Irresponsible. Foolish. Impulsive. Recent college graduates with substantial student loans are sometimes regarded in these terms. Those who attended college decades ago, with a $15 per credit hour, may assume that these graduates are spoiled Millennials who "should have known better" than to agree to the loan terms.
Many recent college graduates are facing crushing student loan debt and high unemployment rates. According to the Federal Reserve, student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion. Although efforts to reduce the strain on these graduates could help to stimulate the economy, a great number of these graduates and their families have trouble repaying their debt or in renegotiating loan terms. More than 11% of student loan balances are 90+ days delinquent or in default. Despite these difficulties, Senator Elizabeth Warren's student loan refinancing proposal, the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, was defeated in the Senate on June 11th with a vote of 56-38.
Like the student loan debt crisis, this week's Revised Common Lectionary text raises questions of personal and communal responsibility. In Genesis 25:19-34, there are two brief stories. The first details the birth of Esau and Jacob, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Rebekah was unable to conceive, but after Isaac prays, she conceives the twins who struggle in utero. When she asks the Lord why this happens, the Lord responds: "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided, the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger" (Gen 25:23). Her children represent two nations, one that will rule the other. This story appears to be intended to justify the dominance of Israel over Edom.
Esau, red and hairy, is born first. Jacob is born with his hand gripping Esau's heel. Esau's name in Hebrew sounds like the Hebrew word for "hairy," while Jacob's name relates to the Hebrew word for "heel." Esau grew to be a hunter and outdoorsman, while Jacob was a "quiet man, living in tents." The twins' father Isaac loved Esau due to Isaac's fondness for game meat, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
In the second story (25:29-34), Esau sells his birthright to his brother Jacob. The birthright provides the elder son with a "double portion" of his father's inheritance. Esau comes in from the field and says to his brother, "Let me gobble up some of that stew for I am famished" (my translation). Jacob demands, "Sell me your birthright." Esau explains, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" Jacob remains focused and demands that Esau swear to his terms. The narrator ends this episode by noting that Esau despised his birthright. Later, after deception, Jacob is blessed by Isaac.
This second text is low-hanging fruit for a sermon illustration or Sunday School lesson. A common interpretation argues that Esau is a blockhead jock who does not value what he has been given, while Jacob, the clever one, managed to one-up him. Often, readers want to identify with the crafty underdog who wins the competition. Esau agrees to sell his birthright. Although Jacob was not due to receive the larger share of the inheritance, he obtains it from his brother "fair and square."
But was this a fair deal?
Esau comes in from the field and asks his brother for food. Jacob could have given the food that he was preparing to his brother. That would have been the compassionate thing to do. Esau is "weary," and this same term is used in other instances throughout the Bible. David and his soldiers receives provisions from non-Israelites because "the troops are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness" (2 Samuel 17:29). In other biblical texts, denying assistance to the weary is condemned. For example, Israelites are reminded that the Amalekites attacked them when they were "faint and weary" (Deuteronomy 25:17). Also, Eliphaz speaks against Job: "You have given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry" (Job 22:7). Instead, of giving his brother food, Jacob demands that Esau sell his birthright. Esau did not come to negotiate. He did not bring his attorney or a copy of his father's will. He was just hungry. Esau was honest about his situation, but Jacob took advantage of his brother for his personal gain.
Often, those who are not recent college graduates treat people who have taken out large student loans, or other predatory loans, in the same way that we regard Esau-with suspicion and judgment. If he's an experienced hunter, why didn't he come back to camp with a fresh kill? How did he end up in this predicament? How did he let it get this bad? Didn't he carry any trail mix with him? They may contend that students knew what they were doing when they signed the loan papers and agreed to high interest rates and strict repayment terms. Just as Esau is at a disadvantage, so are college students and their families. Many may not be well-informed about such a large financial transaction and have difficulties understanding and comparing the financial aid packages from different schools. Furthermore, they may not be able to secure full-time employment that would allow them to pay back their loans. Some banks, politicians, educational institutions are not operating in the best interest of the student. They profit handsomely from students' desire for an education and a path to greater economic stability.
Instead of offering compassion, Jacob exploited his brother's situation. Esau was in trouble with an immediate need. Jacob did not ask how he could help. We must ask what responsibility we have for the lives of others. Many college students and recent college graduates are in trouble. How are we complicit? What did we do to contribute to situation? How can we help?
Nyasha Junior is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C. She earned a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. She was awarded a 2012-2013 ATS-Lilly Faculty Fellowship and is currently writing a book on womanist biblical interpretation. You can learn more at her website www.nyashajunior.com.