“Oh, what a tangled web we weave -- when first we practice to deceive!”


“Oh, what a tangled web we weave -- When first we practice to deceive!”

This is arguably one of the most oft-quoted lines in all of literature and it came from the pen of this man

Sir Walter Scott, (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832). He was a prolific Scottishhistorical novelist and poet popular throughout Europe during his time.

Famous titles include Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Lady of The Lake and other works we didn’t want to read in high school.

Perhaps a more familiar and folksy sentiment is expressed in the children’s taunt, “Liar, Liar, pants on fire.”

Lying and liars are the stuff of great drama in the literary world and in the real world. The liar is an essential literary convention in many plays, movies, novels, and song lyrics, like the Eagles “LYIN’ EYES”. The liar and the lie create an edge to any story and counter balance the hero/heroine with the wicked deceiver. Even children’s fairy tales feature lying as a device that adds tension to the story and provides and platform upon which the liar gets his comeuppance or is somehow redeemed after learning how destructive lying can be. Case in point, Pinocchio.

This picture is from the original storybook by Italian writer, Carlo Collodi who first presented his story in 1883. Pinocchio is the tale of a wooden puppet that longed to be a real boy, but had issues with telling the truth. But, for me, it was Walt Disney version that is most familiar.

Of course you remember what happened to our wooden friend when he told a lie…….That’s right, his nose grew longer.

Now for all you young families, your children probably recognize our long-nosed friend from the “Shrek” movie series.

Ah, if only it was that easy to discover when someone is telling a whopper by watching his or her nose.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in fairytale land, at least most of us don’t. So we need some skills to guide us in the challenges of our lives and relationships, don’t we?

What we need, apparently, is the latest TV hero, “Dr. Cal Lightman” from Fox’s new show LIE TO ME.

/lie-to-me/show/43669 graphic

/show/43669/videos/11637128 Trailer for the show

Since we don’t have the almost physic skills of someone like Dr. Lightman nor the physical anomaly of growing noses, we have to rely on our own guts to guide us when we feel sure we are caught in a web of deceit. And if we are the guilty parties, we are doubly grateful our noses don’t reveal our treachery. Most people lie for a reason. I didn’t say it was a good reason!

It may be of some comfort to you to learn that some of the Bibles greatest heroes are not above telling a big one to save their necks or to deceive an enemy. The great patriarch Abraham himself led the king of Gerar to believe his beautiful wife, Sarah was only his sister. So the mighty warrior king took Sarah into his home. He nearly made a fatal error but God intervened and told him to take Sarah back to her husband. Abraham lied because he was afraid the godless king with attack him. His son Isaac did the same thing with his wife and a king. Check it out in Genesis 20 and 26.

Trickery, deception, skullduggery, lying, misleading, whatever you wish to call it, many of the great Bible characters were often involved in it up to their very human necks. Besides Abraham and Isaac, the beautiful, energetic and intelligent woman Rebekah used her position as wife and mother to deceive. She was ambitious for her son and she let nothing get in the way of her plans. Rebekah, you may remember was the wife of Isaac who was the son of Abraham and Sarah. She became the mother to the twins-in-conflict, Jacob and Esau and she is the focus of our study today.

In order to get the real juice out of the scriptures today you need to know some background, and believe me, it’s good stuff! Genesis is the location of these fantastically crafted stories of how God’s plans and human plans, though contradictory, worked out. God used, and still uses, very flawed people. And through these imperfect chosen vessels a great nation would be formed. Abraham was promised, by God, that he would have descendants that will be more numerous than,

“…the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.”

That’s a lot! Here is what happened:

When Yahweh, God called Abram to leave his homeland and move onto a place He selected, Abram obeyed. Now he did not know this God, he was not familiar with this God, yet he faithfully followed his directions to move into a strange land. No wonder Abram/Abraham is famous for his faith. Well, this faithful man experienced many exciting and frightening events, but he was ever in God’s watch care. His greatest desire was to have children but he and his wife Sarai were childless. Barrenness and miraculous births were favorite features in many Biblical sagas. Good to His word, God gives Abram and Sarai and son even though Abram was 100 when he was born. They named him Isaac, which means “he laughs” which is exactly what both parents did when God told them they would finally become parents. Well, who wouldn’t? God changed Abram and Sarai’s names to the more famous Abraham and Sarah and thus the stage is set for the numerous descendants story to begin, but was not without its twists and turns.

After a series of dramatic challenges it is time for Abraham to get a wife for his son. Abraham was very, very old and was about to breathe his last, so like a good father he wanted to insure the family line would go on, just as God had promised, but his beloved son Isaac needed a wife to make that happen. Abraham wants his son to marry a girl from his own clan so he sends his trusted servant back east to fetch one. The servant goes to the land of Haran and encounters the family of Abraham in a most fortuitous manner. He has asked God to let him know which girl is “the one” and no sooner had his fervent prayer ended then there she was, beautiful Rebekah, carrying her water jar making her way to the well.

The servant has asked for a sign and God gives it to him. The lovely girl gives him water and offers to water the camels for him too. Those very actions were the sign he needed. The grateful servant learns she is a kinswoman of his master and the perfect bride for Isaac.

After bestowing her with a nose ring, probably nicer than the ones our kids are wearing, and two very costly gold bracelets, he meets the family , gives them sheep, cattle, silver, gold, servants, camels and donkeys and makes ready to head back to his master and deliver the bride. Oh, by the way, did I mention she was a virgin? The writer of this story makes sure we all know that key feature.

Finally they get to the field where Isaac, now grieving for the loss of his mother Sarah, has pitched a tent. Riding along she sees him in the distance, inquires as to who that man might be, and quickly slips her veil over her face when she finds out it is her bridegroom.

Needless to say, the hit it off and life is good, at least for a while. Alas, something happened to beautiful, virtuous, energetic, open, Rebekah. She changed, though this darker side of personality could be foretold if one but knew the real meaning of her name. Rebekah means, snare, a loop to tie an animal, i.e. a “noose”. She becomes a snare to her sons and a deceiver to her husband Isaac.

Gen. 25:19-34

Jacob and Esau

 19 This is the account of Abraham's son Isaac.
      Abraham became the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram [a] and sister of Laban the Aramean.

 21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, "Why is this happening to me?" So she went to inquire of the LORD.

 23 The LORD said to her,
       "Two nations are in your womb,
       and two peoples from within you will be separated;
       one people will be stronger than the other,
       and the older will serve the younger."

 24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. [b]26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob. [c] Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.

 27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

 29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, "Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I'm famished!" (That is why he was also called Edom. [d] )

 31 Jacob replied, "First sell me your birthright."

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

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

 34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.
      So Esau despised his birthright.

There are a few elements that I want to highlight for you in this tale of two brothers and their mother;

  1. It is the story of how two nations in conflict came to be and how both came from the same mother.

  2. This story features a divine annunciation song which tells of an upcoming birth in which God is directly involved. Remember Elizabeth and Mary in the New Testament? If you have been attending Sunday School, you will remember the three visitors who announce Isaac’s birth to Sarai and Abram. These annunciations mean the birth is of great importance.

  3. The story tells us about the characters personalities and temperaments so we will know why they do what they do in the future.

  4. The story tells us that Rebekah has a love for one son, the second in birth order. This sets the stage for yet another tale of the younger brother rising above the oldest, which is a common theme in the OT. The older sibling, by custom and later by law, was to receive the greatest inheritance and was, in fact, the ruler of the clan after the Father’s death.

  5. Finally, we see a shift in our heroine Rebekah. Something has changed in her but the writers have left us to draw our own conclusions about her very different attitude. What happens next has confounded generation upon generation of Western Thinkers like ourselves. We simply can’t figure out how a loving mother could guide her son down such a path, and yet….as you listen, I am guessing someone in your own life will leap to mind. Can you think of a mother who has deliberately taught her children destructive, deceitful behaviors?

Well, time has passed since Jacob cleverly attained the birthright from his brother Esau. Who knows what else has happened in this family to lead us to these events? Oh for the daily journal of Rebekah! That certainly would shed some light on the issues wouldn’t it? Unfortunately we have no such document so we are left to piece together the details that bring us to this part of the story.

Gen. 27 tells us that Isaac is old and cannot see well. He calls out for his beloved son Esau the hunter and has him go into the fields to kill him something wonderful to eat. His father loved that wild game and that is why he loved Esau too, or so the Bible says. Mama Rebekah is standing near and hears this exchange.

Genesis 27:5-36

 5 Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back,

6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, "Look, I overheard your father say to your brother Esau,

7 'Bring me some game and prepare me some tasty food to eat, so that I may give you my blessing in the presence of the LORD before I die.'

8 Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you:

9 Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it.

10 Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies."

 11 Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, "But my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I'm a man with smooth skin.

12 What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing."

 13 His mother said to him, "My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me."

 14 So he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she prepared some tasty food, just the way his father liked it.

15 Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob.

16 She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins.

17 Then she handed to her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made.

 18 He went to his father and said, "My father."
      "Yes, my son," he answered. "Who is it?"

 19 Jacob said to his father, "I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game so that you may give me your blessing."

 20 Isaac asked his son, "How did you find it so quickly, my son?"
      "The LORD your God gave me success," he replied.

 21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, "Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not."

 22 Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau."

23 He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he blessed him.

24 "Are you really my son Esau?" he asked.
      "I am," he replied.

 25 Then he said, "My son, bring me some of your game to eat, so that I may give you my blessing."
      Jacob brought it to him and he ate; and he brought some wine and he drank.

26 Then his father Isaac said to him, "Come here, my son, and kiss me."

 27 So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said,
       "Ah, the smell of my son
       is like the smell of a field
       that the LORD has blessed.

 28 May God give you of heaven's dew
       and of earth's richness—
       an abundance of grain and new wine.

 29 May nations serve you
       and peoples bow down to you.
       Be lord over your brothers,
       and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
       May those who curse you be cursed
       and those who bless you be blessed."

 30 After Isaac finished blessing him and Jacob had scarcely left his father's presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. 31 He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, "My father, sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing."

 32 His father Isaac asked him, "Who are you?"
      "I am your son," he answered, "your firstborn, Esau."

 33 Isaac trembled violently and said, "Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!"

 34 When Esau heard his father's words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, "Bless me—me too, my father!"

 35 But he said, "Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing."

 36 Esau said, "Isn't he rightly named Jacob? He has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he's taken my blessing!" Then he asked, "Haven't you reserved any blessing for me?"

Oh my, what a story this is! Rebekah, “the noose”, “the snare” has lived up to her name. She has set in motion a series of events that will cause such a rift in her family that generations will suffer and strive because of it. Jacob “the deceiver” and Rebekah “the noose” have crushed any chance for family and national harmony. It is important to see that, while central to the problem, Rebekah is not alone in creating issues for the twins. As we look at the story we also see that Isaac has his favorite. When parents show favoritism between children the results cannot be good. That lesson is plain in our text. It is interesting to know that the blessing of the father was believed to possess magical powers that would accomplish what was pronounced in the blessing. Thus we can see an ambitious mother would desire her favorite son to receive it. Once it was uttered it could not be taken back. Anyone want to sing, “Give That Old Time Religion” now?

You may be asking yourself what would I have done if I had been Rebekah? Would I have led my son into such a plot of deceit? What would I have done if I had been Jacob? Would I have allowed my mother to convince me to trick my father and my brother? What if I had been Isaac? Would I have been so easily misled?

If you are asking those questions that is great because these OT stories are written to draw us into the lives of the characters and into their dramas.

OH WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE WHEN FIRSTYLE="WE PRACTICE TO DECEIVE really is the outcome and moral of this tale. When we turn our mental energies into evil actions evil, not good, will likely be the result. We weave a web of deceit and destruction that can send shock waves across time.

Look at our headlines:

Insider trading destroys workers retirement!

Wall Street crushes America’s Dream of Security!

Military leader lied to investigators

Global ministry charged with fraud!

Enron, Insider Trading, Unethical world leaders, Fallen Preachers, Cheating spouses, Wall Street woes and on it goes. It seems, at least for a while, that liars and cheats do get ahead. They do seem to gain some short term advantage. The question is why? Why do people choose deceit, chicanery, and falsehoods to get their way? Is it really the easier path? I think we just become desensitized after a while. We lie and get away with it, the next lie comes easier. J.R. Pope put his spin on Sir Walter Scotts’ famous phrase;

"Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive"
- Sir Walter Scott

"But when we've practiced for a while,
How vastly we improve our style!"
- J.R. Pope

Jesus was keenly aware of the ethical issues people faced in a fallen world. The world then was just like the world today; governments seek their own interests and not the interests of the people; The thirst for power leaves others parched for justice; The drive to control people and situations destroys families, friends and lovers. I am sure that is why our Lord often began his conversations with “Truly I say to you”. “I tell you the truth”. They needed someone they could trust to tell them what was true about themselves and their world. They needed real hope that can only come in the dazzling light of truth. Even when the truth was hard and required sacrifice, discipline, and work, truth and truth alone was they way out of the evil day. True then. True now.

If you have a problem with deception it is time to change your course. If you are living with someone or working with someone whose daily practice is deception it may be difficult of not impossible to avoid their sticky web. You won’t change others but you can change your connection to them. The path of deceit will only lead to broken homes, broken relationships and broken lives. Rebekah and Jacob’s story clearly demonstrates that point. Deceit is a tight and tangled web. The way out? Well, what did Jesus say to his followers in the Gospel of John chapter 14? “I am the way, and the Truth, and the life.” Jesus was and is the embodiment of truth which is great news because as his followers we can travel the way to truth daily holding his hand.


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