“And the LORD said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
What does she see in him? Surely, like me, you’ve sat in the congregation at a wedding more than once, staring the couple before you. It couldn’t be the looks or the brain power, to be sure. Wouldn’t be the prospect for success or the pleasant disposition. Surely, she could do better for herself.
And yet those promises are made. Such bold things they are to say to another person, who is surely to change, and not always for the better. “Will you have this man, this woman?” Love which must choose, if it is to be love. What does she see in him? Isn’t it merely that she sees him, and that is enough.
The blindness of love: it must be about the oldest of all jokes. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Titania awakens to fall in love with Bottom, recently turned into a donkey, he gets the best line: "And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.” Pascal may have been mulling over higher things, but he was making the same general point when he wrote: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.”
God chose Jacob. “Whatever,” we naturally ask, “did He see in him?” The passage read to you this morning is the very beginning of the Jacob and Esau story, and its weight lies on the conflict between the brothers. But that conflict was rooted in God’s choice: two nations, one chosen and one not chosen. It will all unfold in the chapters to come. Two brothers: “the elder shall serve the younger,” because the younger is the heir of the promise, the father of the twelve tribes, the one who is loved particularly, peculiarly.
To be sure, Jacob wasn’t the first to be chosen. God had chosen Abraham, out the families of the earth, to make a covenant with Him. But Abraham alone had seen God and worshipped Him. God had chosen Isaac over Ishmael, but Isaac was the promised one, the son of Abraham’s wife, not the servant girl. But Jacob and Esau—where is the reason in that love? Two brothers, born of the same parents, twins even, chosen before they had been born, before any qualities of character had been revealed.
What did God see in Jacob? It’s a question that Biblical interpreters have been mulling over for centuries. The two brothers, of course, were very different from each other, virtually demanding speculation.
The ancient interpreters generally assume that God chose Jacob for good reasons. Our translation describes Jacob as a “quiet” man, but Hebrew is a notoriously ambiguous language, and the same word could mean that he was gentle, or even perfect. Perhaps, they reasoned, Jacob tarried about the tents because he was a man of scholarship and prayer. He certainly seems to have been the cleverer of the two. And Esau, was too coarse, intemperate and violent for God’s purposes. A later text would describe him as one who “lived by the sword.” Esau was also the ancestor of the treacherous Edomites, of cruel king Agag and Haman, who plotted the obliteration of the Jews centuries later.
Modern interpreters, especially preachers who like to turn out ironical sermons, tend the other way, painting Jacob as a trickster and Esau as his unfortunate dupe. It’s the noble savage versus the conniving profiteer, and we all know how that drama is supposed to turn out. God’s choice, they suggest, is for shock value, like Jesus choosing the worst of the tax collectors as His host. God, in this reading, comes off a roguish contrarian, who delights in being arbitrary.
I’m not so sure about either of these interpretations. I suspect that Esau and Jacob, for all their differences, were mixed characters, like all of us. Jacob is a trickster, but at times he is also pious and generous to his enemies. Esau is foolish, but also becomes a successful and respected leader. God wasn’t weighing up the talents and faults of the two brothers and making the most reasonable choice. Before the bar of God’s perfect justice, neither brother was righteous, neither was fully equipped to lead the next generation of God’s people. God chose Jacob because God loved him, in a particular way. Jacob’s merits did not earn this love, and his failures did not annul it.
Saint Paul turns back to this story in the 9th chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, as he wrestles over why God has chosen us, the church, to be His particular people. Jacob was chosen, Saint Paul notes, even before he was born, as God’s announcement to Rebekah makes clear. It happened this way, he says, “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call.”
We feel instinctively that there must be something unfair, unreasonable about God’s decision. But no one has a proper claim to communion with God. God isn’t on the lookout for those who are just a little better than average. All have sinned. There is none fully righteous. As we read in last week’s Epistle, each of us is by nature a wretch, trapped in this body of death. God cannot choose us based on our works, because by His just standards, each of us stands wanting. Salvation, as Saint Paul goes on to summarize, “depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy.”
But why extend this mercy only to some? Why call one people and not another? This, Saint Paul confesses is a mystery that lies beyond us. None of us has the standing to see the human race as God sees it. It is only for us to bow in reverence before God’s will. Saint Paul concludes this section of the Epistle, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” It is, you might say, a shrug of the shoulders on Saint Paul’s part, but one appropriate to the majesty of his purpose.
For us, though, God’s inscrutable ways are a profound mercy. When we were baptized, we received the promised seal, a membership in God’s chosen people. We were chosen to belong to Christ, Saint Paul says, elsewhere, “before the foundation of the world.” Grace was extended to us, and that grace opens our hearts to trust God, and equips us to understand and do what God desires. To borrow Saint Paul’s terms, we must, of course, exert ourselves, and cooperate willingly with God’s help. He will not save those who refuse Him.
But our will and exertion are always incomplete, and unstable. It’s not that God forgives us once, and we go merrily along into glory. Like Jacob, our path is crooked. We turn away from Him and cast ourselves on His mercy again and again, and He renews us. When we fail, we do not need to fear that God is finished with us, or to worry that our accomplishments fall so short of His intentions. After each failing, He calls us again, back into fellowship with Him, so that, as Saint Paul says, “his purpose of election might continue,” so that His choice might not fail. As reasons go, that one doesn’t stand up to so much scrutiny. But neither does the choice made by the bride who looks upon the groom, and knows him profoundly. She sees so much, and yet she answers boldly: “I take you.”
“The beloved is strangely reassured,” writes Rusty Reno, “that the question, “why me?” has no answer. The sheer fact of love sways the heart. Love’s reasonless abandonment to another is what gives love its burning necessity. This is why God’s name is good news. The name is not Perfect Justice or Everlasting Goodness or Sober Reason. The name is Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the one who will choose whom he will choose.”
“Reason and love keep little company together.” For that, as for all His mercies, may God be praised.
 Act II, Scene 1.
 Pensees, IV.277.
 c.f. Kugel, James L. The Bible As it Was. Cambridge: Harvard, 1997, 199ff.
 Gen. 27:40.
 Rom. 9:11.
 Rom. 7:24.
 Rom. 9:16.
 Rom. 11:33.
 Eph. 1:4.
 Reno, Genesis. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Brazos. 2010, 221-222.