Commentary on Genesis 25:19-34
In the reading for this week, one of the most important individuals in Genesis comes on the scene.
Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah, dominates the next thirteen chapters of the book and he continues to be a major figure in the story of his son Joseph. Jacob’s story occupies fully half of the whole book of Genesis.
Especially compared to his father Isaac, Jacob is a fully-realized, complicated, very human character. The stories about Isaac portray him primarily in passive relationship to those around him — he is nearly sacrificed in chapter 22, a wife is found for him in chapter 24, and he is duped by his wife and son in chapter 27. It is to Rebekah, not Isaac, that God reveals the future of their sons (chapter 25). And, perhaps most notably, it is from Jacob/Israel, not Isaac (and not Abraham) that the nation takes its name.
Jacob, in contrast to his father, is anything but passive in his relationships. His conflict with his twin brother Esau begins even in the womb, where they wrestle with one another. When they are born, Jacob comes out holding on to Esau’s heel. Hence his name, Jacob (ya’aqov), which shares the same Hebrew root as ‘aqav, meaning “heel.” (The same root can also mean “to supplant” or “to cheat.”)
The name works in English as well as in Hebrew. Jacob is indeed something of a “heel.” He is a trickster, a man who schemes and plots, always looking for the advantage; in these chapters, the advantage particularly over his twin brother Esau.
The second half of the reading for this week (25:27-34) exhibits the character of both brothers. Jacob schemes and wins his brother’s birthright by coercion, while Esau gives it up for nothing more than a bowl of lentil stew. Esau is a man of the open country, a hunter, a man of strong appetites and a hot temper; he is perhaps not the brightest bulb on the tree. When he is hungry, he thinks of nothing but his stomach. After hunting all day, he comes upon Jacob and his bubbling pot of lentil stew and says, in very rough Hebrew, “Let me gobble up some of this red, red stuff, for I am famished” (25:30). Jacob sees the opportunity to take what is not his, but the narrator has no sympathy for Esau: “He ate and drank and rose and departed and thus Esau despised his birthright” (25:34).
This scene, while telling, is just a foretaste of what follows in chapter 27, the story of Jacob and Rebekah fooling blind Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob rather than to Esau. That story hinges on the promise of God to Rebekah that the older brother will serve the younger one (25:23), though the means of fulfilling that promise, a task Rebekah and Jacob take into their own hands, are less than admirable.
The stealing of the blessing (chapter 27) is more significant in the whole narrative than the bargaining over the birthright, but the story of the stealing of the blessing is not included in this series of lectionary readings, perhaps because of its length. The preacher, though, would be well-advised to talk about this more significant story this week or next. (Next week’s reading picks up the story after Jacob steals the blessing.)
In both stories, Jacob grasps and takes that which is not by right his. The birthright (bekora) is the inheritance. Later, in Deuteronomy 21:15-17, the law states that the firstborn son gets a double share of the inheritance. It is a law like this that seems to be at play here in Genesis 25. Esau, as the firstborn, gets two-thirds of Isaac’s wealth, while Jacob is left with one-third. At least, that is the case until Esau sells the birthright to his brother for a pot of stew.
In the story of chapter 27, Esau is to receive the blessing (baraka) from his father. It is not clear whether the blessing comes to him because he is the eldest or because he is his father’s favorite (25:28). In either case, this, too, Jacob acquires by deceit and cunning. And Esau responds with justified anger, “Is he not rightly called Jacob (ya’aqov)? For he has supplanted me (ya’qeveni) these two times. He took away my birthright (bekora); and look, now he has taken away my blessing (baraka)” (27:36).
This particular baraka is the promise of God passed down from Abraham to Isaac and now to Jacob: many descendants (28:3), the land of Canaan (28:4), and the bearing of blessing (“cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you” (27:29). These are the things promised to Abraham at the beginning of the family saga back in chapter 12. It is the taking of the bekora and the baraka from Esau that precipitates the family rupture and Jacob’s flight from Esau’s rage (27:41), a story that will be told next week.
This week, as Jacob enters the scene, the challenge for the preacher is to introduce him without making his story a morality tale. Jacob is neither a moral exemplar nor a villain. He is a complicated figure. The narrator here at the beginning of his story describes him as tam, a word that means something like “whole” or “complete,” a person of integrity (25:27). Most English translations translate tam here to mean “civilized” or “quiet,” because it is difficult to describe Jacob as a man of integrity.
Ellen Davis interprets tam as “perfect or loyal service” or a constant awareness of God. Jacob displays that essential religious quality of being obsessed with God’s blessing, mediated through the blessing of his father Isaac. Jacob is obsessed throughout his life with that blessing, “which he can never possess as fully as it possesses him.”1
Jacob is not an admirable figure, at least not here at the beginning of his story. But he is one who is singularly focused on obtaining the blessing of God passed down from his grandfather Abraham. And his focus on that blessing will shape the rest of his life. The blessing will bring wealth and children, but it will also mean exile, loss, and sorrow. The next several weeks’ readings will tell the story of this man and trace the path of the blessing in his life, as he continues to wrestle with other people and, of course, with the God who knew him before he was born.
1. Ellen F. Davis, “Job and Jacob: The Integrity of Faith,” in Reading Between Texts, ed. Danna Nolan Fewell (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992) 212. In the Bible, Job and Jacob are both called tam.