I came to writer's group tonight after an attempted family game night that went south, a potentially fun, relaxing after-dinner hour that dissolved into angry words, knee-jerk reactions, and old bitternesses replayed. As I sat down with my coffee and opened the lid of my laptop, this poem about brothers Jacob and Esau--the last poem I had typed from my paper manuscript of The Pentateuch in Poem, because I have somehow lost all my digital copies and back-ups--looked me right in the eye. Sibling rivalry can be so deep rooted, so ugly. Why can't brothers and sisters let an immature comment pass them on by, and decide to just have fun? Here is the poem:
A pregnancy is like
A foreign invasion
even at best:
The earth of your body
ripped and pummeled,
the boundary stakes pulled up and stretched
far past all normal capacity.
So what was it like
two warring nationsin her womb?
The story in the Bible skips straight from Rebecca's tormented childbed to the twin boys all grown up, and we learn that Esau became "a skillful hunter" who loved the outdoors, while his brother Jacob "had a quiet temperament, preferring to stay at home." (see Genesis chapter 25, NLT). And that Isaac, the father of the family, loved Esau, but Rebecca loved Jacob.
What a load of family history and strong emotion is carried by these few short sentences. It is not hard to imagine into the story. Did Esau, physically stronger than his brother and rash of temperament, bully and physically torment his brother as they grew up? Did Isaac look the other way? How many years of stifled resentment are stacked up behind Jacob's cool, calculated act of revenge? And what kind of a man would trade his rights as a firstborn son--of incredible significance in their culture--for a single bowl of stew?
The stories in the Old Testament are characteristically told in a brief, factual style, but there is so much going on between the lines. So much of humanness. So much, if we are humble enough to admit it, of ourselves. In three thousand-odd years, people really haven't changed much. As we read these stories, just maybe we can learn sometimes. I told my children before I left that things did not have to play out the way they did this evening. It could have been different. Someone could have shown grace, could have said something kind. If Jacob and Esau had done this, or going back a generation and two, Isaac and Ishmael, or Sarah and Hagar, what a different story the history we know today might have been.