It was the heist of a millennium: Rebekah and her second-born son Jacob conspired to rob her first-born, Esau, of his birthright. At stake wasn’t just gold or silver, servants or sheep, but rather the patriarchy for the whole future nation of Israel. To complete the theft, they would have to manipulate a blind and crippled Isaac, husband and father, into confusing his children and blessing the wrong one. It was an inauspicious start to the tribe of Israel, to say the least.
Rightly or wrongly, Rebekah was persuaded to do this by a vision from God given to her in pregnancy. But what led Jacob down this dark path? Was it greed? Did he, too, have a vision from God? The bible is mostly silent, but for me it comes down to one bowl of delicious soup. Read on for more.
(This post is part of a continuing series of chronological commentaries on Genesis, starting at the very beginning. This is the beginning of Jacob’s story, but Rebekah’s side of the story details her vision from God.)
The story begins simply enough:
Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” […]
Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
Esau visits while Jacob was cooking and instead of offering his hungry brother some of his food, Jacob makes an impossible demand: Esau’s entire birthright.
It’s shocking to consider how far the apple has fallen from Abraham’s family tree. Look back just a few chapters to see how important hospitality and family were to Abraham. And here we have Jacob not only being inhospitable to a traveler, but to his brother. By way of comparison, here’s what Genesis said about Abraham when he met three strangers outside his tent:
Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”
While those strangers were later revealed to be angels, Abraham did not know this before offering them his hospitality. Abraham also went to war to rescue his nephew, Lot. By refusing to give his visiting brother soup, Jacob is failing at both hospitality and support for his family.
Although Jacob’s offer was terrible, Esau accepted it:
“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.
This brief passage opens up many lines of questions. Were the twins of age to be able to make oaths like this? Almost certainly. Was Esau visiting or did he live there? Was he really starving or just very hungry? Those questions are more difficult. But if this was used as a pretext for Jacob’s later actions, was it a valid oath?
Today, we would say that this contract is invalid on its face. In American jurisprudence, the fact that Esau was facing starvation would have made the contract under duress, and therefore void:
Duress is the “threat of harm made to compel a person to do something against his or her will or judgment; esp., a wrongful threat made by one person to compel a manifestation of seeming assent by another person to a transaction without real volition”
Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004)
Similar prohibitions against contracts under duress exist in other legal systems. But was such an oath valid in Jacob and Esau’s time? Since this is prior to Torah, we do not know what laws applied to them. The bible is full of contracts and covenants– both between man and God, and between men– but few examples like this one. The closest I can find in the law is in Leviticus 6 where God commands that one should not “cheat his neighbor”. This looks an awful lot like cheating to me.
Jacob’s Punishment and Redemption
Jacob’s first action in Genesis is deeply troubling. For all that Esau is depicted as a wild and unintelligent man of the country, Jacob is the slippery city lawyer who takes advantage of others to line his own pockets. Even his name in Hebrew can be translated as “he who deceives”.
I am reminded of one of the Proverbs:
There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.
But while this is Jacob’s first action in Genesis, then it is also the beginning of his path to personal redemption. Much of the rest of Genesis can be seen as God’s punishment for Jacob’s twin thefts against his brother: Jacob’s exile from his family, his nearly 15 years of labor to win the hand of his beloved Rachel, then all but failing to have any children with her, and finally the exile of his entire family into Egypt. And, unlike when his grandfather was exiled to Egypt in Genesis 12, he would never see his homeland again.
While it is jumping ahead a bit (spoilers?), I think it’s worth making the comparison now. How much more is Jacob like Abraham after his trials than before, when he finally returns home to ask Esau’s forgiveness?
But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.
Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”
Forgiveness is a beautiful thing.
Esau the Animal
One of the things I love most about Torah is the way that no one– not even Abraham, Jacob, or Moses– are portrayed as being perfect. Even great people can make terrible mistakes and that isn’t a bad lesson to learn. But many commentaries, especially Jewish ones, struggle to read between the lines and find ways to show that Jacob is somehow doing good in this exchange.
Rashi, in his commentary, takes the view that Esau was more beast than man. He was not starving, no more than a hungry dog is starving when it begs for food. Esau simply could not control his impulses. When he trades his birthright for something as meaningless as a bowl of soup, we should not pity Esau but rather be relieved that Jacob has relieved this incompetent man of his heavy burden.
Some commentaries are worse: not only was Esau a man of the fields, he was also an idolator! And he hung out with Canaanites! And why was he hungry? Because he had just come back from committing murder! The stories go on, but you get the point. Jacob could no more be faulted for his actions than we could be if we resisted harboring a fugitive.
The closest that I think the text gets to this bestial image of Esau cannot be seen in most English translations, but a slim few translate the passage like this:
and Esau saith unto Jacob, ‘Let me eat, I pray thee, some of this red red thing, for I am weary;’ therefore hath one called his name Edom Red;
Genesis 25:30 (Young’s Literal Translation)
This makes the Hebrew wordplay more clear. Esau is so hungry that he cannot even speak like an adult, just calling the stew the “red red thing” or the “red red stuff”, depending on the translation. But if he were starving, can we fault him for being a little weak of speech?
The story of Jacob is just getting started and we will return to him over and over as we complete the Book of Genesis.
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