Two Babies, Two Kingdoms

Sermon     Carillon Beach Community Chapel                                                                                                                                                                                  July 15, 2017         

Scripture:  Genesis 25:19-34

 This is the lineage of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Abraham was of course his father, and Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah (the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean). Isaac prayed on behalf of his wife because she wasn’t becoming pregnant. God granted his prayer, and Rebekah conceived after 20 years.  But the children she carried struggled and fought with each other until, in great pain, she exclaimed, “What is going on? Why is this happening to me?” In frustration she inquired of God why this civil war was occurring inside of her.

God replied to Rebekah: Two nations are growing inside your womb, and the two peoples will be divided in the future.  One will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.

When it was time for Rebekah to give birth, she saw that she was carrying twins.  The first came out red—his entire body like a hairy blanket—so they named him Esau.  His brother followed with his hand clutching Esau’s heel, so they named him Jacob. Isaac was 60 years old when Rebekah gave birth to the twins.

When the boys grew up, they could not have been more different. Esau became a skillful hunter and preferred to be outdoors. Jacob, on the other hand, grew up to be a contemplative man, content to stay at home.  Esau was the favorite of his father, Isaac, because he was fond of good meat, but Jacob was Rebekah’s favorite.



If one needed proof of just how different twins could be, it is certainly evident in Esau and Jacob.  And if rivalry between brothers is a problem in any family, one can be comforted in knowing that it is an ancient and common issue in families. 

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he draws a logical conclusion that shows how the conduct or personality of a single person can be used to represent a larger group.   Romans 5:19 says:  “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” 

Drawing conclusions that transfer from a single person to represent a larger common experience makes use of an archetype.  An archetype is an original pattern or model from which other things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based, like a prototype.  From the standpoint of understanding a culture, It is a generalized, collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, or image that is considered to be universally present and understood in individuals’ psyches. 

In today’s scripture about the battle in the womb between Rebekah’s twins, we see a hint of a larger, even cosmic battle that will be played out many generations later.  In fact, when Rebekah implores God in the midst of her pain, God gives her a succinct picture of the future that her unborn boys’ conflict portends.  God speaks of a future time:  “Two nations are growing inside of your womb, and the two peoples will be divided in the future.  One will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” 

Today we are going to follow the biblical and cultural record that show us how Rebekah’s pregnancy and God’s prophetic explanation have been lived out and revealed through the ages since Isaac and Rebekah’s boys were born. 

The differences between the two boys, Esau and Jacob, evident at birth, became even more pronounced as they grew.  Esau was a rugged, brawny, ruddy complexioned hunter.  Isaac was a slighter framed, contemplative, homebody.  As you may recall from the story of these boys, Rebekah conspired with her favorite son, Jacob, to scam Esau out of his birthright through deceiving their father, Isaac.  Esau was not without some fault in this drama.  He seems to have had little value for the birthright, as he was willing to hand it over in return for a bowl of stew.  Esau chose his priorities poorly, based on a momentary physical hunger, and later regretted it, though he did not accept his own responsibility in the matter and was angry at his brother for deceiving him.  Rebekah and Isaac sent their son Jacob away to find a wife from among their own people, and he spent the next 14 or so years in the county of his uncle Laban where he married Leah and Rachel. 

Esau, who was also called Edom, or “red” because of his ruddy complexion and red hair, took his wives from among the pagan Canaanites.  After his family grew and his household and livestock expanded, he moved his household far away from his family’s land to a mountainous area near the southern end of the Dead Sea that would come to bear his name:  Edom, which you may also see called Idumaea.   Genesis 36 gives us a lengthy geneaology of the generations that came from Esau, people who were known as Edomites, just as Matthew gives us a lengthy geneaology of Jesus going back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The fact that we get this lengthy geneaology of the line of Esau suggests some importance in this branch of the family tree.  And as we will see, there is significance in this detailed bloodline.   If you are like me, you wonder at times why God would have included certain things that seem so obtuse and irrelevant in the Bible.  But the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 15:4  “For everything that was written in former times was written for our instruction, so that through endurance and through encouragement of the scriptures we may have hope.”  Certainly reading through geneaologies of people who are not related to us or in whom we don’t have a personal interest can require some endurance.  But there is a reason for such things in the Bible.

Esau’s bitter resentment and hatred toward his brother Jacob for fraudulently appropriating his father’s blessing appears to have been inherited by later generations of Edomites  in their attitude toward the Jews.   During the Jews’ years of traveling in the wilderness after their exit from Egypt, nearly 500 years after Jacob and Esau lived, the Edomites refused to permit the Israelites to pass through their land. ( Numbers 20:18-21 ).   400 years later we read that the Edomites were attacked and defeated by King Saul, ( 1 Samuel 14:47 ) and forty years later by King David. ( 2 Samuel 8:13 2 Samuel 8:14 ) In the reign of Jehoshaphat (B.c. 914) the Edomites attempted to invade Israel, but failed. ( 2 Chronicles 20:22 ) They joined in with Nebuchadnezzar when that king besieged Jerusalem.  They were known for their cruelty and were denounced by the prophets. (Isaiah 34:5-8 ; 63:1-4 ; Jeremiah 49:17 ) They spread northward into southern Palestine and prospered. But during the warlike rule of the Maccabees, in the 400 years just before the time of Jesus, they were again completely subdued, and were forced to conform to Jewish laws and rites, and submit to the government of Jewish prefects. The Edomites became incorporated into the Jewish nation. However, in 2 Chronicles references them as idolaters. ( 2 Chronicles 25:14 2 Chronicles 25:15 2 Chronicles 25:20 ) They had picked up the habits of their predecessors in the land they had occupied in Edom, dwelling in sandstone caves and worshipping other gods.

At the time of the Roman Empire and the coming of Jesus, the Edomites were well known and characterized by their toughness, ruthlessness and compromised values. 

And it was out of this subculture that we see one man arise who becomes great and is also known for his toughness, his ruthlessness, and his compromised values.  He name was Herod the Great.  Herod’s father, Antipater the Idumaean, was an Edomite king who was a close ally of the Romans and had earned their favor in military collaborations.  Although it appears that Antipater practiced Judaism, he married a woman named Cyprus who was the daughter of an Arabian sheik.   Antipater made his son Herod the governor of Galilee in 47 BC.  While governor of Galilee, Herod launched a crusade against bandits, which made him very popular with the people of Galilee but he was very unpopular with the Sanhedrin, a group of 71 Israelite elders who constituted the ancient Jewish court system.  Because Israel was a theocratic nation, in which religion and government were one and the same, the Great Sanhedrin was the supreme religious and judicial body in the Land of Israel during the time of the Holy Temple under the Jewish kings. There were also smaller religious courts, called the Lesser Sanhedrin in every town in the Land of Israel.  The Sanhedrin were powerful priests who formed a potent religious, civil, and criminal law council.  They did not like Herod the Great taking over their duties of managing the local criminal element, in essence creating a Roman police-state in addition to a military occupying force.

The Sanhedrin was the final authority on Jewish law and any Jew who went against its decisions was put to death as a rebellious elder.  They judged accused lawbreakers, but could not initiate arrests. It required a minimum of two witnesses to convict a suspect. There were no attorneys. Instead, the accusing witness stated the offense in the presence of the accused and the accused could call witnesses on his own behalf. The court questioned the accused, the accusers and the defense witnesses.

Their authority included religious and ritualistic Temple matters, as well as criminal matters, coroner’s inquests, trials of adulterous wives, tithes, preparation of Torah Scrolls for the king and the Temple, drawing up the calendar of Temple activities that defined the community’s holy days, and resolving matters relating to ritual law.  So, it’s easy to see that any authoritative ruler appointed by the foreign, non-Jewish, militarily-dominant Roman Empire would be viewed as an interloper, a resented competing authority.  And the fact that Herod the Great was a half-breed, idolatrous Edomite made him even more noxious to the Jews.  When Herod the Great began his campaign to clean up this corner of the Roman Empire through aggressive prosecution of bandits, the Sanhedrin’s authority was diminished.

In about 30 A.D., just prior to the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Great Sanhedrin lost its authority to impose capital punishment, a right reserved for itself by the Roman military dictatorship. One Sanhedrin member was the Rabbi Gamaliel, whose name Bible readers recognize from his role during Jesus’ life in providing wise counsel while seated with the Great Sanhedrin and also as the mentor of Saul, who would later become the Christian Apostle Paul.  The rabbis who belonged to the Sanhedrin not only served as judges but they also attracted students or disciples who came to learn their oral traditions and scriptural interpretations.

Herod’s father, Antipater, had been a prized loyalist to the Romans.  When he died a revolt erupted and his son Herod fled to Rome where he gained favor with Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavian, who had come to power after Julius Caesar’s murder.  Herod also was close friends with Octavian’s powerful general, Mark Antony.  Octavian and Mark Anthony supported making Herod king of all Judea, so Herod had strong support from Rome.  Mark Antony was sent to clear Judea of the rebellious forces of the Parthians who had taken advantage of Antipater’s death to stir up trouble.  Herod and another Roman general led a force and retook Jerusalem in 37 BC. Herod began what would be a long and prosperous 33-year reign as king of Judea, or ‘the land of the Jews’ as it was called.  Jesus was born near the end of Herod the Great’s ruthless reign and was crucified shortly after the Sanhedrin had lost their power to impose the death penalty, requiring them to take Jesus to Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas who, by then, had inherited his father’s power in Jerusalem.    

Herod the Great’s monarchy was based on foreign military might. The start of his reign had been marked by rebellion and bloodshed. His first aim was to establish his rule on a more solid base.  He made various alliances, often through politically advantageous marriages.   His first wife, Doris, was from a prominent Jewish family in Jerusalem.  It was the beginning of a series of politically strategic marriages that he had to gain power and influence.

As the new Roman-endorsed king, Herod the Great started an extensive building program: Jews could take pride in the new walls of Jerusalem and the citadel which guarded its Temple, a fortress called Antonia, in honor of Herod’s patron Mark Antony. Coins were minted in Herod’s name and he fancied himself as being the caretaker of orthodox Jewish cult practices, though it was more to keep the peace than because of any real personal Jewish faith.   As the new king continued to please the Romans, he curried favor by sending lavish presents to Mark Antony, and to Anthony’s mistress, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

In time the relationship between Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the Eastern part of the empire and Octavian and the Senate in the West in Rome became strained.  Civil war broke out.  It did not last very long.   Octavian defeated Anthony who fled to Alexandria. Herod was a useful ally for Octavian who planned to pursue Mark Anthony into Egypt.  But Mark Anthony preferred death to surrender and Octavian did not have to launch a campaign through the East.

For the first time in his life, Herod the Great had aligned himself with a loser and his star began to fade. He began to solicit the favor of Octavian.  Octavian, who chose the name Caesar Augustus as the new ruler of the unified Roman Empire, saw the value of a ruthless and powerful ally in Herod the Great and gave him even greater authority and more territory.  Herod the Great had also sought to placate the Jews and further secure the peace in Judea by building a new market, an amphitheater, a theater where the Sanhedrin could convene, a new royal palace, rebuilding the Temple and building strategic fortresses throughout the land.  He also built a splendid new port city, called Caesarea in honor of the new emperor, built to rival Alexandria.  It included a temple where the Emperor was worshipped. Roman rulers were cautious about this powerful client-king, but found him useful as long as he was kept in tight rein.   With building projects, the expansion of his territories, the establishment of a sound bureaucracy, and the development of economic resources, he did much for Judea, at least on a material level. The standing of his country -foreign and at home- was certainly enhanced. However, many of his projects won him the bitter hatred of the orthodox Jews, who disliked Herod’s Greek taste. He brought what they viewed as gaudy and idolatrous Greek style to their land, and also Greek practices that were transgressions of the Mosaic Law.

Jewish historians note that the religiously orthodox Jews hated him because he had terminated the rule of the old royal house to which many of them were related.  The Pharisees despised any ruler who disregarded Jewish religious law and their religious theocratic traditions. And probably all of Herod’s subjects resented his excessive taxation.   It is no surprise that Herod the Great sometimes had to revert to violence, employing mercenaries and secret police to enforce and maintain order.

Herod the Great had become the ruler of the Jews with Roman help and he boasted of being  “the emperor’s friend” and formed an alliance with Agrippa, Caesar Augustus’ right-hand man. On top of the gate of the new Temple, a golden eagle was erected, a symbol of Roman power in the heart of the holy city which was resented by all pious believers, viewed as yet another symbol of  Herod the Great’s idolatry.   Augustus had ordered and paid the priests of the Temple to sacrifice twice a day on behalf of himself, the Roman senate and people.  It was even rumored among the Jews that their pagan ruler had violated Jewish tombs, stealing golden objects from the tomb of David and Solomon.

            It was into this tense and turbulent time, when Herod the Great was trying to manage insolent Jewish rebels, resentful religious Jews, and the loss of his patron, Mark Anthony, while garnering the favor of Caesar Augustus that Jesus was born.  

Herod’s reputation and infamy are confirmed in Matthew’s depiction in chapter 2 where Herod is informed by wise men from the east that a King of the Jews was born in Bethlehem. Herod the Great, the Roman Empire-sanctioned king of the Jews, then sent these men “to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also” (Mathew 2: 8). Then, on finding the child and presenting to him gifts, the wise men “being warned by God in a dream that they should not return to Herod” (ibid 2:12) decided not to follow Herod’s instruction. Next, “the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him” (ibid 2:13).  Joseph did, and when Herod discovered it,  he killed all the children that were in Bethlehem who were 2 years old and younger.

Herod the Great’s father, Antipater, had been a respected practicing Jew, even as an Idumaen.  Some historians have observed that Herod generally “lived as a Jew and respected Jewish religious law for the most part, even with some undoubtedly negative aspects to his reign.  His connections allowed him to be useful to the Jews on several occasions, and on the whole his reign was beneficial to the Jewish people and religion.   Herod’s position as a mediator between Rome, the Jews, opposing family factions, and the non-Jewish citizens within his realm kept a simmering rebellion in check.  Bu his reign ended in terror.  

When Herod the Great became ill, two popular Jewish teachers incited their pupils to remove the golden eagle from the entrance of the Temple, pointing to it as the sin of making idols. The teachers and the pupils were burned alive. As Herod’s health failed succession became a priority and his last will left instructions that after his death, the kingdom should be divided among his sons. Herod Antipas was to rule Galilee and the east bank of the Jordan as a tetrarch; Philip was to be tetrarch of the Golan heights in the north-east; and Archelaus became the “national leader” of Samaria and Judaea. Herod was buried in one of the fortresses he had built, Herodion. It is unlikely that many people of the time would have grieved his death. 

So here, in Galilee, where Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas ruled, this young rabbi, Jesus, began his ministry.  His miracles and popularity indicated to many that he possessed clear religious authority.  He had a growing following and his teachings and interpretations of the Law and Prophets called those of the Sanhdrin and their disciples into question.  It is no wonder that the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees all wanted him arrested.  They already had lost influence over civil and criminal matters to the iron hand of Rome and its puppet, Herod the Great, and his successor, Herod Antipas.   They weren’t willing to yield further influence in religious matters to a young upstart teacher like Jesus!   They lived out their self-serving desires, using the Roman law and leaders, as their pawns.  And this Herod Antipas, who was the grandson of Antipater the Idumaen, the son of the Edomite and Arab half-breed Herod the Great, whose ancestor had been the red-headed, hairy Esau, who was the brother of Jacob, both of them grandsons of Abraham, the Father of the faith in the One True God, who had become the ruler with the power of life and death in civil and criminal matters, gave the Jewish religious elites what they wanted when they shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus faced an earthly kingdom that was pulled in many directions, with conflicting loyalties and many factions.  It was a begrudging vassal kingdom of the most powerful military and economic force in the world at the time, the Roman Empire.  Jesus stood silent before its representative, Herod Antipas, as he was mocked and ridiculed.  When asked by another of the Emperor’s kingdom’s representatitves, Pilate, if he was a king of the Jews, Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Herod’s ancestors, the Edomites, and all who were with him represented the kingdom of the world, with all its violence, betrayals, deceits, and self-serving motivations.  Jesus represented a kingdom that represented grace and the good news of God’s sovereignty, love, and goodness.  These two kingdoms were then and are now at odds with one another, just as the two brothers were at war in the womb.

The kingdom of man was on earth and the kingdom of God was now coming to earth through Jesus.   The apostle Matthew cautioned us about where our priority should lie.  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  Matthew 6:19

 The two nations at war in Rebehah’s womb are not only kingdoms in the sense that the nations of Judea and Edom eventually arose from their families…..but they represented the forces of good and evil that battle in the world and that battle even within each of us.

            God had told Rebekah, “Two nations are growing inside your womb, and the two peoples will be divided in the future.  One will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”   In a real, physical, geopolitical sense, the nation of the Edomites from Esau’s descendants was both a stronger and older nation.  But ultimately Esau’s descendants were absorbed by and served the Jews of Judea who were the descendants of Jacob. 

            In a spiritual sense,  the kingdom represented by Herod Antipas as he stood questioning Jesus was older and stronger than this new gospel kingdom being born of the Spirit of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The battle that began in the womb of Rebekah was being played out centuries later between representatives of two kingdoms…the kingdom of this earthly world and the kingdom of the heavenly world to come.  Those who believe in Jesus Christ have received and are spreading throughout the earth, a kingdom that cannot be shaken, one that will last for eternity.  And Jesus Christ is coming again to rule over that kingdom and the kingdom of the earth, ruled by men, will end.  It is a cosmic battle of enormous proportions that God revealed to mankind through the tugging and shoving of two brothers in the womb.   Amen.