Birthrights and Land Rights

a biblico-theological reflection on birthrights and land rights

Genesis 25, 19-34 is about two brothers, Esau and Jacob: born of one mother; born at almost the same time. The last part of the narrative is a conversation between the two and it is interesting. When Esau came home famished, the text reads, “Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!’ Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’* So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.” (v. 31-34)

One brother is hungry and the other has food to give. But before one shares what he has in plenty, he demands something that is probably the most important thing to his brother. In a moment of hunger and great need, Esau sells his most important possession to Jacob. One can almost forget that this happened between two brothers.

Would you ask your brother or your sister to give you their most precious possession? Even if you could pay a fair price for it, would you obtain it from them knowing that the exchange will be something that they will regret for the rest of their lives? In the text, a brother does not pay a fair price and he obtains it from his brother in his moment of desperation. Jacob obtains Esau’s birthright for one meal. One single meal.

This is not new to us. Everyday and in our long history, we encounter stories of how farmers and indigenous peoples are dispossessed of land. Land which generations have nurtured so that it would sustain lives and communities. Land where culture, history, and identity are embedded. Land for which blood, sweat and tears have been shed. With a single piece of legal document, hectares upon hectares of land cultivated by farming communities will belong to one man or one family. Such is the story of Hacienda Luisita. How can 6,435 hectares of land have come to the hands of one family? How can six communities find themselves deprived of dignity of labor and the fruits of the land? What is the price the Cojuangcos paid for the land of generations of farmers? What is the price they demand to return it to the farmers?

Jacob obtained Esau’s birthright for one meal. We say nothing about Jacob’s cruelty to his own brother because he is one of the so-called ‘fathers of our faith.’ The Cojuangcos possessed Hacienda Luisita in 1958 for 4 million pesos with the condition that the land would be distributed to farmers after 10 years. Over 50 years later, the land remains to be the sole property of the Cojuangcos. Today, the raw land is valued at 91 billion pesos. With the developments in connection with the SCTEX, it worth over 400 billion pesos. With the election of P-Noy, another Cojuangco came into power, many people have been silent even as the farmers of Hacienda Luisita continue to struggle for land. Is P-Noy also a man chosen by God? In the history of Jacob’s family, the oppression of a brother to another brother does not happen only once. Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, was sold into slavery by his own brothers.When Joseph later Became a powerful man in Egypt and all their neighbours came to him to buy grain because of the famine, when his own brothers came to him, he was cruel to them, accused them of being spies and imprisoned their youngest brother, Benjamin. Aren’t the sons of Jacob chosen by God? Wasn’t Joseph chosen by God, as well?

We use the same terms when we talk about ourselves. In the almost 10 years I have been in the seminary, I no longer can count how many times I have heard someone say that they have been called or chosen. We sometimes think that when we are called once, we have been chosen for life. What we forget is that at every moment we are called, and at every moment we have to make choices. What we do in the next few days, months, and years is about choices: do we share our resources and declare our true state in the matter of financial aid, do we treat every individual with kindness and respect or carelessly say words that hurt and malign others, and how committed are we in defending the life of people in our communities and beyond. Every moment will define our true character and commitment. And every moment, we can affirm or deny that we are brothers and sisters and are children of God.

Going back to the text, very little is known about Esau. The Bible says that he was a skilful hunter, had hairy arms and was the firstborn. Thus, to him belonged the ‘birthright.’ By birthright, I think it means, first rights. The right to be first as an heir, first in power, first in inheriting property, first in privileges, first in his father’s eyes. I find this-biblical story troubling. The text reads, “Isaac loved Esau…but Rebekah loved Jacob.” The father loves one son more than the other. The mother loves the other son more. The father chooses and gives the birthright. The mother has nothing to pass on to his son and so uses deceit. Four members of one family have unequal power and unequal love. The text says, even before they were born Esau and Jacob struggled within their mother’s womb and Rebekah asked the Lord why. The answer was, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.’

Most Christians interpret biblical texts as a declaration of God’s plan. Given this perspective and engaging this text, I have to ask: Really, God intends for peoples to be divided? Really, God intends for one to be stronger than the other? Really, the elder shall serve the younger? I am very uncomfortable about these statements attributed to God. When we believe that God intends for peoples to be divided, for one to be stronger than the other, and for one person or people to serve the other, we believe in the inequality of people. If we have been on one of two sides, have experienced the abusive power of others and have felt forced to serve purposes which are not just, we will surely have known that there is a problem with the kind of understanding that
God chooses one side just because. When God calls us to be God’s children, God call us to be brothers and sisters to each other. Unlike Isaac and Rebekah, God does not pick a favorite, gives one son a birthright and allows the diminishing of another son or even a daughter. God, the Creator, created us equally, and God, the parent, loves us equally. Until we understand this fundamental principle about the nature of God, we will never fully understand what it means to be children of God.

One would think that after 300 years of Roman Catholicism and over 100 years of Protestantism, we would have understood what all that means. Today, we are still divided into landlords and tenant farmers, multinational masters and contractual slaves, the rich and the poor. Esaus are still given first rights or birthrights and Jacobs still dispossess a brother of his birthright for a single meal. In our communities and in the global world, we are challenged to live out what it means to be children of God.


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