Genesis 25:12–26 These are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s servant, bore to Abraham. 13 These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, 14 Mishma, Dumah, Massa, 15 Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. 16 These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. 17 (These are the years of the life of Ishmael: 137 years. He breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.) 18 They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria. He settled over against all his kinsmen.
19 These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. 21 And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. And the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 And the LORD said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the older shall serve the younger.”
24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
Each week I try to think of a new way to say the same thing at the beginning of each sermon: This stuff is awesome! The God of this passage is awesome! The principles embedded in it are awesome! This is the very awesome Word of God! You’d be foolish not to lean way into this awesomeness even as my delivery of it waxes and wanes. Fight off tiredness. Fight off the desire to be entertained. Fight off any informal compact you’ve made with yourself to dial in only enough to get the lowest hanging fruit of this sermon. Fight off the temptation to leave without a specific prayer and plan to conform yourself in the Holy Spirit’s power to the things this passage presents. Fight for all the holiness and joy that this text has for you!
With that, this is text and all it implies are awesome. From Ishmael, Jacob, and Esau we find four key themes and one more to rule them all. God’s promises are certain, conflict is inevitable, prayer is God’s primary solution to conflict, and all life is from God. The one that binds them all together and makes them possible is the sovereignty of God. All of that and a bit more are in this short passage. Let’s pray that God would open all of that to us and transform all of us to it.
ISHMAEL’S LINE AND DEATH
Genesis 25:12-18 briefly and unceremoniously records Ishmael’s line and his death. There are two things for us to note here. First, God kept His promise even to Ishmael. Back in Genesis 17:20 we read these words of God, “As for Ishmael…behold, I have blessed him…he shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.” It is significant, therefore, that in Genesis 25:16 (eight chapters later) after listing the names of Ishmael’s offspring we’re told, “These are the sons of Ishmael…twelve princes according to their tribes.” Ishmael wasn’t the child of the promise—indeed according to God’s wishes he was driven away from the promise along with his mother—but God still kept His word concerning him. We’ll see more of this in just a bit.
The second reason this passage is significant is that it is the last time we hear directly of Ishmael in the OT. A little while later (chapter 28) we’ll see that Esau took one of Ishmael’s daughters as his wife. And in chapter 37 we read that it was some of Ishmael’s descendants who purchased Joseph from his brothers and sold him to the Egyptians. In other words, it’s clear that the line of Ishmael lived on (thus fulfilling yet another of God’s promises to him). And yet the fact that he—Abraham’s firstborn son—was entirely relegated to the background of the storyline of the rest of the OT, further highlights the fact that the sovereign plan and blessing and salvation of God would run through Isaac. It is for that reason that the text quickly turns back to Isaac and his line.
JACOB AND ESAU
Genesis 25:19-26 serves as the introduction to Isaac’s sons. And boy is it full of intrigue. Barrenness, prayer, miracles, twins, words directly from God, etc. It really is quite a story. In order to help us all see its significance, even beyond its self-contained interest, I’ll briefly retell the story and then draw your attention to a small handful of themes embedded in it.
Here’s the basic storyline of the text. At a mere forty years old Isaac married Rebekah. For the first twenty years of their marriage, though, Rebekah could not have children. The text makes it clear that she was barren, unable to conceive. Thus, Isaac prayed to God for Rebekah. We aren’t told the content of the prayer or if this was the first time he’d prayed for his wife in this matter, but we are told that “The LORD granted his prayer and Rebekah…conceived” (21). As it turns out, Rebekah became pregnant with not one child, but two; twins. And it seems that the twins weren’t all that happy to share a womb. The text says that they “struggled together within her” (22). The term “struggle” usually means “crushed” or “oppressed.” The point is that it was an especially significant and painful struggle. It will become clear later that this was as much symbolic as physical, but as Rebekah’s subsequent prayer makes clear, it was certainly physical. Seemingly overwhelmed with discomfort, it was Rebekah’s turn to pray. Her prayer was in the form of a question, a question familiar to all who have endured great suffering, “Why is this happening to me?” Perhaps surprisingly, the LORD answered her directly. Again, we’re not told exactly how God communicated with Rebekah (whether through a dream, an angel, a voice from the sky, or something else.), but we are given an exact quote from God. The words of God described the future of the twins—a future of significance, difficulty, and disorder. When it finally came time to deliver her babies Rebekah noticed that the firstborn was rather strange looking. He was very red and very hairy and so they named him Esau (his nickname, Edom, sounds like “red”). The younger, Jacob, was not named according to his physical appearance but according to what he was doing at birth. He was, oddly enough, grabbing onto his brother’s heel (Jacob means “He takes by the heel).
As I said, that’s quite a story and quite a welcome into the world, isn’t it? And yet, once again, embedded in all of that is a great deal more than immediately meets the eye. I’d like to draw your attention to four key themes of this passage and then end with the granddaddy of them all.
God’s Promises Are Certain
You have probably noticed that God has made a number of promises up to this point in Genesis. You may have also noticed that something (or some things) have set themselves up against every one of them. All of God’s promises to this point have been confronted by some form of opposition. But here’s the key that I hope is becoming increasingly clear: none the things that have or will yet set themselves against God’s promises have or ever will put so much as a dent in the perfect plan of God. In this passage we see a few more promise-obstacles, but once again none of them were able to stand against God. All of God’s promises are certain, Grace. How many times have we seen this already? Are you starting to get the sense that it’s an important part of Genesis and a reliable aspect of the nature of God?
According to the promise of God, Abraham miraculously had Isaac. According to the promises of God, Isaac found a wife (or rather he had a wife found for him) and his wife eventually, miraculously bore him a child through whom God would continue fulfilling His promise.
Grace, we’re about to look more specifically at the obstacles that set themselves up against God’s promise in this passage, but please hear this: it doesn’t matter what they are, it doesn’t matter how big they are, it doesn’t matter how many they are, it doesn’t matter how old or strong or otherwise formidable they are, no obstacle can stand against the LORD God Almighty.
Instead of tuning this out on account of having heard it so many times already in Genesis, would you instead fight to recognize how critical it is for the people of God to understand and live entirely in light of? This certainly is not the first or last time we’ll see it in Genesis, and it is even more certainly not the last time we’ll see it in the Bible. In fact, what we see here in part, we find out later in glorious whole, “… neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Genesis was written in part so that we would believe this. Grace, God’s greatest promise to those who would share in Abraham’s faith is to love us with an unending love. Is your hope in Jesus alone? If so, this promise is for you. Forever you will live entirely in the love of God. If you can learn, with God’s help, to truly believe that, it will affect every single thing about you. God loves you forever!
Conflict Is Certain
The fact that God will always keep His promises, however, does not mean that a life of trust in them will be without conflict. This passage alone, like so many others in Genesis, is filled with conflict. That’s the second key theme for us to recognize.
Rebekah was unable to have a child. As hard as it is today, barrenness was even more difficult in the ancient Middle East. Back then bearing children was tied to perpetuating the family line, the physical survival of the family, and the honor of the parents. There may be traces of some of those struggles left today, but nothing like it was in Rebekah’s day. Even on the surface this was a significant problem. But when you add all of that to the fact that the covenant promise of God was tied to Isaac’s offspring, you’ll begin to see the true seriousness of this conflict.
God would resolve this conflict (more on that in the next section). Interestingly, however, it was God’s solution to this first problem that opened the door to the next. God would heal Rebekah and allow her to become pregnant, but insodoing she conceived womb-warring twins. I’ve never had a baby, let alone twins, let alone twins trying to crush one another in my womb. And yet it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to realize how miserable something like that would be.
Again, God would resolve that conflict as well. Rebekah would give birth to two healthy baby boys. And yet that would serve as a doorway to yet another conflict. Eventually their wrestling would spill out from the womb and into their lives as adults. Worse still, it would intensify among their offspring, way beyond anything they experienced in their own lifetimes. The nation of Israel (Jacob’s descendants) and the nation of Edom (Esau’s descendants) become mortal enemies over the course of centuries.
God would eventually remedy that as well, but as you can see, the unbreakableness of God’s promises does not mean the absence of conflict. In fact, Grace, and please don’t miss this either, one clear lesson we get from this passage is that often, in the very act of keeping one promise, God creates the need for us to trust in another. It is in God’s solution to one aspect of conflict in our lives that introduces the next.
What does this tell us? It tells us that we simply cannot avoid conflict in this life. The main question before us, then, is not whether or not our lives of trust in God will be marked by trials, but how we will navigate them when they come. It also tells us that the solution we were so hoping for in one area was never meant to bear the full weight of our hope. We need something greater still.
Our greatest need isn’t for short-term, earthly solutions to short-term, earthly problems. It’s well and good to ask God for them (as we see in our text), but never as if they were some kind of ultimate solution. Rebekah probably couldn’t see far past the shame, embarrassment, and fear of not being able to have kids. While she wanted to get pregnant but couldn’t, I’m sure she never imagined the eventual warring her kids would do in her womb, much less the centuries long warring her offspring would do in the world.
Let us learn from this, Grace. Whatever trials are in front of you right now, as significant as they might be, are not your greatest problem. Just as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all of their children after them needed something more than the individual pieces of the covenant promises, so too do we need more than just to have our greatest current struggle overcome. Alongside Isaac, Rebekah, and Esau we need true and complete covenant fulfillment. We need the full measure of the blessings of God to come upon us. We need Jesus. We need the forgiveness, holiness, and inheritance only He can offer.
Prayer Is the Solution
And that leads to the third main theme of our text. God keeps His promises, conflict will be ever-present until the ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant, and prayer is the primary means by which God resolves our conflict in this life. In other words, as significant as the conflict in this text was, even more significant was the remedy: the prayers of the faithful.
There were three main conflicts in this passage. First, Rebekah was barren. We already saw that God healed her and allowed her to conceive. But how did that happen? By what means did God do this? The text tells us in the clearest possible terms, “And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. And the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived” (21). Isaac prayed and God rescued. God overcame the conflict through the prayers of Isaac.
The second main conflict in this passage was the warring of Jacob and Esau in Rebekah’s womb. Again, we’ve already seen that she would, by God’s grace, eventually deliver two healthy boys. But how did that happen? What brought about this grace of God? Once again, God did so through the prayers of the faithful. This time it was Rebekah prayed and God once again rescued through it. “The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD” (22).
And the third main conflict was the perpetual battle between Jacob’s kids and Esau’s. We don’t see God’s remedy in this passage, but when and how would it come about? Grace, there are a couple of ways to answer this question, but ultimately it was through the reconciling ministry of Jesus—through his preaching, prayers, and sacrificial death.
Grace, let us learn from this story. Prayer is often the means by which God chooses to accomplish His purposes in and through us. Let’s be honest, it is not easy to grasp how God works through prayer or why He’s chosen to do so. It’s not easy to understand how God can guarantee that His promises will stand even while calling on us to pray for the world to be changed. It’s not easy to understand why God (who knows all things, and is continually at work holding the universe together and working all things for good) would even want to hear from us. Hard to understand or not, God has commanded us to pray (Matthew 6:5) and chosen to work through our prayers (Matthew 21:22). Indeed, prayer, as is the case in our passage, must be the mark of all people who know that they are entirely dependent on God. Prayer must be the mark of all who long for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. And prayer must be the mark of all who long for God’s presence. Let us be marked by prayer!
Life Is from God
The fourth key theme is short and simple: all life is from God. In particular, all children are from God. There has never been a child conceived apart from the divine work of God. Because God normally uses a “natural” and predictable process to bring about conception and birth, however, we can sometimes forget this or never learn it.
In other words, children are always, only a gift from the LORD. And yet, often times in the bible God closes the womb of a woman, allows her (and her husband) to feel the sadness and frustration of her barrenness, and then makes what is always true but hidden, unmistakable and clear when He miraculously opens her womb—all life is from God. We see this in many of the key figures of the OT (and some in the NT). Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, John the Baptist, and even Jesus’ birth was like this—not through a barren woman but through a virgin! All of this is why life is so precious from its very beginning to its very end.
But as is often the case, there’s a deeper truth here as well. The deeper truth for us to see is that what we find in the physical realm, as it often does, teaches us something far more profound in the spiritual realm. That is, just as all physical births are the product of the hand of God, so too are all spiritual births. To be born of a woman is always the result of the miraculous work of God. And to be born again of the Spirit is as well. That’s the heart of John’s message when he writes “…to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (1 John 1:12-13). God grants birth and God grants new birth. Let us give Him all praise and glory and honor for these things, Grace. He truly is an awesome, life-giving God!
God’s Sovereign Choice
God’s promises are always true, conflict is always present in this life, prayer is the primary means by which God overcomes our conflict, and all life (physical and spiritual) comes from God. I told you that there were four key themes and one to rule them all. We’ve seen the four themes, what is it that rules them all? Or, to word it a different way, how is it that God is able to keep His every promise, turn every conflict to good through prayer, and create physical and spiritual life? The answer is becoming increasingly clear throughout Genesis. In our passage for this morning we see it most clearly in God’s response to Rebekah’s prayer,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the older shall serve the younger.”
The answer to all of the world’s biggest how and why questions is this: because of the sovereign choice of God. God determined to create the heavens and earth and so it was. God determined to create mankind in His image and so it was. God determined to call the penalty for sin, death and so it was. God determined to banish Adam and Eve after they sinned and so it was. God determined to destroy the world by flood for its sin and so it was. God determined to scatter and confuse the world and so it was. God determined to reconcile the world to Himself through covenant promises with one man, Abraham, and so it was. God determined to carry on His promises to Abraham through his son, Isaac and so it was. And, as this passage shows, God determined that His covenant promises would continue on through Isaac’s son, Jacob and so it was. How and why? Because of God’s sovereign choice.
It’s plain that there was nothing particularly special about Jacob other than that God sovereignly chose him. He was second in birth so he shouldn’t have been chosen, but according to God’s sovereign choice he was. As we’ll see next week, he gained blessing through trickery so he shouldn’t have been chosen, but according to God’s sovereign choice he was. What seems strange in this story becomes a bit clearer in the NT explanation.
“…when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:10-13).
In order that God’s purpose in election might stand (that is, in order that God’s sovereign choice might reign), Jacob and Esau were assigned a different birth order, covenant blessings, conflict, and a disposition from God. This can be a hard pill to swallow. It can also feel philosophically tenuous. Let me settle both dilemmas for you: it is and it is. It is a hard pill to swallow and it is philosophically tenuous. From our perspective there’s no way around these things. Many have tried, and there’s a good deal more to be said than this, but at the end of the day, from simple human logic, this is hard and mysterious. But it is also the clear teaching of the Bible and therefore really, really good.
As I hope to have made plain, this introduction to Isaac’s sons is interesting in its own right. And yet, as significant as those things were in the life of these men and their ancestors, they pointed to something much more significant still. Grace, and we cannot miss this, all the ingredients of salvation are present in this short chapter. Conflict, faith, and new life through God’s choice. This really is a sort of parable of salvation. Our conflict is with God because of our sin. The certain outcome of this conflict is death. But God made a Way to be reconciled to Him. That way is through faith in the sacrificial and atoning blood of Jesus. And this is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God, so that no one may boast. Thanks be to God for His 100% certain promises to overcome all conflict with Him, to do so not through our works but through our prayers of repentance, according to His perfect, sovereign choice. Yes and amen!