A Tangled Web
“Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive” sounds like something you would hear from Shakespeare but actually it’s was written by the early nineteenth century Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott. The quote is from his epic poem, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field. It’s an historical romance in verse, published in 1808, that tells the tale of how one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, Lord Marmion, pursues a wealthy heiress, Clara de Clare. In order to remove her fiancé, Sir Ralph De Wilton, Lord Marmion forges a letter implicating him in treason. He is assisted by his mistress, Constance De Beverley, a perjured nun, who hopes to regain his affections. De Wilton claims the right to defend his honor in combat but is defeated by Marmion and forced to flee abroad. In order to escape Marmion, Clara takes refuge in a convent rather than endure his attentions. Lord Marmion abandons Constance who is condemned to death but not before she gives documents to the Abbess proving De Wilton's innocence. In the end De Wilton, is able to prove his innocence, given armor and reinstated to the order of knighthood. Marmion is killed in the battle of Flodden Field before De Wilton can get justice but by fighting in the battle with distinction, he regains his honor and estates, and marries Clara.
‘Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive,’ is a aphorism. An aphorism is a pithy observation that contains a general truth. It uses just a few words to describe one’s life experience so perfectly, and is so true, that it enters into the English language and lasts forever. Some other aphorisms you may recognize are “if it ain't broke, don't fix it”, “Don’t cry over spilled milk”, “Pride goeth before a fall”, “Actions speak louder than words”, “The early bird gets the worm” and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s, “ 'Tis better to have loved and lost/ than never to have loved at all.” These aphorisms take on immortal status because they are true and we live them out every day of our lives. In the case of ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave’ it says everything we need to know about the perils of lying and deceiving others. When we lie and deceive we begin a domino effect of complications and consequences that eventually can run out of control. One lie leads to a second and a third and so and so on, etc. etc.
I assume that we all have lied to and deceived someone during our lifetime. Maybe it was a friend, a co-worker or maybe it was a parent. That is where my personal example comes from this morning. In fourth grade, I failed math one quarter. Now there were structures in place for my parents to know how I was doing and one of these was when you failed a quiz you had to get a parent to sign the paper and take it back to the teacher. My parents were very surprised when I received a failing grade on my report card and called to talk with my teacher. I don’t exactly remember what started the cycle of deception but I am sure it had to do with not wanting to get in trouble with my parents. So when I received the first failing quiz, instead of taking it home and having one of my parents sign it – I signed it and returned it – my parents none the wiser. When I received the second failing quiz paper – I did the same thing and so on and so on. This deception got easier and went on for the entire quarter amounting to 10-12 failing quiz papers “signed” by my mother and returned to the teacher. Oh what a tangled web I weaved when first I practiced to deceive. If I would have taken the first failing quiz home to my parents and gotten their help to better understand the subject, I would have saved a lot of consternation, many months of being grounded and the pain in my backside from the spanking I got. Maybe you are recollecting your own tangled web at the moment. I tell you my story and invite you to remember yours for two reasons: one, we are just like the people in the Bible: imperfect, flawed, sinful human beings. And two, it proves that God’s grace that was sufficient for them is also sufficient for us and he can and will still use us the same way he used them.
This morning, we are going to study a family who over the years has become what we might call dysfunctional. The parents play favorites and the children take advantage of each other. And it will come to a head in our scripture this morning where all four parties are trying to take advantage of and are deceiving each other. We would think that with all the tangling of webs going on, there is no way that God’s plan for the world could be accomplished through them. But of course we would be wrong because God is all-knowing, all-powerful and most importantly, sovereign, and his will and plan will be accomplished no matter the lies and deceptions that human beings put it in the way. Which brings us to our big idea this morning that God’s plans will be accomplished despite our lies and deceptions. Aren’t you glad that God is so powerful that his plans and will are not kept from being accomplished because of our interference, sin or deception? I am extremely grateful that the lies and deceptions I perpetrated couldn’t not derail God’s plan for my life.
Before we dig into God’s Word for us this morning, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, pour out your Holy Spirit on us and open up our hearts and minds to what you want us to learn. Use this passage to teach us, to rebuke and correct us where needed and to train us in righteousness. In Jesus’ name, Amen. Our first point this morning is Isaac and Esau and is found in Genesis 27:1-4. This is what God’s Word says, “Now it came about, when Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, that he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” Then Isaac said, “Behold now, I am old and I do not know the day of my death. Now then, please take your gear, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me; and prepare a delicious meal for me such as I love, and bring it to me that I may eat, so that my soul may bless you before I die.”
Isaac is now an old man and is physically blind. The phrase his “eyes were dim” has the meaning of spiritual blindness as well. Isaac thought he was close to death, so he sent for his eldest son, Esau, so that he could bless him before he died. To prepare for the giving of the blessing Isaac commands Esau to get his quiver and bow and go out to the fields and hunt, kill and prepare the kind of delicious meal that he loved. The phrase “such as I love” suggests Isaac was in bondage to his appetite. Genesis 25:28 reminds us that Isaac had a taste for wild game and loved Esau because he was the hunter and a man of the open country. That same verse says that Rebekah loved Jacob, who was a quiet man and stayed among the tents. Very early on both Isaac and Rebekah seemed to play favorites with their children. These preferences were the beginning of the downfall of this family. Isaac states he wants Esau to prepare this delicious meal he loves so that his “soul” may bless him. The use of “soul” expressed how strong Isaac’s desire was to bless Esau. It would be the passing on of a lifetime of blessing.
There are significant observations we can make in these four verses. One, Isaac is ruled by his stomach. He loved wild game therefore he loved Esau who could hunt, kill and prepare it for him the way Isaac liked. It is interesting that when Abraham was preparing for death he sent his servant to Mesopotamia to get a wife for Isaac and Isaac when he was preparing to die wanted a feast. Two, we are told that Isaac felt he was close to death. Isaac actually lived at least another 25 years so he was not on his deathbed. We see other biblical leaders, such as Moses in Deuteronomy 31:14, being warned by God when they were about to die. Isaac stating that he doesn’t know the day of his death would seem disingenuous especially to the first hearers. Third, we see deception here on the part of Isaac and Esau. Most commentators agree that Isaac most assuredly knew about Rebekah’s oracle from God that the elder would serve the younger and/or he knew that Esau had sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of red stew. The birthright and the blessing normally went together so by planning to give his blessing to Esau he was trying to deceive and circumvent the will of God. Esau was also trying to deceive because he knew that he had sold his birthright to Jacob; so by accepting the blessing he was breaking his oath. Also Esau had really disqualified himself by marrying Canaanite women something Isaac was willing to turn a “blind eye” to, pun intended.
Most telling though is the fact that Isaac didn’t call the entire family to the occasion. Whenever the father’s blessing was given to the eldest child he also gave the other children their blessing at the same time. These blessings were like our last will and testament today and needed to be witnessed. (Picture of witnessed will) Isaac by neglecting to call Jacob, in order to bless him as well, and by not calling any witnesses to the event, shows he was trying to deceive Jacob and Rebekah. And in the end, by going through with blessing Esau he was trying to deceive God as well. That reminds us of our big idea that God’s plans will be accomplished despite our lies and deceptions.
The second point this morning is Rebekah and Jacob found in Genesis 27: 5-17. This is what God’s Word says, “Now Rebekah was listening while Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game to bring home, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Behold, I heard your father speak to your brother Esau, saying, ‘Bring me some game and prepare a delicious meal for me, so that I may eat, and bless you in the presence of the Lord before my death.’ So now, my son, listen to me as I command you. Go now to the flock and bring me two choice young goats from there, so that I may prepare them as a delicious meal for your father, such as he loves. Then you shall bring it to your father, that he may eat, so that he may bless you before his death.” But Jacob said to his mother Rebekah, “Behold, my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am a smooth man. Perhaps my father will touch me, then I will be like a deceiver in his sight, and I will bring upon myself a curse and not a blessing.” But his mother said to him, “Your curse be on me, my son; only obey my voice, and go, get the goats for me.” So he went and got them, and brought them to his mother; and his mother made a delicious meal such as his father loved. Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob. And she put the skins of the young goats on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. She also gave the delicious meal and the bread which she had made to her son Jacob.”
First thing we notice is Rebekah eavesdropping which reminds us of her mother-in-law, Sarah. In Genesis 18, Sarah “overheard” the Lord telling Abraham she was going to have a child. Isaac probably had this conversation with Esau in his tent and Rebekah must have been on the lookout so she could intervene. This meant that she had an inkling that Isaac would try to pull a fast one. There is no telling how many times in the past Rebekah must have listened outside Isaac’s tent in order to hear this particular conversation. When Esau left to go to the open country to hunt the game Rebekah went to Jacob and quoted Isaac’s words to Esau. This was to establish her truthfulness to Jacob in what was about to take place. Notice she identifies Isaac and Esau as “your father and your brother” and Jacob as “my son” reminding us of the family dysfunction. Rebekah leaves out the part about Isaac blessing Esau with “all his soul” downplaying the strength of his desire and resolve to bless him. And she adds the part about “in the Lord’s presence” which emphasized the importance and the religious significance of what is about to take place. Rebekah needs Jacob to see the urgency of putting her plan into motion immediately. She is persistent and makes it clear that he is to pay close attention to her voice and commands. Seemingly, it is Rebekah who is the mastermind here.
Notice Rebekah’s deception as she puts her plan into motion. She must have been formulating her plan for a while because it was elaborate and would need to be done quickly for it to be successful. She commands Jacob to get two young goats from the flock so she can prepare the meal and Jacob can take it to his father. But he is concerned that his father will notice that he is not Esau. If his father touches his smooth skin it would give him away. He didn’t want to appear to be deceiving his father and bring down a curse on himself instead of a blessing. But this isn’t Jacob rebuking his mother for her plan of deception; he is just worried about getting caught. But Rebekah is wily as she calms his fears about being cursed. She said she would take the curse upon herself showing the lengths she was willing to go. Interestingly, as we will see later, if the blessing couldn’t be taken away from Jacob and given to Esau then the curse could not be taken away from Jacob and given to Rebekah. She was manipulating Jacob in order to get him to participate in her scheme, which was to get him the blessing. Of course, Jacob didn’t need much coercing and he obeys his mother’s commands. We continue to see that Rebekah had it all planned out. She takes Esau’s best clothes that were in the house and put them on Jacob. She also covered his smooth hands and neck with the goatskins. After preparing the meal and dressing Jacob up to look, smell and feel like Esau, Rebekah gave him the food and bread to take to Isaac. Throughout this story, Rebekah seems so sure she could pull off this deception. She probably felt that the ends (Jacob getting the blessing like God wanted) justified the means (the deception).
The third point this morning is Jacob and Isaac and is found in Genesis 27:18-29. This is what God’s Word says, “Then he came to his father and said, “My father.” And he said, “Here I am. Who are you, my son?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn; I have done as you told me. Come now, sit and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.” Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have it so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because the Lord your God made it come to me.” Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come close, so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob came close to his father Isaac, and he touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” And he did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him. And he said, “Are you really my son Esau?” And he said, “I am.” So he said, “Bring it to me, and I will eat of my son’s game, that I may bless you.” And he brought it to him, and he ate; he also brought him wine and he drank. Then his father Isaac said to him, “Please come close and kiss me, my son.” So he came close and kissed him; and when he smelled the smell of his garments, he blessed him and said, “See, the smell of my son Is like the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed; Now may God give you of the dew of heaven, And of the fatness of the earth, And an abundance of grain and new wine; May peoples serve you, And nations bow down to you; Be master of your brothers, And may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, And blessed be those who bless you.”
Jacob is now in full deception mode as he takes the meal to his father. But he almost blows the whole plan. In trying to cover all their bases, sight, smell, taste and touch, they forgot about Isaac’s hearing. When we lose one of our senses usually the other senses are heightened and when Jacob announced he was there Isaac was immediately confused. He was expecting Esau but the voice sounded like Jacob. So, what does Jacob do? What would we do if we were caught in a lie? We would babble on and on trying to cover up the lie hoping the person doesn’t notice our deception? That’s exactly what Jacob does as he lies and rushes Isaac along saying “sit up, eat the game and bless me.” Isaac wants to know how his son hunted, killed and prepared it so quickly. This reminds me of the phrase I started with, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Rebekah probably thought her plan was foolproof but she had forgotten a couple things. One, Jacob’s voice and, two, she prepared the food too quickly. Isaac may have been blind but he wasn’t dumb. Esau had hunted, killed and prepared this food for him many times before so he had an idea of how long it may take.
Jacob now has to come up with a good answer for his father so he tells another lie to cover the first one. This lie, “the Lord your God made it come to me” shows his spiritual condition. Jacob blasphemes by invoking the name of the Lord and his answer suggests that Jacob saw the Lord as Isaac’s God and not his own. Jacob was having to weave a dangerous tangled web in order to get Isaac to believe he was Esau. Isaac is still not convinced and he wants Jacob to come near so he can touch him. Isaac thought that even though the voice seemed wrong the skin would prove who it really was. But even after touching him Isaac was still confused and didn’t recognize him. So Isaac asked him one more time if he was really his son Esau and Jacob continued his deception by outright lying to his father. Jacob has now lied three times in the presence of his father, Isaac, and in the presence of God. We notice how conflicted Isaac was, but, interestingly, all he had to do was call a witness when he couldn’t confirm whether Esau or Jacob was there, but his hands were tied by his own deceptions. (will slide)
Isaac, now seemingly convinced or maybe just hungry, had Jacob bring the game so he could eat and give him his blessing. Jacob also brought him some wine which may have been too dull Isaac’s senses even more. Then Isaac tried one more thing in order to know he was really in the presence of Esau. He asked Jacob to come and kiss him. Jacob kisses his father and when his father caught Esau’s smell he immediately blessed him. Isaac had been betrayed and deceived by Rebekah and Jacob but he had also been betrayed and deceived by his own senses. His sight was already dulled. He allowed his hearing to be deceived even though he was skeptical at first. He was deceived by Jacob’s touch and by the smell of Esau clothes. Lastly, he was even deceived by his taste buds. He had probably eaten tons of game or venison dishes prepared by Esau over the years but was now deceived by the goat meat dish that Rebekah had prepared.
The smell of who Isaac thought was Esau prompted him to begin the blessing that was specifically suited for Esau. The smell of his clothing reminded Isaac of the fields where Esau spent his days and saw God’s blessing on him. The open fields now became a place of blessing and plenty not just merely a place to live. The blessing unfolded in three parts: The first part was generous in its scope mentioning the heaven’s dew and the earth’s fatness which expressed the entirety of nature’s abundance. Heaven’s dew was essential to vegetation and farming in the land of Canaan and the “fatness of the earth” meant prosperity. The prosperity of the land was further spelled out as having an abundance of grain and new wine. Hamilton says, “The God of Jacob will provide Jacob with all the ingredients of fertility that were thought to be given by the Canaanite gods Heaven, Earth, Dagan and Tirosh.” We should notice that these would be seen as blessings for the settled farmer not necessarily that of a nomadic hunter. We should not be surprised that this blessing is more suited to Jacob than Esau looking forward to the settling of the Promised Land.
The second part of the blessing had to do with peoples serving Jacob and nations and brothers bowing down to Him. To “bow down” meant they would serve him and show him honor. He would be their master. This part of the blessing fulfilled the oracle God spoke to Rebekah during her pregnancy. The last part of the blessing reiterated the blessing of protection and favor God first gave to Abraham that those who “curse you will be cursed and those who bless you will be blessed.” The order of the blessing is logical in that the blessing of prosperous land foresees a flourishing nation that makes servants of rival and even brother nations. So Jacob received the blessing, just as God sovereignly ordained, that Isaac intended for Esau. It was so far-reaching that it would have left nothing for the other children. Isaac intended to bless Esau in such an enormous fashion that it would have left nothing of importance for Jacob. BIG IDEA.
Briscoe says, “There is one profound factor which must not be overlooked and that is the Sovereign Lord was still at work despite the scheming and conniving. Despite all the efforts of man to thwart the purposes of God through all manner of mistakes and misdemeanors, Jacob, whom God had said would be the next link in the chain of divine promise had arrived in that exact position. The lesson behind all of this is that God delights to have his men and women work in glad cooperation with him, but should they freely chose not to cooperate, they will eventually discover that God works despite their having chosen not to allow him to work with them. This brings us to the first next step on the back of your communication card. My next step is to freely choose to work in glad cooperation with God in fulfilling His will and plans for my life and the world.
Now I would be remiss to not address the deceptions in this passage. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.” We must “watch over” or “guard” our hearts with all diligence in order to keep from wanting to deceive others. Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob have spent a lifetime NOT guarding and watching over their hearts. They were not diligent. They let preferential treatment run rampant in their home and cultivated a lifestyle of deception and taking advantage of each other. This brings us to the second next step this morning which is to guard my heart with all diligence in order to keep from deceiving my fellow human beings and God.
I want to close with this story called, Successful Swindlers, from Walton’s commentary. The joke is told of the deacon whose property adjoined that of a golf course. One Sunday morning he decided to skip church and take in some golf. He slipped over the fence onto the third fairway and began to play. As in the case of Job, Satan was standing before God and asked what God intended to do to punish the deacon’s dishonesty. “Just wait and see what happens on the fifth hole,” God smiled. The fifth hole was the most difficult on the course and often was responsible for scuttling the hopes for a good game. On this particular Sunday morning, however, the deacon (whose handicap was a barely mediocre 33) drove the ball straight and true. Not only did it find the green, but it took the curve of the terrain and went right in the cup: a hole-in-one. Satan was aghast with incredulity. “Why have you rewarded this unconscionable conduct with such remarkable success?” “It looks like success now,” replied God, “but who is he going to tell?”
When we read this story about sinful Jacob and hear about the successes of sinful people in our day and age, we may be inclined to ask, “How can God allow this conniver to succeed?” From Jacob’s story we can see that God at times allows success in sin because he has a greater lesson to teach someone at a later time. God’s timing is strategic. None of us experiences immediate response from God every time we sin. Rather, at the proper time God brings our sins to our attention or brings the full fruit of consequences into our lives. That inevitably means that sin has the capability of bringing temporary success. God in his impeccable sovereignty, will bring each sin to light and fruit so as to serve his optimum purposes in our lives and in his plan. He did so with Jacob and will do so in our lives as well. The success from sin is short lived.”
As the praise team comes to lead us in a final song, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, I for one am truly thankful that you still use sinful human beings today to do your work in this world. I pray that each of us would freely choose to work in glad cooperation with you in fulfilling your plans for our lives and the world. I also pray that we would guard our hearts with all diligence so that we would not give the devil a foothold in our lives. Help us to strive to be more like your son, Jesus, every day and to hide your Word in our hearts so that we wouldn’t sin against you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.