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A dysfunctional Biblical family

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The book of Genesis provides a unique opportunity to see a family system in operation over several generations. The story of Jacob’s family covers Genesis 25: 19–35:29, and is a story full of struggle and strife. Jacob and his brother Esau struggle in the womb (25:22), at birth (25:26) and in their youth (25:27–34). Jacob’s flight into exile in Paddan Aram merely exchanges his conflict with Esau for conflict with the master of deceit himself, uncle Laban (chapters 29–31). The struggle between Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah (30:8) becomes a horrifying battle, with each wife wanting what the other has. (Rachel has Jacob’s love and wants children; Leah has children and wants Jacob’s love.)

How, we may wonder, could this family ever produce the offspring through whom all the peoples of the earth would be blessed (28: 14)?

One way of understanding what happens in Jacob’s family is to see it in terms of “emotional triangles.”

The basic law of emotional triangles is that when two people become uncomfortable with one another, they may focus upon a third person or issue as a way of stabilizing their relationship. Each person in the triangled relationship plays a “role.” For example, if I am in a conflict with a co-worker, I may label him a “persecutor” and see myself as a “victim,” especially when I complain to a third person (a “rescuer”) about how pigheaded my co-worker is acting.

The early years

Genesis 25:28 gives us insight into the beginning of emotional triangles in Jacob’s family. Jacob’s parents, Isaac and Rebekah, each have a favourite child through whom they relate (or fail to relate) to each other. Isaac in turn probably learned this favouritism pattern from his father Abraham, although there are signs (21:11) that Abraham’s favouritism was not as pronounced as Isaac’s and Jacob’s (37:3; 44:20).

The reason for Isaac’s preference of Esau is that he has “a taste for wild game” and Esau is a “skillful hunter” (25:27–28), not for any spiritual reasons. Esau, “Hairy” (25:25) or “Red” as his brother nicknames him (25:30), is the opposite of his younger brother Jacob. What we encounter at the end of chapter 25 is sibling rivalry at its worst. Yet, although the strife between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25:29–34 is based on Jacob’s greed, there is a complicating factor we ought to take note of as well. Being caught in the triangle of their parents’ relationship has greatly increased the natural sibling rivalry of the twin brothers.

A bad heir day

Several years pass (according to 26:34, the boys are over 40 years old), and the family has soured with age. The family conflict-between the parents, between parents and children, and between the twins-now escalates in pursuit of the patriarchal blessing.

The fact that Isaac is doing the blessing in secret (why not in public as in 49:1,28 or 50:24–25?) should set off warning lights in our minds about the state of his family’s relationships. Family secrets are a sign of emotional anxiety, and they also transmit the anxiety from generation to generation. Because of the emotional separation between Isaac and Rebekah, their disagreement over who should receive the birthright and blessing is fought out through their children rather than dealt with between themselves. Rebekah seems to have good intentions in trying to help God fulfil the prophecy in 25:23 (remember Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 16:1–2), but the end does not justify the means.

Jacob’s parents

From love at first sight (24:63–65), and children conceived in prayer (25:21) after a 20-year-wait (25:26 minus 25:20), the family takes a dramatic turn for the worse. There is an emotional separation between Isaac and Rebekah. The tragedy is that if ever there was a marriage made in heaven, this was it (Genesis 24). Thus, it should silence forever the excuse of couples in conflict who lament that they must have married the wrong person. Even matches made in heaven take a covenant commitment and continuing communication to keep from growing cold.

Fracas in the family

Isaac is the common enemy (“persecutor”) in the Rebekah/Jacob triangle, and Rebekah is the common enemy in the Isaac/Esau triangle, with each parent trying to rescue a victim son from a persecuting spouse. Just in case the reader hasn’t picked up the dynamics at work, the narrator even refers to Esau as “his (Isaac’s) son Esau” (27:5) and Jacob as “her (Rebekah’s) son Jacob” (27:6).

The repetition of “tasty food” (27:4,7,9,14,17,31) proves that Rebekah knows what every woman supposedly knows: that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Actually, it shows how fickle the foundation of Isaac’s favouritism is. If the effects of such foolishness weren’t so tragic, we might laugh; instead, we weep.

No one in this family behaves well. Isaac acts on his physical rather than his spiritual sense and, as has become the pattern of his life, is too passive, abdicating his leadership position. Rebekah acts out of domination (“Do what I say”: 27:8,13) and deception (27:14–17). Esau breaks the oath he made in 25:33 (the birthright and blessing went together) and later resolves to kill his brother (27:41). And Jacob blasphemously lies (27:19,20,24).

The divine verdict

The divine verdict on these actions is “guilty,” and the family members will pay a heavy price for them. Rebekah’s self-proclaimed prophecy (“Let the curse fall on me”: 27:13) will come true, as she loses both sons and will die without mention (note 35:8), never to see her son Jacob again. Esau will have no part in sacred history for having treated the birthright and the promises that went with it so lightly. Isaac lives on without significance (35:28), with a fractured family for most of his life. Jacob himself will transmit this pattern of favouritism into his own family, and reap its results. The most immediate result for Jacob is that he has to flee his brother’s murderous wrath (27:41). He will also be deceived by his sons (37:31–33), in what seems to be poetic justice (Exodus 21:24).

Becoming parents

The account of the birth of Jacob’s 11 sons in Paddan Aram (29:31–30:24) provides insight into the transfer of problems from one generation to the next in a family. The rivalry of Rachel and Leah is greatly intensified by Laban using his daughters for selfish gain. Ironically, just as Jacob took advantage of his father’s blindness (27:1) to deceive him, so Laban uses the cover of night to trick Jacob into marrying the wrong woman.

Tragically, Leah is reduced to the status of a mere pawn, and her life will be spent longing and grasping for the love and acceptance (“Surely my husband will love me now”: 29:32) that neither her father nor her husband ever give her. (Notice Jacob’s ongoing disregard for Leah and her sons reflected in Judah’s words in 44:20.)

Rachel’s struggle to overcome her older sister mirrors Jacob’s earlier struggle to overcome his brother Esau. The two sisters will compete for their husband’s affection by bearing him sons. The pattern of rivalry and favouritism continues.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman, in his book Generation to Generation, said that “All human beings are programmed for far more pathology than could possibly become manifest in a lifetime.” He’s right, but this family takes a good run at achieving the maximum.

Jacob, passive like his father, takes no leadership in trying to resolve the jealousy that has been building between the two sisters. Finally, Rachel explodes 00: 1). Whereas Isaac “prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren” (25:21), Jacob only becomes outraged at his barren wife 00:2). When conflicts reach this kind of emotional overload, something has got to give. In this case, each wife triangles in a maidservant (Bilhah-30:3; Zilpah-30:9). The result is that Jacob is reduced to the status of a stud, and his marriage with Leah to a commercial contract (in )0: 16 he is “hired” by her for sex). Jacob’s family gives a whole new meaning to the word “dysfunctional.”

Quantum leap

The amazing thing is that, because “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20), even this family is not beyond hope. After many difficult years, a wrestling match with God Himself 02:22-30) brings Jacob into submission. Jacob’s conversion at Peniel marks a dramatic turning point for this family. The evidence of his conversion is seen most dramatically in the shift from his telling everyone “to go ahead of me” to meet Esau 02: 16,18,20) to “he himself went on ahead” (33:3). Jacob now meets his brother face to face in humility rather than triangling in others (though notice the favouritism loved in the back: 33:2). Bowing seven times (the common practice of a vassal to his lord in ancient court protocol) with his face in the dust, he seeks reconciliation with Esau, whom he has not seen or spoken to for over 20 years.

We do not know all the dynamics at work in this miracle, or why Esau is no longer bitter, but we have seen the grace of God at work changing Jacob and thus laying the foundation for reconciliation to occur. Jacob’s repentance is accompanied by the return of the blessing that he had formerly “stolen” from Esau. In doing this, he acknowledges that God is sovereign in his life and that everything he has is a gift 02:9-11). For the first time in his life, we see Jacob abandoning the old grasping pattern and trusting God for the results.

This family still has a long way to go, but in chapters 32-33 there are significant signs of hope. By God’s grace, the past can be changed. Sins need not be transmitted from generation to generation. The downward cycle can be broken if there is a willingness to forgive and to change. One of the most encouraging messages of this story is that if God can redeem this family, then there is hope for every family.

—David Esau is senior pastor of Cedar Park MB Church in Ladner, B.C.

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