[Consonant with both Anglicanism’s and monasticism’s love of patristic theology-spirituality, I occasionally post selections from Durham University’s two-year lectionary for the Divine Office that draws mostly from patristic writings. The lectionary was initially edited by Stephen Mark Holmes (University of Edinburgh School of Divinity) and subsequently re-edited and formatted by Michele Freyhauf (Durham University). Click here for the link to the lectionary.]
Patristic Lectionary—1 February, Ferial Day Following the Third Sunday After Epiphany.
[The image is Everhard Rensig’s “Esau Gives Up His Birthright”]
Genesis 25:7-11, 19-34
The Death of Abraham. Esau, Jacob, and Pottage
These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, a hundred and seventy-five years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Mach-pelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field which Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with Sarah his wife. After the death of Abraham, God blessed Isaac his son. And Isaac dwelt at Beer-lahai-roi.
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean. And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “It is thus, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 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.” When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. The first came forth red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came forth, and his hand had taken hold of Esau’s heel; so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. Once when Jacob was boiling pottage, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red pottage, for I am famished!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?”
Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
St. Augustine: Sermon 4.11-12, 14; WSA (1990) Tr. Hill.
All who have ever been saints belong to the same Church. You can’t say that our father Abraham doesn’t belong to us, just because he lived before Christ was born of the virgin; after all, the Apostle says that we are the children of Abraham by imitating Abraham’s faith. If then we are admitted to the Church by imitating him, are we going to exclude the man himself from the Church? It is this Church that was represented by Rebecca the wife of Isaac. It is this Church that was also to be found in the holy Prophets who understood the Old Testament, realising that its material promises signified something spiritual. If it was spiritual, then all spiritual people belong to Isaac’s younger son, because first comes the material one and afterward the spiritual.
The reason why the elder son is called Esau is that no one becomes spiritual without first having been ‘of the flesh’ or materialistic. But if they persist in the wisdom of the flesh, they will always be Esau. If, however, they become spiritual, they will then be the younger son. Well before Isaac blessed his sons, Esau had longed to have the lentils Jacob had cooked. And Jacob said to him, Give me your birthright, and I will give you the lentils I have cooked. He sold his right as firstborn to his younger brother. He went off with a temporary satisfaction, the other went off with a permanent honour. So those in the Church who are slaves to temporary pleasures and satisfactions eat lentils; lentils which Jacob certainly cooked, but which Jacob did not eat. Idols, you see, flourished more than anywhere else in Egypt; lentils are the food of Egypt; so lentils represent all the errors of the Gentiles.
Now apply this. You have a Christian people. But among this Christian people it is the ones who belong to Jacob that have the birthright or right of the firstborn. Those, however, who are materialistic in life, materialistic in faith, materialistic in hope, materialistic in love, still belong to the Old Testament, not yet to the new. They still share the lot of Esau, not yet in the blessing of Jacob. The mother, you see, gave birth to both sons; she bore one hairy, the other smooth. Hairiness stands for sins, smoothness for mildness, that is, for cleanness from sins. Just as Rebecca bore two sons, so two are begotten in the Church’s womb, one hairy, the other smooth. There are people, after all, who even after baptism are unwilling to give up their sins and want to do the same things as they used to do before. For instance, if they used to swear to lies, they want to perjure themselves still; if they used to cheat the simple, they want to go on cheating still; if they used to fornicate, to get drunk, they are doing the same things as much as ever. There is Esau for you, born hairy. But what does Jacob do? He is told by his mother: Go and let your father bless you. And he says, I’m afraid, I won’t go. There are people in the Church today who are afraid to mix with sinners, in case they are contaminated by consorting with sinners within the communion of the Church—and so they perish through heresies and schisms.