Winter 2013

Religion and Spirituality

The Law, the Prophets and the Writings, Part 5

Isaac and Sons: Birthright and Blessings

David Hulme

Most of the Old Testament—those books known to the early New Testament Church as “the Law, the Prophets and the Writings”—is organized around the children of Israel and their interaction with other peoples. Israel was the name given by God to Jacob, one of the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac’s father, Abraham, is the one through whom today’s Jews trace their origins. Of course, neither Abraham nor Isaac was Israelite or Jew, each also giving rise to many of the Arab peoples.  

In Part Four we concluded with the death of Abraham and his burial by two of his sons, Isaac and Ishmael. At that point Isaac, through whom the biblical “line of promise” would be traced, resided at Beer Lahai Roi (possibly translated “the well of the Living One who sees me”) in the Negev desert—the place where an angel had appeared to the despairing Egyptian servant Hagar and told her of her forthcoming son, Ishmael. Yet despite God’s compassion on and blessing of Ishmael, it was Isaac who would inherit the promises given to Abraham.

The book of Genesis is, among other things, a profound meditation on what it is to be chosen and what it is not to be chosen.”

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings

A road map to the book of Genesis is found in its toledoth or generational organization. The toledoth of Ishmael (Genesis 25:12–18), detailing what happened to him in terms of his descendants, follows the death of Abraham, in effect bringing to a close any possibility of Ishmael being counted as the line through whom God had chosen to work. Interesting, however, is that in parallel with the 12 sons of Jacob/Israel, Ishmael had 12 sons who became 12 Arab tribes. God had promised this to Abraham earlier: “As for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation” (17:20). Several of the sons named are recognizable in the names of locations in northern Arabia and Jordan. Based on archaeological understanding of the place names given in the Genesis 25 account, the territory of Ishmael stretched from the Euphrates River to the Red Sea and from northern Sinai to western Babylonia—what we know as the Arabian Peninsula. In this region Ishmael’s tribes would be adjacent to but also in opposition to the children of Israel: “His descendants . . . lived in hostility toward all their brothers” (25:18, New International Version).

Though chronologically out of sequence, Ishmael’s death is mentioned at this point, emphasizing again that his line has no part in the inheritance of the promises made to Abraham.

The toledoth of Isaac is taken up in the next section (25:19–35:29). This lengthy account is filled with intrigue, treachery and moral failure, but also with God’s unrelenting faithfulness. Yet the amount of space accorded the story of Isaac himself after his father’s death is small; what happened to him is principally the story of his twin sons Esau and Jacob. The account begins with their birth.

Patterns From the Past

In various ways, the life of Isaac parallels that of his father, Abraham. After waiting 20 years for a child with his wife Rebekah, God answered Isaac’s prayer and the couple became the parents of twins. This signals again that in the family that God had chosen to work through, He was the provider and sustainer. The tumultuous story of Isaac and his family demonstrates their utter failure, for many years, to realize that this plan was of God, not man. Time after time they took matters into their own hands, just as Abraham had sometimes done, in hopes of bringing about the blessings God had promised.

Isaac is the least original of the three patriarchs. His life lacks the drama of Abraham or the struggles of Jacob.”

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings

During Rebekah’s pregnancy the children struggled so much inside her that she asked God for help in understanding the reason. His reply was that the children would become two very different peoples—not unlike Ishmael and Isaac. Already they were in conflict in the womb. One would be stronger than the other, and those who descended from the older one would be subservient to the younger one’s line.

The firstborn “came out red. He was like a hairy garment all over; so they called his name Esau” (25:25). His red or ruddy coloring (in Hebrew, admoni) may partly be the basis of his national name, Edom. The linguistic connection between “Esau” and hairiness is more difficult to establish. The land of Seir was Edom’s territory and there is a similarity between the Hebrew sear (“hair”) and this territorial name, and so perhaps a link is made to Esau. His brother emerged clutching his heel and was named Jacob (“heel-holder,” from the Hebrew akeiv or aqeb, “heel”).

Esau grew up to be “a skillful hunter, a man of the field” (verse 27), which may imply that he lived a life without the restraints and responsibilities of home and pastoral life. “But Jacob was a mild man [in Hebrew, tam, ‘upright’ or ‘perfect’], dwelling in tents” —a shepherd. Isaac preferred Esau for the venison he brought back from hunting, while the tent-dweller Jacob was his mother’s favorite.

The difference between the twin brothers in interests and way of life intersects in a telling incident that sets the stage for future conflict. Returning tired and hungry from hunting, Esau asked Jacob for a bowl of the red lentil soup he had prepared. Jacob took advantage of the situation by bargaining for his older brother’s birthright in exchange for food. While Jacob’s actions are another example of how he tried to bring about God’s blessings on his own terms, from a biblical perspective he is less to be blamed than his brother in this instance. It was Esau’s despising of his birthright and its responsibilities that was the bigger problem. He regarded them as worthless. Esau’s disdain allowed him to casually surrender his birthright for a gulped-down bowl of “red red,” as his words literally say—another reason that his people were named Edom (verse 30).

The narrative about Jacob portrays Israel in its earthiest and most scandalous appearance in Genesis. . . . This grandson of the promise is a rascal compared to his faithful grandfather Abraham or his successful father Isaac.”

Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, “Genesis”

The New Testament book of Hebrews says that Esau was an unholy or profane person, who came to regret his error too late (Hebrews 12:16–17). But it is God’s choosing of Jacob, rather than the latter’s opportunism, that is emphasized; as Paul writes, “when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, ‘The older shall serve the younger’” (Romans 9:10–12, emphasis added).

Son Follows Father

The next chapter in the book of Genesis has Isaac as the central focus; his two sons are not mentioned by name. Again there are parallels with Abraham and similar errors and blessings. We learn that famine prompted Isaac to move to Gerar on the way to Egypt, a city ruled by a king known by the title Abimelech. Earlier Abraham had gone down to Egypt under famine conditions; now the Lord appeared to Isaac, warning him not to go there but to stay in Gerar. He then reconfirmed His promise in terms of the Abrahamic covenant: “Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws” (26:3–5).

Despite this promise, the same deception that Abraham had indulged in about his wife being his sister for fear of the Pharaoh played out in Isaac’s case. He told the Canaanites of Gerar that Rebekah was his sister. Abimelech discovered the lie when he saw Isaac and Rebekah caressing as man and wife. The king then warned everyone to steer clear of the couple for fear of divine retribution.

Free to live in Gerar, Isaac became very prosperous through agriculture. God blessed him so much that the Canaanites became envious and asked him to leave the city. Moving into the nearby valley, Isaac reopened his father’s wells, which the local people had filled in, causing further friction with his neighbors. Next he moved on to Beersheba, where Abraham had also lived. There God appeared to Isaac once more, saying, “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 My servant Abraham’s sake” (verse 24). Isaac settled and built an altar there. His prosperity was such that Abimelech came to him, recognizing that “the Lord is with you” (verse 28), and sought a peace treaty with Isaac. Significantly, this was confirmed the same day that Isaac’s servants discovered all-important water in the location.

Family Feud

By way of introduction to what happened next in the story of Isaac is the detail that at age 40 Esau married two women from outside his tribal group. His wives were both Hittite in origin and “were a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah” (verse 35). We are left to ponder why Isaac did not insist on his firstborn son marrying, as he had done, within the family in Haran.

This unhappy situation preceded Rebekah’s deceit in making sure that Jacob and not Esau received the final birthright blessing from their elderly father. Isaac, now practically blind and believing that his death was not far off (though it didn’t happen for 20 or more years), sent Esau to hunt for game so that he could enjoy a meal before conferring the blessing on him “in the presence of the Lord” (27:1–4, 7). Rebekah, having overheard the conversation, instructed Jacob in a scheme to deceive his father by bringing a savory meal and wine to him while pretending to be Esau. Using hairy goatskin to cover his arms and neck, wearing his brother’s clothes, and lying twice that he was Esau, Jacob received the blessing from his father. Isaac commented that the voice was that of Jacob, but the feel of Esau and the smell of his clothing convinced him that he was blessing his elder son: “May God give you of the dew of heaven, of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be master over your brethren, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be those who bless you!” (verses 28–29).

Esau is not chosen, but he is also not rejected. He too will have his blessing, his heritage, his land. He too will have children who become kings, who will rule and not be ruled.”

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings

Just after Jacob left the tent, Esau returned from the hunt, prepared a meal and brought it to his father, only to discover what Jacob had done. Isaac trembled violently and confirmed that the blessing could not be taken back. Esau shouted out in bitterness, denounced his brother’s double deception (first birthright and now blessing) and begged his father for some kind of remaining favor. Isaac’s words were no replacement for what had been lost: “Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restless you shall break his yoke from your neck” (verses 39–40, English Standard Version). Esau then vowed to kill Jacob after their father’s death.

On learning of the threat, Rebekah decided to dispatch Jacob to her brother in Haran, intending to send for him once Esau’s anger had abated. To gain Isaac’s agreement to her plan, she framed her request in terms of the difficulty Esau’s Hittite wives were causing, with the parallel hope that Jacob would not marry outside the family. Isaac picked up on the thought and sent Jacob to Padan Aram (where Haran was situated) to find a wife at the home of Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, and brother Laban. This is, of course, a repetition of what Isaac himself had experienced when his father had sought a wife for him in the same family and region. That Isaac does not mention the family as his relatives (Laban was his cousin) but rather his wife’s, serves to confirm his favoritism of Esau and Rebekah’s love for Jacob.

Isaac blessed Jacob once more, invoking God’s favor on him in terms of the same Abrahamic covenant: “May God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may be an assembly of peoples; and give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and your descendants with you, that you may inherit the land in which you are a stranger, which God gave to Abraham” (28:3–4).

When Esau learned of Jacob’s seeking a wife among the family, and that Isaac was not pleased with his choice of Canaanite women, he went to another branch of the family and took a third wife, his cousin Mahalath, the daughter of his uncle Ishmael.

Inherent in this web of intrigue, deceit, anger and bitterness is the family’s dysfunctional future. Jacob’s life would take many twists and turns for the worse before he came to himself and recognized that without submission to God’s sovereignty his life would be worthless.

Blessed in Bethel, Harassed in Haran

On the way to Padan Aram, Jacob rested at Luz, close to the place where Abraham built an altar to God soon after his arrival in the Land of Promise. There Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending. The Lord stood and confirmed the covenant once again: “I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you” (verses 13–15).

Jacob awoke afraid, knowing that God was in this place. He renamed it Bethel (“house of God”) and set up as a pillar the large stone he had used to rest his head. The vow he then made is surprising for its conditionality, showing that Jacob still had a way to go in his relationship with God. He said, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You” (verses 20–22). The approach of “if God will take care of my physical needs, I will acknowledge Him as my God” differs greatly from Abraham’s unquestioning faith in following God’s command to leave his country, “not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).

On arrival in the region of Haran, Jacob stopped by a well where animals were watered. Asking the shepherds if they knew Laban, they told him that they not only knew him but that his daughter Rachel was about to come and water the sheep. Jacob helped with the watering, introduced himself to Rachel, and kissed her. She ran to tell her father, who soon welcomed his nephew (Genesis 29:1–13). Perhaps Laban had in mind the occasion years earlier when Abraham’s servant had come with gifts, seeking a wife for Isaac (24:29–31).

After one month Laban offered to pay Jacob to work for him as a shepherd. Jacob bargained for Rachel, agreeing to work seven years for her hand. But when the time for marriage came, Laban deceived Jacob by substituting his elder daughter Leah on the marriage night. Jacob was now on the receiving end of a family deceit. Complaining, he agreed to spend the one-week “honeymoon” with Leah before being given Rachel in return for a further seven years of work. Perhaps the lesson, had Jacob been in a frame of mind to accept it at that point, was that “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7). This younger son of Isaac had earlier cheated his brother and obtained blessings through shameless deception; now he himself had been cheated out of a much-wanted blessing.

If Abraham is originality and Isaac continuity, then Jacob represents tenacity.”

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings

Judging by what happened in his family life with two wives, Jacob made further serious mistakes and had much to learn. With Leah he fathered four children before she became temporarily unable to conceive. They were Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. Genesis records that God blessed Leah with her first child when He saw that she was unloved by Jacob (Genesis 29:31). Leah believed that because God had granted her children, Jacob would now favor her, since during this time Rachel was unable to conceive. Rachel’s desperation over not having children led her to offer her servant Bilhah to Jacob. Together they had two sons, Dan and Naphtali. Leah, in turn frustrated by her own inability to conceive again, now offered her servant Zilpah to Jacob. Two more sons resulted, Gad and Asher. Subsequently, Leah and Jacob were able to have more children—two sons, Issachar and Zebulon, and a daughter, Dinah. Only then did Rachel’s circumstances change, and she was able to have a son of her own, Joseph.

Twenty years had passed in Laban’s service when God again appeared to Jacob and told him to return to his father and mother. His uncle had cheated him many times, not simply in the matter of Leah and Rachel. As Jacob said, “I have been in your house twenty years; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times” (31:41).

Jacob left Laban’s territory secretly with his wives, children, flocks, and possessions, but he was soon overtaken by his uncle. Now, however, Laban made a pact not to harass him any more. Having been warned in a dream not to harm Jacob, Laban was content to return to Padan Aram empty-handed. For Jacob this was the beginning of his right relationship with God, as events would soon test his resolve and trust in Him.

Next time, Jacob’s story continues and his son Joseph’s begins.