This sermon was given on Mother’s Day, May 11th, 2014. The sermon is based on the story of Rebekah, which can be found in Genesis chapter 24-27. The text for this sermon is Genesis 25:12-19.
Rebekah: A Life of Bold Faith
Today is Mother’s Day, the day we celebrate mothers and motherhood and look for ways to appreciate our mothers, be they biological, emotional, or spiritual. The Bible is full of examples of strong mothers, such as Mary, Elizabeth, Hannah, Jochebed, Sarah, and Rebekah. The Bible is also full of examples of strong women who aren’t mothers or at least aren’t known for it, like Miriam, Esther, Deborah, Judith, Mary Magdalene, Lydia, and Phoebe, we don’t want to get caught thinking that being a mother is the only way a woman can add value to the world. But I thought the fact that today is Mother’s Day might be a good excuse to talk about one of my favorite mothers in the Bible, Rebekah, the mother of Jacob and Esau. I’m not going to talk about what makes her a good mother. That would exclude half the congregation. What I want to talk about is what makes her a great person of faith. And what makes her a great follower of God is that she is brave, bold, and faithful to God’s vision, but most of all, because she takes the initiative to ensure that God’s vision continues.
We first meet Rebekah when Abraham’s servant goes to Haran to find a wife for Isaac from among his close relations. Marriage was a very different institution then from what it is now. Marrying close relatives was common, to strengthen ties between families so that they would support each other in times of trouble. Which explains Abraham insists that Isaac marry one of his cousins, and also why Abraham is married to his half-sister. But what’s cool about Rebekah in this story, is that while it’s very transactional, I mean, a marriage in those days was basically a business deal, Rebekah is the one who has the most agency, the most control over what happens. They leave the choice of whether to go with the servant or not up to her, and she dives right in. She boldly and bravely chooses to go on a cross-country adventure. When you compare her with her husband Isaac, who just passively waits for someone else to bring him a wife, it shows how Rebekah is unafraid to take action, even when it involves opening up a new chapter in her life.
Rebekah goes to Isaac’s house where she becomes his wife, and after some trouble they conceive. Rebekah becomes pregnant with twins. She has a difficult pregnancy. She’s absolutely miserable. So she decides to inquire of the Lord. That phrase, goes up to inquire of the Lord is reserved in the Old Testament for great prophets like Moses and Elisha and kings with direct lines to God, like David and Saul. In other words, Rebekah was as close to God as any of the prophets And basically she says to God, “Why me? Why do I have to endure all of this?” And God says:
Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.’
One shall be stronger than the other. The elder shall serve the younger. God’s words to Rebekah are not words of consolation but of prediction. God hears Rebekah’s cry of “Why me?” and God answers by letting Rebekah in on a piece of God’s plan. God’s plan for Jacob and Esau reflects a common theme in the Bible: God shows greatness by making the weak prevail over the strong. From the moment she hears this prediction, Rebekah doesn’t just wait for it to come true, she takes an active part in working for its fruition. As soon as she hears God’s plan for her, she makes it her plan too. There’s a lesson in that for us. I’m sure she had all sorts of plans for her life. But when God’s plan is revealed to her, she drops him. God’s plan becomes her plan.
When the twins are born, Esau comes out first. But their births are so close together that the Bible tells us Jacob is literally grabbing Esau’s heel as he comes out. Unfortunately for Jacob, even though they were twins, Esau had a leg up on him. In that world, a firstborn is a firstborn is a firstborn. And the rights and privileges of the firstborn are much greater than what the second son gets. In our culture most people split their estate equally among their children, but that’s not how it worked in the ancient world. In order to prevent the family’s lands from being diluted, the bulk of the family property, 90% of it or more, would go to the firstborn son. So if Jacob had come out just a few moments earlier, the bulk of the inheritance would be his, but instead, it all goes to Esau. What a difference a minute makes, right?
Now we have to remember that we’re not just talking about flocks and land here, whoever inherits from Isaac also inherits God’s covenant with Abraham, he inherits Promised Land and he inherits God’s promise that his descendants would one day outnumber the stars in the sky. Who will inherit this promise is the central drama of the book of Genesis. All of the stories of the patriarchs are concerned with this question. Will God’s promise be passed on? And to whom? And it if weren’t for Rebekah’s ingenuity and faithfulness to God’s vision, the future of God’s covenant with Israel might not have survived.
Like a lot of twins, these two grow up to be very different people. Esau grows up hairy and wild. But Isaac loved him, in part because Isaac loved the wild game that Esau would bring his father from his hunting expeditions. Jacob, on the other hand, is described as a quiet or righteous man, living in tents. Where Esau was wild, Jacob was civilized.
Jacob takes advantage of his brother twice. The first time, it is on his own initiative. Esau returns home from a hunting expedition just as Jacob is finishing up dinner. He’s starving, and Jacob offers him a meal in exchange for his birthright, which Esau accepts. “Thus,” the Bible says, “Esau despised his birthright.” This is the first clue that Esau isn’t suitable to inherit God’s promise. He’s willing to throw it away for some stew. The second is the women he chooses in marriage. He rejects his family and instead marries two Canaanite women, women he’s not related to, who proceed to make Rebekah’s life as unpleasant as possible.
Now Rebekah sees that Esau isn’t fit to inherit Isaac’s holdings or God’s covenant. And she knows that God has chosen Jacob over him, because of the prophecy, that the older shall serve the younger. And she decides to do something about it. Now I believe, deep in my bones, that God has a plan for this world. And what this story says, and what the great big Bible story says, is that we are a part of that plan. And what Rebekah teaches us is that means taking active responsibility in bringing God’s plans to fruit. We aren’t spectators on this earth. We’re not here to wait around for God to do something. God put us here to do something. Rebekah waits for the right moment, and then she takes decisive action.
So when Rebekah overhears Isaac tell Esau that he wants to give him his blessing, Rebecca hatches a plan. Isaac is old and blind, and sends Esau to hunt and cook him a big hearty meal before he gives his blessing. And Rebekah realizes that this is her chance to ensure the future of God’s covenant. She sends Jacob in with goatskin on his arms and his neck to fool blind Isaac, and she prepares a kid for Jacob to bring, so that he can steal Esau’s blessing. Jacob’s a little nervous about this, but Rebekah takes on full responsibility for what they are about to do. When Jacob goes in to see Isaac, Isaac isn’t sure exactly who he has. He hears Jacob’s voice but he knows that he sent Esau to fetch him food, and so he feels Jacob’s goatskin-covered arms and asks three times, and Jacob answers each time that he is Esau.
Now this seems a little bit like a low-down, dirty trick. And it kind of is. But what you’ll notice if you read the Old Testament is that this kind of trickery is common even among the good guys. Most of the stories we have about Jacob are of trickery. But if you read the trickster narratives in the Bible, you’ll notice they have a morality to them as well. When the person playing the trick is in a lower or weaker social position (like the second son, or a regular person against a king), they’re praised for their cleverness and ingenuity. When the person taking advantage is in a higher power position, they are always punished for taking advantage of someone smaller and weaker. The best example is David. When he’s the youngest of twelve sons, running from the law, he is constantly tricking people, like King Saul or Abigail’s husband. But when he becomes King, everything changes, when he tries the same trickery, he’s punished, and more often than not he’s the fool to others’ tricks. What this tells us is that, just like they say in Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. The standards of righteousness and responsibility for people in power are much greater than the standards for those who have to do everything they can to survive. A powerful or wealthy person who uses his or her power to take advantage is infinitely more culpable than the poor person who takes advantage of the system or the higher-ups.
So Jacob and Rebekah are rewarded for their initiative. The ploy works, and Jacob receives Isaac’s blessing. Because of Rebekah’s initiative, the covenant that God made with Abraham is passed down to Jacob, according to God’s plan.
Rebekah bravely took on the adventure of joining Isaac’s family. Her faith was as strong as a prophets, she was so close to God that she understood God’s plan for the covenant with Abraham and Isaac. And she made God’s plan her own. She let go of what she wanted, and put her energy towards achieving what God wanted. And she did so by taking the initiative to ensure the future of God’s covenant with God’s people.
And she has something to teach us all. Not just mothers, but all of us, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Like Rebekah, make yourself close with God. Read the Bible to understand how God interacts with God’s people, and how people of faith respond. Like Rebekah, bring your troubles to God, even when all you have to say is, “Why me?” or “I wish I could die.” And through study and prayer devote yourself to understanding God’s plan for this world, and ensuring the future of God’s Covenant with his people. Rebekah shows us how to take initiative, rather than waiting for something to happen to us. God calls people of faith to make things happen, to be brave and strong and courageous like Rebekah because God’s plan doesn’t just happen to us, it happens through us.