Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 29

Genesis 27 – Jacob’s Deception and Isaac’s Blessing

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 14, 2006

Craig Atwood, Comenius Scholar 

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good week for you and yours. First of all I want to congratulate all of the graduates at Wake Forest this weekend, with a special word of congratulations to the students I taught this year. Last week at Home Church we had our Song of Salem program, and we got to enjoy Moravian music and the art of Valentine Haidt.

Various Readings of Genesis:            That’s enough self-promotion for one day. We are here to unlock the book of Genesis. Let me remind you that we are broadcasting live from Home Moravian Church and you are welcome to join us for discussion. Last week we discussed some of the stories about Isaac. This week we have the poignant tale of Isaac’s blessing of Jacob instead of Esau.

            You have heard me say many times that Genesis was probably written after the Babylonian Exile by a Jewish scholar or priest who used a number of older sources in writing his great epic of his people. Scholars have named those sources J, E, and P. It may have been the great Ezra himself who was responsible for the final version of Genesis. For the most part we have been looking at Genesis in its final form, paying close attention to the meaning of the overall narrative, but there are times when it is helpful to look at stories in their more original form. That is the case with the story of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac.

E Source – Search for a wife:            The current form of the story is a little confusing because there are actually two stories imperfectly woven together. One story, which I will not read today, is about the need to find Jacob a wife. According to this story, Esau married two Hittite women, and his mother Rebekah did not like them. This is a common enough experience, a mother disapproving of her in-laws. We aren’t told why Rebekah didn’t like the women, other than that they were local girls. It may have been that Rebekah considered the girls local yokels or trailer trash. Maybe she was predisposed to dislike any woman who found her hairy son Esau attractive. In any case, she was determined that her precious son Jacob would marry the right kind of girl, a girl from the Old Country.

            At the end of chapter 27 Rebekah and Isaac send Jacob off to Paddan-aram to find a wife from among his cousins. We shouldn’t be surprised at this decision since that was how Rebekah and Isaac got together. The difference is that this time the son is sent to find the girl himself rather than sending a servant the way Abraham had. This makes sense if we understand that the older brother, Esau, was expected to be in charge of the family in Jacob’s absence. So, this story from the E source makes perfect sense in its own right and it fits into the context of the story of Rebekah and Isaac. It explains why Jacob went to Laban’s family with Isaac’s blessing, but this story fits awkwardly in context. Read it for yourself and see what you think. One of the problems is that Isaac is apparently dead or near death shortly before he sent Jacob away to find a wife. There are other problems as well.

            It seems to me that the story of Esau trading his birthright to Esau was originally connected to this story about finding a wife. Esau is portrayed as a rather slow-witted man of limited ambition and vision who settles down with the locals. Jacob, though, will continue the family line and the covenant by a good marriage. We are told that when Esau saw Isaac was unhappy with his choice of wives, he went and married a couple of his cousins, too, just to please the old man.

Racial Purity:            That all makes sense, but as it stands now, this story of the search for a wife for Jacob serves as the frame for a much more powerful and troubling story about Isaac being deceived by Jacob. It is hard to put these two stories together. It seems unlikely that Isaac would have happily sent Jacob off with his blessing to find a wife so happily immediately after this deception. It is also hard to fit Rebekah’s urgent appeal for Jacob to flee from Esau with her need to convince Isaac that Jacob should go on a long trip to visit her family. We can try to make these stories fit together in ingenious ways, but I think we get more out of theme when we deal with them as separate stories that the author of Genesis has woven together. One thing we should note is that by framing the story of the blessing with this story of the search for a wife, the priest who edited the final version of Genesis turned this into a story about maintaining racial purity for the chosen people.

J Source:            The main story is the one from the J source. We saw in our earlier study of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s ark that the J source was a masterpiece of ancient story telling. It invites us to investigate the complexities of our own lives and motives. J’s version of Jacob’s exile is the one that most of us remember from childhood. It is also the story that launched me on my career as a religion scholar when I was about 10 years old because I was so upset that the lying Jacob was blessed instead of the loyal Esau. Even at 10, I could see the difficulties in this text, and I bet you’ve seen the problems, too. Thankfully we have a reasonable explanation and don’t need to resort to conspiracies theories to explain what happened to the text.

            According to J, the reason Jacob left his family was because he had stolen his brother’s blessing. This is why he became “a wandering Aramean” who wrestled with God. Jacob was an exile from home, a deceiver forced to go an odyssey of self-discovery. Jacob steals a blessing but reaps bitterness and struggle. J does not present Jacob as a paragon of virtue, such as we depict our Founding Fathers, neither is he a hero and conqueror. He is the heel-grabber who labors and suffers for 20 years before being reconciled to his brother and family.

 

Read: I’ll be reading the story of Jacob’s deception and blessing from the translation by Stephen Mitchell who has separated this story in what was probably its original form.

Blessing:             The first thing to note about this story is the importance of the blessing by the father. It is a little hard for us to appreciate the passion of this story because we live in a world where words are cheap and rituals are empty of meaning. We hear a thousand messages each day, but have lost the ability to speak with one another about the things that really matter. We curse thoughtlessly and bless almost as carelessly, but language was still powerful and almost magical in biblical days. Walter Bruggemann (p. 227-228) notes that the act of blessing forms the dramatic tension of the story: “Blessing is understood as a world-transforming act which cannot be denied by modern rationality. For the son as for the father, indeed for the entire family, the matter of the blessing is as dangerous as it is compelling.”

 

            Our popular culture mocks parents rather than looking to them for blessing and wisdom. This story of Jacob longing for his father’s blessing seems almost pathetic in a world that values the Simpsons. We are too cool, too worldly, too independent to need the blessing of a parent. We can dismiss with Jacob’s story and proclaim our liberation from such archaic rituals. So we pretend. But deep in our hearts, in that vulnerable center of our soul, is the son or daughter aching to hear a word of blessing from a parent.

            You probably remember what it was like to look for a smile or some sign that your parents were pleased with you, not for what you had done, but for who you are. You may recall what it was like to be on the cusp of full adult responsibility. You may remember what it was like to long for someone you admired place his or her hands on you and tell you that your life would turn out alright; that you were ready to make your place in the world. In a few weeks our youth will participate in the rite of confirmation. Part of that ritual is their public profession of faith, but it also includes the blessing of the confirmands. The pastor will lay hands on them and pronounce God’s blessing for their lives. This is what Jacob longed for.

Jacob and Rebekah:                         The story of Isaac’s blessing has four major scenes with four main characters. First Isaac tells his favorite son, Esau that he wanted to bless him. Isaac knows that he will soon die, and, like a good father, he is putting his affairs in order. Esau runs off to do as his father commanded him. But off stage, or if you prefer, outside the tent Rebekah heard what Isaac told his son. Scene 2 has Rebekah and her favorite son, Jacob. Many interpreters are harsh on Isaac for having a favorite son, but they forgive Rebekah for doting on Jacob. Many people argue that Rebekah was trying to fulfill the will of God by helping her beloved son receive the blessing. That may be, but the most reasonable explanation for her actions is that she loved Jacob more than Esau.

            Rebekah knew that Jacob would take care of her after Isaac died. She may have even thought that Jacob would simply be a better clan leader than his impulsive brother. It could be that she, like all of us, acted for many reasons that she could not fully explain herself. But act she did. Whether you view her as a Lady Macbeth or a saint, she was the principal actor in this drama. She is the one who took charge of the situation and convinced her son to deceive her husband.

The Deception            The third scene involves Jacob deceiving Isaac by pretending to be his brother. There is a bit of obvious comedy in the deception itself, which I think was intended. The 1960s British comedian Alan Bennet grasped some of the inherent humor of the phrase “But my brother Esau is a hairy man, but I am a smooth man.” There is a pun in Hebrew here that still works in English, by the way. Jacob is a smooth customer. We could call him Slick Jake, but Esau is hairy man. So hairy, in fact, that Jacob wears goat skins on his hands and neck. I am sure that in ancient times they laughed about that just as much as we would today.

            Lest you are tempted to exonerate Jacob for his deception, notice how far he goes. When his father questions him, Jacob lies. When he returns too quickly with the food that Rebekah has already prepared for him, he mixes his lies with impiety. “The LORD your God granted me success,” he says. The LORD will not become Jacob’s God until much later at Peniel. Now Jacob, like many people in our own country, uses the name of God in vain to add credence to his deceptions. Genesis does not try to excuse Jacob’s actions. That is left up to preachers and rabbis through the centuries who are embarrassed that the father of Israel was a scoundrel in his youth.

            But this is just a bit of comic relief in a scene filled with pathos. Isaac is blind and dying, and he wants to put his affairs in order. He wants to pass on his legacy and his blessing to the next generation. He has chosen Esau as his successor, but he literally cannot see the future. Isaac was in the situation that some of us may be in today. We want to establish our legacy, to make sure we have an impact on the future, but we cannot see what our successors will do, what our children will do. We have to act as best we can with our limited powers and vision, leaving the final result to God, whose purposes are sometimes different than our own. There is also pathos in the fact that Jacob feels that he must deceive his father rather than coming to him and speaking in his own voice. Jacob has to steal his brother’s identity to receive the love of his own father. Isaac remains suspicious of this smooth talker, but the smell of Esau’s clothing convinces him. Jacob leaves with his father’s benediction.

Esau and Isaac            The fourth scene is an agonizing scene between Esau and Isaac. What is most surprising in this scene is that the author appears to be so sympathetic to Esau, who was the ancestor of one of the enemies of Israel. Genesis displays remarkable insight into the complexity of human society and human motives. It is not a simple morality tale, but Genesis does teach us that some things cannot be undone, even if they were done in error. We have become accustomed to fixing mistakes, expunging police records, and making fresh starts. We are guided by the myth that “tomorrow is another day,” and that we don’t have to live with the consequence of what we did today. That’s not how the world is. Isaac gave his blessing and would not go back on his word. Esau had to leave with the results of that decision.

            Lest we be too sympathetic with Esau, though, we have to acknowledge that his fate was no worse than Jacob’s would have been had things gone as Isaac planned. Jacob lied and tricked his way to a blessing intended for Esau, but Esau was not cursed. This is important to note because later Jewish and Christian tradition was very harsh on Esau. In fact, John Calvin defended his doctrine of predestination on the grounds that God had predestined Jacob for blessing and damned Esau, just as he saves some of us and damns others. Calvin argued that God’s ways are inscrutable and cannot be changed by the actions of humans, but he read too much into this story. Esau was not cursed. His life, like that of Ishmael, would be one of struggle, but he had four wives and became very wealthy in his own right.

Exile:                        In the final scene, we see Rebekah and Jacob again. They now have to live with the consequences of their actions. If Rebekah had hoped that Isaac’s blessing would mean that her beloved son would be able to stay with her and take care of her, she was wrong. If Jacob had hoped that his father’s blessing would mean that he would become the head of the family and be respected by his brother, he was wrong. If either of them thought that their deception would go undetected or unpunished, they were wrong. Actions have consequences. Esau hated his brother.

            This recalls the earlier story of Cain and Abel. Abel was the younger brother whose offering was acceptable to God. Cain hated his brother and killed him. When we discussed that story many of us were bothered by the fact that no explanation was given for why Abel was blessed and Cain rejected. But in our story for today, we know why Esau hated Jacob. Rebekah did not need to go to Sunday School to figure out that Esau would kill Jacob as soon as Isaac had been buried. So she acted again to save her beloved son. She sent him away to Haran, to the home of her brother Laban, who was powerful enough to protect him from the wrath of Esau.

            Rebekah says something very interesting as she sends Jacob away: “Why should I lose both of you in one day?” It is ambiguous whether she is discussing the loss of Jacob and Esau or Jacob and Isaac. The latter makes sense in terms of both them dying on the same day, but the former seems more likely in the context. Rebekah knows that she has lost the love of her son Esau by robbing him of his blessing, and she cannot bear the thought of losing the life of other son. She is a tragic figure here, so different from the bright young woman who received a nose ring years before. Now she is trapped in her own actions. In order to save the life of the son she loved most, she must lose him. We shall see that Isaac’s blessing does eventually come true for Jacob, but not in the way Rebekah intended. Jacob will prosper, but only after years of toil and hardship. He leaves for Haran, and mother and son will not be reunited for 20 years.

            Next week we’ll continue with the story of Jacob, looking at his vision at Bethel in Genesis 28. Let me remind you that copies of these lessons are available from Home Moravian Church. Thank you for listening. 

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