“Hair”

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

When I was growing up, there were many arguments in my family about hair.

Specifically, about the length and style of my hair. My father was a businessman as well as an officer in the Marine Corps reserves, and none of his friends had adopted the new hairstyles then coming into fashion. And my father rightly perceived that beards on men and long hair on both men and women could be seen to represent a rebellion against the values of my father’s culture.

I thought of this long-ago conflict when I read today’s first lesson. The lesson gives us part of the Old Testament story of Esau and Jacob; in the lesson, we see the developing rivalry between these twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah.

The two turn out to be very different. As the Bible says, “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 (the father) loved Esau, because he was fond of game…”

The text adds, “but Rebekah (the boys’ mother) loved Jacob.” And that “but” was crucial to the whole history of the Hebrew people. For, because Rebekah preferred her younger son, she helped him to obtain the status that would normally have gone to the older son.

You may remember the rest of the story. When Isaac is on his deathbed, Jacob pretends to be hairy like his brother Esau in order to gain their father’s blessing. Jacob disguises himself as his brother by putting animal skins on his body and bringing his father a favorite dish of meat like Esau might have brought back from hunting.

Isaac is old and blind, so when he feels the hair on Jacob’s hands and smells the skins on his head and eats his favorite dish of wild meat, he thinks he is in the presence of Esau. And while the father does suspect a trick because Jacob’s voice didn’t sound like Esau’s, still Isaac is won over by the disguise of animal skins. He says, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.” And so, Isaac unknowingly bestows his blessing upon Jacob.

Here’s a supreme case of sibling rivalry. The Bible justifies what seems to us like fraud by noting that Jacob had already bought Esau’s birthright–as we heard in today’s lesson. So Jacob legally had a right to the benefits of being the first-born son.

A few other stories in the Bible assume that hair is a source of power. For example, later in the history of Israel, the strong man Samson derives his strength from his long hair.

When the devious Delilah seduces him and cuts off his long locks, he is easily captured by Israel’s enemies, the Philistines. Only when Samson’s hair grows back does he regain his strength and break his bonds and destroy his enemy.

Of course, today we know that the mere fact of having a lot of hair doesn’t give a person power. While some Jews (and Muslims) believe that religious men should always wear beards, Christians see no particular merit in the custom.

But the point of the story isn’t about the virtues of hair. It’s about God making the final decision. The story illustrates that God is in charge; God gives his blessing to whom he wishes.

The fact that Jacob was “a quiet man, living in tents,” while his twin was older, and a successful hunter, and the favorite of his father—these distinctions meant nothing to God. God chose Jacob anyway.

Jacob wasn’t the natural first born heir to his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. Yet he was chosen to become the founder of the entire Hebrew nation. God eventually gave him a new name, and his descendants called themselves by that name, “Israel.” Meanwhile, the descendants of Esau vanished from history.

As we ponder, then, the rivalry of Jacob and Esau, we see that the conclusion of the story applies to us, too. The accidents of life that we value so much really aren’t that important.

Whether you were the older or the younger child doesn’t matter to God when it comes to your spiritual inheritance. Whether you were born to hunt or born to think or whether you are hairy or smooth, beautiful or ugly—such qualities may be important in your culture. But they don’t matter for God’s plan.

God sees beyond the superficial characteristics. Whatever your gifts, whatever your issues–God chooses you to contribute to the world he has made.

In retrospect, I can see that all those arguments I had with my father about long hair were trivial. Styles eventually changed, and I followed the new fashion and got my hair cut. And by the time my father died, he had longer hair than I did!

Yet it’s always easy to make arbitrary distinctions based on transient values. For instance, you might dismiss someone you meet whom you think dresses badly—even though you could realize that the person doesn’t have the money to keep up with fashion, or has trouble seeing—or just doesn’t have the knack for dressing well.

Even if a person’s preferences are totally opposite to yours, you can still accept that they’re not ultimate. For instance, I would question the necessity for severe dress codes that obey strict religious rules. Many Christians get by without them, and it seems to me to link religious practice with the repression of the human spirit.

But still, I have to accept that freedom is freedom. And that means that I have to admit that other people can choose to exercise their liberty in ways that I don’t agree with.

Some Christians feel that modest dress and appearance reflect the seriousness of their faith. I’m obliged to grant them that freedom. (And, if I think about it, I suppose that as someone who wears black a lot of the time, I can’t criticize those who dress conservatively!)

But it may be even more important to ponder how the story of Isaac and Esau shows the freedom of God. God can do what he wishes, and we are in no position to second-guess his choices.

We may think that Esau got a raw deal—though he did knowingly give away the rights he had as the first-born. More to the point, we may think that there are many times in life when we get a raw deal: we get beaten out by the smooth talking romantic rival; or a sneaky competitor steals our ideas; or a stalled subway train keeps us from a crucial appointment.

It is these times when we need to remember that even if life isn’t fair, God is just. God’s righteousness will prevail in the fullness of God’s time. Fashions change, the world goes on–but the Lord of hosts remains our refuge, and our strength.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.



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