As I read about the beginning of Jacob’s life in Genesis 25, I am struck again by how messy life is and how much there is in life that we have no control over. Jacob had no control over the family he was a part of, the fact that he was a second-born twin, his physical appearance, the essence of his personality, the fact that his parents would play favorites. Jacob could not have remembered the history of his early life. Much of what he learned came from stories told by others. These stories have been passed down to us as the word of the Lord.
We all have stories about our early lives, and this story of Jacob is particularly intriguing to me because I too am a second-born twin. I have heard many times how my parents didn’t know my mother was carrying twins because there were no ultrasound back then, though my aunt had suggested she was either having triplets or an elephant because she was so big. After my sister was delivered, the doctor said, “There is another one.” And twelve minutes later I came into the world.
My sister and I are fraternal twins, though we look more alike than Jacob and Esau apparently did. But we were different temperamentally as well. My mother loved to tell me how my sister started to walk when she was 8 months old, getting up and running until she fell down or ran into a wall. I, on the other hand, walked along the furniture until sixteen months, and when I finally let go, I walked without falling down.
It’s difficult for me to accept that in Jacob’s time, the firstborn alone would inherit the family wealth. That system sets ups a kind of favoritism and conveys messages of value or lack of value. So while it may be understandable that Isaac favors the son who will carry on his name and the family destiny and that Rebecca favors the child who is more like her--without power or promise—it’s still hard for me to read about their favoritism because my parents really tried to be fair in how they dealt with their children. But the truth is, children are different and have different needs. And every family has their ways—some good, some not so good, and even children in the same family can have differing perceptions of what life is like.
So reflecting on Jacob’s story, his family, his beginnings, his life, and his relationships has drawn me to think about myself. Being a twin, birth order, personality, family dynamics, and other factors have shaped me and the way I view the world—in conscious and unconscious ways. That is true for every one of us. Like Esau and Jacob, we all have the tendency to want what we want when we want it and to seek to control and take care of our own needs by our own human striving. We want to control our destiny by our own willful choices.
However, the invitation from God is to see our life not as something to be achieved but a gift to be received. Yet in order to do this, we must lay down our willfulness and willingly trust his love and rely on his grace to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. As I was reflecting on this, I was reminded of a passage from Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son:
It was not I who chose God, but God who first chose me. This is the great mystery of our faith. We do not choose God, God chooses us. From all eternity we are hidden “in the shadow of God’s hand” and "engraved on his palm”. Before any human being touches us, God “forms us in secret” and “textures us” in the depth of the earth, and before any human being decides about us, God “knits us together in our mother’s womb.” God loves us before any human person can show love to us. He loves us with a “first” love, and unlimited, unconditional love, wants us to be his beloved children, and tells us to become as loving as himself…. It is the first and everlasting love of a God who is Father as well as Mother. It is the fountain of all true human love, even the most limited. Jesus’ whole life and preaching had only one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible, unlimited motherly and fatherly love of his God and to show the way to let that love guide every part of our daily lives… It is the love that always welcomes home and always wants to celebrate.
I am very grateful today for my life, for being a twin, for the family God has given me. But what I am most grateful for is the deep and abiding truth that I belong to God. That is a gift of grace, and as I follow the story of Jacob’s life and the many ways that life is messy, I want to continue to recognize grace, rejoice in grace, and rest in grace.