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“Rebekah was listening while Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game to bring home, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Behold, I heard your father speak to your brother Esau, saying, ‘Bring me some game and prepare a savory dish for me, that I may eat, and bless you in the presence of the LORD before my death.’ “Now therefore, my son, listen to me as I command you. “Go now to the flock and bring me two choice young goats from there, that I may prepare them as a savory dish for your father, such as he loves. “Then you shall bring it to your father, that he may eat, so that he may bless you before his death.”” Gen. 27:5-10
When read closely, Genesis 27 reveals many near-truths and half-lies. Familiarity with the story causes this to go almost completely unnoticed, but as with many passages in scripture, careful attention is warranted for us to get a full picture of the personalities of those involved. In this passage, several neutral or ambiguous statements are made and it is up to the hearer to understand what the motive is. First we see this with Rebekah, and later with Jacob.
When you read the verses above, Rebekah does not actually say anything indicating a deceitful plan. Read plainly, the narrative simply states:
Your father just asked your brother Esau to go hunt some food to prepare a meal for him, so your father can bless him before he dies. Go get me two goats, and I will cook them up. Then you can give them to your father, so he can [also] bless you before he dies.
In saying these things, she likely hoped Jacob would obey her without question; it is up to Jacob to infer the ramifications of what she intends to do. She even began her request with “my son, listen to me as I command you.” (v. 8)
Jacob, however, has shown himself to be more shrewd than what we originally learn of him (Gen. 25:27) such as in the case with commandeering the birthright (25:31). Jacob knows that Esau was technically the firstborn, and that he would be first in line for the blessing; Jacob also knows that Esau is favored by Isaac, whereas Jacob is favored by Rebekah (25:28) This causes Jacob to know his mother is up to something.
The very next words Jacob utters indicate not only that he understands the full extent of the plan his mother has concocted, but also that he is all-in. Surprisingly, his only concern is getting caught, and what that would cause his father to think of him.
“And Jacob said, “First swear to me”; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.” Gen. 25:33-34
The sale of the birthright is mentioned in legal terminology (Rashi, Plaut), Jacob was not kidding around. Plaut’s Modern Commentary on the Torah also notes that birthrights in scripture, have not only been sold, as in the case of Esau, but also canceled through blessings as in the case of Manasseh (Gen. 48:13-20), or lost due to a sinful act, like Reuben’s (1 Chron. 5:1).
We often forget that God is God; He can do as He pleases. His sovereignty goes beyond the natural world we know. He reaps where He does not sow, He gathers where He did not scatter (Matt. 25:24), and so it should not be that amazing of a thing to us to say he can cause us to no longer be the firstborn.
Likewise, He can cause us to be born again:
“Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:7-8)
Author R’ Bachya speculates that Esau did not even know for sure what he was selling his birthright for, as it is not revealed to the reader until after the deal is done – that he sold his birthright for a mere pot of beans. No wonder Esau despised his birthright.
Everett Fox notes Esau’s hasty nature, reinforced by the string of four verbs in the last verse of the chapter – that he ate, drank, arose and went.
“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)
“But Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?”” Gen. 25:31-32
This passage is often read without understanding as to what the birthright is, so any significance is usually missed. Instead we are left with an overly dramatic Esau, and confusion about why Jacob would want something he can’t really seem to have, but somehow gets.
The birthright is not merely ‘being born first’, but rather has several aspects. In the familial aspect, we see that Isaac favored Esau (25:28), and the firstborn had a preferred place as planned successor of the head of the household.
However there was also a spiritual aspect of the birthright, a responsibility that comes with being born first. The first child was like the firstfruits of an offering; the sacrificial responsibilities fell to Esau (Rashi, also, midrash), and so in this way he could be viewed as the high-priest of the family, and a type of the Levitical priesthood to come.
Knowing what we know later of the Levitical priesthood and the seriousness of the task, it is fair to speculate that perhaps Esau was not merely exaggerating that he was going to die because he was hungry – he may have known his own heart and felt he was not prepared to live such a life of service to God. Jacob, on the other hand, felt he was able to perform these responsibilities. When it tells us in v. 27 that Jacob ‘lived in tents’, the rabbis say this refers to the tents where the teachings of God took place, hearkening back to ‘dwelling in the tents of Shem’ from the Noah story. Thus Jacob took God seriously, and perhaps Esau did not, and he knew.
We often forget that others were following God at this point, not just Isaac and his family. All the way back in Genesis 14, we see Melchizedek seemingly come out of nowhere, but yet he is a priest of God Most High, long before any official temple and before Levitical law was instituted in the scriptures.
“When Jacob had cooked stew, Esau came in from the field and he was famished; and Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.” Therefore his name was called Edom.” Gen. 25:29-30
As we began to explore in the previous post, there is speculation, at least in rabbinical stories, that Esau had a murderous nature. In addition, I argue the case that this portion of the Genesis narrative contains some strong allusions to the Cain and Abel story – some elements are parallels, while in other cases the roles are switched.
First we have brothers. Jacob and Esau are twins. Cain and Abel may be twins as well, though we are not told explicitly. We should consider this possibility due to the text, which tells us of one conception and two births: “…she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said “I have gotten a manchild with the LORD.” Again, she gave birth to his brother Abel.” Or as another translation reads “…she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain, saying “Both I and the Eternal have made a man.” She then continued, giving birth to his brother Abel.” (Gen. 4:1-2) Ultimately we do not know how much time passes in between these births, if any. At the very least we are dealing with siblings.
One of the brothers is associated with animals, the other with vegetables. In the case of Abel we see he was a shepherd, taking care of the animals, which we contrast with Esau who traps and kills animals. Jacob is not a hunter; instead we see him cooking lentil stew. Cain brought his offering from the harvest.
In both cases, the firstborn seems to be prone to impetuousness. Cain was filled with rage when his offering was not accepted before God, and later kills his brother in a fit of anger. With Esau, the narrative is filled with action verbs: He returns from hunting; he declares he is famished and wants to gulp down Jacob’s stew hastily. So hastily in fact, that he was willing to sell his birthright for mere temporary hunger. Alter’s commentary tells us that this verb used here for gulping down the food in rabbinical Hebrew would be used for feeding animals. Then, he ate, drank, arose, and left (Fox).
Upon the tragedy of the murder of Abel, God confronts Cain, then pronouncing his punishment says “Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” (Gen. 4:11). Bear in mind that Esau also went by the name Edom, which means “red” but is also closely related to Adam/Adamah, which means “ground”. So when Esau says “Pour into me, now, some of that very red stuff”, there is a picture of “red stuff” being poured into Edom/the ground. This portends what is about to unfold; after all the deceit of Jacob taking the birthright, and later the blessing also, Esau determines to kill his brother Jacob.
Ultimately we see a beautiful picture of reconciliation in the case of Jacob and Esau. When Esau is coming toward Jacob with 400 men, Jacob decides to show his brother lovingkindness and respect by sending forth gifts to ‘master Esau’. This disarms him, showing us that love can overcame hatred and anger, and that things can end in reconciliation instead of death.
“Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived. But the children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is so, why then am I this way?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. The LORD said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb;
And two peoples will be separated from your body;
And one people shall be stronger than the other;
And the older shall serve the younger.”” Gen. 25:21-23
Many of our English translations tell us that Isaac prayed on behalf of Rebekah, however the Hebrew word used is “nokach” which means “opposite“, or “in the sight of”, indicating they were likely praying together.
During the pregnancy the children are struggling in Rebekah’s womb, and she questions God “What good is life if I have to suffer like this?” (Plaut). We see a similar questioning of God in disbelief in Sarah’s words in Gen. 18:13, “Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?” There are many such parallels and similar aspects between narratives in the Genesis scriptures.
Everett Fox notes that this struggle in the womb foreshadows Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32. The original Hebrew could be translated as there being two “kingdoms” in the womb. Some Rabbis believe that the reason the children are struggling are for superiority but with different aims; Esau for power in the things of this world, Jacob for the inheritance in the world to come (Olam Ha-Ba).
This is said because of what transpires with the birthright; the holder of the birthright was sort of a preface to the Levitical priesthood – the child with the birthright (by birth order) was to perform the service of God in the household; in essence, Jacob was fighting for this.