A study on Genesis 26:35-27:80. Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral (24th September 2017).
A drama in four scenes:
- The father prepares to bless his older son (27.1-4)
- The mother schemes for her younger son (27.5-17)
- The younger son deceives the father (27.18-29)
- The father grieves with his older son (27.3-40)
The drama is preceded by an introductory statement at the end of Gen 26: “When Esau was 40 years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri, the Hittite, and Basemath, daughter of Elon the Hittite, and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah” (26.34-35).
One commentator (James McKeown) suggests that this is an effort to woo the reader’s sympathy – I am not sure. All I know is that by the end of the story my sympathies are with Esau – he was treated rottenly.
However, Isaac was not the only rogue. Rebekah does not come out of the story well – nor does Isaac as he in turn seeks to bless Esau behind the back of Rebekah and Jacob. And Esau seems happy to have been his father’s favourite. Right from the start we see a divided and dysfunctional family. As a result, even though Jacob got the blessing, it didn’t bring him happiness. The blessing becomes a burden: for Jacob has to flee from the family home – never to be seen by his mother again. This is no fairy tale: nobody lives ‘happy ever after’.
It is a strange story. Living in the 21st century we can understand the misery that arises from a dysfunctional family – but the passionate desire of Esau and Jacob to gain their father’s blessing seems to belong to another world. The father’s blessing here is understood as a life-transforming act. There is power in the blessing. Somehow the spoken word of Isaac has an amazing power to shape and change lives.
In church we still say words of blessing: for instance, at a wedding the minister blesses the couple – but somehow the blessing lacks the power – the success of a marriage is not guaranteed by the wedding blessing!
Of course, Isaac’s blessing of Jacob is actually a confirmation of what God had said to Rebekah prior to the birth of her twin boys. Gen 25.22-23: “The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ so she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her: ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the youngest’”. But that for me doesn’t make things any easier. From a human perspective God also doesn’t seem to be playing fair. It is almost as if God has caused the conflict, which causes pain or shame to every player. However, Brueggemann comments: “But God does not shrink from the conflict, for a holy purpose is underway”. But I feel like saying, how come a holy purpose involves deceit? It doesn’t seem right. Or am I wrong?
Let’s examine the story, scene by scene:-
Scene 1: The father prepares to bless his older son
Isaac is described as “old” and blind (“his eyes were dim so that he could not see”) (17.1). He speaks as if he has not long to live: “See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death” (27.2). So he tells Esau to go out and hunt for some game – Jacob’s appetite clearly not affected by old age – and then he will bless him.
Frankly, I am not impressed by Isaac. He clearly is trying to exclude Jacob. He is also trying to keep what he is doing from his wife.
According to Joyce Baldwin, “It is clear that Isaac and Rebekah had lost the love which had bound them together at the beginning of their married life (26.47)”. Each of them has their favourites, and as a result each of them plots to trick the other. It is no exaggeration to say that the family was split in two by the ‘parental dual’. In our terms, it is a bit like one parent drawing up a will which they know will cause upset in the family all round.
Jacob was asking for trouble.
Scene 2: The mother schemes for her younger son (27.5-17)
Rebekah overhears Jacob’s conversation with Esau and devises a ‘hare-brained’ scheme to ensure that her favourite son, Isaac, gets the blessing instead. Rebekah repeats the conversation to Isaac, with the addition of one significant phrase – “before the Lord” (27.7). She brings God into the blessing. Was she trying to justify her deceit by giving it a spiritual dimension? Or was she just highlighting why the blessing was so important.
Notice too that while Esau went off to hunt for game – and presumably came back with just one animal – here Rebekah instructs Jacob to bring not just one kid, but two. This is going to be a very big meal. No expense is spared to deceive Isaac.
But what a risk she was taking. When Jacob fears that his father might see through the plot and curse him rather than bless him – and remember how potent a curse is in this setting – Rebekah replies: “Let your curse be on me” (27.13)
Scene 3: The younger son deceives the father (27.18-29)
Jacob goes along with his mother’s plan. What’s more, he doesn’t hesitate to embellish his credentials by bringing God into it. When Isaac expresses his surprise that he had found the game so quickly, Jacob says: “The Lord your God granted me success” (27.20). I feel like shouting out ‘hypocrite’. This surely was a form of taking God’s name in vain – it was a form of blasphemy. He was unworthy of being blessed.
How Jacob actually managed to deceive Isaac is a mystery to me – although Isaac was old and blind, he presumably was not stupid, or was he beginning to suffer from dementia? Or is this a case where ultimately his delight in good food gets the better of him
He realises that the voice is Jacob’s – but his suspicions are somehow allayed by the hairy skin of the goats covering Jacob’s smooth skin.
So, filled with good food and good wine, he blesses Jacob. The blessing is in two parts.
- in the first place, it is a prayer for prosperous farming: “May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine”. James McKeown: Isaac’s reference to “the dew of heaven” reflects the climate of the Near East, where most of the rainfall is concentrated in four months of the year. During the growing season much of the moisture for crops comes from the dew and, therefore, heavy dew is considered a blessing”
- Secondly, it is a blessing for supremacy in the family and in the wider world: “Let peoples serve you, and the nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you” (27.29).
Scene 4: The father grieves with his older son (27.30-40)
This is the saddest of scenes. When Isaac realises he has been tricked into blessing the wrong son, he “trembled violently” (33). When Esau realises what happens, “he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry: ‘Bless me also father’.
But the blessing cannot be revoked – and the blessing that Isaac does eventually give Esau is not a blessing at all, but an acknowledgement that Jacob will be superior 8until eventually Esau breaks off the yoke.
That God could have allowed – indeed, even ordained – that the blessing should have fallen on Jacob in this way just doesn’t seem right. Indeed, according to one commentator (John Gibson) it “almost nauseates us”. Yet the same commentator continues: “We are again face to face with the enigma of divine grace. ‘Yes, and blessed he shall be!’ (the words of Isaac to Esau in 27.33) is without doubt the chapter’s key phrase…..We are left for the moment in the sole company of those who were the objects of his grace so that we may ponder their unworthiness and be led from that to confess our own. This horrendous story is not inviting us to criticize God but to look in a mirror and see ourselves”.
Questions for reflection
- With whom are your sympathies in this story?
- How important is the concept of blessing for you? Do you expect a minister’s blessing to shape and change lives today? Does faith or a sense of expectancy have any role to play?
- Isaac did not deserve God’s blessing – and yet God blessed him. Does it worry you that even God does not seem to play fair? To what extent do you agree with John Gibson that “We are again face to face with the enigma of divine grace. …..We are left for the moment in the sole company of those who were the objects of his grace so that we may ponder their unworthiness and be led from that to confess our own. This horrendous story is not inviting us to criticize God but to look in a mirror and see ourselves.”