Sibling rivalry is as old as … well, the Old Testament. To this day it still puts great stress on families. My two grandsons are both teenagers. In my humble, but correct, opinion, they are the finest, kindest, smartest, and most promising two grandchildren the world has ever known. But they are truly “biblical” brothers. That is, at times they display a different attitude—a flawed attitude—toward each other. They engage in sibling rivalry, the kind that can be found more than once among siblings in the Bible.
Abraham’s twin grandsons, Jacob and Esau, might be considered the poster children of sibling rivalry. It began even before they were born. Their mother complained that she often felt them wrestling in her womb. On the day they were born, Esau came out first. When Jacob appeared moments later, however, he was clutching Esau’s heel in an effort to get ahead of his sibling.
Jacob’s efforts to compete with his brother for their parents’ affection and blessing continued as the boys grew into young men. Jacob tricked Esau into signing over the family birthright to him in exchange for a bowl of stew. The brothers’ worst episode of sibling rivalry came, however, when Jacob tricked their elderly, blind father Isaac into giving him the all-important patriarchal blessing. Jacob dressed in his brother’s clothes, tied goatskins on his arms to mimic Esau’s hairiness, and fed his father a requested meal of wild game—all with the encouragement and help of his mother Rebekah, who openly favored Jacob over Esau. When Esau later discovered what his brother had done, he vowed to kill Jacob. Sibling rivalry had escalated into a fratricidal plot!
The episode of the stolen blessing in Genesis 27 can teach us at least three important lessons about sibling rivalry then and now.
Parental favoritism only makes sibling rivalry worse. Quite often, sibling rivalry develops because children feel—rightly or wrongly—that they aren’t being treated fairly. Some children get more attention from their parents than their siblings. Or parents apply discipline unfairly among their children. The Scriptures do not hide the fact that “Isaac loved Esau … but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Gen. 25:28). These two parents could have helped mitigate their sons’ rivalry and taught their boys how to solve their differences by looking to the Lord for guidance. Instead, they chose favorites; and their family suffered turmoil and bitter separation as a result.
Unchecked sibling rivalry leads quickly to lies and deception. Rivalry and competition can be useful if kept under control. Competition, for example, can spur young people to strive to be their best and give their best under pressure. This is true whether in the realm of athletics, academics, service, or leadership. Parents are wise, however, to keep a check on their children’s attitudes about rivalry and competition. Without the safeguards of faith, humility, and love, rivalry can turn selfish, arrogant, and mean. Corners get cut, and cheating happens. People feel they must not only win but also crush their competitors—even if those competitors are siblings.
Only the intervention of a gracious God can bring good out of sibling rivalry run amok. The story of Jacob and Esau’s sibling rivalry reminds us that God has a greater plan for our lives than we know. We often stymie God’s good plans for us by injecting selfish rivalry into the mix. We find ourselves in trouble and on the run from His perfect plan. Thankfully, God is patient, gracious, and forgiving. He works on us and in us to help us come to our senses and admit where we have gone wrong. He can even orchestrate reconciliation between estranged siblings if we trust Him and follow His guidance.
If your family is beset by sibling rivalry, may God’s guidance in His Word spur you to take actions today that lead to reconciliation and a future of fulfilling His plans for your family.
David Briscoe is a content editor at Lifeway for Explore the Bible resources.