The Path of Conflict

Last week my focus was on how Isaac didn’t really seem to get the same level of attention as Abraham or Jacob. This focus was based off the beginning of the “Isaac” story in Genesis 25:19-34. This week we’re going to be within the same passage, but the focus is going to be on Jacob, who the story follows quite a bit more than Isaac.

In many ways Jacob seems uniquely different than both Abraham and Isaac in his journey of following God. Jacob’s journey of following God seems to be marked by conflict. Walter Brueggemann goes so far as to title his section on Jacob, “The Conflicted Call of God,” in his commentary on Genesis.

This is not to say that Abraham didn’t experience conflict, but conflict was not a mark of Abraham’s life nearly to the extent it is in Jacob’s. In my mind Abraham’s life revolved around the promise of God and Abraham’s faith and doubt in that promise. Conflict, or at least external conflict, for Abraham tended to happen due to his own schemes of self-protection (pretending Sarah was his sister) and for the sake of Lot against the alliance of kings. The rest was largely focused on the conflict of faith and doubt regarding the son of promise.

Jacob’s story is quite different even from the very beginning. Even before Jacob and Esau are born, Rebekah feels them wresting about. This was enough to have her ask God about why this was happening. God’s answer was that the older was going to serve the younger. Esau winds up being born first, but even in the event of birth Jacob is holding onto Esau’s heel and in conflict. Of course we also realize through this that Jacob is the one who will be over Esau, even though Esau was the first born.

However, the story doesn’t let up in setting up the conflict between Jacob and Esau. It’s revealed that as they get older they are complete opposites. Esau is a “skillful hunter” and at home in the rugged outdoors. Jacob on the other hand is quieter and sticks around the tents. To make matters worse Esau is the favorite son of Isaac, while Jacob is the favorite son of Rebekah.

Now this information is probably not included to raise one personality over the other. These differences are presented to show the many ways that Esau and Jacob are very different. It is to deepen the contrast between the two and build the arena into which this conflict comes to be. All we have received is simple background information, but we then move into more active engagement between Jacob and Esau.

We see the first marks of active conflict when Esau came home from some expedition and found Jacob finishing up some stew. Esau was hungry from his trip and Jacob winds up getting Esau to agree to sell his birthright for a bowl of soup. It’s a gutsy move on Jacob’s part, but Esau agrees to it almost too easily, and the text declares that “Esau despised his birthright.”

This whole exchange has long been a story I have trouble sorting out. Not because it is complex, but because I have long wondered if Jacob’s actions here were good or bad. After, all Jacob was the one God promised to be over Esau. Was this simply part of the way that this was to go, or was Jacob wrong in pressing this rather unfair bargain upon Esau. I still don’t know the answer, but I wonder if it really matters.

Part of my problem is thinking that if God has called a person then it would be possible for them to achieve that calling without any conflict or resistance. Yet, upon reading Bruggemann’s commentary I came across this, “The narrative affirms that the call of God is not only a call to well-being. It may also be a call to strife and dispute.”

This is not a popular idea, but you also see Jesus speak like this. Jesus says that the world will hate us because the world hated him. He tells us to carry crosses, which I feel is about so much more than just dealing the annoyances we face during our day. Jesus seems to speak to this reality that following God doesn’t just lead to happiness and bliss, but that it will lead to increased conflict and dispute.

This is largely the path of Jacob. His path is one that both follows God and yet is filled with conflict. He has conflict with his brother Esau, conflict with his uncle Laban, there is conflict between his wives, and at some point he even wrestles with God. Jacob often doesn’t seem to help this conflict as his actions can often be a bit sneaky. However, despite the somewhat questionable actions of Jacob, there is little presented against him from God.

What do we think of this idea that God would draw us onto a path of conflict? I don’t feel that it is a very popular option. I think we often prefer an easy path, and know that I do. A path where we never experience any conflict or pain, but that doesn’t appear to be how God always works things out. In fact following God may invite more conflict to our lives.

In some ways I feel that I could stop there, but there is a thought bugging me that I feel I must add. While I don’t think conflict and strife is the popular path for many of us, I do feel that there are those out there who use this idea to support their own rightness. They view disagreement as a sign that they are ultimately correct, especially if that disagreement is with someone viewed as a person of power.

I think there is a difference between experiencing conflict for following God and using the existence of conflict as a means to place yourself superior to another. After all in the Jacob story, like most conflicts, there were two sides. Jacob experienced conflict due to his following of God, but Esau also faced this conflict, but was on the other side of the matter.

The existence of conflict in our lives is neither evidence that we are not following God or that we are following God. However, I do believe that it shouldn’t be a surprise that conflict is a part of following God. As long as we also understand that simply having conflict isn’t somehow proof of superiority.