Scandalous Grace – Part 1
by Greg Albrecht
This is the account of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.
Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD.
The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.
The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is also why he was called Edom.)
Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.
Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.
So Esau despised his birthright.—Genesis 25:19-34
We humans are mesmerized by scandals, aren’t we? Take a look at those “newspapers” sold at your grocery store check-out stand. Of course they aren’t newspapers in the classical sense at all, are they? They are scandal sheets, gossip gazettes, purveyors of innuendo and slander. Scandal sells!
Do you remember the term that is used to describe two successive words with contradictory, opposite meanings? That’s right. The term is oxymoron. It refers to a combination of words with contradictory meanings. Examples of oxymorons include genuine imitation, cruel kindness, found missing and exact estimate. From God’s perspective, the title of this article is an oxymoron—Scandalous Grace.
There’s nothing scandalous about God’s grace. There is nothing more pure, true, genuine, authentic, trustworthy or legitimate in all God’s creation than his grace. Grace defines the very nature and economy of God, grace is the way he is. It’s a word that encompasses his generosity, perfection, goodness, charity and unselfishness.
Yet, from our human perspective, God’s amazing grace is scandalous. God’s grace upsets the human status quo. God’s grace claims that we humans receive spiritual gifts and benefits from God that we do not deserve, and at the same time, his grace is merciful, ensuring that there are times when we fail to receive consequences that we do deserve.
God’s grace operates outside of the principles by which humans live and do business. Our human economy (individually and corporately) operates on the principle that we get what we deserve, we get what we work for, and that God helps those who help themselves. God’s grace makes us uncomfortable because it insists that we can’t control or manipulate God—he cannot be in debt to us nor can he be obligated to us. Humans get nervous in the presence of God’s grace. God’s grace is a scandalous idea to us.
The story about Esau and Jacob is a story of human conflict, of twin brothers who struggled and competed against each other, even in their mother’s womb. This story is all about God’s grace working in improbable, unexpected ways. It’s a story about God working with real, imperfect, flawed human beings, people like you and me.
The story begins with Isaac and his wife Rebekah. Isaac is the heir to God’s promise—God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac’s father. The promise was that a great nation would come from Abraham, and of course from Isaac. But Issac’s wife had the same problem Abraham’s wife had had—she was barren. How could God make good on his promise? The physical reality seemed to indicate that God was not true to his word. Isaac prayed, and God answered his promise. Rebekah conceived, and was pregnant with twins.
At this point the plot intensifies. The unborn babies were struggling in Rebekah’s womb. God explained that the twins would be the fathers of two great nations. God also said that the tensions and pains Rebekah was feeling in her womb would continue, and the very opposite of human expectations would happen in the boy’s lives.
In that society and culture, the oldest son was always considered the heir of the father’s name and authority. The oldest son received a larger inheritance than any other heir. Yet God, in this case, decreed that the opposite would happen. The older would serve the younger. Was that fair? It seemed like a scandal. That’s what God grace does. Grace upsets the apple cart of human expectations and perceptions of fairness and equality.
Esau was born first, and at his birth he was covered with red hair. Jacob was born immediately after Esau, and as he was born his hand was clutching at Esau’s heel, a sign of things to come.
The name Jacob means “he grasps the heel” and its figurative meaning is “he deceives.” Later on in our story, we read of Jacob deceiving his father in order to obtain the birthright promise which belonged to the older son, Esau. As the boys grew, their parents ensured that conflict continued. Isaac favored Esau while Rebekah favored Jacob.
Let’s suppose God wanted to teach us something about his grace by giving us a personal experience with Esau and Jacob. For this story to work, we have to presume that we have no idea who in the world Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob were. Let’s pretend we have never read that part of the Bible.
What if God transported you and me back in time, so that we arrived at the home of Isaac and Rebekah when Esau and Jacob were young men? Remember—we arrive, having no idea of the story in progress. God simply tells us something like this—”I made a promise to these two boys’ grandfather. Which one do you think I should use to carry this promise to the next generation? Which one deserves it? Which one seems to have the character I’m looking for?”
My guess is that we would have a tough time choosing either one of these young men. We would observe both of these young men, trying to choose one of them.
We would note that Esau was a hunter. If Esau lived in our North American culture today he would probably wear a baseball cap, some army surplus clothing and would smoke, drink and drive a pick-up truck with a rifle rack. Esau made his way in the world working, sweating and hunting.
We would also observe that Jacob was more the indoors type. If Jacob lived in our world he might be in front of a computer, trying to make a quick buck by using his head, rather than out hunting deer. Jacob was shrewd. He was one of those stereotypical fast-talking salesmen. He was making his way in the world as well, not on the basis of his brawn, but on the basis of deception and craftiness.
Jacob decided on a plan whereby he might trick his father Isaac into giving him the birthright. Jacob was an opportunist, so he decided to present his brother Esau with the temptation of food at a time when Esau was famished.
Neither one of these guys is a classic Sunday-school-going role model of the perfect son. Neither one would have what most humans would consider to be the necessary character to deserve a blessing. The fact that God would choose either of them, and give them a richly undeserved blessing is scandalous to us. How in the world could God do such a thing? How indeed—by his grace!
As we see the story unfold, we certainly don’t admire Esau, for he, as the Bible says, despised his birthright. He didn’t value it. He sold it for a bowl of hot soup. He was immature, the way so many humans are—unwilling to postpone the immediate gratification of the senses so that a greater blessing might be realized in the future. Esau wanted what he wanted right now, not later, but right now. Esau chose the immediate over the future.
Then there’s Jacob, who was no saint either. Jacob was a ruthless, opportunistic schemer. Jacob couldn’t be trusted. Jacob was quick to take advantage of the weaknesses he perceived in others, even in his own brother Esau. But this is the major lesson of this account. Since God was able to transform and use Jacob, he can do the same for others, more specifically you and me. With God nothing is impossible. God’s grace is sufficient for us all.