Running for His Life
September 15, 2019
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley
Every wanderer, every immigrant is a unique person with his or her own story. That is probably obvious, but with so many people being forcibly relocated in the world now, we often hear about migrants in groups.
Millions have fled the war in Syria. Thousands have traveled from Central America to arrive at our southern border. The images in the media are of too many people in too small boats coming ashore in Greece or of an ever-growing walking caravan making its way north to Tijuana or El Paso or Nogales. The images in our minds tend to be of migrants as a large group, not individuals. When we learn the story of an individual migrant, it is usually because something tragic has happened to them. The large groups of people are on the move for the same reasons – war in Syria, violence and grinding poverty in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but before they were migrants, they were farmers or fishers, seamstresses, musicians, grandparents, teachers, or children. Every migrant has a story that is larger than their status as a displaced person.
I realized that particularly this week as I read the familiar story of Jacob. Pretend for a minute that all we know about Jacob is the part that Barb just read for us. If we met Jacob for the first time at this point, we would know him as a wanderer, as someone running for his life, someone beyond the protection of his family and country, someone who would likely be killed if he was forced to go back right then. Someone has said that at that point, Jacob’s existence was in a “world of fear, terror, loneliness, and, we might imagine, unresolved guilt.” That sounds a lot like the experience of migrants and refugees all over the world right now – fear, terror, loneliness, and quite likely, unresolved guilt over decisions made when there were no good choices and actions taken out of desperation. So, if all we knew of Jacob was this part of the story, he might seem to have a lot in common with wanderers from other times, including our own.
But we know much more about Jacob. And that is a reminder that there is more to know about every single person who also happens to be an immigrant, on the move at this moment in time.
Jacob’s story begins in the womb. He and his twin Esau were so active inside their mother, Rebekah, that Rebekah asked God about it. God told her that she was carrying two nations and that one would be stronger than the other and that the elder would serve the younger. Jacob is the younger twin. This word, given to Rebekah before he was born, does appear to come true.
Now some of us are not very comfortable with a God who plays favorites. We don’t like the idea that God would choose one brother over the other. If this one is hard for us, we have to remember the world into which Jacob and Esau was born was governed by a system of favoritism. The system is called primogeniture and it means that the firstborn son inherits everything. No one questioned this; it was just the way things were. But this word from God inverts the assumed natural order of things. Hebrew scholar Walter Brueggemann says that “It affirms that we are not fated to the way the world is presently organized.” This oracle “expresses a scandalous decision on the part of God . . . Esau is not judged or condemned, but the accident of his birth is not a title to privilege.” 
“We are not fated to the way the world is presently organized.” This is true then and now. True when chattel slavery was or is part of the world’s organization scheme. Or when children were or are laborers, or when women were or are assumed to be subordinate to men, or when heteronormativity is or was the law of the land. “We are not fated to the way the world is presently organized” is true for people born on a certain side of geographical boundaries, into a system that assumes they will be part of the collateral damage of war, or that they will join the gangs that serve the empires of powerful drug cartels. Mass migration is one way that powerless people can reject the way the world is presently organized. And like Esau, those of us who happen to born within different geographical boundaries are not more entitled to safety and peace than those who currently wander.
Jacob and Esau grow up at odds with each other. Esau loves the woods and hunting. Jacob is a homebody. Esau shares his love of the outdoors with his father, while Jacob is his mother’s favorite. The dividing lines are drawn from early on. Some siblings squabble all through childhood, but as they grow up, they become friends. Not these two. They are adults, in their 40’s, when Jacob does the worst thing ever. He steals something precious that rightfully belongs to Esau. He tricks his father into giving him the blessing meant for the oldest son.
Esau’s anger at Jacob’s deception drives the brothers apart for the next 20 years. Jacob runs for his life, like so many leave home today under threat of genocide or starvation or to escape unending war. Using the pretext of needing to marry someone from his own ethnic group, Jacob runs to his mother’s brother, his Uncle Laban. Earlier, Laban and Rebekah had been identified as Arameans. It is here that Jacob becomes known as the “Wandering Aramean”.
The journey to Haran is 400 miles, which he makes all alone, on foot. He spends more than one night in the pitch dark, without a tent, without a blanket, among the stones.
It is then, when Jacob has settled into an anxious sleep that God comes to him in a dream. God makes the same promises that God had made to his father and his grandfather, promises of land and descendants and blessing. God also makes a promise that is unique to Jacob, that God will bring Jacob back home. In that time, gods were associated with a specific place or land. Jacob has gone beyond the boundary of where he believes God lives, but this God will not be limited to one time or place. This God will be with Jacob wherever he goes.
Mevan Babakar and her parents fled Iraq in the early 1990’s after Saddam Hussein’s brutal crackdown on the Kurdish population, including a gas attack on a village near their home. For five years, they moved through Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia, and eventually to the Netherlands for a year before moving on to London. Her short life had been a series of moves to new places where she was always the foreigner. At five years old, she lived in a refugee camp in the Netherlands. That year, a Dutch man who worked in the camp bought her a bicycle. Mevan is now 29. Looking back on that incident she said, “I remember feeling so special. I remember thinking that this is such a big thing to receive, am I even worthy of this big thing? This feeling kind of became the basis of my self-worth growing up.”
Mevan was one of many people in that refugee camp, but she was treated as an individual. Receiving that bike made her feel like a real person, someone who was worthy of having a bicycle, someone not fated to live in the world as it was organized at her birth.
Mevan’s experience of getting a bike and Jacob’s encounter with God are not parallel experiences, except that perhaps each one created a fundamental shift in their self-perception. Perhaps Jacob thought he was unworthy because of his second-born status. Maybe he thought he would only ever get the good stuff through deception. But now he knows that he is worthy enough that God will come to him in the middle of nowhere and promise him what he most fervently wants, a chance to go home again.
It does happen. He does go home again, but not for another 20 years. The physical separation with his brother becomes permanent, although there is reconciliation. God changes Jacob’s name to Israel and he becomes identified with that nation. Esau, is also known as Edom which is a reference to his red hair and his descendants are known as Edomites. The Edomites and the Israelites will continue to be neighbors in the land for generations. Sometimes their relationship works for their mutual benefit and sometimes they act as enemies. By the time of the exile, the time when the book of Genesis was written down, Edom is considered the epitome of evil and betrayal.
I point this out because the past is always working in the present. Jacob is the ancestor of Israel, the spiritual forebearer of Jews and Christians. Esau is the spiritual ancestor of Muslims. The separation between Jacob and Esau has personal and political and religious consequences which continue to this day. One of the fears we hear now is that Muslim migrants are coming to take over, to change our way of life. It is one more of the anxieties about difference being used to stoke fear and division.
Here’s the surprising, hopeful thing that this ancient book of Genesis can offer. By the time the book is written, the people of Israel associate Esau with evil. They have more history, more events upon which to base their evaluation of Esau’s descendants than just the story of two fighting brothers. But if we were to read all the chapters about Esau in Genesis, we would see that he is presented sympathetically. At the time of Jacob’s deception, Esau is the one wronged, Jacob the one doing the harm. When they are reconciled, Esau conducts himself nobly, not requiring anything from Jacob in return for what he stole. And perhaps most surprising is that chapter 36 is an entire chapter devoted to preserving the names of Esau’s descendants. Those in exile might easily have discarded Esau’s genealogy. Those people are the enemy – why should we care about their ancestors? But perhaps they are retained as a reminder that those people used to be family.
Walter Brueggemann says this so well:
“The Bible chooses to follow the Jacob line. But that makes the Esau story no less legitimate. We are required . . . to recognize the large vision of Genesis. This book of gracious beginnings belongs to Muslims (children of Esau) as well as to Jews and Christians (children of Jacob.) . . . [Genesis] does not pretend that the one line of Abraham’s family is all there is. The memory has not been purged or revised to exclude the others. This awareness has important implications for the faith community in the context of the human community. While God has a particular and precious relation to this chosen community, it is not the Lord’s only commitment. In other ways and on other grounds, these others are also held in [God’s] care and kept in [God’s] promise”
“In other ways and on other grounds, these others are also held in God’s care, kept in God’s promise.”
“We are not fated to the way the world is presently organized.” We do not have to accept the inevitability of war and violence. We do not have to bow down to the gods of consumerism and convenience and corporate greed at the expense of God’s good creation. We do not have to submit to mistreatment of anyone at any arbitrary border just because that is the way the world is presently organized.
Sisters and brothers, let us remember our connection to the large vision of Genesis. As Barbara Brown Taylor sums it up, “We are the dreamers of the promise, set apart to bless all the families of the earth. It comes when all our conniving has blown up in our faces and our luck has run out." This is "where the dream touches down, reminding us that we sleep at the gate of heaven, where it has pleased God to be with us, . . . where the bright rungs of God's ladder touch down on our own ordinary pieces of the earth."
Thanks be to God.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 243.
 Brueggemann, p. 216-17
 Brueggemann, p. 287
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Lanham, Maryland: Cowley Publications, 1995), pp. 115-116.