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Son of Laughter

Text: Genesis 25:19-34

Jacob had many nicknames, all of them well-earned: trickster, deceiver, conniver, but his earliest nickname was “Son of Laughter.” And, that nickname came as no surprise. After all, his father was named “Isaac” which means “s/he laughs.” At the news that she would conceive in her old age, Sarah laughed. In typical Hebrew fashion, this unanticipated pregnancy announcement eventually leads to a comic name for her grandson Jacob – “Son of Laughter.”

         Jacob is a large enough character in Scripture to be known by multiple names. When the doctor does the sonogram and tells Isaac and Rebekah to expect twins, it comes as old news. For months already, Rebekah has nearly gone mad with four legs and four arms wrestling in her womb.

         When the delivery date finally comes, the twins arrive almost simultaneously.

The firstborn child of Rebekah and Isaac looks like a bear cub covered in red paint. So, they name this hairy child, Esau, which in Hebrew, means red hair. The name describes him well, but it is Jacob’s Hebrew name that fits him the best. His name literally means “heels,” for in this story, Jacob grabs hold of Esau’s heels in the birth canal trying to be the first child out of Rebekah’s womb. Read the rest of Jacob’s story and you will see that Jacob is aptly named.

         In reality, both Jacob and his older twin brother Esau are “Sons of Laughter,” but, they could not be more different. Esau is slow, overly trusting, a dullard. Jacob is just the opposite. As the stories of these two twins are told, the reader gets more than a few laughs hearing how young “Heels” outwits his older “Hairy” twin brother.

         No story shows the difference between the two brothers better than the selling of the birthright. In his novel, Son of Laughter, I love the way Fred Buechner retells this ancient story from the perspective of Jacob. He writes:

         “One evening near sundown I was high on a moor with the flocks . . . For dinner Rebekah had sent me off with a pot of red beans which she had boiled up thick with mutton fat and sesame.

         “I had a fire going and was warming them over when suddenly I found Esau looming over me. He had a black goatskin thrown over his shoulders. His game bag hung empty from his girdle. I was squatting on my heels by the fire. He was looking down at me with his brow furrowed.

         “’I’ll give you anything you want for that’, he said. He pointed at the beans. ‘That lovely, mushy stuff’, he said. ‘I smelled it from the other side of the hill and it smelled so good. I haven’t had a bite to eat since morning’.

         “I said, ‘You’ll give me what?’

         “’Anything, Everything,’ he said. The smile broadened till it cracked his face in two—the furrowed, bloodshot stare above, the big square teeth below.

         “’It’s your then. For everything’, I said. ‘You know what everything means?’ I wanted to be sure he knew.

         “’Everything means that when death comes to our father, I’ll get twice what you get’, I said. “’Twice what anybody gets. Twice everything’.

         “’Twice, that’s nice’, he said. He pulled himself up from the ground and squatted back on his heels.

         “’It means I will be first, not second but first . . . Twice everything’.

         “’Twice’, he said. ‘Everything. I swear it’.

         “’So be it’, I said. ‘Take and eat then . . .

         “He raised the bowl to sniff it with his eyes shut. He scooped some beans on the flat of his thumb and touched them with the end of his tongue. The he put them into his mouth and sucked his thumb, turning it this way and that way between his lips. Then a fistful, then another . . . He winked at me. When he was finished, he embraced me, kissed me.

         “That is how Heels got what Heels wanted and Hairy got what Hairy wanted. As to which of them got the better of the bargain, who can say’”

         It is a great Hebrew story, but for those of us not accustomed to having birthrights, much less, trading them for a bowl of mush, what does this story mean today? One answer is obvious. It is a story about immediate versus deferred gratification. Esau was hungry and smelled what Jacob was cooking over the fire and he would have it and have it NOW. 

         In this old Hebrew story, Esau reminds me of a young teenager sitting on the doorstep of the local DMV on his 16th birthday. Before any presents are unwrapped or “Happy Birthday” is sung, he is taking the driver’s test, parallel parking and posing for the photo on his spanking new driver’s license. He wants to drive and he wants to drive, NOW!

         It would be nice if we could get a laugh at Esau’s expense and dismiss his behavior simply as that of an impetuous youth. The trouble is, though, we know better. We are Esau. We want our red bean mush and we want it NOW. We are artists at rationalization. We can grasp after anything we want and make it sound as if either we are entitled to it or that God wants us to have it. Tell someone to save for a rainy day or to live more simply in our fragile environment and they look at you like you are a simple-minded fool or have simply lost your mind. The kiss of death for a politician in any party is to use the “S” word, sacrifice, telling voters that it is best to wait for what they want NOW!    

          When we are the most honest with ourselves, sometimes we are also Jacob. For all his ruthless conniving, at least Jacob can see beyond his empty stomach. No doubt, this Son of Laughter is as hungry as his brother and can’t wait to dive into his delicious mush, but Jacob makes himself wait for something better than that which will be gone in a few gulps.


         While Jacob waits for what Esau must have NOW, he manipulates his brother to get what he wants NOW and FOREVER. For a tasty bowl of mush, he steals the family birthright. Forget history, says Jacob, now I am firstborn.

         Then, with mother Rebekah’s help, Jacob steals Isaac’s blessing from Esau. Jacob has the last laugh on poor dumb Esau and pitiful old Isaac. The future of God’s people, of God’s promise to Abraham, rests in the hands of a fast-on-his-feet trickster. Once again, self-serving cleverness wins the day – or so it seems. 

         Actually, the one who gets the last laugh in the Jacob and Esau story is never mentioned and we do not meet this one until years later. The last laugh comes neither to the impetuous of the world, like Esau, who give up the future for what they want right now nor to the crafty of the world, like Jacob, who think they are above the law and can con their way through life.     

         The last laugh comes to God through the birth of a distant relative of Abraham and Isaac, of Jacob and Esau, who also has a memorable nickname – “One who saves.” The Apostle Paul describes the “One who saves” in this way: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

        “Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father.”

         It is the finest irony that neither the child of must have NOW nor the child of cunning FOREVER, but only the child who hungered for righteousness and lived to do the will of God is the one, true Son of Laughter. He hosts this table to feed all who hunger for peace and all who thirst for justice. The true Son of Laughter waits for us to eat and to drink and then he sends us out with a life full of joy to share with an often joy-less world.

         I cannot read the stories of Esau and Jacob without laughing at all the twists and turns and I cannot live the story of my life without giving thanks for the one true Son of Laughter.


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