Godsplaining is what Rebekah gets in answer to her prayer in the midst of a difficult pregnancy in this morning’s reading from Genesis …
So little did Esau think of his birthright, his advantages, his destiny that he would sell it for a pot of beans. It’s a story that cries out for one of those alternative history treatments: the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau would replace the familiar formula of blessing. Jacob had yet to be renamed: might Esau, instead of his twin, have been adopted as Israel, the father of God’s chosen people, if he had not been so hungry that day after hunting, for nothing?
We never know what might have been, if a different path had been taken. We cannot see into those putative parallel universes where all of the possibilities play out, according to the science fiction writers, and some of the scientists. We are left with the here and the now, our lives as we have lived them, and the choices that we make today, as best and as faithfully as we are able.
Rebekah wanted to become a mother. Her husband interceded for her, because it was difficult for her to conceive. When she did, and the twins inside her uterus fought and squirmed and pressed upon her bladder and her gullet, and wrenched her back, stretched out her breasts and made her life wretched for the better part of nine long months – as these little creatures will do – then she prayed to God, “If this is how it’s going to be, just kill me now!”
And God did answer Rebekah, although not, perhaps, as she might have expected. Instead of removing her discomfort, God explained it (thus inventing “Godsplaining”), telling her that her destiny was to be the mother of strife, of nations, of an important turning point in history.
God did not remove her discomfort, but offered an explanation. And it was just enough to keep her going, apparently, until her deliverance. I do notice, though, that unlike most of her biblical sisters, Rebekah did not go down that same path again. The twins were her and Isaac’s only children.
The oracle that Rebekah had received in place of any relief of her distressing pregnancy symptoms dictated her later course of action with regard to her sons: aiding and abetting the replacement of the elder by his barely-younger brother. In setting up the trickery that stole Isaac’s deathbed blessing for Jacob, she was simply fulfilling the destiny declared to her when the boys were still in her womb.
Isaac was oblivious to the whole thing: to his wife’s distress, no longer interceding on her behalf; to his son and heir’s sale of his birthright to his younger brother; to his wife’s scheming to get his blessing on the whole switched-at-birth motif. If Isaac had paid more attention, would he have had a say in the succession plan? Again, what might have been is not ours to know.
So what, apart from providing the script for a stunning telenovela, does this story offer us in the way of biblical wisdom and guidance?
I think that it is something about how we interact with God’s intentions for us, and how God interacts with our best and blighted intentions.
For Rebekah, the desire to bear a child is part of her call to be a part of this founding nation, ordained by God through the covenant with Abraham. She assented to this call – her relatives asked her explicitly whether she wanted to go and become Isaac’s wife, and she agreed that she did. Now, some way down the road, she is finding it heavy going, with the twins pressing on her bladder and her diaphragm and putting out her back and making her burp, as they do, and she is miserable. She turns back to God and asks if all the trouble is even worth it.
But this is the trouble that she chose, that she asked for. So God does not take it away. God does not undo Rebekah’s choice to become part of this foundational biblical story. Instead, God reminds her of what is at stake: not only a few months of pregnancy problems, but a family saga – an international saga of epic proportions.
Sometimes, when the going gets tough, we need to be reminded that we chose to become Christians, to follow the way of the cross. We are innocent of wanting to be crucified; but we have chosen to participate in an epic drama of the goodness of God – grace, mercy, and justice – set up against the evil that lurks in the corners of creation that have yet to embrace God’s love. Whether it is the call to ordination, or to lay preaching, or whether it is simply (simply) the call to love God and one’s neighbour as oneself: we are part of an epic story, and our labour is worth its salt.
And God does not remove the symptoms of the way of the cross, nor undo our choice to follow Christ; but God does remind us of the grace that we are pursuing, and why it is all worthwhile.
So it may mean the awkwardness of calling out an off-colour or racist comment at work, risking ridicule or family fallout by standing up for the dignity of every human being, as our baptismal covenant promises. It may require the inconvenience of going the extra mile for someone when we really can’t be bothered; or even the danger of telling truth to power, balancing the scales of justice when we see oppression in action. It may call out the risk of rejection involved in offering unsolicited love and mercy, expecting nothing, not even gratitude, in return. The symptoms of Christianity in our everyday lives may occasionally bring us beyond our comfort zones. But our labour is worth it, because the seeds that we plant bear fruit beyond our reckoning. And this is the labour that we asked for, when we entered the covenant of God that was cut by Jesus.
We do not know what would have happened had Esau not sold his birthright, or Rebekah and Jacob not tricked old Isaac, or if Isaac had paid more attention to his sons. It is not ours to know what shape our lives would have taken if we were not Christians, because this, the Christian story, the Gospel story, is the story within which we live, and move, and have our being. This is our story.
It is a story of struggle, of drama, of the unexpected. Always, it is the story of God’s grace and loving interest in our lives, guiding, explaining, encouraging us along the way to stay faithful, to stay the course; to follow the way of the cross, no matter which turning we choose. And no matter where we find ourselves along the way, we will find God there, reminding us that we have the privilege of participating in God’s epic script to love the whole world, and each of us, God’s beloved and troublesome children, within it.