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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.” 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)