Let me set the scene: Rebekah peered through an open doorway at her husband, Isaac. Age had wilted the once proud man, the son of Abraham, until he was only a shadow of his former self. His eyes had failed and he could no longer look upon his home or the people that he loved. He could no longer even walk. But Isaac was loved: his twin sons, Jacob and Esau, remained close to him even as they entered their fourth decades. Although Esau’s Canaanite wives caused some consternation, he remained Isaac’s favorite son. At 100 years of age, Isaac had lived a long and good life and he felt that it was time to pass on his blessing, the inheritance of God’s promise, to one of his children.
As Rebekah watched unseen, Isaac called his eldest son, Esau, to his deathbed to make his request:
Isaac said, “I am now an old man and don’t know the day of my death. Now then, get your equipment—your quiver and bow—and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.”
As she heard these words, Rebekah’s heart hardened. In a few short minutes, she would betray her eldest son and her husband. She knew her actions could drive her family apart and that she may never see her sons together again.
Why did she do it? Because God had told her a secret. Read on for more.
(This post is part of a continuing series of chronological commentaries on Genesis, starting at the very beginning, but they get better as we go on. The story of Rebekah began with her marriage to Isaac and continued as Isaac struggled in the shadow of his father.)
God’s Secret Plan
The key moment of this story actually came forty years earlier as Rebekah struggled with her pregnancy. Even in her womb, the future twins Jacob and Esau fought. She prayed to God for an explanation– what was happening to her?– and He answered:
The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
While this answered her as to why she was having an uncomfortable pregnancy, it also revealed something more important: that the “older will serve the younger”. In other words, God would pass on Abraham’s covenant not to her firstborn, but to his brother. Isaac was Abraham’s second son, but in his case Ishmael had been born of a different mother. Here, God was explicitly passing by a son that had the greater claim. God didn’t explain why he was skipping Esau, or even why he choose to tell this to Rebekah, but the choice was clear.
More importantly, God never told Isaac this secret. God either had or would speak to Isaac in Gerar as depicted in Genesis 26, so they must have been on speaking terms then. Was God angry at Isaac? Did He not trust Isaac? Genesis never explains why Rebekah had to shoulder this burden alone.
A few months later, Jacob and Esau were born:
When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.
Esau had come out first, hairy and red. His two names, Esau and Edom, are generally translated as “hairy” and “red” respectively. Jacob came out next with a hand on Esau’s heel. That sounds quite a bit like a metaphor to me, especially since Jacob’s name is translated as “to grasp by the heel”, but there could be a glimmer of truth here. One of the possibly complications in child birth is called a “nuchal hand”. This is a condition where one of the baby’s hands are above or beside his neck during childbirth. Usually the hand can be coaxed back into place before birth, but if not it can lead to tearing or other problems. Could this depiction of grasping Esau’s heel be an early reference to this problem? Probably not, but it is fun to speculate.
As her children grew up, Rebekah kept God’s secret from her family, but perhaps not without ramifications. Isaac would take Esau as his favorite son and probably mentored him as his heir. Likewise, Rebekah came to favor Jacob.
The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Some people see an echo in this story to Genesis’s first pair of brothers and there are some similarities. Both sets of brothers have opposite occupations, a “country mouse” and “city mouse” dichotomy. However Cain and Abel were a farmer and a shepherd, respectively, while Esau and Jacob were a hunter and a shepherd. While both stories reveal that God has a preference for shepherds, there is little else in common with the other brothers’ occupations.
Forty years later, we return to Rebekah standing in the doorway. Her husband has decided that he is near death and is about to give Esau his blessing as the firstborn, a blessing which she knew needed to go to Jacob. Rebekah thought quickly and hatched a plot with her younger son:
Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Look, I overheard your father say to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me some game and prepare me some tasty food to eat, so that I may give you my blessing in the presence of the Lord before I die.’ Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.”
Apparently Isaac’s tastebuds were also failing if Rebekah thought he couldn’t tell the difference between goat and wild game, but after sixty years of marriage she probably knew how to cool food that he would like. But maybe when you read this you think, “Wait! This doesn’t seem that dishonest! Jacob will bring him food and his father will like it so much that he’ll give his blessing deliberately to the wrong child.” But no.
So he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she prepared some tasty food, just the way his father liked it. Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob. She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins. Then she handed to her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made.
Rebekah disguised Jacob in Esau’s clothes, faking the latter’s hairy nature by using goat skins. This wasn’t a casual betrayal, she was going all out.
This is a great story, but one I will pause for now. Jacob does march in there, lie to his father, and get the blessing. But it is not without grave consequences for the family. They were immediate and severe:
Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”
One can hardly blame Esau for having this reaction. He was the firstborn. The blessing was his right. By killing Jacob, he could be able to reclaim his rights. And yet, Esau paused his vengeance until after his father’s death. He loved his father so much that he could not stomach hurting him in this way. In my view, Esau really comes off the better man in this exchange, no matter how “hairy” and stupid the narrator of Genesis wants to portray him.
Also interesting is that Rebekah managed to completely escape the blame for the action. Isaac blamed Jacob and Esau’s vengeance passed onto him. At no point does Esau threaten to kill his mother. Instead, Rebekah sees the threat to Jacob and she sends him away:
When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran. Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”
In the end, I’m torn about how to feel about Rebekah. She sacrificed her family’s happiness because of something that God had told her forty years earlier. She did the right thing, but she would never see her son Jacob again. And yet, in the end, she is also unwilling to accept responsibility for the act or even to explain it. She allows Isaac and Esau to blame– and want to kill– only Jacob. And when she sends Jacob away, she says because of “what you did to him”, completely forgetting it was her idea in the first place. What makes me angriest about this is that she lied to Jacob:
His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.”
She said, “let the curse fall on me”. Let me take the blame. Let the bad stuff happen to me. And when the time came, she didn’t do that. She never took responsibility for her actions, even after she promised. And while she can be forgiven for the betrayal because it was God’s will, I can’t forgive her that she placed all the blame and danger on Jacob.
A few brief observations:
- Jacob never knew about God’s promise, yet he followed through on the plan without remorse. Was his conscience clear because of the birthright he bought (for a bowl of soup) when he was younger? (Which I haven’t recapped yet.) Or did he not care and just want the blessing?
- Esau’s promise would never be fulfilled, but in part because Isaac wasn’t quite as close to death’s door as he appeared. Isaac lived sixty years after this, long enough for the twins to have made peace with each other.
Next up will be a look at Abimelech, the Philistine king and one of the few “moral pagans” that God dealt with.
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