Commentary on Genesis 25:19-34
Genesis 25:19-34 begins a group of narratives that biblical commentators usually call “the Jacob Cycle” and which the Hebrew Bible calls “the toledot (generations or descendants) of Isaac” (25:19).
Both of these labels convey important information about the stories found in Genesis 25-36, but neither gives the full picture. Missing from these titles are the rest of Jacob’s family — the formidable figure of Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, his older brother, Esau, and Jacob’s primary wives, the sisters Rachel and Leah.
The biblical writers understood family to be the foundational unit of society and religious experience, and they understood this particular family (beginning with Abraham and Sarah) to be the foundation of ancient Israelite society and religion. As such, these stories explore not only the complications of domestic ties, they also explore the connection between family dynamics, social customs, and covenantal life.
Like many of our own domestic dramas, the stories of the Israelite ancestors are replete with infertility and problem pregnancies and difficult births. Pregnancy is a condition that is always fraught with meaning and risk. In this case, the situation of Rebekah and Isaac is itself an echo of Abraham and Sarah’s earlier difficulties. Infertility threatens the family line with biological extinction and jeopardizes the promises of the ancestral covenant (see Genesis 17:1-8) until God intervenes after a lengthy period.
Rebekah’s resultant pregnancy means that the covenant promises and the family line will survive, against the odds, but hers turns out to be a problem pregnancy in more ways than one. Rebekah’s condition creates such discomfort for her that she is not sure what the outcome will be. A word from the Divine informs her that she is not just gestating twins who are struggling within her, she is also gestating two different nations fighting for dominance.
As it turns out, these twins are not identical and they don’t share a special bond that involves a secret language and a fierce devotion to each other. Quite the opposite. At birth, Esau and Jacob each possess characteristics that signal physical and personality differences that will lead them into conflict. Esau is born hairy and red, characteristics that link him to the people of Edom, who the writer of this passage understands to be descended from Esau.
These characteristics also link to Esau to the outdoors and he turns out to be brawny and skillful at hunting. Jacob, who is destined to be the progenitor of the 12 Israelite tribes, is born second. He is smooth-skinned and comes out with his hand around Esau’s foot. The detail is not gratuitous; it indicates Jacob’s desire to upset Esau’s status as the firstborn son and to subvert the social customs and expectations that would favor the firstborn.
The social status of these twin brothers is complicated by the Ancient Israelite expectation that the first- born son should be favored. The firstborn son typically takes on his father’s profession (Cain becomes a farmer, like Adam in Genesis 4:2), succeeds his father as the family patriarch, and inherits a larger portion of the family goods than his other brothers (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). These privileges make up the birthright (25:31) and collectively provide a level of social and material security that the younger brother would not enjoy. The younger sibling would have to depend on the mercy of the older brother or make his own way in the world. It may be that these customs developed to create consistency and fairness in families, to prevent parental favoritism from running amok. When the older and younger brothers in question are twins born just minutes apart, however, then the custom seems a bit more arbitrary and unfair.
Jacob is determined, even before birth, to have the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn. But since he is not the outdoorsy type, he uses brains, not brawn, to gain it. Jacob is a trickster, an underdog character who uses his wit and cunning to change the status quo. As a man who prefers the tents to the hunt, Jacob knows how to cook and he uses this skill and his knowledge of Esau’s weakness to trade some red soup for Esau’s birthright. It is a trade that Esau willingly makes.
The story of Jacob and Esau has profoundly influenced western literature’s treatment of sibling rivalry and parental favoritism. Katherine Paterson’s award winning novel, Jacob Have I Loved, about twin sisters,is just one fine example of how the riches of this story can be brought to bear for contemporary readers. Nevertheless, it is often difficult for Christian readers to appreciate these as religious narratives. Seen through the lens of a traditional Protestant or Catholic piety, there seems to be little about Jacob to inspire us.
When I teach these narratives, my students often think that Jacob victimizes Esau. They read Esau’s comment in verse 32 quite literally and think that Jacob is trading on Esau’s dire situation. In fact, Esau has just come in from hunting. He is not starving to death, he just prefers immediate gratification over the long term benefits of his birthright. His family inheritance, which in this story is tied to the covenant promises, means little to him.
American Christians have been taught to correlate piety with traditional personal virtues like selflessness and guilelessness. Moreover, we tend to view our personal successes as rewards for our piety and virtues. But these stories challenge our first-world sensibilities by lifting up an otherwise disadvantaged character who must use guile and ambition to claim his status as a son of the covenant.
Esau may not value his familial and spiritual inheritance, but Jacob does. Moreover, Jacob doesn’t see any immediate reward for his efforts; it will be decades before he actually sees success. Jacob is not deterred by the prospect of delayed gratification.
These stories illuminate a different view of grace. God chose Jacob even before his birth, a choice that was clearly not based on Jacob’s merits or achievements. Indeed, this is one of many stories about siblings (see also Genesis 4; Genesis 21; Genesis 48; 1 Samuel 16; Luke 15:11-32) in which God acts contrary to the social custom of favoring the firstborn.
Firstborns are no more virtuous by the fact of being born first, but being born second in the ancient near eastern world made one an automatic underdog. These stories show that God seems to prefer underdogs and tricksters, something that might rankle conventional American notions of grace.