52. Genesis 27:1-40

III. C. continued

2.  Jacob Steals Esau’s Blessing (Genesis 27:1-40)

It must have been roughly forty years after Esau’s marriage that Jacob stole his blessing (this is based on the timing necessary to events in the latter part of Genesis). This would make Jacob and Esau about 80 years old and Isaac about 140 years old, about the year 1920 b.c. Isaac had another forty years left to him but his eyes were already failing badly. As a rich man there were ways he could compensate for physical infirmity, even blindness. Still, a hundred and forty year old man must think about the likelihood of his own death, or so he was thinking  in 27:2.

Unlike Esau, Jacob had not married. It would have been unusual in that culture for a man to not marry, but the biblical account gives the strong impression that Jacob was very much under the power of his mother, that she was possessive of him, and that she was ambitious for him. And Isaac’s favoritism toward Esau would have increased Rebekah’s power and influence over Jacob as well. For Jacob to marry would have diminished her power in his life and she may have contrived to delay it. Seventy-six is not too old when the general lifespan goes past one hundred, but it is getting very late. Jacob was a sedentary man, as far as a man could be in that world,  content to let his older brother take the lead in managing their collective property. As eldest, Esau would have been in charge of the family affairs, and Jacob let Esau run things while he hung out. Jacob was self-motivated primarily in looking out for his future material interests.

When Rebekah overheard Isaac and Esau discussing the blessing, she seized the opportunity. Rebekah was not one to dither but Jacob, on hearing the plan, was plainly a hypocrite: he hesitated to deceive his father because it might look like he was trying to deceive his father. Rebekah was the forceful one, pushing Jacob on to do the deed. She persuaded Jacob by taking full responsibility on herself; if the deception resulted in a curse rather than the blessing, then the curse would land on her rather than on her son. Jacob was a superstitious man, as his later story repeatedly shows, and felt safe with her promise of being a curse magnet. Clearly, while he might be under her power, he had no great affection for her. He was only concerned about himself.

To modern materialist ears, Jacob and Rebekah both sound rather superstitious. What is the big deal about a blessing or a curse anyway? Just words. Did the blessing of Isaac have any more power to ensure Esau’s future than reciting limericks? Would a curse from Isaac have any real power either? Isn’t their behavior here not only an example of family politics of the worst kind but also an example of how the ancients believed in some unscientific things? Our age is no longer able to tell the difference between superstition and faith so we will pause here to consider the difference.

I would distinguish the difference between superstition and faith this way: superstition is naturalistic – it sees a link of cause and effect between two events for no valid rational or scientific reasons; faith is trust in God. Superstition is frequently a matter of “post hoc ergo propter hoc”: because event A happens after event B, therefore event A must have been caused by event B. Superstitions frequently come from tradition but sometimes they just come from imagination. Faith usually comes from a previous conviction that God has spoken, or the conviction that God has a certain character and acts in a certain way. Superstition is a conviction that rests on human invention; faith is a conviction that rests on a prior understanding of God. Those who believe that all understanding of God is merely human invention will naturally not be able to distinguish the two.

There is a difference between  believing in the power of Isaac’s blessing and believing in the oracle from before their birth. The oracle did not make its prediction based on any link of causes and effects, but only on God’s choice independently of any events. The oracle was an announcement of God’s will and therefore did not portray itself as having power of its own. The blessing of the father on his eldest son is iffy: it could be taken as having power in itself, a cause of whatever future blessing comes to the son, a superstition; or it could be taken as an act that God honors and respects and, for His own purposes and our best good, will enforce or not in His wisdom – in short, a matter of faith. True faith would not ascribe power to the words themselves, as if there was a mystical or spiritual force that makes such things invariably effective in shaping the future. True faith recognizes that God may choose to put His authority and weight behind the words, by inspiring the blessing along lines that He has ordained and by making His power available to fulfill the words.

Rebekah believed the oracle, apparently, probably because she believed in God and that He communicates with us occasionally. So Rebekah was a woman of faith on that score. But then she used her faith to justify lies and deceit and schemes. She tried to fulfill the oracle by her own means; what Noah had refused to do when he would not leave the ark, what Abraham had refused to do when he would not take the spoils of Sodom or conquer the land, she did and worse. Rebekah became the mother of all who use their faith as an excuse for evil. She has many spiritual children.

Isaac, on the other hand, presumably believed the oracle. The rest of the account paints a picture of a man of faith. But Isaac’s clear preference for Esau over Jacob, and his insistence on giving the blessing due the firstborn in spite of the oracle to the contrary, suggests that he may have been trying to circumvent the oracle. Perhaps he thought he could mitigate some of the prediction of the oracle by throwing a little “positive energy” on the other side of the equation. If so, Isaac’s faith was defective but in a very different way from Rebekah’s. She thought she could help the oracle, and Isaac thought he could hinder it. Neither is fully a trust in God and His purposes.

From my standpoint, the high estimation Rebekah, Jacob, Isaac and Esau placed on the power of the blessing was merely superstition. A mature faith would have known that Isaac’s blessing had no more power to overrule the oracle than any other human words. But superstition imagines that mere words or rituals or symbolic acts can have a power over events to the point of either accomplishing or circumventing God’s will. When Rebekah contrived to steal the blessing reserved for Esau, she acted on the basis of superstition, and when Isaac decided to give to Esau the blessing which the oracle had set aside for Jacob, he acted on the basis of superstition.

In the context of the Covenant, however, which is passed down the generations, what the father said to the children before he died was of great significance exactly because it was the Covenant that was being passed down. The father’s blessing was the human side of the divine order in the Covenant. When Isaac did place his blessing on the deceiver, the words even echoed the covenant promises to Abraham and Isaac, particularly at the end of the blessing: “Cursed be those who curse you, and blessed be those who bless you.” Isaac’s intent was to pass on the Covenant blessings to his older son, to establish Esau as the leader of the Covenant tradition. It was part of the culture to pass everything on to the eldest son, and so it was natural for Isaac to imagine the Covenant worked the same way. It was natural but also went against his own experience: he was himself a second son. He should have known better, but his love for Esau seemed to outweigh even his own memory.

God could have easily foiled Rebekah’s plan to steal Esau’s blessing. Isaac recognized Jacob’s voice immediately. A blind man quickly becomes acute in the sense of hearing and relies on that sense heavily. It would normally have taken something more than feeling some goatskin and smelling the scent of Esau’s clothes to convince someone as suspicious as Isaac, so it seems that God made him more willing to believe than he would normally have been. Moreover, Jacob left Isaac in the nick of time to escape; if Esau had been quicker by just a few minutes, Jacob would have been caught in the act of deception and would have received a curse instead. It was not just that God allowed him to get away with it. The ease with which Jacob deceived Isaac was from God.The accidents involved in the hunt and the incidental route to finding the game and bringing it back to the camp could easily have been shortened if He had wished, but He did not. There are no coincidences in timing; this was God’s choreography. God cooperated with Rebekah’s scheme. Why?

First of all, God permitted the theft to succeed because God had already decided to bless Jacob and not Esau. The blessing that Isaac inadvertently conferred on Jacob conformed to what God had determined to confer on Jacob anyway. God interfered – not to fulfill His word, but to repeat His word – even using Jacob’s lies to do it. It might seem somewhat scandalous that God would use such questionable means to establish His will, but that is because we aren’t thinking clearly. In fact, God uses absolutely everything that happens to accomplish what He wants in the end. It is a great comfort to know that He takes the tawdriness of life and makes it accomplish elegance.

Secondly, God did not actually allow Jacob to get away with stealing the blessing, as we shall see shortly. In fact, He did not allow Jacob to get away with cheating Esau out of his inheritance either. God had tolerated superstition and even idolatry in His people for one reason or another, but that does not mean He just let them slide. There are always consequences in doing what is wrong, whether we know it is wrong or not, just as there are always consequences in ignoring the law of gravity whether we know the law of gravity of not. But God knows how to be patient, none better.

In the case of Jacob and Esau God took great care to bestow His favor on the less deserving of the two and to do it in a public way that we would have to notice. I believe that Jacob and Esau lived for exactly this purpose. The lives of these two men were the substance of the revelation He was making. The Covenant of Revelation was to continue through Jacob, and so God set about revealing Himself to Jacob and making the lives of both Jacob and Esau act out a metaphor of His character. One reason for God choosing the more unsavory of the two brothers was to make this point: that God’s work depends on His power and not on our worthiness. He had already taught us that He does not need our help in fulfilling His promises; now He showed us that He didn’t need our goodness either. God did not and does not choose His people because of their “goodness”. We would like to believe that He chose us for our fine qualities, but that is just our pride speaking. In particular Christians are not, and have never been, particularly good people. If anything, my experience suggests that we may be worse than the average.

In fact Jacob was as nearly an atheist as a man of the ancient world could be, for the man who believes that the gods are irrelevant is twin brother to the man who believes they don’t exist at all. He doubtless had heard of the oracle, but he showed little interest in the God who had given the oracle. It was not that he did not believe in God; it was that God or the gods were very far away and not fully part of life. And the little belief he had was entirely in the realm of superstition. Jacob was a sort of Mesopotamian Deist.

Though Jacob did nothing to try to win God’s favor, though He did not seek God’s favor, though Jacob’s character did not win God’s favor, nonetheless God loved him and was gracious to him. God’s graciousness to Jacob was revealed as graphically by the way God disciplined him as it was by the way He shielded Jacob from the consequences of his own self-centeredness. From this point on, Jacob could hardly turn around without God meddling in something he was doing, without some trouble coming on him at God’s instigation, without God blessing everything he did in some unusual way. Whereas God did not reprove Esau’s behavior or say anything to him good or bad, He interfered repeatedly in Jacob’s life. From the time he had to flee Esau’s wrath, God was actively “teaching Jacob a lesson”.

God began to reveal that He desired certain behavior and was willing to discipline, train, teach, instill such behavior into His people, even though He might wait seventy-five years to begin. In other words, He revealed Himself as being something like a Father, a careful and a patient Father, but an inexorable one. The Covenant with Abraham and Isaac was a Covenant of Revelation, and one thing that revelation means is correction. God did not intend merely to tell us cool things about Himself; He also intended to tell us something about ourselves and what He thought about the way we behave. It makes sense, if one is planning to teach about character, to choose people whose character gives ample room for comment. I might add that He was so subtle with His moral instruction as to be nearly inaudible, a still small voice. He never came right out and said “Thou shalt not…” He never pointed out the moral in anything He did. He merely interfered and left Jacob and His people to figure it out for themselves. God was so very slow at teaching people how to be good and not to be bad that it looks very much as if He didn’t  think it was important. We shall see, as we read on, whether this is true or not.

I must repeat what I said previously. Esau may have despised the material benefits of his birth, but the Scripture does not say that he despised the spiritual benefits or the Covenant. On the contrary, Esau was deeply grieved that his blessing had been stolen; he loved his father and wanted his blessing perhaps more than anything in the world. It was Jacob who despised the spiritual benefits of the Covenant by his actions. It was Jacob who treated the blessing of the Covenant as a commodity that he could steal and treated God as a blind and impotent force that could be manipulated to his own will by tricks. There is no evidence in the least at this point in Jacob’s life that he respected or valued or honored either God or the Covenant. The Scripture would later describe Esau as godless, but this godlessness came, not from Esau turning away from God, but from God turning away from Esau. The difference between Jacob and Esau, even at this later age of their lives, did not lie in what they wanted or what they did or what they thought. The difference between Jacob and Esau rested exclusively in how God treated them: “Jacob I have loved but Esau I have hated” is the way it would be put by Malachi, but another way to say it would be “Jacob I have disciplined but Esau I have ignored”.

Isaac sought to circumvent the theft of the blessing, but all he could do was to give Esau a violent and rebellious spirit that would throw off the rule of his brother. Actually neither blessing, nor even the oracle, had any immediate effect at all; nor did they have any long-term effects in the lives of the two men, Jacob and Esau. Esau never did become a servant to his brother, nor did he throw off Jacob’s yoke, nor did Jacob’s yoke ever have a tangible existence. If the blessings of Isaac meant anything then, in Esau’s case, they had prophetic significance only. Esau’s heritage became mixed with the Horites, a people who lived in the land of Seir to the south and east of the land of Canaan, and Esau’s descendants came to dominate them to such an extent that they became known as the Edomites.

There was intermittent conflict between Israel and Edom all the time that Edom existed as a distinct people, which was not long. Conflicts commonly arose from the hostility of the Edomites  toward Israel and not the other way. Thus we come to another instance of institutionalizing the bitterness of brother against brother, a bitterness which the two of them resolved to some extent in their later years but which continued in their descendants. Isaac wished things for Esau that he shouldn’t have wished. In the end, Isaac’s “blessing” of Esau, giving Esau a violent and rebellious spirit, did come to pass, but only served to alienate Esau from the Covenant and isolate his people to the point that they soon ceased to be nation at all. Isaac’s blessing was far more negative, as a prophecy, than the oracle alone would have been. Whatever else the “wrath of God” may be, it is most commonly God letting us have what we want.

It is hard to take Isaac’s blessing to Esau in any way other than as a rejection of God’s will revealed in the oracle. All that came of Isaac’s “blessing” on Esau was the confirmation of a mindset within Esau, a bitterness and further alienation from his brother. Ultimately the result was Esau’s estrangement from the Covenant, eventual violence between the descendants of Jacob and the descendants of Esau, and finally the disappearance of Esau’s heritage from the earth. It need not have been that way. God had not hinted that Esau was to be excluded from the covenant, nor that being ruled over by the descendants of Jacob would be demeaning. That all came as the result of Isaac and his misguided love for his favorite son. It was not long, however, until Isaac was at least reconciled to the fact that the Covenant was passing on to Jacob; when Isaac sent Jacob away to Haran to find a wife, his words were the Covenant’s own words.

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