Birthright

“I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” — Genesis 25:29-34

If you have a small child in your family, you can try this experiment at home: Ask her which she would rather have, a cookie or an ice cream sundae? Then ask her whether she would rather have a cookie right now, or an ice cream sundae next week. (And be prepared to deliver.)

When I was a small child, I learned the story of Esau and Jacob, and I thought of it as a sort of human version of the grasshopper and the ant, a fable about the wisdom of delayed gratification. Esau comes home to find his brother Jacob cooking stew, and demands, “Give me some stew, now!” Jacob agrees, but at a price: he will give his brother some stew, but only in exchange for his birthright. Esau, you see, is the elder son, and someday he will become his father’s sole heir. But that is someday, and Esau is hungry now. He chooses the cookie, and misses out on the sundae.

When I was a teenager, I became less interested in the moral of the story and more interested in the differences between the two brothers. Jacob – the quiet one, his mother’s favorite – is home cooking, while Esau – the hairy one, his father’s favorite – is outdoors, presumably doing something more conventionally masculine. The story became for me a liberationist tale about defying gender roles and overturning patriarchy. Jacob was not the prudent ant shaking his head at the grasshopper. He was Br’er Rabbit, outwitting Br’er Fox again.

But now, in middle age, I find my attention riveted by the story’s final sentence: Thus Esau despised his birthright. I am tripped up by that word, despise; it is not a word to be uttered lightly. The story has taken a new and sobering turn for me. It is no longer a comedy about Jacob, but a tragedy about Esau.

Esau was the heir to a great promise. The son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham, he was next in line to be the patriarch of God’s chosen clan. God had something extraordinary in store for him, and he tossed it aside. It’s got me thinking, about all the ways that we despise our own birthrights. The ways that we underestimate the promise of our lives, trading away our potential in exchange for convenience, or comfort, or security.

What is your birthright? What is the talent you were born to cultivate, the garden you were born to tend, the problem you were born to solve, the injustice you were born to fight? What would you trade it for?

Keep me hungry, God. Don’t let me settle for anything less than being the person you created me to be.

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