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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.

“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

In most English translations of the scriptures, repetitive words and redundant phrases tend to get omitted presumably because they seem superfluous and unnecessary to understand a given passage.  Each of these verses (vv 29 and 30) contains such a repetition.  Verse 29 may be read as if Jacob was “boiling boiled stew”, and Esau’s request in v. 30 actually reads more like “give me some of that red, red stuff”.  In the case of Esau’s statement, the original Masoretic text contains the word “red” twice.

If we venture to read between the words, as is often helpful, we see the very same Jacob which we were just told a few verses ago was wholesome and innocent is now cooking up not just stew – but also a plot – to get the birthright from his brother. (Fox)  The very structure of the Hebrew is designed to steer our thinking in this direction, but this style is often not carried over to most English translations.

As for Esau, there is an obvious theme going on regarding the color red, from his reddish appearance at birth, to the repetition here of the color of the stew he asks for, and ultimately he earns the moniker ‘Edom’ which simply means red.  This also hearkens to Adam, as Adam’s name not only means “man” but also “red”, to which Josephus attributes to the first man being taken out of red clay, which he termed ‘virgin earth’. (Antiquities, Book I)

It may be surprising that some rabbis and scholars speculate that Esau is a murderer. This is for at least two reasons: 1) the theme of ‘red’ in his life portends blood, and 2) it mentions Esau being ‘famished’ or ‘exhausted’ twice in these verses, and the root word of this was used in Jeremiah 4:31 regarding a soul being wearied on account of murderers. (Bereishis Rabbah 63:12, also, Rashi)  No murder by Esau is recorded in the scriptures, though he does threaten to kill his brother Jacob.

The allusions do not stop there.  This portion of Jacob and Esau’s story has an eery number of similarities to the story of Cain and Abel, which we will explore in the next post.

“Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.”  Gen. 25:28

Favoritism of a child by the father is a running motif in the the book of Genesis.  Here we see that Isaac loves Esau.  Looking back to Abraham, it appears he favored Ishmael (Gen. 17:18 “Oh that Ishmael may live before you!” and Gen. 21:11 where Abraham did not want to send Hagar and Ishmael away, “on account of his son”).  Even going back as far as Cain and Abel, God had regard for Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s.  Not that God was necessarily being partial, but it was perceived that way by Cain.   Looking forward we see Joseph with his coat of many colors.

In the original Hebrew it is not clear as to who had a “taste for game”, it may have been Esau.  Another rendering may be ” he had a taste for trappings in his mouth”.  Thus, because Esau liked to hunt and Isaac liked to eat it, Esau was the favorite in his eyes.

We must note the Hebrew play on words in the phrase “a taste for trappings in his mouth.” which may indicate deceitful words of Esau that were pleasing to Isaac’s ears.  There are rabbinical stories about Esau pretending to be pious to his father.

 

“When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field, but Jacob was a peaceful man, living in tents.”  Gen. 24:27

This is one of many verses in scripture where what is being conveyed is missed if we do not think about what the words imply.  It is plain enough to understand that Jacob is ‘peaceful’, which in the original Hebrew means simple, wholesome, without blemish (like a sacrifice).  For Esau however, it seems we are told more about what he does than we are of his nature:  He is a skillful hunter.  However, ultimately this reveals his nature to us; to be a skillful hunter, you need to be able to deceive animals – to trap them.  A Hebrew translation may read “one who knows trapping.”  There are also several rabbinical stories about Esau’s deceit.  And so what is being illustrated to the reader is a contrast between the twins.  This is a continuation of the previous verses where we see that although they are twins, they do not look alike.

The contrast continues.  Esau is a man of the field, he is active, probably more comfortable outside than in.  With Jacob however the scripture tells us he “lives in tents”.  This may sound obvious to the reader, as where else would he live?  And wouldn’t Esau live in a tent as well?  The physical abode is not what is being discussed here, but rather this is a reference to the “tents of Shem” from Genesis 9:27:

“And let him dwell in the tents of Shem”

The tents of Shem in long-standing rabbinical tradition is where the teaching of God was taught, a prerequisite of theological seminary of sorts. (Bereishis Rabbah 63:10, also, Rashi)  On the surface the contrast is that Esau is more prone to be outside, and Jacob inside, and this appears to hold true to their personalities as well, as we see a litany of action verbs peppered throughout the story with regard to Esau, not so much with Jacob. (Alter) Esau is also a man of careless words, not thinking before he speaks.

As the next verses unfold however, we see the reader, too, is deceived by all outward appearances, for it is Jacob who ends up being the deceiver.

“When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb.”  Gen. 25:24

Rashi notes that in the original text, the word for “twins” is missing a letter.  Compare to Genesis 38:27 when the same is said of Tamar’s twins, but the full spelling is present. Though we may merely consider this a scribal error, Rashi believes there is a significance due to how the story of Jacob and Esau ultimately plays out; that perhaps Esau is deficient in some way, morally speaking, as opposed to Tamar’s sons, Perez and Zerah.

We also see an interesting pattern with the birth order between these two stories; with Jacob and Esau we see the struggle in the womb, and though Esau is born first and gets the birthright, it is tricked out of his hands by his brother.  With Perez and Zerah, Zerah’s hand came out first, and the midwife tied a scarlet thread to him so they would know who was who, but ultimately Perez was fully born first.  It is as if there is a shifting of order of things.  Perhaps this has something to do with Christ’s teaching that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

As for the missing letter, consider Ephron, the son of Zohar, who sold the Cave of Machpelah to Abraham for burial at a highly inflated price; Ephron’s name changes in the original Hebrew after that transaction.  Contrast this with Abram and Sara, who were renamed by God, having an “H” added to both of their names:  Abraham and Sarah.

The scriptures speak of a Book of Life in several places in both Testaments; Of names being blotted out of the Book, and names being added to the Book.  Perhaps this is done one letter at a time.

“Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau.  Afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob; and Isaac was sixty years old when she gave birth to them.”  

Gen. 25:25-26

The story of Esau and Jacob has to be one of the most fascinating in all the scriptures. The opening volley of events happens rather quickly, and in just a few verses much unfolds, requiring several re-reads to take it all in.

The original Hebrew provides even more of a dynamic to the story.  Firstborn we have Esau, whose name means ‘hairy’.   We are told he was ‘red all over, like a hairy garment’, but this does not necessarily mean he had a lot of red hair – rather his skin itself may have been a reddish shade, and in addition he simply had a lot of hair.  We see similar allusions to this later, as he also has a nickname ‘Edom’ which means red or earthy, and also later he settles in Seir, which means ‘hairy’.

Next we have Jacob, who comes into this world holding his brothers heel.  The Hebrew (‘aqab), where Jacob’s name is derived, means ‘heel’, or ‘footstep’, and along those general lines may mean the end of something (‘eqeb) or deceitful (‘aqob).  Ultimately we will see all of these things come into play in some way in Jacob’s life.

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