Around the Campfire
It’s years since I thought of Alice Parmelee. She came suddenly into my mind last week when I was writing a note for the bulletin on the Users Guide to the IT church. Alice Parmelee wrote what was perhaps the first book I ever read on the background to the Bible. It was in the series of Teach Yourself books, and called Understanding the Bible. I remembered her again this week as I thought about the story of Isaac and his two sons Esau and Jacob because she began her book suggesting that many of the stories of the Pentateuch, the stories of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph were told around the campfires of Israel. Sadly, I’d only be able to give her a B+ these days. The stories of the patriarchs were written down hundreds of years after the campfires had been put out. But she has a point. The stories were formed and told as separate units. You can see it in today’s reading as plain as can be if you look at it: it begins as if there was nothing before it and it was a stand alone story.
We’re more cunning this Sunday than a fortnight ago, and we realise that somewhere in this none too easy story of Jacob and Esau there’s got to be a truth that the writers or tellers had in mind. Always a good question to ask the Bible is: what is it wanting to say? I can remember not only Alice Parmelee but Sunday School lessons on this story, and while I might have got it wrong, peering back into the mists of antiquity, it seems to me that our lessons were about how bad Esau was to sell his birthright for a mess of potage; I certainly think that if I were Esau I would want a meal of steak and chips instead of a vegetarian hash. But why should Esau be bad, he wasn’t bad so much as doomed. God had spoken against him; if he kept his birthright - which in fact was Isaac’s to give, then he was thwarting the will of God. So you see there is a tangle here; how can Esau be bad if he is falling into line with God’s will? The Sunday School view of it doesn’t give us real answers to our human problems.
The sequence of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, is interesting to consider. Abraham and Jacob feature prominently, Isaac hardly at all. Isaac is like the very thin layer of meat between the thick buns of a MacDonald’s hamburger. And it would please a modern congregation immensely because in the story of Isaac there is almost no mention of God. Of course God lurks in the background and both Rebekah and Isaac turn to God from time to time. But around the campfire, there is a story to be told with an underlying purpose, a theme that stories are devised to tell, and that is: how should we live? What is the basis of human existence? Take Jacob, he’s a cheat, and cunning, a real smart Alec. He’s the Brer Rabbit of the OT and poor old Esau who only wanted a decent meal of steak and chips is the Brer Wolf: strong, but dumb, who always comes off second best. Camp fire stories from all round the world have their Jacobs and Esaus, their Isaacs and Rebekahs, mums and dads with different favourites. And they tell these stories not only to talk about God, but about the fundamentals of human existence. When I read our lectionary passage there grew in me a sense that they were talking about three alternatives for the fundamentals of human existence.
The first one is the market - that wonderful law of supply and demand. Esau wants food. Jacob can supply it; but for how much? Esau wants food very badly, and the price must be high. The price is the birthright. Trade me your birthright. And hard-nosed Jacob won’t give him food until he signs and seals the deal. You can understand that. You can understand the market. Even as I speak there are 53, 791 people on line at Trade Me searching and scouring the market for the 1, 273, 549 items listed there for sale. Even as I speak there are 137 people in the Papamoa Warehouse where everyone gets a bargain. The market is wonderful. No wonder Roger Douglas wanted to put it at the centre of politics. Everything is solved in that relationship between supply and demand - like that young person who has put his soul on Trade Me. I’m sure the Baptist churches bid high for it. Souls, health, education, iPhones, birthright. There’s a market for everything. I think that two out of every three people these days look at life in commercial terms where cost is king and everything has a price. One day I read in the paper that the wealthiest people in NZ live in the Bay of Plenty. The next day I read they can’t afford to have a free library or art-gallery. Strange, until I realised that the market doesn’t work by generosity, and that these city councillors will always have the money to pay for their non-existent use of culture - so who cares? The poor we will always have with us, and they can go to church and not to libraries or art-galleries. Trade Me is the cathedral of our time where we celebrate and worship the market as the fundamental of human existence. Esau says, Let me have that stew. Trade me your birthright, says Jacob.
Then there’s another fundamental of human existence explored in this story. Fate. The inexorable decree of God. You get it in the decree of God to Rebekah: two nations are in your womb, and two people born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other; the elder shall serve the younger. There are people who say that life is a matter of fate, of God’s decree, it is written in the stars. It is fore-ordained. If we want to know what is going to happen look in the horoscope which will tell the message of the stars: tomorrow, it says, pay attention to all relationships and, yes, romance is around the corner. Deep down it is all worked out according to some script and though we may think that we are free we are only puppets in the play. It’s surprising how many people think that fate rules the universe. What will be, will be. Çe sera, sera. You can’t break the chains that bind you. I’m for ever stuck in the mud of the Manawatu. Modern people think like this; old time people did, too. Beowulf goes off to fight the sea monster Grendel and he knows he is doomed; that is his fate. In the same spirit we go to the computer and play Freecell, we need to know if we are doomed or not, working out our days as best we can, serving time in the prison of God’s decree.
Then there’s a third fundamental of human existence that lies beneath the surface in this story. And this is in the end why we read and think about this story still. This is a fundamental that Israel’s neighbours never quite saw. When they passed on their birthright they did it properly, their line went down through the first son, went down through their strongest and their biggest, their line would have gone through Esau. Jacob, the thin, skinny, runt, mooning round his mother’s skirts, staying home, is never worthy of the inheritance. And he’s got the morality of a baboon. But God chooses him, the second best, the not so good. This is grace, the undeserved action of God - and this is the third fundamental of human existence, that underneath it all is the grace of God. If you live by grace you claim that we are not controlled by the market or by fate, some fixed decree, we are aided in our living by the God who works in and through us, never setting us aside but choosing us, calling us, enabling us. The story of Isaac and Rebekah, of Esau and Jacob is the story of grace, and we claim it to be the fundamental of human existence. We have continued the story on a long way since Jacob and Esau. But it still centres around a meal, not a meal for which we trade anything, not a meal which demands our birthright, for the story of grace continues in a meal of bread and wine which freely gives us a birthright, which makes us children of God.