Siblings in the flesh, the Spirit, and the fur

Last Saturday at Dog Lovers’ Devotions, 17 people and 12 dogs gathered to sing/bark, pray/bark more, and contemplate/dig holes in the sunset tableau of Victory Park.  Of course it was my dog who barked loudest.  In his little world, anytime I’m speaking loudly, it obviously means that he should be too.

We humans listened to the story of Jacob and Esau’s birth, related in Genesis 25:

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, 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 time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named 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, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Then I shared some of the thoughts I’ve been thinking lately about sibling rivalry.  The last time I took an in-depth look at the text you just read was last summer, during a Jewish-Christian immersion retreat.  The professors leading the retreat taught us that while usually Christians think of Judaism as a sort of “father” faith, of which Christianity is the offspring, really rabbinical Judaism and Christianity are more like siblings: the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. contributed to the rapid development of rabbinical Judaism just as the Jesus movement, too, was kicking off.

Rabbis, we were further told, have developed this interpretation in midrashic commentary on Jacob and Esau.  In those interpretations, Jacob represents the Jewish faith, while Esau represents Christianity.  Our study focused particularly on the reconciliation scene between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33, which, according to at least one midrash that particularly stands out in my memory, isn’t a reconciliation at all, but is rather a thinly-veiled hostile encounter between the two brothers.  When Esau falls on Jacob’s neck in verse 4, the midrash asks why…and answers: because Esau was striving to bite Jacob’s neck and rip out his throat!  (FYI–Jacob is saved because God at that moment transforms his neck into a pillar of ivory [cf. Song of Songs 7:4].)

“By-tor and the Snow Dog,” Albert Mock, Flickr Commons.

Betcha never saw a scene from Twilight coming when you started that chapter.

(BTW–I think it’s important to keep in mind that when that midrash was written, Jews were under intense persecution from Christian authorities.  And I think it’s just as important to recognize that this very scene works as a beautiful account of brotherly and interfaith reconciliation, particularly in the moment where Jacob says to Esau, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” [33:10].  Christians speak often about bearing Christ to one another–we can extend this same language to the people of the first testament, and faithfully assert that we recognize God in them too.)

Anyway.  The point is that this whole text study, combined with the recent trip to the Holy Land, meant that the reflection I felt called to share with these lovely people and their dogs went like this:

As many of you know, I am freshly returned from a trip to the Holy Land.  While there, I tried to learn something about the Israel/Palestine conflict.  One night in Bethlehem, I found myself in conversation with a Palestinian Christian—Nadir— who ran the gift shop in our hotel.  We spoke about his life under occupation, and a lot of what he said really sticks with me, but what sticks especially close as I try to unpack everything I experienced is something Nadir said more than once: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re Christian or Muslim or Jewish,” he said.  “We’re all one people.  We’re all members of one human family.”

Of course, being members of one human family is no guarantee of peace.  The story of Jacob and Esau is just one tale of sibling rivalry among many in the Bible.  In fact, in the Bible it is sibling relationships where you’ll often find the deadliest enmity.  Think of Cain and Abel, or Joseph and his brothers, or even the prodigal son and his bitter sibling.  Yet for some reason, the genealogies of the Bible seem to strive to make Nadir’s point stand out: even if nations have been at war for generations, their roots are in a common mother and father.  They are members of one family.

I come from Israel and Palestine hoping, praying, and believing that they will find peace one day.  This assurance comes from God, who in Christ Jesus, became brother to us all, and who reigns now and forever as the Prince of Peace. 

I also find assurance in real-life witness to sibling rivalry and the perennial hope of reconciliation.  I find that witness in my own life, in others’….and yes, even in watching my dog.  This poem by Ogden Nash speaks  eloquently to how dogs provide a lens to rivalry and reconciliation:

Two Dogs Have I

For years we’ve had a little dog,
Last year we acquired a big dog;
He wasn’t big when we got him,
He was littler than the dog we had.
We thought our little dog would love him,
Would help him to become a trig dog,
But the new little dog got bigger,
And the old little dog got mad.

Now the big dog loves the little dog,
But the little dog hates the big dog,
The little dog is eleven years old,
And the big dog only one;
The little dog calls him Schweinhund,
The little dog calls him Pig-dog,
She grumbles broken curses
As she dreams in the August sun.

The big dog’s teeth are terrible,
But he wouldn’t bite the little dog;
The little dog wants to grind his bones,
But the little dog has no teeth;
The big dog is acrobatic,
The little dog is a brittle dog;
She leaps to grip his jugular,
And passes underneath.

The big dog clings to the little dog
Like glue and cement and mortar;
The little dog is his own true love;
But the big dog is to her
Like a scarlet rag to a Longhorn,
Or a suitcase to a porter;
The day he sat on the hornet
I distinctly heard her purr.

Well, how can you blame the little dog,
Who was once the household darling?
He romps like a young Adonis,
She droops like an old mustache;
No wonder she steals his corner,
No wonder she comes out snarling,
No wonder she calls him Cochon
And even Espèce de vache.

Yet once I wanted a sandwich,
Either caviar or cucumber,
When the sun had not yet risen
And the moon had not yet sank;
As I tiptoed through the hallway
The big dog lay in slumber,
And the little dog slept by the big dog,
And her head was on his flank.

Let us pray.

Lord, for all members of this human family who fight like big dogs and little dogs, we ask for your mercy, grace, and wisdom to lead us to peace.  We pray this in the name of your Son, our brother, who brings peace to us today.  Amen.


2 Replies to “Siblings in the flesh, the Spirit, and the fur”

  1. Interesting connections–I didn’t know about that Midrash. Oh, and makes me nervous to get the second dog I would love to have! 🙂

    1. Oh my, I remember Henry’s reactions to Barnaby! I don’t know what he’d do with a dog on his own turf, but me oh my, based on what I’ve seen, he’d make a great casting choice for the role of “little dog.” 🙂

      That midrash was very surprising to me too! Here’s a link to some of the original texts:

      I’ve cut and paste the relevant portions below, because they’re just so fascinating:

      Vayash Kihu, “And kissed him” (Gen. xxxiii. 4), Rabbi Yanai asks, “Why is this word (in the original Hebrew) so pointed?” “It is to teach that Esau did not come to kiss him, but to bite him”; only the neck of Jacob our father became as hard as marble, and this blunted the teeth of the wicked one.” “And what is taught by the expression ‘And they wept’?” “The one wept for his neck and the other for his teeth.”

      Midrash Rabbah, chap 78 (p 273).

      Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai in Sifri deliberately controverts this interpretation, and Aben Ezra says it is an “exposition fit only for children.”

      Esau said, “I will not kill my brother Jacob with bow and arrow, but with my mouth I will suck his blood,” as it is said (Gen. xxxiii. 4), “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and kissed him, and they wept.” Read not “and he kissed him,” but read, “and he bit him.” The neck of Jacob, however, became as hard as ivory, and it is respecting him that Scripture says (Cant. vii. 5), “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory,”–so that the teeth of Esau became blunted; and when he saw that his desire could not be gratified, he began to be angry, and gnashed his teeth, as it is said (Ps. cxii. 10), “The wicked shall see it and be grieved; he shall gnash with his teeth.”

      Pirke d’Rab. Eliezer, chap. 36.

      [The editor notes:] The Targum of Jonathan and also the Yerushalmi record the same fantastic tradition. In the latter it is given thus, “And Esau ran to meet him, and hugged him, and fell upon his neck and kissed him. Esau wept for the crushing of his teeth, and Jacob wept for the tenderness of his neck.”

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