdom and knowledge so that you can flourish. It’s a small thing, a small symbol, like bread and wine. But oh, there is glory there.