The Bible story of twin brothers Esau and Jacob is about an inheritance obtained through fraud. It is a story about human nature, and on the face of it, troubling. Those of us familiar with it have groused over the apparent unfairness of the Most High God, who, if Biblical authors are to be believed, chose Jacob as the promise-carrier from the womb and rejected Esau.
The story of Esau and Jacob is a story about what we long for when we don’t have it, and what we struggle to live up to when we do: Inheritance, blessing. It’s about what is of value in a person and what’s merely to be expected, predictable, prosaic. Those who mean to wrestle with God and prevail require the most rigorous training, the fruits of which do not come without great sacrifice. This is an ancient story that appeals to us even today.
Higher Nature, Lower Nature
Genesis tells us that Esau was a skillful hunter, but Jacob a “peaceful man, living in tents.” Though we’re not given much information about these brothers, what we are given says volumes. Everything about Esau portrays the earthy, instinctive nature of man, whereas Jacob’s energy is that of the spiritual man, able to till the ground and wait for its produce, pursuing a greater blessing than those gained in the immediacy of the moment. These two are much like Cain, the hunter, and Abel the tiller of soil. Vegetarians and other non-violent protesters against our lower natures may find ready support in the Bible (as they do in Buddhism), for hunters are not the ones most often rewarded in these ancient stories. Violence begets violence; those who live by the sword shall die by the sword: these are the principles we see in the thread running through these old tales.
Still, there’s a place and a time for violence, for hunting, for calling the hounds and pursuing prey. “To everything there is a time,” Ecclesiastes says, “and a season for every event under heaven.” If we fundamentalize and isolate the differences between Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, we are sure to provoke the same type of violence their differences provoked. We will have gun-toting Republicans from Arkansas on the one hand, and New York Times Review of Books-wielding Democrats on the other. We’ll be fooled into thinking this is about either-or, right-wrong, good-bad, and we won’t see that Esau and Jacob are twins inside a common womb, that our lower and higher natures tend to fight and separate from each other just as these brothers did. We will fail to recall that God became man in the flesh, experiencing every temptation, “yet without sin.” We’ll forget who we are, how whole we are in our cores, and we’ll choose one side over the other. That’s not what this is about.
Learning Through Suffering
Among the major differences between Esau and Jacob, Cain and Abel is the ability to delay gratification, to value the right things, to patiently endure. It is the ability to see something beyond what is immediately gratifying, the ability to do the right thing even if it hurts. To be sure, we don’t see this sort of virtue in Jacob early on. This is why, I think, Jacob had to leave his home and family and find a wife among his relatives far away, only to be cheated out of his true love and given the wrong wife. Jacob’s higher man wasn’t always a higher man in practice. Jacob needed training, and so Jacob was cheated more than once by his father-in-law, Laban, and had to work for almost two decades to redeem both wives and grandchildren and finally leave that foreign land and return home. By that time, Jacob had suffered enough to know fear. Jacob knew he had limits, then.
Even Christ learned obedience through the things he suffered. Buddha said, “Life is suffering.” We do not pass Go and collect our $200 until we have suffered. Jung suggested that neurotic suffering is a type of suffering designed to keep us from real suffering. Real suffering contains opposites. Real suffering is when I see I am cheater and cheated, hunter and farmer, civilized and Wild Thing, Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal. I firmly believe that the more vociferous a person’s arguments against “the other side,” the more certain it is that he is unconscious to his own other-sideness. I have never met a conservative who was not liberal with himself, nor a liberal who was not conservative with his own stuff. We are such hypocrites.
We Have Seen the Enemy, and He is Us
But to see that we contain and even practice what we most abhor is to suffer. To see that we had a calling, but missed it and are living stupid lives, is suffering. To see that we have been the sort of people who had treasures and inheritances of profound value in our hands, but squandered them or traded them for a bowl of soup is suffering. Knowing that we are cheaters willing to break another person’s heart and leave them standing there helplessly is suffering. Knowing that we stand there helplessly after being cheated by those we trusted or loved is suffering.
Only when I am conscious to my own real suffering as well as the suffering I cause others am I ready to move on to the next step toward becoming a real person.