Jul 07 2011

Granting Prayer

“The LORD granted Isaac’s prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived.
The children struggled together within her and she said,
“If it is to be this way, why do I live?”

– Genesis 25:21a-22

Philip Ratner’s sculpture, “Birth of Jacob and Esau”, offers a powerful image of what we might call “original rivalry”. As the firstborn son, Esau, and his twin, Jacob, emerge from their mother’s womb, Jacob’s hand has a firm grip on Esau’s heel. It is as though Jacob is trying to pull Esau back, even attempting to climb over him. That effort will not end here.

The two children are answers to the prayer of their father, Isaac. Once again God’s new life is being received into what had been the barren wilderness of human experience. But the unfolding story reminds us of the saying, “Be careful what you pray for!” Jacob and Esau’s striving with each other has begun even in the nurture of Rebekah’s womb. We hear her cry out like Mother Earth breaking inside from all of the grappling and competing she endures. She wonders aloud about the purpose of living in the midst of this fraternal violence.

The brothers are children of promise. But whose promise will they fulfill? They are indeed God’s gift, and have been created in the image of God, for God’s purposes. But at the same time, it is the grasping of Adam and Eve, and even more so their offspring, Cain and Abel, that is imaged in this scene. And who can forget that the history of the boys’ legendary grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, was not without a considerable share of conniving?

Birth of Jacob and Esau

Birth of Jacob and Esau

The narratives of Genesis are exquisite. They are deeply human and defy simplistic moralism. Ambiguity is revealed as a grace. The characters are gifted, blessed, and flawed; in each case, deeply. The stories offer us countless points of connection, with opportunities to meet and enter them with our own experiences and lifepaths. The people (and their autobiographies) are deeply joined, in spite of any wishes to the contrary. For instance, Abraham and Sarah’s story of blessing and promise is inseparable from that of Hagar and Ishmael. Isaac’s delightful name, “Laughter,” is not to be understood apart from Sarah’s incredulous guffaws at the angel’s message. The conflicted history of Esau and Jacob will be shaped, at least in part, by the politics of their parents’ relationship. Such is life.

But God’s creativity does not end at birth! Instead, the God revealed in these stories exercises an original freedom, applying ever-creative power in ways that fulfill God’s life-giving intent. Yahweh is not bound by human notions of justice nor the limitations of how we are willing, or unwilling, to bless one another. God presence and action, especially vis-à-vis the rascal Jacob, may astound us. And enlighten us. There is kinship here with Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, who spreads seeds of the kingdom abundantly and everywhere.

The Rebekah of Ratner’s work appears to be holding Esau and his clinging brother heavenward. This could be seen as an expression of gratitude and blessing for the firstborn son, even while Jacob seeks to climb to a new position (as he will through much of his life). Interestingly, their mother will later choose Jacob to be the one to subvert the traditional practice of inheritance. In any event, the story has already indicated that these children of promise cannot escape the power of original sin in their human family and community. It is what they will learn and imitate; it will frame the limited ways that they understand each other, themselves, and their God. But the God of original freedom and blessing is not bound in this manner; there is no rivalry in God! Thus, God is able to intervene and include, to reframe and redefine. God enlarges our prayers. And makes us the answer to the prayers of others. To all of us born into this world of broken maternal hearts, grappling, competing, and violence, this is good news indeed.

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