Commentary on Genesis 25:19-34
Our lectionary text for today starts with the reference that Rebecca was barren, and that after her husband Isaac prayed for her, she conceived (verse 21).
This very brief, one verse account, continues the theme of the promise threatened and promise fulfilled that runs throughout the book of Genesis. Moreover, as in the instance of Sarah and Abraham, the theme of barrenness makes a powerful statement with regard to the power of God to bestow the unexpected gift of life in situations of barrenness and despair.
In contrast to the other barren women stories in the Bible such as Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth, Rebecca’s barrenness gets little more narrative time than the one verse in which she is described to be barren in addition to having her barrenness overcome. However, two side references regarding the age of Isaac offer the careful reader more detail about Rebekah’s life that has been marked by her inability to bear a child. In verse 20 it is said that Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebecca, and in verse 26 it is said that he was 60 years old when the twins were born. One could very easily miss this textual detail, and yet, these textual details indicate a 20 year span of time. Twenty years of barrenness, of frustration every month when Rebecca’s period indicates once more that pregnancy has not occurred. Twenty years of failure, shame, and frustration.
Within this narrative gap a number of profound perspectives emerge: First, we see an impressive example of the power of prayer. Isaac prays; God grants his prayer and Rebecca conceives. This prayerful disposition in a time of deep anguish for both husband and wife denotes trust, and a keen belief that God is the One who answers prayers and the One who opens up the womb of barren women (Genesis 29:31; 1 Samuel 1:19-20). One should not forget though that Isaac’s highly effectual prayer occurs somewhere within a 20 year timeframe. One could well imagine years of unanswered prayers before Rebecca finally conceived.
Second, after Isaac’s prayer is answered and the miracle of conception against all odds occurred, everything is not smooth sailing. This much is evident in verse 22 when Rebecca seems to be experiencing a difficult pregnancy, causing her to pray to God in anguish. The babies are struggling inside of her — a painful reality that foreshadows the strife that her offspring will know in the rest of the narrative.
God’s answer seems to destine two brothers to live a life of conflict when God reveals to Rebecca that she is carrying twins, and moreover that the older (stronger) brother will be subordinate to the younger (weaker) brother. This divine revelation may explain why Rebecca would later side with Jacob; the one who before his birth already had been chosen by God.
Alternatively, this account may be a type of etiological story explaining why the brothers Jacob and Esau and the nations they represent (Israel and Edom) are at odds with one another. This birth story seems to say: They were born fighting. We are not told whether Rebecca is satisfied with this answer; however, the narrative gap that omits her response could well be filled with all the unspoken emotions of mothers and other relatives standing helpless in the face of violent conflict.
After this incident, the story fast-forwards to the birth of the twins with Esau (“the red one.” Cf. the description of Esau in verse 25 as “reddish”/ ‘Adomi that relates to Edom, the nation represented by Esau) born first with Jacob closely following, grabbing his brother’s heal (cf. the Hebrew word for “heal”/’aqeb that relates to Jacob’s name). This characterization of Jacob “grabbing” will be worked out in more detail in the subsequent narrative when Jacob grabs hold of the first born right belonging to his brother.
Fast-forwarding again, the narrative moves toward the classic episode according to which Esau sells his firstborn right for a bowl of Jacob’s lentil stew. In this encounter, Esau is depicted as a rough man from the fields. Moreover, Esau’s intense hunger suggests that his needs have to be fulfilled immediately without contemplating the long term consequences.
This portrayal of Esau in a less than positive light will be continued in the interpretation history according to which Esau, representing Edom, is depicted in increasingly negative terms in the prophets Obadiah and Malachi (cf. e.g. Malachi 1:2c-3a: “Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau”).
One should keep in mind that these narratives are told from a pro-Jacob/pro-Israel perspective. The portrayal of a God who sides with the powerless, the weak, the younger brother, the barren woman is moreover a theological perspective that reveals something of Israel’s self-understanding as a tiny, powerless people who lived in the midst of much stronger nations — a reality that became even more evident in the run-up to the exile with superpowers who were quite able to crush a people like Israel without blinking.
Finally, one should not miss the fact that in this narrative, Jacob is also not characterized in the most favorable of ways. Jacob is depicted as “grabbing” his brother’s firstborn right which will be continued in the characterization of Jacob as trickster that in subsequent narratives will mark Jacob’s way in the world. Not only his brother Esau, but also his father Isaac and his uncle Laban will eventually be outwitted by the younger brother. This portrayal makes the election of Jacob by God all the more remarkable. There is nothing is Jacob’s behavior that deserved God’s favor — actually God’s favor comes in spite of Jacob’s actions. This line of interpretation makes a strong case for God’s grace — a God who already is involved with people in their mother’s womb, within the very messiness and conflict of relationships.