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“Jacob answered his mother Rebekah, “Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man and I am a smooth man. “Perhaps my father will feel me, then I will be as a deceiver in his sight, and I will bring upon myself a curse and not a blessing.” But his mother said to him, “Your curse be on me, my son; only obey my voice, and go, get them for me.”” – Gen. 27:11-13
Rebekah has just laid out her plan to assist Jacob in obtaining the blessing instead of Esau. Jacob does not appear to be opposed to this plan at all, surprisingly, but rather, as I mentioned in my previous post, his main concerns are not getting caught, and tarnishing his reputation with his father Isaac, if he is found out. Rashi points out that the sages teach that their voices were similar (they are, after all, twins) which may explain why Jacob’s main concern is not the obvious – that his voice would give him away.
This scene, together with the scene regarding the birthright, shows us that Jacob vehemently desired the favored and sacred position of firstborn in the family, and was even willing to do questionable things to attain this.
Rebekeh’s response is likewise fascinating. Now that she knows Jacob understands her plan, and is on board with it aside from these reservations, she appeases her son by stating she will take the blame, even the curse, if they are caught. In essence, Jacob would be guilty of ‘obeying his mother’s voice’ – which in itself is an honorable thing to do.
The oracle concerning her sons’ birth – that the older will serve the younger – may have given Rebekah the confidence to move forward with this plan. Though, Everett Fox points out that after this chapter, Rebekah eerily disappears from the narrative, and her death is not specifically mentioned in the scriptures. We may have a small inkling as to her death, as when her nurse, Deborah, dies in Genesis 35:8, and it refers to her being buried underneath an oak tree which was referred to as the ‘tree of weepings’ (plural). Some scholars believe that Rebekah was buried at the same time as Deborah.
“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.
““Now then, please take your gear, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me; and prepare a savory dish for me such as I love, and bring it to me that I may eat, so that my soul may bless you before I die.”” Gen. 27:3-4
We are aware from Genesis 25:28 that Isaac favors Esau over Jacob because Isaac loved the taste of game, and appeared to take pride in his son’s ability to hunt skillfully. So now Isaac charges Esau to hunt him some food to prepare.
Often the original Hebrew contains words with implications, and sometimes these come through in modern translations, other times they do not. For example in this passage, Isaac instructs Esau to “hunt game for me”, but some English translations specify to hunt “wild game”, or I’ve also seen “hunt me some hunted game”. This may sound repetitive, but some rabbis understand this to mean that Isaac was not completely trustful of Esau, and he was being specific to warn Esau that whatever he brought him should be an animal with no owner, to eliminate the possibility Esau may steal someone’s animals if his hunt was not successful.
It is worth noting that when Jacob, pretending to be Esau, came in with food prepared, Isaac asked him “How do you have it so quickly, my son?” (v. 20) He may well have been concerned that Esau was bringing stolen food.
Interestingly, Jacob’s answer practically gives away his identity, as Jacob says that “God caused it to happen”. Jacob was known as the son who cared for the things of God – this would not have been part of Esau’s everyday speech.
“Isaac said, “Behold now, I am old and I do not know the day of my death.””
~ Gen. 27:2
Isaac would have been about 123 years old at this point. Certainly his health was beginning to fail; his eyesight was already going if not gone completely, and the text tells us he had to rise up to eat, which may indicate he was bedridden to some extent – we do not know for sure.
Ever since the flood had occurred, life spans began to reduce rapidly. A Midrash tells us that children do not necessarily expect to reach the age their parents did, which was likely part of Isaac’s concern. Abraham lived to 175 years, however Sarah only lived to 127. In reality, Isaac lived another 57 years and died at age 180 (Gen. 35:28-29)
“Now it came about, when Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, that he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” And he said to him, “Here I am.”” Gen. 27:1
Genesis 27 is a fascinating chapter because we see history change as the narrative unfolds. Isaac is old and thinks he may be near death, and so decides it is time to bestow his blessing. We are told he is near blind, and as such gets tricked into blessing Jacob rather than the intended son Esau, even though Isaac tries to rely on all five senses.
Several elements mentioned earlier in Genesis will come into play in this chapter: The parent-child favoritism between Isaac and Esau, and Rebekah and Jacob; The implications of the sale of the birthright from Esau to Jacob; and ultimately, the oracle given to Rebekah when the twins were yet in her womb.
Ultimately passages such as this can be puzzling to the reader, leaving us wonder if Isaac was really deceived, if Jacob, or even Rebekah are ultimately guilty of lying, or if God’s hand was at work the whole time, steering the events through even questionable means to accomplish His purpose with the blessing.
“Then he went up from there to Beersheba.
The LORD appeared to him the same night and said,
“I am the God of your father Abraham;
Do not fear, for I am with you.
I will bless you, and multiply your descendants,
For the sake of My servant Abraham.”
So he built an altar there and called upon the name of the LORD, and pitched his tent there; and there Isaac’s servants dug a well.” Gen. 26:23-25
The LORD sometimes speaks at odd moments in scripture, seemingly inserting Himself almost at random in certain passages. With all the trials Isaac was going through – having moved due to famine, then being mistreated in Gerar repeatedly, Isaac was likely wondering if God was with him.
A significant element of the Genesis 26 narrative is encapsulated in these verses: that God is with Isaac, just as God was with Abraham. Isaac was not merely getting hand-me-down faith; he also had a direct relationship with God. As the rabbis say, He is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There is a difference.
God wants us to have our own personal relationship with Him. I believe this is why Isaac’s re-digging of Abraham’s old wells proved fruitless. It was as if Isaac re-dug those wells of his father, and named them the same names as his father almost in formulaic fashion, as if that was what he thought he was supposed to do. The digging of a well to get to the life-sustaining water hiding below is symbolic of how we reach out to our creator, and so Isaac was finding out that God doesn’t necessarily want us to try to get to Him the same way those before us did. Once Isaac understands this, he builds his first altar, and digs yet another new well. (v. 25)
In this case we see Isaac does not make any progress until he starts digging his own wells. Once Isaac begins doing things a new way, King Abimelech comes to him and says, as if prophetically, “you are now blessed of the LORD” (v.29).
“But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of flowing water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with the herdsmen of Isaac, saying, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek, because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over it too, so he named it Sitnah. He moved away from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he named it Rehoboth, for he said, “At last the LORD has made room for us, and we will be fruitful in the land.”” Gen. 26:19-22
This is one of many narrative portions of scripture that if we merely read at face value, we only glean historical, seemingly anecdotal information about the life is Isaac. We must always ask ourselves what lesson we can learn from the text and how we can apply it to our own lives.
Consider how frustrated Isaac likely already was at the fact that the Philistines stopped up his father’s wells. Abimelech asked him to leave Gerar proper, and now while trying to make his own space, he and his servants go through all the effort to dig a well, only to have the Philistines commandeer it. And then it happens a second time!
The land of Canaan was given to Abraham and Isaac by God, and yet Isaac can’t seem to claim any of it for himself. Likewise it was probably frustrating for Abraham that, although the land was his in the eyes of God, he had to buy a cave to bury Sarah, including a field he didn’t want, for an exorbitant price!
What we must glean from this part of scripture is that at times, life will seem unfair; we will be wronged on occasion, and often our efforts will seem to be in vain. Isaac shows us great character through the ordeal however, most notably his being slow to anger, and his perseverance.
We should take note that many of the hurdles Isaac faces in this story are extremely similar to those of Abraham, up to and including issues over wells with Abimelech. God may at times bring us through similar ordeals to see if we handle them differently and with better character than our fathers, or than we ourselves have in the past.
This is what the story of Isaac is about; Improving our reactions to life’s challenges. This becomes clear when, after all this strife with the Philistines in Gerar, Abimelech eventually comes to make a covenant with Isaac. It is true this was done with Abraham as well, however what is important to note is the tone of each of these covenants:
Abraham hears Abimelech out, then decides to complain about the issues with the wells, stubbornly insists that Abimelech recognize that the wells were his, then they part ways. (Gen. 21:22-32). It is as if he agrees to peace, but he is not really at peace about it.
Contrast this with Isaac, who had even more trouble over the wells, and in addition probably felt his father’s reputation slighted over stopping the old wells up (v. 15). When Abimelech and his entourage show up to make a peace covenant with Isaac, there is a distinct feeling of goodwill that was lacking from the covenant with Abraham. Not only does Isaac not complain about his treatment – he makes them a feast (a custom Abraham decided to skip) and we are told in v. 31 that Abimelech left “in peace”, something also missing from the covenant with Abraham.
This story teaches us about spiritual maturity, personal growth and improvement in our relationships. The blessing from this? Consider v. 32:
“Now it came about on the same day, that Isaac’s servants came in and told him about the well which they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water.”
“Then Isaac dug again the wells of water which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham, for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the same names which his father had given them.” Gen. 26:18
At first read, it appears that Isaac is merely reacting to the Philistines stopping up of the wells Abraham dug, re-digging them to honor his father’s name. However, if we step back and see the overarching theme of this chapter, the story is largely a repeat episode of portions of Genesis 20 and 21, substituting Isaac for Abraham. The general motif is that of cycles repeating themselves. In fact, if God hadn’t stopped Isaac in Gerar, Isaac would have went on to Egypt to escape the famine per his initial plan, and instead we would likely see a repeat of Genesis 12 with Pharaoh.
The obvious cycle is the ruse of Isaac portraying Rebekah as his sister, something Abraham did with his wife Sarah, twice. Thankfully Isaac suffered less of a backlash. However the cycle continues, with Isaac not only re-digging Abraham’s wells, but giving them the same names as before.
No matter how righteous a man is, in each generation mistakes and missteps are made. When we speak of ‘breaking the cycle’, we refer to a life in which we do not make the same mistakes as those before us.
In addition, God also wants us to come to Him individually; we may inherit the teachings of our fathers, and the traditions of the faith, however the relationship aspect between ourselves and God is unique; it is not something our parents can give us, no matter how hard they try. At times God may take us through a very similar ordeal to what someone before us went through in hopes that we handle it differently, hoping for not only growth in our character, but flexibility in our obedience to His will.
Though Isaac was raised by Abraham – the Father of faith himself, Isaac still had to establish his own trust and obedience to God, and I believe it was God’s desire for Isaac to find his own way, not merely re-trace the steps of Abraham. In this way, the wells represent something much more; they are a picture of our access to the living water that is God and Christ.
We see this theme of the wells through the end of the chapter. Isaac is never able to use the same wells as Abraham; he digs additional wells and there is contention; after a well is dug that is not contended over, Isaac exclaims “At last the Lord has made room for us” (v. 22) after which God appears to Isaac and reassures Isaac that He is with him. The chapter ends after Isaac makes peace with king Abimelech, and on the same day, Isaac’s servants inform him they have found water (v. 32).
As Martin Buber points out, God is referred to as “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This is not the same as “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” as it implies that each of us need to find our way to God.
“Then Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are too powerful for us.” And Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar, and settled there.” Gen. 26:16-17
The Philistines envied Isaac (v. 14), and so this is not a reference to Isaac being a threat to Abimelech, but rather jealousy, and so the king is telling Isaac to move out of Gerar. Isaac had become quite successful in his short time in Gerar and was living in abundance. Ramban tells us this is likely because Abimelech was embarrassed by Isaac’s superior wealth.
“It came about, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out through a window, and saw, and behold, Isaac was caressing his wife Rebekah. Then Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, certainly she is your wife! How then did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” And Isaac said to him, “Because I said, ‘I might die on account of her.’”” Gen. 26:8-9
Robert Alter and others state what Abimilech saw was a sexual playfulness of sorts. Obviously at the least he saw something that indicated to him that Isaac and Rebekah were not merely brother and sister. But Abimelech is the king; why did he care at this point, since it had “been a long time” (v.8)?
But Abimelech did care – enough to meet Isaac face to face to get to the bottom of this. I believe there are several things going on here. For some context we need to go back to the interaction between Abimelech and God when the same scenario happened with Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 20.
First it is worth noting that unlike with Sarah, Abimelech did not have Rebekah taken away upon thinking she was not married, thus Isaac did not have to go through the personal strain Abraham did having his wife taken from him.
Recall that God threatened Abimelech, and his people, with death if he did not let Sarah go, because she was another man’s wife (Gen. 20:3-7). Abimelech did take Sarah initially, though he does not do this with Rebekah. It is quite apparent from Abimelech’s interaction with God that Abimilech likey feared God to some extent already, at and the very least had learned his lesson and did not take Rebekah right away.
As king, Abimelech had a responsibility to keep his people safe, and had his own personal moral convictions about the act of adultery. Isaac repeated the lie of Abraham about the identify of his wife, which now caused a conflict with Abimelech’s responsibilities and morals. After all, the commandments tell us not to covet another man’s wife, but say nothing about a man’s sister.
Ultimately it comes down to this: Isaac lied to save himself because he felt the people in Gerar did not fear God enough, or did not have enough moral standing to the extent they would kill a man in order to take his wife. This lie however, created the potential for worse things to take place. For one, the people of Gerar (including the king) could have lusted after, or slept with Rebekah, though she was married. Worse, the king was so taken aback by Isaac being sexual with Rebekah that he confronted him. Thankfully he gave Isaac the chance to explain himself, otherwise there would be the possibility that the people of Gerar would have put Isaac to death, thinking he was committing incest! This may be one reason why we are called to “Avoid the appearance of evil.” (I Thessalonians 5:22)
Lastly, if someone from Gerar had slept with Rebekah, there is a strong chance that God would have taken action against the king and the people, as He did before with both Pharaoh and Abimelech in Genesis 12 and 20. Ultimately this would have been Isaac’s fault, as his lie to protect himself precipitated the entire situation.
Would it have been okay for one man to be untruthful to save himself if many others perish or are afflicted as a result? And so this confrontation was critical, as the truth needed to come out to neutralize the situation and prevent further damage, as well as ensure reputations were kept intact. And so we see both wisdom and strong morals exemplified, from a king who was unlikely to be seen as spiritually mature.