I grew up in a fairly (one might even say very) religious household. There were two big disadvantages of that upbringing: one was a fear of the angel of death in the movie the Ten Commandments and the other was that I could never watch as many cartoons on Sundays as I would have liked. There were never very good cartoons on a Sunday morning anyway, usually just old “Hercules” cartoons from the ‘60s, but then I wasn’t too particular. When I was really lucky, “Speed Racer” was on. But it was never really possible to enjoy it, since our house—probably a lot like yours—was a flurry of activity on Sunday mornings, with everyone trying to get cleaned up, dressed, maybe a bowl of cereal or peanut butter toast, and then piled into the car.
But our crazy religious upbringing was more than just church. My brother Andy and I had religious toys and books, too. We had a great Noah’s ark with lots of animals and Noah & Mrs. Noah (my favorite toys before there were Star Wars figures), who engaged in all sorts of adventures, often involving the bathtub, unexpected whirlpools, and calamitous encounters with Mr. Bubble. We also had a great set of children’s books called The Purple Puzzle Tree. The books were kind of tall and skinny, and came with a record narration. The reason for the name, Purple Puzzle Tree, is because the books say that after humanity’s fall into sin, the world was like a jumbled up purple puzzle that has to be sorted out and put back together. They covered many of the major stories from both the Old Testament and the Gospels; although, I only had the earlier Old Testament ones—up through Moses, I think.
Of them, the one story that stands out very clearly for me is Jacob and Esau, about whom we heard in our first reading. I haven’t seen the actual book in a long time (probably 30 years), but I can still picture some of its fantastic artwork. This week, as I was remembering it, I went on line to see what I could find and, what do you know, the stories are reprinted (and modernized a bit). You can even buy them on DVD. The one about Jacob and Esau was called “How Tricky Jacob was Tricked.” Here’s how it begins:
Now an old man called Isaac and his clever wife Rebekkah were very special people in God’s purple puzzle tree. And one day they had twins. The first twin was hairy, just as hairy as can be. He almost looked like a monkey or a chattering chimpanzee. So they called him Hairy Esau. The second twin was a clever kid and people said, 'He's a trick.' But the tricks he started playing were a dirty cheating game. That's why they called him Jacob, a name that means 'He cheats,' or maybe 'He's a stinker,' because he lies and steals.
And of course it goes on from there. This morning’s reading from Genesis tells the first half of Jacob and Esau’s infamous sibling rivalry, how Jacob forced Esau to give away his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. But it doesn’t tell the second half—the more dramatic story, of how tricky Jacob covered himself in fur and tricked their blind father Isaac into giving him the blessing that was meant for Esau. Do you remember that story? Here’s how the Purple Puzzle Tree tells it, in a more creative way than I can:
Now Isaac was a very old man and his eyes were very blind. So Jacob and his mother planned to trick the poor old man and try to get the blessing, a very special gift from God meant for Hairy Esau. Listen to Rebecca as she whispers in Jacob’s ear: ‘Jacob, make your hands all hairy, and put on Esau’s clothes. If you can trick the old man’s eyes, I sure can trick his nose.’
Then Rebecca cooked a juicy goat just the way that Isaac loved it, wild and hot and spicy. Next she took the best clothes that Esau kept at home and dressed up Tricky Jacob as if he were his brother. When everything was ready Jacob went to see his father who was very, very blind.
Then Jacob knelt at his father’s feet and let him feel the hairy skin wrapped around his hands and neck. ‘You know,’ said Isaac, ‘Your voice today sounds like the voice of Jacob. But your hands feel just like Esau’s hands, so I’ll bless you anyway.’ ‘My blessing,’ said Isaac, ‘is a promise from God to me that you will be the next important piece in God’s purple puzzle tree. You are now the chosen man in the puzzle of God above. For you will one day rule a nation and show them God is love.’
There’s more, describing how Jacob himself is tricked, but that concerns readings that we’ll hear over the next few weeks. I loved these books for their ability to share important biblical stories and make the characters come alive in ways that a four or five year old me could understand. I suppose it’s a funny thing to imagine kids reading Bible storybooks for fun, but my brother and I did, when we weren’t too busy watching “Hercules” and “Speed Racer.”
What I didn’t realize then, of course, are the various themes or threads that run through the Bible. How the stories are really very similar, even if the characters and details differ. And one of the ways they are similar, especially in these dramatic Old Testament stories, is how the one who is chosen, the star, if you will, like Tricky Jacob, is not who you would expect. In particular, you would expect, because it’s the normal way of things—thousands of years ago and probably still today to a degree—that the oldest son would be the hero or star. Certainly it was the case in ancient society that the eldest son would inherit the best and be shown his father’s favor.
But have you ever noticed that time and again in the Bible it doesn’t work that way--even going all the way back to the first brothers, Cain and Abel. Cain was the older of two, but God favored Abel. So much so that Cain grew jealous and killed Abel. Later, Abraham had two sons—Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael, the older son, is sent off to die in the wilderness, while Isaac is cherished. Isaac, too, has two sons—Esau and Jacob. Isaac favors his oldest, Esau, but Jacob tricks his brother and his father so that the birthright and blessing are his. Jacob has several sons, but his favorite is the younger—Joseph—whom he honors with the famous coat of many colors. His brothers are so jealous that they sell him into slavery. Later, Moses, a descendant of their family, is the younger son—behind Aaron and their sister Miriam. King David is the youngest son of Jesse, and Solomon is a younger son of David.
If it didn’t sound so irrational, I would say that many of the Bible’s stories were written by malcontent younger children, getting back at their older siblings for having to endure years of hand me downs, and being jealous of having to stay at home when big brothers and sisters got to go out with friends. I, of course, am biased, as an oldest child. But the evidence seems clear: while younger children in the Bible trick their fathers and get birthrights that belong to their older siblings, first children are often portrayed as jealous murders or hapless idiots who sell their birthrights for lentil soup. They sell their younger, more popular brother into slavery and are subject to the angel of death.
So, what’s up with that? Coincidence, or something more? If there really is a theme running through these stories, what is it? What does it mean?
Well, I think it means that the people God chooses to help put the jumbled up puzzle of our world back together again are not who you would expect. God doesn’t make the obvious choices. God doesn’t pick the ones with the best resumes or all the obvious advantages. He doesn’t pick the ones with special training who are being groomed for greatness. Rather, he picks messed up, ordinary, average people. People a lot like us.
Throughout the Bible we read of some really bizarre, messed up characters, who help to bring God’s kingdom to life. Some, like Jacob, are tricky tricksters. Others are less than faithful to their wives (sometimes they are even unfaithful to their many wives). They are often jealous. They betray their loved ones and make disastrously bad choices. But that’s all okay. Because God sees in them something positive that those in the world around them don’t see. God believes that through these very flawed, very human people, new life will come and grow. As it happens, Jesus thought the same thing about his rag tag group of disciples—both those disciples 2,000 years ago, and his disciples here and now today.
These crazy, unexpected stories running through the Bible remind us that even though God chooses us, and has hopes for us, he doesn’t expect us to be perfect. God knows that we are going to make bad choices and find ourselves feeling jealous sometimes. We won’t always be as fair as we should. It’s probably not the way it should be, it’s not how it would be in a perfect world, but then the world is not perfect. It’s jumbled up, like the purple puzzle tree. However, so long as we know that we can trust God and put our faith in him, he will put his faith and trust in us, to help him put that jumbled up puzzle back together.
Here’s how the story of tricky Jacob ends in my old children’s book:
But God loved lousy Jacob, despite his rotten tricks and gave him twelve strong sons. And God gave Jacob that blessing to be his chosen man in the very special plan called the purple puzzle tree.
May we, likewise, be leaves, or branches on that tree that gives life to the world.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell