Commented Bible Passages

These Bible meditations are meant as a way of seeking God in silence and prayer in the midst of our daily life. During the course of a day, take a moment to read the Bible passage with the short commentary and to reflect on the questions which follow. Afterwards, a small group of 3 to 10 people can meet to share what they have discovered and perhaps for a time of prayer.


Genesis 25:20-34: Rivalry Between Brothers
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 childless. 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 greater will serve the lesser.”
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 content to stay at home 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 why he was also 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 25:20-34)

The God of the Bible is a God who wants to lead human beings towards a fuller life without taking away their freedom. But since that life is of necessity a life with others, it is not obvious how to use one’s freedom correctly. In the Book of Genesis, this theme of life together is illustrated, in a kind of microcosm, by stories of brothers or sisters. The narratives of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, and finally Joseph and his brothers help us reflect on the possibility of a common life between beings who are similar and yet different, where it is not always easy to get along together and where jealousy is always a menace.

The story of Jacob and his brother Esau is particularly eloquent in this regard. When, after a time of barrenness, God hears Isaac’s prayer for his wife and allows Rebekah to give birth, the new life springing up in her is not without problems. Instead of a peacefully flowing river it is more like a whirlpool, leading Rebeka to the point of despair. When she brings her distress to the Lord in prayer, the only answer she receives is an enigmatic promise (v. 23): she will have two sons who will become two nations and, in the end, the greater will serve the lesser.

Here we have in a nutshell the entire history of humanity, seen from the angle of rivalry. This begins already at the moment of birth, for the younger son emerges while tightly grasping his older brother’s heel, as if he were trying to get ahead of him. This is also, incidentally, a play on words on the name Jacob, which contains the word “heel.” The rest of the story emphasizes the difference between the two brothers—one is a man of action, dynamic, always outdoors, his father’s favorite; the other is a thinker, more introverted, staying at home, the darling of his mother.

The divine promise, however, contains an unexpected reversal: the greater will serve the lesser. This is a leitmotiv found throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures: God’s entry into the world causes an overturning of human values. Abel (Genesis 4), Isaac (Genesis 21), Joseph (Genesis 37ff) and David (1 Samuel 16) are preferred by God against the rules of society. This theme is brought to a climax in Jesus, in whom, according to the song of his mother, “[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). It continues in the existence of the Christian Church, where “God has chosen what is weak to shame what is strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). The law of “might makes right” is thus not inexorable, and so a space for reconciliation and solidarity can open up.

This story, though, does not depict this truth of the faith in an unequivocal manner. Although Esau is stronger physically, Jacob is cleverer, more focused on his final victory. The biblical author is obviously less sympathetic to the older brother, who thinks only of his immediate needs and is unconcerned with more important questions. Nonetheless, Jacob’s success is only fleeting. Esau will get his revenge, and Jacob will need the journey of an entire lifetime before everything superfluous is stripped away, making possible a reconciliation and the fulfillment of the divine promise.

- Which of the two brothers do I find more appealing? Why?

- Are jealousy and rivalry inevitable? What ways does Scripture suggest to escape them?

- Do I know any examples where God raises up the humble, where human power and intelligence do not have the last word?

- Can we get along with people very different from us? What makes this possible?

Other bible meditations:

Last updated: 1 December 2023