This week we are featuring one of our Hildy Tails. This series of essays were composed last year for our Sustainers Circle. They were dictated to John by the Abbey’s mascot, Hildy the Monk-ey. Hildy is a bit of a free spirit who likes to entertain and doesn’t normally feel constrained by conventional story structure . . . or grammar, in general. She lives by the motto that “all stories are true; some actually happened.” We wanted to share them with you, our wider Abbey community, to give you a small monkey-sized, humorous perspective on some biblical passages and stories of the saints.
Parents & Children (Genesis 33:1-3)
Hello, everyone! It’s me: Hildy, your friendly monastery mascot. And today we’re talking about families. In particular, we’re talking about some of the family dysfunction that’s runs through the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Biblical Faith. (And if you’re like me, you might recognize some similarities with your own family.)
I know. It’s not often you read somebody whinging about heroes of faith, but I’m a monkey and I’ve got some things to get off me hairy wee chest. (My many siblings and cousins know what I’m talking about.)
Let’s just jump straight into this because I’m going multi-generational today. The passage that I’m using as a jumping-off point, before swinging my way down the generations, describes the reunion of twin brothers Jacob and Esau after years and years apart, with no communication. (I know. I thought that MY family could hold a grudge!) It’s hard to understand the full family drama from just this wee passage, as it doesn’t seem like much, but trust me . . . As Esau approaches, Jacob arranges his family and bows respectfully before his slightly older brother. But there’s a LONG story of what led to all this . . . and I’d say it starts with their grandparents.
Abraham & Sarah were desperate for a child of their own. (To be fair God was taking a long time to fulfil the promise of an heir and they were both getting well old.) So Sarah gets a wee bit impatient and gets the idea to have one of her servants be a surrogate mother. (I’ll let you discuss the efficacy of that amongst yourselves later; we don’t have time for that now.) Hagar does as she’s asked (and one could make the argument that she may not have had much of a choice) and bore Abraham a son, Ishmael. Now Sarah almost immediately becomes jealous. (Raise your paw if you saw *that one* coming a mile off.) Sarah insists that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. And Abraham goes along with this change of plans. (Not their finest moment. Quite arguably their worst, really.) But Sarah has finally given birth to Isaac and Abraham clearly picks a favourite son, literally sending one of them off into the wilderness. (It’s a heart-breaking episode and should be seen as a cautionary tale of how not to treat family, but there it is in all its sad details.)
Isaac grows up and marries Rebekah, who has twin boys: Esau and Jacob. As the story goes, they fought each other (as so many of us unfortunately do with our siblings) in the womb to get out first and be declared the oldest, with all the power and privilege that went with that. In the end, Esau emerges first, with Jacob clutching his brother’s heel. And because unresolved family dysfunction tends to be passed on to the next generation, Isaac & Rebekah each (VERY unapologetically) have a favourite twin son. Isaac loves Esau best, Rebekah loves Jacob best, and EVERYBODY in the family/tribe knows it. Believing she’s following a prophecy from God, Rebekah plots to have Jacob become the head of the family when Isaac eventually dies. She even takes advantage of her husband’s failing eyesight. (I try to find comfort in knowing that even great people aren’t always great and to learn from their mistakes; but it’s still tough to read, particularly when stories like these hit so close to home.) Jacob goes along with all this, having already tricked Esau out of part of his inheritance. To say that Isaac and Esau aren’t happy about Jacob stealing God’s blessing would be an understatement of (please pardon the pun) biblical proportions. This particular chapter in family dysfunction ends with Jacob fleeing for his life, possibly never to return.
While he’s away, Jacob falls in love with Rachel and wants to marry her. But in a bit of turn-around, Rachel’s father tricks Jacob into marrying Rachel’s older sister. (This is why grooms lift the bride’s veil in a traditional marriage ceremony. But back to the story.) So Jacob does what any man would do (just kidding, this is a weird solution to a weird situation and the two weirds don’t cancel each other out) and ends up marring both sisters. To make matters worse, it’s clear that Jacob loves Rachel more than he loves Leah. This sets up a rather unhealthy competition between the sisters/wives as they each attempt to bear the most children for Jacob, going so far as to use more surrogates. (Why learn from Sarah’s mistake, am I right?) When Rachel finally has a son of her own, that boy (Joseph) instantly and openly becomes Jacob’s favourite. (The only thing I can say in their defence is that all this takes place WAY before the advent of psychology and family counselling. But still . . . you’d hope people would learn from their own mistakes or the ones those around them have made.)
Now how do we know Rachel and Joseph are Jacob’s most beloved, you might well ask. Because of today’s passage. The twin brothers are about to reunite and Jacob is reasonably fearful that Esau is still murderously angry. So what is described in the beginning of Genesis 22 is Jacob physically arranging his family in order of most disposable up front – the concubines and their offspring, then Leah and her children, and finally Rachel and Joseph as far away from danger as possible . . . with the rest of the family as a literal human shield. (Don’t Panic! The story has a happy ending, with Esau forgiving his brother and welcoming him and his family back.)
Joseph doesn’t help himself in later years when he lets his father’s blatant favouritism go to his head and becomes an arrogant little . . . brother. I mean, is ANYBODY surprised that Joseph’s siblings tried to kill him before selling him into slavery? (My siblings and I would often “joke” about which one of us would be most likely get voted out of the family by the others. None of us fared well in those discussions.)
Now I’m not trying to say a few bad parenting decisions makes anyone a bad person or that my own family is perfect (or even all that different from these families). But family can be difficult. And this can be a particularly sad or hurtful as we approach the holiday season, a time traditionally chock-o-block with family gatherings.
All this can make that Commandment about “honouring your father and your mother” seem impossible. But there are ways we can honour our families and ourselves, without ignoring the problems that may exist. (It is “honour” and not “obey” your family, after all.) Acknowledging the problems in your family (and let’s face it, ourselves) is a good place to start. And even if you’re the only one in your family willing to do the hard work, at least you can. And like with today’s story that goes from potential massacre to blessed reunion with the loving forgiveness of just one person (Yeah, Esau!), maybe that’s enough.
What can you do to honour your family (and yourself), even if you are estranged from them?