"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
September 27, 2012
by Orson Scott Card

The story of the non-identical twin brothers Jacob and Esau is echoed in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Both stories are based on issues of inheritance and the envy of siblings vying for a share of the parental legacy.

Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac, lived in a time and place when primogeniture was the rule.

When a family’s property is divided evenly among the children (or, more usually, among the sons only), with each generation the value of each portion of the estate shrinks. All are weakened.

To counter this, under primogeniture the entire estate is held together, and only the firstborn inherits. Some small provision is usually made for younger sons, but in the end, unless they make their own fortune or the eldest takes care of them, the younger sons are on their own.

Nomads like Abraham and Isaac had no lands, and money barely existed. They counted their wealth entirely in animals, their power in the number of servant-soldiers.

Perhaps Isaac thought that his warlike son Esau, a hunter by preference, would be the best able to attract strong, soldierly servants and protect the family fortune from rivals and enemies.

But Esau’s hunting had little to do with increasing and protecting the herds and flocks, and he showed nothing but disdain for the legumes and other crops that the household planted wherever they stopped long enough to have a full growing season.

It was Jacob who tended the flocks and grew the starches and vegetables the household actually lived on. When Esau came home hungry from the hunt, it was Jacob who always had food for him and his men. To Esau, this made Jacob seem like a servant; yet Esau expected to inherit the wealth that Jacob’s work, and not his own, had preserved and increased.

Esau could easily promise Jacob the inheritance — because he knew that he, Esau the hunter, could always take it back. The fighting men would follow the warrior, not the shepherd.

There was another “property,” however, that Jacob tended and Esau did not, and that was the relationship with God. Genesis might show Jacob as a trickster, but it also shows him as the one God spoke to, the one who wrestled with the Lord.

And Rebekah, who alone among the women of Genesis had received visions of her own, saw this potential in him and believed that Jacob would preserve this most important part of the inheritance, while Esau barely knew it existed, and would carelessly throw it away.

We know the story of how Jacob made a play for the inheritance by disguising himself in order to receive from blind Isaac the blessing he intended for Esau. He and his mother knew as they did it that Esau’s rage would be murderous, and to survive, Jacob had to flee to Rebekah’s family in Haran.

In other words, the only part of Isaac’s estate that Jacob would ever receive was the blessing in the name of God — the priesthood. Esau got all the rest, and when Jacob later matched him in worldly wealth and power, it was because God, not Isaac, had given it to him.

In the Prodigal Son, however, there is no primogeniture. The younger son expects a full half of his father’s wealth; yet he is impatient to receive it, and asks his father to give it to him now, while he’s still young enough to enjoy it.

The father, perhaps heartbroken by the request and foreseeing his son’s unreadiness for such responsibility, nevertheless grants it. The son leaves for the city with the wealth his father’s, and not his own, labors had produced.

Contrast this with Jacob, who worked to increase his father’s wealth and, when he left, took with him only the priesthood and the blessing of the firstborn.

We see the prodigal waste all the fruits of his father’s labors, keeping his friends only as long as he is paying for their revels, until he is reduced to friendless poverty in a far country.

Only then does he go home, knowing that he has lost all, and asking only to be a servant in his father’s house. Presumably this would mean that he would continue to be a servant in his brother’s house, after their father died.

Yet the older brother is equally jealous. Unlike Jacob, who cast aside worldly wealth for the sake of the spiritual inheritance, he is as covetous of his share of the father’s wealth as his younger brother was — he has merely been more patient.

Perhaps fearing that his father will later redivide the estate, so that having lost half the family fortune once already, the younger will cost the elder even more of “his” share. He forgets that at present it all belongs to the father.

The father stills his complaint by saying, All that I have will be yours. Now let me rejoice that my lost son has returned to me alive.

These two stories teach us much, though the laws and customs of inheritance today are different.

We pass many things on to our children. From the moment of conception, children are blessed and burdened with a half-set of genes from each parent. This will determine their physical appearance and many inborn abilities and disabilities.

Even before the mother knows she is pregnant, her decisions and actions will affect the growing baby. The presence or absence of the father shapes the child’s life from birth onward.

Whoever raises children shapes the world they live in — including the other children they are raised with. Long before the parents die, their children have received an irresistible inheritance, positive and negative.

Children with absent, distant, or condemning fathers can spend their lives searching for the approval of a man who will never give it, or trying to find substitutes, or rebelling against anyone who tries to take his place.

Children of poverty might devote their lives to a fruitless search for wealth for its own sake, or resent others born to privilege; likewise, children who inherit ignorance might embrace and perpetuate it, or seek constantly to keep others as ignorant as themselves.

Regardless of the amount and disposition of the parents’ worldly goods, all their children will inherit both good and ill. Yet what the children do with both tells us far more about who they are than anything their parents did to or for them.

Let us look at another parable:

Two families live near each other in a neighborhood of substantial but not showy houses. Both are blessed with careers that give them financial rewards.

The Ferreiras work ceaselessly, rising ever higher in their careers, amassing a great fortune in order to bequeath it to their children. Their children get into the most expensive schools, but the result is that other people raise and teach them, and they grow up lonely.

In their will, the Ferreiras divide their fortune equally; their children’s trust funds pay such dividends that they need never pursue any kind of career at all. Their parents have provided for them, and for their children, to live with all the reasonable luxuries until the grave.

The Wongs also work hard, but only enough to provide their children with a good upbringing. They do their best to make sure their children are all prepared to fend for themselves in the world, educated to adapt to the unpredictable changes that the future will inevitably bring, and filled with a love of God and a deep understanding of the gospel. They don’t compel their children to accept these values, but they offer them and live by them.

In their will, the Wongs leave everything to charity, or to friends and workers who have served the family well. To their children they leave all the friendships they have built up over the years, if the children wish to maintain them; their teaching and example, if the children choose to follow them; and, most precious of all, the children’s absolute certainty of the love and respect their parents had for them.

Which parents have left the better inheritance to their children? Which children are better prepared to use their inheritance wisely and well?

It is good to provide for your children’s needs. But it is of questionable value to live as though their needs were limited to visible wealth and worldly prestige, items with imminent expiration dates.

Far more than money, and the things that money buys, children need love, respect, wise teaching, and the visible example of parents who serve God and love their neighbors as themselves.

Let us remember that the Prodigal Son’s father represents the Father of us all. When he says to one, “All that I have is yours,” this does not diminish his ability to say the same thing, truthfully, to all his other children.

Parents whose legacy is wisdom, love, generosity, faith, and good example can say to all their children, “All that we have is yours,” because these are gifts that do not have to be divided to be shared out equally to all.

Only those who measure their wealth in the transient coinage of the material world are reduced to divvying up their petty estates, with the legacy to one necessarily depriving the others of that portion.

These include the people who think that they can punish, after death, the relatives who displeased them, by withholding from them any portion of their hoard.

They do not seem to realize that all their children will eventually go into the next life as penniless as they. No material inheritance will last; nor will it add a thing to their children’s happiness, if they are not already happy.

The acquisitive Ferreiras die with empty hands, and bestow the same legacy upon their children.

The open-handed Wongs take with them everything they valued most, while leaving the whole of it behind, undivided and undiminished, in the hearts of their children.

In the economy of the eternal soul, there are no scarce resources to be hoarded, doled out only here and there. Like the widow’s cruse of oil and bag of grain, the spirit’s treasury is filled again by each outsharing.

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About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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