Birthrights, Stew, and the Postmodern: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 10 July 2011

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 10 July 2011 (Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A)

Genesis 25:19-34 and Psalm 119:105-112Isaiah 55:10-13 and Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13Romans 8:1-11Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Okay, so I didn’t get the lectionary post online until Wednesday.  I had a busy weekend, alright?

I’ll admit that this story from Genesis bothers me, and I’m bothered because I have a hunch I’m incapable of reading it faithfully.  When I hear that Edom/Esau trades his bekorah (a term that seems to signify ancestral inheritance due to the firstborn within a Semitic family) for a pot of red stew, my own mind immediately starts to form a “principle” that the story must be trying to establish in my mind: deferred gratification, shrewd trading, learning the value of things, or some other good, middle-class lesson.  I’m fairly certain that this story is not merely an “object lesson” for a chapter of Proverbs, but that’s where my mind wants to go.

The facts that should complicate that reading are fairly evident for someone who wants to think about it: the fact of the matter is that Esau is the one who has his facts straight.  After all, the house of Isaac is a nomadic family, one that does not own any land.  In other words, Jacob is offering something (food) for nothing (no land).  Yet Esau becomes angry.

I’m fully aware of the standard scholarly readings of this story, those that render the stew episode and the goat-hair episode as etiological (I’m resisting the temptation to spell it eat-iological) tales about the monarchical-era animosity between the kingdoms of Edom and of Judah.  I don’t think that’s a bad place to start, and I think it’s also a handy thing to know that, by tracing the genetic roots of Israel to a man with the ability to imagine what might come to pass centuries later, in the face of the nomadic Abrahamites and the great Canaanite city-states, Genesis is positioning the Israelites as a nation possessed of special divine favor, even in the foresight of Israel the man.

Those starting-places lead to some interesting theological possibilities if, following the New Testament, one imagines Church as an inclusive prophetic fulfillment of Israel in the secular age.  It’s a reminder that, when we Christians tell the story of the one who fulfills not only Jacob but Moses and Elijah and David as well (if you don’t know who that is, ask your Sunday school teacher), we’re telling a story in which we are the ones given the gift of faithful sight.  As the great prophets remind us, that’s no reason to elevate ourselves above others, but it is an occasion to celebrate and to praise the great God who sustains a world of free human beings and calls to those human beings by the example and the proclamation of the Israel of Jacob’s age or of our own.  Therefore our own virtues, if we be Israel, are not the standard middle-class values of toleration and industry but divine gifts, faith and hope and charity, the fruit not of good, respectable living but of the Spirit.

Even as the Kingdom of God remains unseen and to most unimaginable, may our stories and our lives together be a compelling tale as Jacob’s remains.

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