“And Jacob said, “First swear to me”; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.” Gen. 25:33
Though Jacob was born within minutes of his older brother Esau, Jacob seemed determined to usurp him. I explored the birthright in the previous post, which sheds some light on why Jacob wanted this role. But even so, at the end of Isaac’s life, Jacob is willing to deceive his father (at his mother Rebekah’s direction) into receiving Esau’s blessing as well!
This seems odd because logically one would think that it is not possible to actually ‘be’ the firstborn if one is not; further if Jacob is not really entitled to the blessing, why does Isaac not recant what was said, prove Jacob a liar, and give the blessing to Esau? But none of this happens. Instead it is as if a divinely ordained path was forged for Jacob, even if he used questionable means to stay on that path.
There is a fascinating rabbinical explanation for Jacob’s favor: That perhaps he was actually conceived first, though he was born second.
Even today we do not know what a child is thinking in the womb, but we know that Jacob and Esau were struggling with one another. If Jacob knew he was conceived first, this could explain the struggle; further it would explain why Jacob was holding the heel of Esau while being delivered as if to say “Get back here, I’m supposed to be first!” If Jacob somehow knew he truly was first, it may explain his drive for the birthright, as he actually would have felt it belonged to him. And the transaction happens without divine intervention to stop it. Perhaps even more telling, later God acknowledges Jacob as firstborn, in the words of Moses to Pharaoh:
“‘Thus says the LORD, “Israel is My son, My firstborn.” Exodus 4:22
As we know, Jacob is later renamed Israel by God (Gen. 32:28). Last of course we see Jacob get away with stealing Esau’s blessing, somehow without obvious divine punishment, though it results in his brother wanting to kill him of course.
And so this is a rabbinical story that cannot be easily dismissed, as if offers plausible explanation to otherwise seemingly disconnected elements of the story.
There is an over-arching theme in the scriptures of the younger son being used mightily by God. Perhaps this is in part why Jesus said ‘But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.” (Matthew 19:30)