I found a wonderful article on the Jewish Theological Seminary from 2013 about the Biblical theme of the younger brother ruling over the older. The author points out that this theme is one of perceived weakness being made strong through the favor of God. A more recent article on the subject substantively agrees but goes on to add the motif caries into the New Testament. Christ can be seen as the younger brother of Adam, and Gentiles as the younger brother of the Israelites.
So here’s my question. I’m all questions. I have way more questions than answers, and I’m fairly certain most of them won’t be answered in this life. Did God actually cause any of these…usurpations of birthright? Or did he simply act within an existing pattern?
This is, of course, prompted by the story of Jacob and Esau in today’s reading. Esau despised his birthright and married a Hittite woman, making his parent’s life bitter (Gen 25:43 and 26:34-35). In fact, he didn’t just take one Canaanite wife, he took multiple, and when he realized his father would have preferred he marry within his own people, he married an Ishmaelite, because that was as close as he could get? The point is, he was a mess.
And while I can agree that Abel, Joseph, and David earned the favor they received, I don’t see how the same can be said of Jacob. He was a liar and a cheat, willing to take advantage of his brother’s dramatic nature to trade a birthright for a bowl of soup. Maybe you can argue he grew out of it, that he lived faithfully, but…he wasn’t that great of a dad, playing favorites to a truly detrimental degree. As for Isaac, I don’t really see anything at all to indicate that he was a better man than Ishmael.
So did God set up these men to fail?
How important was the prophecy given to Rebekah? She was told before her boys were even born that the younger would have the authority and blessing. She prompted the deception that robbed Esau of his blessing, even after he’d already willfully given up his own birthright. Would she have done that if she hadn’t been told way back when that it would be his? Would she have favored Jacob that much?
What about the dreams given to Joseph? Did he need to know that he was going to be lifted above his brothers when he was still young enough to rub it in their faces? Or was it the nudge they needed to act out on the bitterness that was already brewing within them?
For me, these instigating prophecies support my understanding of life as a mosaic in the Master’s hands. Sarah, and Abraham’s, weakness brought Ishmael into the picture. David’s faith as a young man elevated him above his brothers, and Saul, in front of the entire nation. But what about the others? Esau was a prideful and rash man. Rebekah and Isaac both had their favorites, which never serves the children well. But would Jacob have received the blessing if Rebekah hadn’t been given the idea before he was even born? Laban deceived Jacob; and pride and jealousy within the family created bitterness within the children when Jacob blatantly favored one of his wives and her children, but would they have sold Joseph if he had not bragged about his visions?
There were more than enough broken pieces on the table to lay out the theme of the elevated younger brother. Some of them just needed…a nudge. Maybe.
“But God doesn’t tempt anyone to sin,” you say, “he wouldn’t, couldn’t, nudge someone to do wrong!” And you’re right! That isn’t what I’m saying. I’m suggesting that Rebekah and Joseph’s brothers had already made their choices, (or would make their choices, time is a bit irrelevant to God). I’m suggesting that the prophecies directed the timing, or the manifestation.
I don’t know. It’s a thought. A question. One I’ll undoubtedly reexamine when the theme crops up again, and again, and again. What do you think?