Genesis/Exodus Week 7

“Saving the Future and Seeing the Face of God”: Genesis 25:1–36:42

Marc Chagall, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (c. 1963).
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Rebekah Pregnant With Twins

Isaac comes into focus once his parents die (Genesis 23:1–2; 25:7–8). Abraham’s other children reflect good fortune (25:1–4, 12–18), but only Sarah’s child, Isaac, counts in terms of God’s agenda (25:5, 11). Pointedly, Abraham keeps his other offspring separated from Isaac (25:6).

Isaac’s first action is praying — successfully — for his barren wife (25:21). A favorable result is marred by Rebekah’s duress, caused by “the children” (!) struggling in her womb. Presumably they are vying for position. Imploring God, she learns that from these children two peoples will arise. One will be stronger than and dominate the other (25:22–23). Conflict is on the horizon even in the context of God’s will.

Curiously, God gives Rebekah no instructions about the future. Is she to do something? Should she try to orchestrate events? No answers are forthcoming. Instead, we observe the birth and immediate maturation of the two boys. Esau obviously won the natal contest with Jacob a close second. Besides being told that Esau was covered with red hair and that Isaac was 60 when the twins were born, we know nothing besides God’s prediction (25:25–26).

Conflict Between Brothers

Esau is a hunter. Jacob is identified by character. He is tam, which connotes moral integrity in spite of translations such as “quiet” or the like [Author’s note 1]. Though these descriptions seem innocuous, the differences point to an emerging rivalry, especially in the light of God’s remarks to Rebekah — not to mention what has already happened in her womb. Isaac’s and Rebekah’s partiality will only heighten the conflict. Isaac prefers Esau for supplying him with tasty game, whereas Rebekah loves Jacob (25:27–28) for unspecified reasons. Was it because of God’s prediction? Was it a reaction to Isaac’s favoritism? Were both reasons in play? The narrative is silent.

Conflict flares almost immediately. In a scene that begins unremarkably — Jacob is making a meal as Esau returns from a hunt — the brothers’ lives are forever changed. A hungry Esau thinks he is at death’s door. Jacob is willing to feed his brother, but only for a price: the birthright. Whoever possesses that controls the family’s future. We cringe to see Esau throw away his future to eliminate the rumble in his stomach. But we are equally disappointed at Jacob’s lack of generosity. Is this any way to treat a brother? Esau stuffs himself and leaves, after pledging his birthright to Jacob (25:27–34). Then it dawns on us. This sorry scene will fulfill God’s prediction (25:23). God is working through highly suspect people and morally suspect deeds. So why is Jacob considered tam, or upright? He seems anything but.

As for Isaac, God reveals the divine promise to him directly for the first time when the patriarch visits the Philistine king Abimelech to escape a famine. The Lord permits Isaac to stay with the Philistines, denies permission to go to Egypt (as Abraham and Sarah had (12:10–20)), and affirms the promise of land and descendants. The Lord also calls attention to Abraham’s obedience (26:1–5). We might take the latter statement as a reference to an ideal Abraham in that the previous narrative shows that Abraham faltered, and faltered often.

Isaac and Abimelech

Divine admonition notwithstanding, while with the Philistines, Isaac imitates Abraham by passing off Rebekah as his sister. In this case, he cannot even claim, as Abraham had claimed, that he was half right, for the woman was his cousin, not his half-sister (26:6–7; 20:12). Once again, a patriarch gets away with dubious behavior (26:8–11). Plus, right after Isaac’s failure of religious nerve he is so blessed by God that Abimelech asks him, his household, and his numerous flocks to leave. The Philistines were feeling crowded out of their own territory (26:12–14, 16).

After moving on, in a series of seemingly mundane actions involving the re-digging and digging of wells, Isaac and his company symbolize prosperity, fruitfulness, and life. It turns out that the Philistines had plugged the wells Abraham had previously dug (26:15; 21:25–34). In the midst of several disputes with the Philistines, Isaac and his people dig new wells and open up ones that had been made useless. Each of the names of the wells reflects strife, except for the last one, Rehoboth, which testifies to God’s making room for a productive people in the land (26:17–22).

When Isaac leaves the Philistines for Beersheba, he gets another divine appearance that stresses the ancestral promise. In response, Isaac builds an altar, pitches a tent, and calls on the name of the Lord. These actions, along with digging yet another well, all underscore the nature of the promise, the future that it offers, and a proper religious response (26:23–25). We are amazed when we realize that even Abimelech recognized God’s hand in all this. He went to see Isaac, apologized, acknowledged Isaac’s deity, and shared a meal. The scene ends with one more reference to the digging of a life-giving well (26:26–33). Already Isaac is blessed, and a blessing to others.

Jacob Steals Esau’s Blessing

We saw before that Jacob on his own exploited Esau to get the latter’s birthright (25:29–34). Now, with the intentional help of a conniving mother and the inadvertent help of a hapless father, Jacob wrests the blessing from Esau as well. The elderly Isaac asks Esau to prepare a favorite dish for the blessing ceremony (27:1–4). Esau is no sooner gone than Rebekah and Jacob spring into action. The initiative belongs to Rebekah, but Jacob readily co-operates. Armed with food indistinguishable from what Esau would have made, clothing that would imitate Esau’s smell, animal pelts to cover Jacob’s smooth skin, the younger son has a decent chance of fooling his father. The old man’s sight was already poor (27:1), so the only sense that Rebekah and Jacob could not neutralize was hearing. Alas, the failure of his other senses made Isaac distrust his hearing. So he blessed Jacob instead of Esau (27:5–27).

The blessing is straightforward. Jacob would be wealthy and ascendant over others, most especially over his brothers, even though he had only one (27:27b–29). Plus, as it was with Abraham and Sarah, blessing and cursing for everyone else depends on the response to Jacob (27:29c; 12:3). By the time the scene concludes, Esau also wrangles a blessing from his father. But it is a mixed blessing. Esau, too, will be wealthy, though many English translations miss this [Author’s note 2]. The negative aspect is that Esau will live by the sword, be subservient to his brother, and eventually have to break loose from fraternal bondage (27:39–40).

Should we wonder that Esau is ready to kill his brother for the theft of both birthright and blessing (27:36, 41)? Or should we be surprised that the duplicitous Rebekah lies about Jacob’s potential marriage partner to prompt Isaac to send him to her father (27:42–46; 28:1–2)? Of course, while the answers to these questions are rhetorical, the more puzzling question is this: How is it that Jacob became the child of promise through deceit, exploitation, and betrayal?

The answer is that this story reflects incredible divine graciousness. We are not to read this story moralistically, in which case we concentrate on the actions of the human participants. Rather, we read theologically, which keeps God’s actions in the forefront. In effect, this story depends on grace, not works. St. Paul saw this clearly (Romans 9:10–13).

Jacob Flees to Laban

Still, though Jacob has become through suspect means the child of promise, he does not get off unscathed. For the next 20 years, Jacob gets his comeuppance. Because of Esau’s threat, Jacob is forced to leave the land of promise (Genesis 27:41–28:2). Though he receives the ancestral promise from Isaac and, in the famous ladder dream, the Lord, Jacob’s behavior remains questionable (28:3–4, 13–14). Granted, he acknowledges his dream’s divine source (28:12–19), but his response to God’s promise eventually to return him safely to the land of promise is tepid at best (28:15, 20–22). After this confused start, things hardly improve.

Jacob does find security with his mother’s family (29:1–14), but this is not without cost. Jacob is smitten with his cousin Rachel, who is comely. But he makes a dubious bargain to win her hand — he offers seven years of work to his uncle Laban (29:15–20). Why did he start the negotiations with such a handsome offer? Jacob, no less than Esau had been, is victimized by his appetite. It was simply in a different anatomical location!

Four Wives, 12 Sons, One Daughter

As a result, Jacob ends up with four wives when he desired only one (29:21–30:13). Though he was royally deceived by his crafty uncle, Jacob had no comeback to Laban’s insistence on the preferential treatment accorded to the first-born child (29:23–26). As well, we cannot fail to see that Jacob, a young man in command of all his senses, is made a fool when he realizes he has spent his honeymoon night with Leah rather than Rachel (29:21–25). At least Isaac had the excuse that he was elderly and infirm. Still, these shenanigans result in Jacob’s acquiring an impressive family of 12 sons and a daughter. This goes a long way toward the fulfillment of God’s promise of enumerable descendants (29:31–30:24; 35:16–18).

Jacob also becomes rich while with Laban, thus fulfilling Isaac’s blessing. This was no thanks to his uncle, with whom Jacob was forced to match wits to overcome exploitation (30:25–43). As we might have expected, God also has a hand in Jacob’s accumulation of wealth (31:1–12). In the end, in a mini-fulfillment of the grand promise to Abraham and Sarah (12:1–3), Jacob manages to bless Laban while at the same time becoming blessed himself (30:27, 30).

Ordered Back to the Land of Promise

But Jacob is on a mission that transcends acquiring wives and children. Thus, God orders him back to the land of promise (31:13). Still, there are obstacles. One is Laban. In spite of his father-in-law’s furious efforts to impede Jacob, God intervenes (31:34). Another irony occurs when Laban searches Jacob’s family and staff looking for the gods Rachel stole (31:19). Laban “gropes” the tent in his search. The same word is used when Isaac “feels” Jacob in the tent to determine his identity (27:21). Once more Jacob is threatened in a tent, for Rachel would have been put to death had she been discovered as the culprit (31:32). Finally, after a testy exchange, Jacob and Laban agree to split more or less amicably (31:36–54).

The more formidable obstacle is Esau, who has had 20 years to seethe. Though we may be fascinated with how the reunion with the estranged brothers will play out, we cannot forget that Jacob is part of a providential agenda. This is accented by the angels’ appearance at the beginning and end of his journey (28:12; 32:1–2).

Jacob does three things preparing for Esau. First, thinking that he is about to be attacked by soldiers led by Esau (though they are only called “men”), he tries to cut his losses (32:3–8). Second, he prays a quintessential foxhole prayer (32:9–12). Third, as though he did not believe in the efficacy of his own prayer, he prepares an over-the-top bribe (32:13–21). Another thing happens that he did not initiate. Jacob engages in a bizarre all-night struggle with a mysterious man (32:22–32; Author’s note 3). He tries to wrest a blessing from the “man” who he thinks is God. In spite of the text’s ambiguity, Jacob insists he has seen God’s face.

Radical Reconciliation

Jacob claims to see God’s face a second time in Esau. What began as a dreaded encounter ends up as a model of reconciliation. Esau’s graciousness is incredible. Jacob bows profusely when approaching Esau. The irony is that Jacob was supposed to be ascendant.

We fully expect Esau to exact vengeance, at least of a monetary sort. Instead, Esau runs to greet Jacob as though their fraternal bonds had always been tight. Not only are Esau’s initial welcoming gestures gracious beyond compare, his remarks when offered Jacob’s bribe are unbelievable: “I have enough. Keep, my brother, what you have for yourself.” Precisely at this point, Jacob asserts that Esau’s graciousness is reflective of God’s face (33:10). When Jacob begs his brother to accept the offer, and Esau relents, graciousness is accented again. Up to this point, every reference to the gift is the Hebrew word for present.

When Esau finally accepts, the word used is blessing (33:11). Esau will never be the child of promise, but he will not be bereft of blessing, as Genesis 36 makes clear.

We were perplexed at the beginning of this story with Jacob’s description as tam or upright. His behavior belies that designation. But toward the end, he is more or less transformed. We observe Jacob’s caution and long-term perspective in the wake of his daughter’s rape (Chapter 34; see verse 30).

More importantly, in the final chapter that features him, Jacob becomes a religious reformer. Told by God to return to the scene of his ladder dream (28:10–17), he first commands his household to put their religious house in order by getting rid of foreign gods, purifying themselves, and changing their garments (35:1–4). Once at Bethel, God symbolically changes his name [Author’s note 4] and reaffirms the ancestral promise. Soon after, his youngest son, Benjamin, is born, emphasizing Jacob’s future (35:9–18). Illustrative of the peace he made with Esau, Jacob joins his brother at his father’s funeral (35:27–29). Isaac is gone, but the future of God’s people continues.

Questions for Further Reflection: Genesis 25:1–36:42

  1. In light of the way Israel’s ancestors are depicted in the narrative, what explains the tendency in the Church to present them in heroic terms? Is this material written so that we will emulate the behaviors of the patriarchs and matriarchs?
  2. Do you see any parallels between the manner in which the ancestors are presented and the manner in which Jesus’ disciples are presented in the Gospels? What conclusions might you draw from this?
  3. What do you make of God’s willingness throughout the story to bring about the appropriate ends through the most suspect of means? What does that say about divine providence?
  4. In many places in Scripture, biblical characters are excoriated for being immoral and unethical. Yet here characters seem to get off the hook. Why is this so? Why do characters not get judged along the way?
  5. What may we infer about the various characters — Isaac, Rebekah, Esau, Jacob, Laban, Rachel, Leah, etc. — in light of how they are portrayed in the narrative?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Besides Jacob’s characterization as tam (Genesis 25:27), Job is famously so designated. God uses the term to describe Job (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3) and Job uses it of himself (9:21).

Author’s Note 2

Translators often miss the force of the two blessings issued by Isaac to his sons. But the consonantal Hebrew text is exactly the same for the first part of both blessings. Thus, Isaac predicts that both his sons will end up fabulously wealthy. As the story progresses, we see that that is the case for Esau as well as Jacob. Esau has the means to hire 400 men (Genesis 32:6). He claims that he “has enough” when Jacob offers him a bribe (33:9). And his possessions are so extensive that he has to move away from Jacob (36:7). The Jewish Publication Society translation properly renders the text while the RSV, NRSV, and NIV all mistranslate.

Author’s Note 3

Charles Wesley wrote a hymn based on this text: “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown.” The tune is titled “Wrestling Jacob.”

Author’s Note 4

Interpreters have long noticed that Jacob’s name is changed to Israel twice, once in Genesis 32:28 and once in 35:10. This seems curious and is usually explained as the result of two different sources. But in terms of the final form of the text, it is perhaps warranted to see the reference in Genesis 32 differently and the actual change of name occurring in Genesis 35. The verb translated “bless” in some contexts means “say goodbye” or “take one’s leave.” That may be the nuance present in Genesis 32. Thus, the actual name-change comes in the context of a story which depicts Jacob as a religious reformer. That is, his change of name is also indicative of a change of character.


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