The Bible: dialogue matters

When we read biblical narratives, we need to pay close attention to the dialogue. That’s where the action is, so to speak.

Esau Selling His Birthright (painting circa 16...

Esau Selling His Birthright (painting circa 1627 by Hendrick ter Brugghen) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dialogue carries most of the punch of the story. Biblical narratives are tightly written with no extra words. Every sentence does heavy lifting in terms of the message.

Let’s take a look at some dialogue between two brothers. Here’s the piece we’ll examine:

Once, when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!”

Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”

“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”

But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.

Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.

Gen 25:29-34 (NIV)

We almost have what writers call a “talking heads” situation with a little action and a lot of talking.

Because characters are developed through the dialogue, what does the dialogue tell us about Jacob and Esau?

Esau is dramatic and driven by his stomach. He overstates his situation. Is he really about to die?

He also doesn’t value his birthright compared to the immediate need: hunger. So he’s not a guy who looks ahead. Right now is what matters for Esau and his own desires trump anything noble.

Jacob, on the other hand, is a guy who sits at home while his brother is out in the field. Was Esau hunting? Working in the field? We’re not told but he was not sitting at the fire cooking stew.

Jacob’s greed keeps him from ladling up the stew for his hard-working brother? Instead, he proposes an unequal exchange: food for birthright.

Jacob’s conscience doesn’t weigh in, even when Esau agrees to the lopsided deal. In fact, Jacob wants the deal locked in with an oath. Jacob is not a man to be trusted.

In a short exchange between brothers, we get a vivid picture of the character of each man. As Genesis unfolds, we see the consequences of Jacob’s greed and craftiness. He becomes a deceiver, a man of lies and crooked deals. And his first deal comes when he swindles his brother.

Jacob’s transformation from deceiver to father of God’s nation is made more amazing in light of this early exchange between Jacob and Esau.

Biblical dialogue carries forward rich meaning and it’s important to read it carefully.

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