You hear about these cases all the time: men and women who take advantage of an elderly or infirm person for monetary gain. Sometimes, the theft is large such as a police sergeant who stole $20,000 last year near Chicago, or the Boston couple that stole $130,000 from an elderly man and his handicapped daughter. It is easy to imagine many more crimes going unreported– like credit cards used by a caretaker without permission, or easily forgotten items being sold. To take advantage of anyone in their time of need is one of the worst violation of trust that I can imagine. I did not know how common this was until I researched for this post.
And yet, this is exactly what we are told Jacob did when he conspired with his mother to steal his father’s blessing and, by extension, the patriarchy of all of Israel. It is a violation of trust on a terrible scale, made all the worse because we readers of Genesis have seen Isaac grow from a boy to a man and now finally to this humbling end. Jacob is one of the great heroes of Genesis, and this is not a great way to start his story.
It all begins with a home-cooked meal. Read on for more.
(This post is part of a continuing series of chronological commentaries on Genesis, starting at the very beginning. Jacob’s story starts with the purchase of Esau’s birthright and continues here several years later.)
When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, “My son.”
“Here I am,” he answered.
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.”
It may have been only a few lines since Isaac was negotiating peace with Abimelech, but years had passed and his health was declining. Isaac was at least 100 years old now, his two sons grown men of at least 40. Isaac was frail, blind, and seemingly unable to rise from his bed. Although we know from reading ahead that Isaac would live quite a while longer, he must have thought that his time was coming. It was time to pass on his blessing, his inheritance, to his eldest son.
Why did Isaac call Esau to him instead of Jacob? Esau was the oldest by a few moments, but he was also Isaac’s favored son since early on. Isaac appreciated that he was a hunter, in contrast to the homebody that was his brother Jacob. What’s more, Esau was perhaps more an “adult” than Jacob: he had married and may have already provided Isaac and Rebekah with grandchildren. While Genesis does not paint Esau with a very nice brush much of the time, Isaac’s choice seems understandable.
How would this blessing be passed on? Like business arrangements even to the current day, it would be done over a meal. Not just any meal– Isaac requested that Esau hunt and prepare his favorite food. There is a real sense of family and love in this request, but it would not go according to Isaac’s plan.
Rebekah Steps In
Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back, 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.’
Rebekah overheard Isaac and Esau from the next room. Forty-something years earlier, God had given her a vision that foretold that Jacob would be the favored son– to make that vision come true, she would need to act. There was very little time to think or plan; Esau was already on his way into the wilderness to hunt up some wild game. Jacob was nearby–he was unmarried and probably still lived with his parents– and they would need to work quickly.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider: why did Jacob sign on to this? In the heat of the moment, perhaps there was not time to consider the consequences. Some years before, Jacob had purchased (or perhaps extorted) Esau’s birthright for a bowl of soup— would it be theft if he took what was already in his mind rightfully his? If he has any hesitation, the bible does not show it to us. Instead, Jacob is concerned is for the anger that his father will have if he is caught– rather than having remorse for fooling his father in the first place.
Regardless of Jacob’s own thoughts on the subject, Rebekah was in the drivers seat. In no time at all, she had a plan and was executing it. And while we certainly can be disappointed in the way that she chooses to act, we have to give her credit for her quick intelligence. She is an amazing woman!
Item 1: Canaanite Fast Food
[Rebekah said] “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.”
Isaac requested to Esau that his blessing would be over a plate of delicious wild game, but Jacob was no hunter. Jacob was “content to stay at home among the tents” (Genesis 25:27) and so there was no way that he would win a hunting race. Rebekah solved this by substituting a goat from the flock instead, but this had risk. Whatever animal Esau was bringing home, it was not going to be a goat. We might imagine some creative use of Canaanite spices, but it would be very difficult to prepare a meal of goat and have it appear to be wild game. Rebekah may have been gambling that Isaac’s tastebuds were also failing in his old age.
It is also great to notice that Esau was not only a skilled hunter, he was a skilled cook. In contrast, Jacob relied on his mother to prepare his father’s meal. Jacob is fairly useless at this stage, doing no more than slaughtering a domesticated goat. I can hardly help but feel that this is another point in Esau’s favor, a note that he was truly the “older” brother of the pair. Even so, it would take more than just a well-cooked meal to fool Isaac.
Item 2: A Disguise
Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man while I have smooth skin. What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.”
His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.” 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.
Jacob would need a disguise if he were to fool his father into thinking he was his brother. Once again, Rebekah had the solution: fetch some of Esau’s finest clothes and a few goat skins. Put the skins around Jacob’s hands and neck and he would easily pass for his brother, right? This sounds more than a bit like a first-grade play rather than something that could actually work. Would it be enough to fool Isaac?
Once again, this scene tries to tell us something negative about Esau, but tells us something about Jacob instead. Esau was hairy– that was his defining feature even since he was born. Even at birth, his “whole body was like a hairy garment” (Genesis 25:25), and I feel from this we are supposed to get the impression that Esau is animal-like and stupid. A bit of that characterization does come out in the incident where Jacob bought the birthright, but it feels like shorthand to me. We no longer see hairy people as being less intelligent, so the point Genesis is trying to make is lost. That Jacob could dress this way and resemble Esau sounds like an exaggeration for effect and it is difficult to imagine this playing out well. To Jacob’s credit, he steps out a little from his mother’s shadow: he suggests adding the disguise, even if she has to work out the details.
It is Rebekah that I am most impressed by in this scene. Not only does she solve the second problem quickly and easily, she demonstrates that she is willing to put everything on the line to do what she sees as God’s will. Jacob is worried that he will be cursed– a natural fear given the circumstances– but Rebekah is willing to step up and say “let the curse fall on me”. She has the courage of her convictions and that says a lot, no matter how uncomfortable we might be about where those convictions are taking her.
The clock was ticking and the pieces were in place. Jacob had his meal and his disguise, and now it was time to approach Isaac to try to pull it off. Any minute now, Esau could return from hunting to serve his father his own meal. If he were to arrive before the blessing took place, it would be a disaster.
The First Lie
[Jacob] went to his father and said, “My father.”
“Yes, my son,” he answered. “Who is it?”
Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”
Jacob enters his father’s presence and calls out, yet Isaac does not seem to recognize his voice. Was his hearing also fading? It appears so, but we will learn in a few more lines that he recognizes Jacob’s voice. And yet, he still asks “Who is it?” Why does he do that? I have read commentary– which I cannot find the source for now– that suggests that Isaac was in on the ruse, that he knew that Jacob was pulling the wool over his eyes and that he had intended to give the blessing to Jacob the whole time. I am uncomfortable reading that into this story. Isaac will forgive Jacob quickly, but there is little else in this text to suggest that he is in on this deception. If he wanted to give the blessing to Jacob, he could have done so at any time.
The Second Lie
Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?”
“The Lord your God gave me success,” he replied.
Isaac may have been getting suspicious, because his next question is about how Esau (Jacob) was able to find and prepare food so quickly. One aspect really bothers me: Jacob brings God into the story. He could have said that he was lucky, but instead he wants his father to believe that his mission received divine favor. But, Jacob also distances himself from God. By using the phrase “The Lord your God”, rather than “my” God, Jacob not only uses God’s name in vain, he suggests that he is not his God– what a patriarch!
Some commentators rightly point out that Jacob was taking in Esau’s voice, not his own. Rashi, for example, posits that Esau was not pious, so Jacob is using these phrases to imitate Esau who did not believe that God was his God. Even so, Jacob still is the one to bring God into the conversation and then claims to have been blessed. That is still quite a low blow.
The Third Lie
Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.” Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he proceeded to bless him. “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked.
“I am,” he replied.
Isaac remains suspicious, so he asks to touch his son. Jacob’s judgement about needing the disguise was correct, as was Rebekah’s idea as to how to go about it. Isaac touches him, feels the goat fur, and believes it to be Esau’s hands he is holding. But just in case, he asks one more time: “Are you really my son Esau?” Jacob lies again.
The deception was complete. Rebekah’s plan worked. Now it was time for the meal and the blessing.
Isaac’s Blessing for Esau (given to Jacob)
Then he said, “My son, bring me some of your game to eat, so that I may give you my blessing.” Jacob brought it to him and he ate; and he brought some wine and he drank. Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come here, my son, and kiss me.” So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him […]
After being convinced that the son before him was Esau, Isaac ate of the “wild” game and kissed his son. Jacob’s ruse had been successful and the blessing was now his– but not before one final test. This time, Isaac did not ask a question of Jacob, he did something more basic: the sniff test. With the help of Esau’s clothing, Jacob passed that test as well. Rebekah predicted every area where her plan might have failed and mitigated against it.
Isaac had used his remaining four senses, and the pair had successfully fooled three of them:
- Hearing – Not fooled, as Isaac recognizes Jacob’s voice.
- Smell – Fooled, as Jacob is wearing Esau’s clothing.
- Touch – Fooled, as Jacob is wearing goat skins to feel hairy.
- Taste – Fooled, although not described clearly. The goat that Rebekah prepared must have tasted like wild game, so much so that Isaac never comments on it.
I will be looking at the twin blessings of Jacob and Esau in a future post, but for now this is how Isaac blesses his son:
“Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.
May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness— an abundance of grain and new wine.
May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.”
And with that, we will end this section. Esau will be home momentarily and discover the deception– and be none too pleased. His actions, and how Rebekah solves the next problem, will be the key to the remainder of Jacob’s life. We will get to it soon!
It is very challenging to look at this passage and like Jacob. We know from reading the bible that Jacob will be favored by God, and that he may even redeem himself– but Jacob is far from a paragon to be emulated. I am disturbed by the easy way in which he steals from his father. Even if Jacob receiving the blessing was God’s plan, there must have been a better way to go about it.
In some ways, Rebekah comes off better in this passage. She is a strong woman, quick on her feet, and creative. She believes this is the right course of action, no doubt in large part because God himself told her that Jacob would be the favored son. She is also willing to risk the most. If Isaac curses his son, Rebekah agrees to take the curse on herself. That suggests that her motivation is not selfish, but rather something that she does for the long-term good. Jacob’s motivations are never so altruistic. We’ll see in the next section that she may not hold true to her word, but the picture we have is of a driven woman who uses her brain to get what she wants. I cannot think of a matriarch or patriarch up to this point who is depicted as being this crafty.
Up next: Esau comes home, followed by a look at the brothers’ blessings and how they come true (or not) over the course of Genesis. I also have a Purim post to finish, even though Purim is long gone. Oh well! Such are the travails of a geek blogger who works too many hours and has a baby…