God’s Faithfulness to Broken People: God’s Saving Purpose | Genesis 25:19-34
Brian Hedges | January 31, 2021
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles this morning to Genesis 25. We’re going to be reading from verses 19-34, or studying that passage in the course of the message.
While you’re turning there, how many of you like origin stories? I always enjoy a good origin story. We think about some of our favorite characters in literature and pop culture, and it’s always fun to try to dig into the origins of a character. One of my favorite characters, of course, is Superman, whom I’ve loved since I was a kid, my favorite comic book superhero. I love the film Man of Steel, which explores the origins of Superman; how Kal-El was influenced by two fathers, by his father from Krypton, Jor-El, as well as his adoptive father on earth, Jonathan Kent, a farmer from Kansas, and how the influence of these two men shape the destiny of Kal-El (of Superman).
Well, Genesis is a book that is full of origin stories. It gives us the origin of the world and the origin of humanity in Genesis 1-2, it gives us the origin of sin and the Fall and human suffering in Genesis 3. Then you have the origin of cultures and of nations in Genesis 4-11, and then the origin of the people of God with Abraham, the father of the faithful, Genesis 12 following. Then, really, the story of the origin of Israel, the nation of Israel. We have that especially in the origin story of Jacob, which is where we’re going to be studying today.
Jacob, of course, is later named Israel, and he is the father of the nation of Israel. So when we read this story this morning we’re not reading just a biography; we’re reading, rather, a template or a pattern that teaches us three truths about God’s saving purpose for his people. It’s an origin story for the people of God, for the nation of Israel, and indeed, it’s a story that tells us much about the origins of God’s grace and his saving purpose in our lives as well.
We’re going to begin by reading in Genesis 25. I just want to start by reading verses 19-21, and we’ll kind of work our way through the text as we work through the message. Genesis 25:19:
“These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham's son: Abraham fathered Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived.”
Now, as we go on reading in the passage we’ll discover that she conceived twins, and those twins were, of course, Jacob and Esau. But right here at the beginning there’s a lesson for us, there’s something important to note, because we see here the trial that Isaac and Rebekah encounter, the trial of barrenness, and how this pushed Isaac to prayer. We should note here that when you read the whole passage we discover that it took 20 years for this prayer to be answered. Isaac and Rebekah were married when Isaac was 40 years old, but the children were not born until he was 60 years old; we learn that from verse 26.
This teaches us several practical lessons. It shows us that God’s people are not exempt from trials; we see this again and again and again in biblical history. It shows us that the right response to our trials is prayer, persistent prayer even in the face of silence, or what may seem like the indifference of God. But most importantly, this teaches us the first truth about God’s saving purpose in this passage, and it’s this, that God’s saving purposes are accomplished by God’s power, not human effort.
Why did it have to be this way? Why was it that Isaac, the son of promise, finally has his wife, Rebekah; why is she barren? Why is this pattern repeated again? Why not just have children the way normal fertile couples will? It should have been so easy, and yet it seems so difficult. At every stage, at every critical juncture in the unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes in human history, why does it take divine intervention? Why must they seek God for 20 years in prayer?
The reason is because God is teaching his people a lesson that his purposes cannot be accomplished by human strength. His purposes cannot be realized by what men and women can do apart from the divine intervention of God. God’s saving purposes are accomplished by his power, not by human effort.
Brothers and sisters, this is true in our lives as well. It’s true in our spiritual lives, indeed, in our spiritual birth. Here’s a story of a physical birth that required divine intervention. God had to intervene to give barren Rebekah a child, but in all of our lives there’s a spiritual barrenness until God breaks through, until God comes in and by his power brings us to new birth.
Do you remember that story of Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3? Nicodemus comes with all these questions, he’s so curious about Jesus, this teacher; and Jesus says to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”Nicodemus responds, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” “Nicodemus, you have to start all over again; there has to be a new kind of birth in your life; this is birth that comes only by the power of God. It’s birth that comes through the Spirit.”
This, of course, is confirming what John says in the prologue of his Gospel, John 1:11-13. “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God; who were born,” listen to this, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
God’s saving purpose require God’s power giving us new birth, God’s power bringing us salvation, God’s power intervening and doing what we ourselves cannot do.
Do you remember the words of that great old hymn from Augustus Toplady?
“Not the labor of my hands
Could fulfill thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and thou alone.”
Salvation requires the power of God. That’s the first lesson we learn from this passage.
Then verse 22 continues. Rebekah has conceived, and it says, “The children struggled together within her, and she said, ‘If it is thus, why is this happening to me?’” That word “struggle” is a word that carries the idea of fighting or conflict. That word foreshadows the conflicts that will dominate Jacob’s life. As we read the next ten chapters or so over the coming weeks, we’re going to see that Jacob’s life is fraught with struggle again and again and again, and it begins before he is ever born.
Well, Rebekah is aware of this. This isn’t just the normal feelings of a baby kicking; she knows that there is turmoil within her womb. She can’t go to a doctor for a sonogram or an ultrasound, so what does she do? She goes to the Lord, she inquires of the Lord. Look at verse 22, the second half. “So she went to inquire of the Lord.” And then verse 23 says that “the Lord said to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the older shall serve the younger.’”
Rebekah goes to the Lord in prayer and the Lord gives her an oracle. He gives her a word. This word, this oracle explains the struggle within her. The Lord is telling her that there will be two sons, and these two sons will be the heads of two different nations, two different tribes. It’s showing us something very important here. It’s showing that, contrary to the cultural conventions of the ancient near east, the son that will be dominant in this relationship, and indeed dominant in the family, will not be the oldest son, not the firstborn son, but the younger. The Lord says, “The older shall serve the younger.”
This is so important, brothers and sisters, because it shows us the Bible subtly subverts the customs of human culture. It does this over and over again in Scripture. Two of the most common are, as in this passage, what we call the laws of primogeniture. These would have been the laws that guaranteed the rights of inheritance and of authority, of carrying on the family name and the family line. Those rights were given to the firstborn child, but God subverts that custom, he subverts that culture here when he says, “The older shall serve the younger.”
We also see this with polygamy, which was very common in the ancient world, where men would take multiple wives; but every time you see that happen in the book of Genesis we see that the narrative and indeed God’s work and God’s providence is subverting that culture as he works out his purposes in ways that are contrary to human wisdom. This leads us to the second truth about God’s saving plan. God’s saving purposes are explained by God’s word, not by human wisdom.
Rebekah’s looking for an explanation. She will not find the explanation in human wisdom, in the cultural conventions of her day, but only through a divine oracle, through the word of God.
This would have been so important to understand for the children of Israel. Again, this is not just the origin of Jacob, it’s the origin of an entire nation. But the children of Israel had to understand something. They had to understand that the reason God chose them was not because of their greatness, just as God didn’t choose Jacob because he was the oldest, but rather contrary to the convention; in the same way, God did not choose the nation of Israel because of their greatness. Why did he choose them?
Look at Deuteronomy 7:6-8. These are the words of God. He says, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession out of all the peoples here on the face of the nation. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples...” It’s completely contrary to human wisdom. Why then? Verse 8, “...but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers.”
Again, this is a biblical principle that just runs throughout Scripture. The principle is this, that divine wisdom subverts human wisdom, that God’s ways are not our ways; his ways are higher than our ways, his ways are mysterious to us. His ways are often a paradox to us. He chooses the least, not the greatest.
Do you remember the words of Jesus? He says this again and again in his teaching: "The first shall be last and the last shall be first." He teaches the religious people of his day, but what does he tell them? He says, “Tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God before you.” This is God’s way.
Perhaps this is nowhere more clear than in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, his first letter, 1 Corinthians 1:27-29. Paul says that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are…” Why? “...so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
There’s no place that we see this more supremely than in the cross, the cross of Jesus Christ. In the cross you have a symbol of weakness, of defeat, of suffering and shame. Paul says that the preaching of the cross is folly, it’s foolishness, to those who are perishing, but to those who are saved it is the power of God, it is the wisdom of God. Because it is through the cross, that place that seems to epitomize defeat and weakness and suffering—it’s through the cross, it’s through the worst possible circumstance, that God works out his greatest possible plan. God’s saving purposes are explained by God’s word, God’s wisdom, not by human wisdom.
Continue on in the passage in verse 24, and we see now the birth of the children and their names. Verse 24 says, “When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau.” The name Esau means “hairy.” “Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau's heel, so his name was called Jacob.” The word “Jacob” sounds similar to the Hebrew word for “heel,” and probably when the parents named him this it was kind of an affectionate thing, it was a cute thing. “Oh, look! Little Jacob is holding onto Esau’s heel!” But as Jacob grows older, what he will show through his character is that he is constantly manipulating others, tripping them up, and he does this with Esau again and again. So he lives up to his name in the worst possible sense of the word.
Verse 26, as I’ve already noted, tells us that “Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.”
Then the birth story itself is followed by two contrasts between Jacob and Esau. The first one is in verse 27. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.” These brothers could not have been more opposite. We see this happening again and again in our own families, how different the firstborn and the secondborn children often are.
Ross in his commentary says that “Esau is the sportsman, rough, wild, free, boisterous, and exciting; Jacob is the settled man, stable, quiet, thoughtful, and civilized.” That’s a pretty positive spin to put on it. You might almost say that Esau was a man’s man whereas Jacob was kind of a mama’s boy. He’s always staying at home.
In fact, in the next verse we see that there is favoritism from the parents towards each of the children. This is the second contrast between them. Verse 28, “Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” Now, as we will see next week, the parental favoritism shown by both Isaac and Rebekah are seeds that are sown now but are going to bear a very bitter harvest.
The rest of the chapter, then, verses 29-34, concern the story of how Jacob obtained the birthright of Esau. Before we dig into that, we just need to ask the question, what is a birthright? Why is this even important? What was the birthright?
The birthright was the right of the firstborn—I’ve already mentioned this—the right of the firstborn and the laws of primogeniture. Now, God in his oracle had already said that “the older will serve the younger,” but now we begin to see how this works itself out through the choices of both Jacob and Esau, neither of which are exemplary in the way they handle themselves.
The rights of the firstborn probably included several things: the most substantial part of the inheritance; we find this later in the law of God, in the Pentateuch, that the firstborn would receive double inheritance. It probably included the authority to rule the family after the father had died, and most importantly, it included the continuance of God’s covenant promises through the line of the firstborn child.
Well, God had already promised this to Jacob, but now we see how Jacob begins to seize it for himself. Look at verses 29-34.
“Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!’ (Therefore his name was called Edom.)” The word Edom means red, so there’s a word association here, and of course, the Edomites were the tribal family that came from Esau. That’s why the author here is making that connection.
Verse 31: “Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright now.’ Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me now.’ So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.”
Now, the first thing to notice here is what this shows us about Esau’s character. Again, we’re seeing a contrast of characters here. We see in Esau’s character that he lived in the moment. Even the action verbs that are used in verse 34 kind of show us the impulsiveness of Esau. He ate, he drank, he rose, and went his way. He was driven by his appetites and his emotions. He comes in and he says, “I’m exhausted! I’m famished! I have to have food! I have to have some of that stew!” In fact, in the Hebrew the word for “red stew” is repeated twice. It’s almost as if he’s coming in and he’s saying, “Red stew, red stew; I have to have some of that red stew.” He’s hungry; he’s driven by his appetites, by his emotions, by his passions.
And it shows us that Esau was shortsighted. He preferred immediate gratification of his appetites over his future as the firstborn son of Isaac. He perfectly epitomizes how Paul would describe the enemies of the cross of Christ, Philippians 3:19, when he said, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
There’s a warning here for us, a warning from Scripture, using the example of Esau, and it’s a warning for those who trade God’s promises for temporary, short-lived pleasure; who do not seize what is most important, who do not keep their eyes on eternal realities.
Hear this word from Hebrews 12:15-17 that makes the lesson explicit. The author says, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God, that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” Esau is thus seen as an ungodly man who rejects his inheritance because of his appetites.
In contrast to that, you have Jacob; but Jacob isn’t contrasted necessarily positively. What we see is that Jacob has tendencies that are almost opposite to those of Esau, but still negative in many ways. His character is really no better.
Whereas Esau is sensual, passionate, and reckless, Jacob is cold, calculating, and ruthless. Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s moral weakness. Jacob manipulates Esau in order to secure advantage for himself. As we will see, this will be characteristic of Jacob. It is a strong character defect that will only change in Jacob’s life through divine intervention.
The point is this: neither of these men are good men. Neither one of them are portrayed as good men or as worthy men, and that leads to the third and most important truth about God’s saving purpose that we learn from this passage, and it’s this, that God’s saving purposes are based on God’s grace, not on human merit.
Isn’t that precisely the truth that the apostle Paul draws from this passage in Romans 9? Listen to these words, Romans 9:10-12. “And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls, she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Of course, the hatred there is relative. Just as Jesus said that if someone would follow him they must hate their father and mother; he doesn’t mean detest, but he means in comparison. It’s a relative hatred.
The point here is that God chose Jacob not because of Jacob’s merit! God did not choose Jacob because Jacob was more worthy than Esau. God did not choose Jacob because Jacob was a better man. Jacob wasn’t a better man. When we read the story of Jacob we see that he’s a broken man, he’s a sinful man, he’s a fallen man, he’s a man whose life at every step is marked by scheming and by deception. He’s not a model of the kind of person we want to be, and yet God chose him.
It illustrates for us the priority of God’s grace in his divine purposes. It shows us what theologians have called the doctrine of election. One of the great defenders of that doctrine was C.H. Spurgeon. Spurgeon one time said, “I believe in the doctrine of election because I am quite certain that if God had not chosen me I should never have chosen him; and I am sure he chose me before I was born or else he never would have chosen me afterwards; and he must have elected me for reasons unknown to me, for I could never find in myself why he should have looked upon me with special love. So I am forced to accept that great biblical doctrine.”
However we try to solve the mysteries of election, divine sovereignty, and human responsibility, I think the least we can say is this, that if we look in our own hearts and lives we will see that there was no merit, there was nothing in us that merited the favor of God. God’s gift is given to us by grace.
Do you remember those words of Isaac Watts?
“Why was I made to hear your voice
And enter while there’s room
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?”
Here’s the answer.
“’Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew me in,
Else we had still refused to taste
And perished in our sin.”
Why do you believe this morning? Why are you included in God’s family this morning? What’s happened? What’s happened is that God has done something in you. He has drawn you to himself. It’s not because of anything you’ve done, it’s because of God’s grace.
In conclusion, we’ve learned three things this morning. We’ve learned, first of all, that God’s saving purposes are accomplished by God’s power, not by human effort. Let me ask you, have you realized that you can’t save yourself? You can’t cause yourself to be better. You can’t do it! You can’t regenerate your own heart. You can’t work your way into salvation or work your way into the kingdom; you need divine intervention, you need the power of God to change you.
We’ve learned, secondly, that God’s saving purposes are explained by God’s word, not by human wisdom. Have you embraced the paradox of the kingdom of God, that the first are last and that the last are first, that you have to lose your life in order to save it, that it’s only through being broken and humbled, becoming like a little child, that you can enter the kingdom of God, that you must be born again? Have you accepted the wisdom of God displayed in the cross of Jesus Christ, that it is through the foolishness of the cross that God saves those who believe? Have you embraced that pattern? Have you embraced that plan?
Then we’ve learned, number three, that God’s saving purposes are based on God’s grace, not on human merit. Have you recognized that you cannot save yourself and that your salvation, even your desire for salvation, is all of grace? It’s all of grace!
You see, the origin story of Jacob is a story that tells us more about God than it does even about Jacob. What it shows us about Jacob is that Jacob was a schemer, he was a fighter, he was a sinful man; but what it shows us about God is that God is a God of grace, he’s a God of mercy. He’s a God who delights to show his power and to display his wisdom and to show his grace to those who do not deserve it. That should give us great hope this morning, because it means that God can save broken people like you and me. Let’s pray together.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for your saving grace. We thank you that you’ve displayed this grace in redemptive history, and not least of all through this story, this story of Jacob, the father of the nation of Israel. Lord, we thank you especially that you have shown your grace and your power and your wisdom through Jesus, through the gift of your Son, through the scandal of the cross, and through the power of his resurrection. Our prayer this morning is that we would receive that wisdom, that we would experience that power, that we would benefit from that grace, that we ourselves would be drawn into this family.
As we come to the Lord’s table this morning, may our hearts be set on Christ, who suffered so that we could be brought in; on Christ, who gave his body and his blood so that we could receive your grace. We ask you to draw near to us, and we pray that you would do this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.