Partisan Parenting

27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Genesis 25:27-28 (ESV)

3 Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. 4 But when the brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.

Genesis 37:3-4 (ESV)

“But that’s not fair! He always gets his way. I get blamed for everything.” How often have parents heard those words as one child pleads injustice at the expense of another? Though children are capable of distortion, sometimes they speak the truth. Mom or Dad has a favorite child, one who is praised and loved more, one who is not subjected to unfair comparisons and snide put-downs. Bitterness, jealousy, and resentment easily grow from such actions, not just between siblings, but between parents as well. Isaac’s and Jacob’s families are cases in point.

As Isaac and Rebekah’s first born, Esau could claim the birthright of preeminent blessing, which included prosperity, leadership, and protection (Gen. 27:26-29). But it was not to be, for rivalry was in play. Isaac favored Esau, the outdoorsman; Rebekah preferred Jacob, more inclined toward domesticity (Gen. 25:27). Both father and mother are recorded as using the expression “my son” only in connection with their favored offspring.[1] In this spirit, Rebekah secured the fortunes of her son Jacob by engineering an elaborate ruse (Gen. 27:1-30). Granted, Esau was a poor candidate for special blessing, having earlier “sold” his birthright for a pot of stew (Gen. 25:29-34). But the selfishness and deception which beset this family were regrettable, even if the outcomes were workable.

Though Jacob witnessed the betrayal and bitterness bred by parental favoritism, he turned right around and practiced it himself when he became a father, through four women. His favorite wife was Rachel, but he was forced by trickery to first take her elder sister, Leah (Gen. 29:1-30). Jacob had sons eventually by Leah and Rachel and their handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah (Gen. 35:22-26), but there was no doubt who his favorite was—Joseph, his firstborn from the beloved Rachel.

As with Isaac and Esau, Jacob’s preference for Joseph was not well concealed. He gave him a special and conspicuous gift, a colorful coat (Gen. 37:3), and as anyone could have predicted, it enflamed Joseph’s brothers. Their jealousy ripened into felony when they seized him, sold him into slavery, and then told their father a wild animal had killed him (Gen. 37:12-36).

Of course, God used the ascendancy of Jacob and Joseph to work His purposes in salvation history. But that does not excuse the irresponsible behavior of Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob, any more than Rahab’s and David’s inclusion in the lineage of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17) justifies their prostitution and adultery. God works with flawed people, but the Bible nowhere excuses their sin. Furthermore, the Lord can bring great children from miserable families, but this does not nullify the parents’ duty to be evenhanded.

Childrearing can become the arena for parental selfishness, competition, and resentment. Favoritism based on gender, age, personality, or interests can show itself in more lenient punishments, different house rules, and unequal presents. Often fathers and mothers do not realize their lack of fairness or the lengths to which they are going to look after “their” son or daughter. But a review of Scripture, and these two stories in particular, can prompt wise love, essential to wholesome, nurturing family life.

[1] For Esau, see Genesis 27:1, 20, 24-27. For Jacob, see Genesis 27:6, 8, 17, 43.