Christ Centered Resources

The tale of 'Red' and his kid brother 'Heel'

Rev. Ed Searcy

Genesis 25:19-34
University Hill United Church : Sun, July 14, 1996
This is the tale of 'Red' and his kid brother 'Heel'. A tale that all began with Isaac and Rebekah. You remember Isaac "Laughter" they called him because he was God's great joke on ancient old Abraham and Sarah. Well, it all began with Isaac and Rebekah. Rebekah, you see, was barren. That's right, barren. It is getting to be a familiar story. Every generation, it seems, sets out to receive the Promise and finds instead, nothing ... nada ... emptiness. So, after twenty years of marriage, Isaac does the only thing he can think of ... he prays for Rebekah. He gets down on the mat in his tent and he prays. Well, sure enough, it does the trick. Before you know it, Rebekah has morning sickness. Boy does she have morning sickness. If you thought that our Rebbeca Kemper's weak stomach last fall and winter was bad then you haven't seen bad. Pretty soon momma realized that this was not just nausea or gas ... no, this was trouble ... Trouble with a capital T'! At night when Isaac came into the tent she would show him. "Just put your hands here", she would say, "right here. Can you feel that? There are two." And the way she said it didn't make Isaac leap for joy. Something about her voice filled him with worry. "There are two", she said, "and they are fighting already. It never stops. Not even at night. They wake me up with their wrestling. I'm getting bruises everywhere. If this is how it is going to be then I could just die". Isaac wasn't much help: "Maybe you should talk it over with God", he said. So she did. She went right to the top. "What's the deal", she asked, "what kind of a blessing is this?!". The Almighty's response stopped her in her tracks: "It's politics", came God's answer, "you aren't just carrying two children in your womb ... you are pregnant with two peoples. I'm afraid the fighting is just beginning because the younger one is going to outdo the elder." Sure enough, when it came time for Rebekkah to give birth there were twins. The first was a red head, and I mean a red head! He was covered from head to foot in hair. Somebody said they should call him "Ape" but it was only natural that folks would call him "Esau" ... "Red", that is. Red ... great grandfather of the "Reds", the Edomites who live in the red hills south of the Dead Sea. The Reds who eagerly participated in the destruction of lovely Jerusalem and in the exile of her people. The Reds, the Edomites so hated by Israel that Edom became a symbolic name for all destructive world powers. "Reds" they would call their enemies ... "Reds". And hanging onto Esau's heel as he came through the birth canal, was his kid brother. The midwife took one look and said, "Why, look at that, they are wrestling already ... boys will be boys, won't they?!" Maybe she was the one who suggested the name: "Jacob" ... "heel grabber". No one really knows. All we do know is that soon people shortened it to one word: "Heel" they called him. His whole life he was grabbing, wrestling, struggling to get his way. And if Red got in his way then Red would just have to be dealt with. Maybe that explains King David's slaughter of the Edomites. -Killed 12,000 (or was it 18,000) 'Reds' ... so they claimed. 'Heel grabber' is one way of describing what Joab did in liquidating all the males in Edom. But when it happens in Bosnia, when all the men and boys are rounded up and shot, we don't call the people 'heels'. We call them criminals. And when the Orangemen march through the streets of their elder Catholic brothers and sisters in Ireland to prove whose on 'top of the castle' now ... 'heel' seems a better epithet than 'Christian'. But what do you call the sibling rivals who live closer to home? Twins arrive in Canada ... Lower and Upper ... Habitant and Loyalist, French and English. Sure enough, Wolfe grabs Montcalm's heel and the struggle is on ... the prenatal wrestling match which has not yet stopped. Who knows why these things begin. Is it genetic ... biological perhaps ... or maybe it is historical ... the accumluation of abuse and grievance over time. Anyone looking at 'Red' and his kid brother 'Heel' could have told you that personality had something to do with it. They were just different people. Esau loved to hunt (with the other hairy types) and to join the boys for a game of rugby and some beers. Jacob, on the other hand "was a quiet man, living in tents" He stayed home, indoors, played the piano, cooked gourmet meals, felt that football encourages violence. Nobody should be surprised then, that Isaac loved Esau - the man's man - while Rebekah was partial to Jacob, the sensitive one. You would think that Isaac and Rebekah would know better. After all, they are great heroes of the Bible. You would think that they would set a better example than this that they would love their children 'equally'. But no, Esau spends a lifetime protesting: "Mom always liked you best" and he's right. Truth is, we know these people. We know these parents and we know these boys. Remember 'Oklahoma' ... the old Rogers and Hammerstein musical ... and remember who is always fighting in it? The ranchers and the farmers. the Esaus and the Jacobs. Big brother and kid brother. It's an old story. Remember Cain and Abel. How about Amnon and Absalom or the Prodigal Son and his jealous elder brother. Sibling rivalry goes way back. And it goes on ... it goes on. When John Steinbeck sat down to write the story of his family for his children he did something fascinating. He set it right where he was raised ... in the Salinas Valley of California. And he told all the stories that he had learned of his parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. But he wove another family story into his own. He 'invented' a mythical family - the Trasks - whose lives become interwoven with his own Hamilton family over the course of many generations. And in each of those generations Steinbeck gives the Trasks two boys - a Cain and an Abel, a Jacob and an Esau - born always to parents who strangely resemble an Adam and an Eve Steinbeck called the book he wrote for his children 'East of Eden' for in it he portrays an edenic Valley in which tragic stories unfold. He wanted to leave no doubt that Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau are every generation's contemporaries. Well, those of us who went to Sunday School faithfully in the fifties or sixties find this hard to believe. We remember our Sunday School flyers and they always showed a happy family coming to church. Dad and Mom, brother, sis and little baby brother all smiles. No favouritism here. No brawling children. This was God's family's portrayed as 'Ozzie and Harriet' ... or 'The Cosby's". Instead, when we open the pages of our great family history we find a household that looks more like 'The Simpson's'! As Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says, "The narrative about Jacob portrays Israel at its earthiest and most scandalous". Which means that those of us who have come this morning hoping to become a better person, to learn about morals and behaviour are out of luck! This is not the kind of story you want to teach your children unless ... unless you want to teach your children that God manages somehow to work in even the messiest of families. And messy is the only word there is for it because things between Red and his kid brother Heel go from bad to worse. One day Red comes in from the field starving. He smells of days out hunting in the bush and comes home empty-handed. Heel is in the kitchen working over a hot stove. "Give me some of that red stuff you've got cooking", says Esau. "It's not 'red stuff'", says Jacob, "it's ratatouille". "Just let me have it" barks Red. And the conniving, crafty, cunning kid brother sees his chance. "How hungry are you?", he asks. "I'm dying!", answers his brother. "Well, in that case", argues the Heel, "since you are already as good as dead let me have your birthright and consider this an 'all you can eat' buffet." Esau bites: "What good is a birthright if I'm not alive to enjoy it? Let me eat ... the birthright is yours." So it was that "Esau ate and drank and rose and went his way" So it was that Jacob the younger became Jacob the elder and, in the process, acted like a real 'Heel'. End of the tale of Red and his kid brother Heel, part one. Now, if you are anything like me, you won't find this a very satisfying conclusion. And, of course, it gets a lot worse before it gets better. Soon Rebekah is going to set Jacob up to receive his dying father's blessing. In that episode the Heel will put on a hairy disguise and feed his Pop a hunter's meal before stealing the blessing that is meant for old 'Red'. It will be enough to set Esau planning revenge ... plotting murder. But that's a chapter or two away and we have enough trouble with the plot turns in the first chapters of the tale. It is especially troublesome if you, like me, are the eldest in the family. Perhaps you, too, are becoming a bit tired of the Bible's fascination with upstart younger brothers. Think Joseph. Remember David. And, here, great grand-daddy Jacob. If you didn't know any better you might begin to think that God was up to something here, that there was a method to what seems madness. In our day it is not as it used to be. Then the first born was given the lion's share of the inheritance it is just the way things worked, the way society remained stable, solid, ordered. Today we are more democratic. We parents try to love our children 'equally'. Yet, in spite of ourselves, the older child invariably seems to receive more benefits, comes out ahead. I suppose one might look at us all blessed with so many benfits as we are as elder children ... fortunate from birth in a world of Jacobs grabbing at our heels. Well, look ... God keeps inverting things, upsetting the proper order of things, making the first last ... and the last first. Perhaps this tale is less about Jacob and Esau and more about the way God works in the world, in the messy world of household's like Isaac and Rebekah's ... and nation states like Israel and Edom ... working not in the squeakly clean families on our Sunday School pamphlets but in the bruised and hurting relationships we know all too well ... working not in idyllic, harmonious nations and peoples but here, East of Eden where reconciliation seems a long way off. I wonder if by now many of you have had the opportunity to see 'Dead Man Walking' ... the painful tale of people coming to terms with the murder of two innocent teens and with the execution of their killer. In the final scene of the movie there are no words spoken. Instead, the camera peers through the window of a country church, an edenic looking little church, to focus on two people kneeling in prayer. Sister Helen is there, after caring for the murderer on his journey to 'the chair' She kneels alongside the father of one of the victims. The two have wondered if they can be reconciled one day but the father could not imagine how it will ever be possible.. "I have too much anger" he raged, "too much anger". There is only one thing they can do now ... when the promise seems barren they pray, they pray to be healed. And you just know that the Hebrews would have loved the play on words in English: Jacob - the 'heel' whose life with Esau cries out to be healed. Healed by the Resurrecting One who somehow does work healing out of the tragic tales of our lives. -------------- (followed by Voices United #613: "We Cannot Measure How You Heal")