One of the biggest mistakes parents of more than one child can make is showing favoritism towards one of their children. What’s the depth of emotional hurt when an adult child says to his sibling, “Yeah, well, mom always liked you better!” Don’t you have to wonder how much family dysfunction is due to either the reality or the perception of parental favoritism?

The problem is an ancient one. God even saw fit to record an example of this dysfunction and the far-reaching consequences in the family of Isaac and Rebekah. You can read all about it in Genesis 25-33. What I’d like to park on for a moment, though, is the apparent root of the parental favoritism. After a period of infertility, Isaac prayed for children, and God answered his prayer with twin sons, Jacob and Esau. From the get-go, God made it clear that both boys would grow up to be progenitors of nations; however, the older son (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). Now, one could understandably assume that the promise of Jacob’s superiority would cause mom and dad to favor him. But that wasn’t it. Instead, each parent had a favorite: Isaac favored Esau, and Rebekah favored Jacob. So that dynamic creates its own set of problems, doesn’t it—mom and dad are at odds with one another. Let’s go deeper. Why did they favor whom they favored?

Here it is.

Gifts.

Isaac favored Esau because his elder son loved the great outdoors and all that went with it. Esau was a hunter, and a pretty good one at that. You could be sure that every time he got a few extra bucks in his pocket (dollars, not deer!), he’d be down at the Bass Pro Shop getting some new arrows, restocking his ammo, or replacing worn out gear.

Rebekah, on the other hand, favored Jacob because he was a bit more of a domestic, tending to the family garden or helping mom in the kitchen. You might catch him on a cold January evening perusing the seed catalogs getting ready for spring planting. And if he had some extra cash? He might pop in to Bed, Bath, & Beyond for a new set of towels or a couple labor-saving kitchen gadgets.

So God made these two brothers with a different set of gifts—different skills, interests, and probably even physical abilities. And, by the way, He still works that way! Understood rightly, we can appreciate others and value them for who they are, what they’re like, and what they can do—even if it’s different from me. Isaac and Rebekah messed up on that one, and it messed up the family!

When we use our different gifts rightly, we can serve one another, be a help to and meet the needs of others—even as a basis for legitimate commerce and earning a living. But those differences can be abused so that we manipulate, take advantage of, and even extort those who are gifted like we are and need what we are uniquely gifted to provide. I saw a vivid example of this a few years back. We were living in Vermont at the time and our region was hit with a devastating ice storm. Thousands of people were without electricity, and would be for days. Many went looking for emergency generators only to discover to their disbelief and disgust that the pre-ice-storm price had, in some cases, quadrupled! Jacob was demanding the birthright for a bowl of soup!

So yes, families, communities, churches, and even society can become terribly dysfunctional as a result of our “favoritism.” It’s fairly easy from the comfortable distance of time and place to be critical of Jacob and Esau’s parents, isn’t it? Much more difficult to see ourselves reflected in them.