“I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” -Genesis 26:24
I was seventy-five years old when my father Abraham died. My half-brother Ishmael and I buried him next to my mother Sarah in the place Abraham had prepared in Hebron. Ishmael, as you know, had been sent away when I was just a boy, and I hadn’t seen him since. There was no love lost between us then, just as it is between our families today. The descendants of the 12 sons of Ishmael are still at odds with the descendants of the 12 sons of my son Jacob, some 4,000 years later.
Thirty-five years before my father died, I had married Rebekah, a sister of Laban the Aramean from Paddan Aram, an area near Damascus. Like us the Arameans are Semitic, Aram being the 5th son of Shem and brother to Arphaxad, Abraham’s ancestor. I was forty at our wedding, but in my sixtieth year before Rebekah became pregnant with our twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Their birth, like almost everything in my family’s history, was fraught with prophetic implications.
First of all we had trouble getting pregnant, requiring nearly 20 years of prayer. I guess this was to show that it was only by the Grace of God that we received children. I always knew we would have at least one son, because I had heard the promises the LORD made to my father. But in an age when sons were a man’s greatest blessing and the fulfillment of a woman’s destiny, 20 years is a long time to wait.
Then the babies jostled each other so severely in Rebekah’s womb that she inquired of the LORD for the reason why. He told her that our two babies represented two separate nations, one stronger than the other, and that the descendants of the older would serve those of the younger.
When the big day came, the first one born was all covered with hair, so we named him Esau, which in our language means hairy. Then right after him as if they had been fighting to see who would be first came the other one, grasping his brother’s heel. We named him Jacob, which literally means “he grasps the heel” but is figuratively translated “deceiver.” That name sure turned out to be prophetic.
The boys were fifteen when their grandfather died, and as they grew to be men Esau turned into quite the outdoorsman, while Jacob was the quieter one staying close to home. Easu was my favorite, but Rebekah loved Jacob best.
I guess the fight that began in Rebekah’s womb over who would be the firstborn was still going on, because one day as Esau came home famished from an extended hunting trip, he found Jacob cooking some red bean stew. “Give me some of that,” Esau demanded. “First sell me your birthright,” Jacob said.
The rights of the firstborn were significant in those days, and included a double portion of the father’s estate, in our case giving Esau 2/3 of my wealth and Jacob 1/3, along with greater authority and other preferential treatment. Esau impatiently responded that if he died from hunger before I passed away, the rights of the firstborn wouldn’t be of much use to him.
Jacob, sensing he had an advantage, made Esau swear an oath, and so for a bowl of red bean stew bought Esau’s birthright. From this event Esau gained the nickname Edom, which in our language means red, and earned the displeasure of the LORD Who doesn’t take these things lightly. Centuries later, the writer of the Book of Hebrews cited Esau’s ingratitude in an admonition to take the blessings of the LORD seriously or risk losing them (Hebr. 12:16-17). It’s interesting that even in your time when people think of my twins, it’s always “Jacob and Esau” instead of the other way around.
Just as it had been in my father’s time, there was a famine in Canaan, and we went south to the Philistine city of Gerar. There the LORD appeared to me and told me not to continue into Egypt, but to remain there where He would look after us. Then He repeated the oath He had made to Abraham, giving me all the land of Canaan and promising to bless all the nations of the world through my offspring. So we stayed there.
I was concerned, like my father had been with his wife, that the Philistines would find Rebekah attractive and kill me for her. This was their way around adultery. Just kill the husband and make the woman a widow, single and eligible. So like Abraham had done, I began telling folks Rebekah was my sister. But the King saw me caressing her one day and took me to task, saying I had put their men in jeopardy through my deceit. To remedy this, He published an edict prohibiting the men of Gerar from molesting her or me on pain of death.
True to His promise, the LORD blessed us in Gerar, so much so that it aroused the jealousy of the Philistines, who began filling in our wells to prevent us from getting enough water. The yield of our crops and flocks given by the LORD had been so generous that I was becoming quite a wealthy and powerful man, and finally the King himself became threatened and asked us to leave the area.
As we went, wherever we stopped the herdsman of Gerar contended with us, until we got far enough away for them to leave us alone. We finally settled in a place we would soon name Beersheba, about a day’s journey inland from Gerar. There the LORD appeared to me again and repeated the blessings He had promised my father one more time.
The King of Gerar, along with several of his officials, had also visited us there asking for a treaty. He was afraid that even from this distance our growing strength would become a threat again. Reminding me that he had protected Rebekah and always treated me fairly, he convinced me to enter into an agreement, and the next morning after a great feast in honor of the King, we swore an oath together.
Later that day my servants informed me that they had dug another well and found water. In the custom of the day, I named the well Shibah, which in our language means oath, after the agreement I had made with the King of Gerar. Since our word for well is beer, the place became known as Beer Shibah, or as you would say, Beersheba.
A while later when Esau was in his fortieth year he married two Hittite girls, which caused Rebekah and me no end of grief and helped set the stage for her plot to have Jacob blessed over Esau. I’ll fill you in on all the gory details next time.