Harrowing Of Hell
August 30, 2015

Sibling Rivalry

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I want to tell the story today of two brothers, three blessings, and seeing God face to face. I am inspired by the last line in the Song of Solomon from today’s reading:

Let me see your face.
Let me hear your voice.
Your voice is sweet.
Your face is lovely…

That is how God sees us. That is how God hears us; even when we don’t. And often, we don’t, which leads to stolen blessings, battles between brothers, and a blind eye towards God.

There was a social scientist named Rene Girard who was interested in human violence. He developed a theory called Mimetic desire, which is defined this way: “What you have, I want, because you have it.” It is pretty easy to understand how Mimetic desire works. Imagine two children in a nursery. Toys are all over the place. You pick up one random toy and hand it to one of the children. What happens? The other all of a sudden wants the same toy; that’s Mimetic desire. A strong variant of this is sibling rivalry, which brings us back to our story today. It is the third story in a row in the Book of Genesis about sibling rivalry. The first takes place between Cain and Abel, a bad outcome that gives us the first murder. Next there is Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s sons by different mothers.

And now we meet the sons of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Esau, locked in Mimetic desire. Esau is the older, Jacob the younger. They are twins, and as the story goes, Jacob was holding Esau’s heel when they were born, which is why he is named Jacob. It means “heel grabber” or “usurper.” Esau’s name is translated as “hairy,” but it means “fully made.” Esau was born walking and talking, and hunting and fishing. He came out of the womb a man, a real man, a man’s man. He was everything Jacob wanted to be. Jacob was described as a “quieter man, living in tents.” He liked to cook. Esau liked to hunt. Esau’s presence provoked within Jacob Mimetic desire.

You see, Jacob had an image of himself that looked like Esau. When he saw his face, he saw Esau’s face. When he heard his voice, he heard Esau’s voice. What Esau had, he wanted because Esau had it, and that caused problems.

It started with a bowl of soup. Jacob was home cooking one day when Esau returned from an unsuccessful hunt. He was famished and asked Jacob for some soup. Jacob said “Yes, in exchange for your birthright.” Sounds weird. Esau probably thought so. But Esau wanted soup, and Jacob wanted the birthright, so they traded. And so it went with the two brothers.

Which brings us to the three blessings. All were given by Isaac, the father of Jacob and Esau. The first blessing was stolen. It was meant for Esau, and Jacob wanted it. So he tricked his father who was old and blind into giving him the blessing reserved for Esau. Jacob put on goat-hair gloves and covered his arms with goat-hair skins. He cooked a meal like Esau would cook. He wore Esau’s clothes, to smell like Esau, and went to his father, and asked for the blessing meant for Esau.

Isaac was suspicious. Three times he asked if it were Jacob, not Esau, asking for the blessing, and Jacob lied, saying, “I am Esau.” Mimetic desire. So Isaac gave Jacob the blessing, and it went like this:

“You shall be wealthy.
People will serve you and bow down to you,
You will be Lord over your brothers.
And if someone curses you,
you will rip them apart;
and if someone blesses you,
you will embrace them.” (paraphrased)

That was the blessing Jacob stole. Esau hears of this theft. He is angry and brokenhearted! He asks his father to bless him, which brings us to the second blessing; the blessing of consolation. Isaac says to Esau:

“You shall be rich, and
you shall serve your brother,
unless he is jerk, and then you can ignore him.” (paraphrased)

Esau receives this blessing, but he is still angry and vows to kill Jacob.
So Jacob decides it is best to get out of town. Before he does, however, he goes to Isaac, who apparently has cooled down, and asks for another blessing. Which brings us to the third blessing, the authentic blessing, and it goes like this:

“You will be father of many nations
and you will reside in the land
God set aside for Abraham,
the Promised Land.” (paraphrased)

Now Jacob leaves town, and does so with Esau’s birthright and blessing.
He is feeling very much like Esau. He finally is the man’s man he knows himself to be. With the words of his Father’s first blessing ringing in his ears, he heads to the land of his uncle, Laban, where over the next twenty-two years, he becomes wealthy. People bow to him. He takes down those who curse him and embraces those who bless him.

For twenty-two years he seeks to be Esau, to have Esau’s face, his voice, and his life. And yet still there is something missing; there is an incompleteness, a yearning unfulfilled. So he decides to move back to the land of Abraham and Isaac, which almost brings us to where we are in today’s story. As Jacob heads back to the Promised Land, he gets word that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 armed men. Jacob goes into a tither and then begins to connive. He decides to send Esau gifts to appease him. He sends:

  • 200 female goats and 20 male goats,
  • 200 ewes and 20 rams,
  • 30 camels and their colts,
  • 40 cows and 10 bulls,
  • 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys.

That is a lot!

Then he divides his retinue into two groups, sending one across the Jabbok River and then the other across the Jabbok River, thinking that if Esau destroys one, the second might escape. And after doing all of this, Jacob finds himself, at nightfall, alone on the banks of the Jabbok River. If this wasn’t an Old Testament story, I’d call this “a come-to-Jesus moment.” Everything that Jacob had worked for; all of the riches he attained; all the evidence that the blessing he stole from Esau really belonged to him; all that was stripped away, sent across the river, and he was left that night to wrestle with himself.

There was no one else on that riverbank but Jacob: the Jacob who wanted to be Esau and the other Jacob, the real Jacob, made to be the father of many nations, and the occupier of the Promised Land. One Jacob, two blessings that night on the riverbank of the Jabbok poised to see God face to face. I can imagine the bright moon shining off an eddy in that river where Jacob could see his face. I can imagine the high cliffs of the canyon echoing the sound of this voice. There was no other face to desire, no other voice to covet.

That night Jacob wrestled with the two blessings: the one he wanted, and the one meant for him. He wrestled and fought, as if attacked by a River Demon, and in the process he came to see that the sin he committed against his brother left a wound upon his soul. Mimetic desire has a cost like a hip out of joint. It was a painful night, but Jacob kept at it. He didn’t quit. He didn’t “let go” even though he wanted to; Jacob held on.

And when his most authentic self began to get the upper hand, the stolen blessing asked to be freed, to which Jacob responded, “Not until you bless me.” And the blessing he heard was the same one bestowed upon him by his father, Isaac, twenty-two years earlier, “You are Israel the father of many nations destined for the Promised Land.”

That night Jacob became Israel, and the usurper was no more. Mimetic desire was dead. Now Jacob could see God face to face, which had been an impossibility when his heart and mind were polluted with wanting what someone else had.

We cannot see God unless we can see ourselves clearly. We cannot see God unless we know our own face and see the loveliness God sees; unless we know our own voice and hear the sweetness God hears.

Sometimes it is painful to get there, but it is necessary if we want to enter the Promised Land. That morning Jacob crosses the Jabbok River and enters the Promise Land. He meets Esau, and when he does, he returns to him the blessing he stole. He gives gifts to Esau. He bows down to Esau. He calls Esau “my Lord.” And what he finds is that he never really stole Esau’s blessing in the first place. That is the illusion of Mimetic desire: it never actually gets you what you think you want, and it never really diminishes the person you think you are stealing from.

Esau is wealthy. People serve Esau and bow down to him. Those who curse him are torn apart. And those who bless him are embraced, as he embraced Jacob that day.

And so the Bible gives us an exit strategy from sibling rivalry. The pursuit of God is the victory. The desire to see God face to face is the reward. A reward that can only be realized when we stop wanting what the other has, and come to clearly see the loveliness of our own face, and hear the sweetness of our own voice. Then and only then can we see the face of God.