The text we’re studying for Sunday, November 4 is Genesis 25:19-34, which is the beginning of the story of Jacob [and Esau], from Rebekah’s pregnancy through Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob for a “mess of pottage.” Here are a few study notes on that text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re continuing to make our way through Genesis, with the direct sequel to the story of Rebekah’s marriage to Isaac from last week. We’ve skipped some genealogical material: Abraham’s descendants with his wife Keturah, and Ishmael’s descendants; also Abraham’s death.
Today’s story will set up the conflict between Jacob and Esau that will play out in later stories, which in turn will be the cause of Jacob’s fleeing to his uncle Laban’s house, which in turn will see the establishment of the house of Israel.
This text is the beginning of the Torah portion Toledot (“Generations”), by the way, which will come up in the annual cycle of Torah readings next week, November 10.
Esau is the ancestor of the nation of Edom, also called Seir, which is an ongoing antagonist of the nation of Israel later in the Hebrew Bible. Our text gives an etymology of those names, which are connected to Esau’s hairiness (in the case of Seir, which sounds like the Hebrew word for “hairy”) and redness (in the case of Edom, which sounds like the Hebrew word for “red”).
The birthright Esau and Jacob are negotiating in verses 29-34 involves several linked benefits and obligations. On the plus side, it entails a double share of the inherited property, when it’s time for that – the firstborn counts twice for the purposes of divvying up the estate. On the negative side, it entails making sacrifices for the dead and taking on the leadership of the family. After receiving the law at Sinai, it also includes being dedicated to YHWH, or else needing to be redeemed. Firstborn male animals, in fact, are themselves sacrificed to YHWH. So it isn’t quite as simple as money in the bank.
CLOSER READING: We can divide the text up into several shorter units: verses 19-20 on Isaac’s connection to the genealogy; verses 21-23 on Rebekah’s barrenness and later pregnancy; verses 24-26 on the twins’ birth; verses 27-28 set up their essential difference and the way this plays out in their family of origin; all of which leads up to the narrative in verses 29-34 where Esau sells his birthright.
Rebekah is like Sarah in being barren, and repeats the tension of “the barren wife” in this generation. In v21 Isaac literally prays “opposite” her to YHWH for relief, and there is a lot of discussion about what exactly this means, and why it has to be Isaac’s prayer that succeeds – maybe because Isaac has righteous parents in Sarah and Abraham, while Rebekah has unrighteous ones.
We know it’s not because YHWH doesn’t like Rebekah, because when she asks YHWH what’s going on with her difficult pregnancy in v22, YHWH responds with a whole prophecy. So, she is one of the seven righteous women for whom YHWH makes a miraculous birth, she is a prophet, and she communicates with God. None of this means she gets to have an easy or happy life, as it turns out, and this pregnancy is just the beginning.
V22, the children’s “struggling” within her is, in Hebrew, literally crushing – they’re crushing one another even before they’re born. Something of a bad omen. According to the rabbis, this already reflects their contrasting ways, because Jacob tries to come out whenever Rebekah passes a house of Torah study, while Esau tries to come out whenever she walks by an idolatrous temple. The rabbinic tradition won’t have anything better to say about Esau after he’s born, either.
V23 “the elder shall serve the younger” is another recurrent theme in this story, the theme of God reversing what we might think of as social convention; we saw it already, in a way, in the case of Isaac and Ishmael, we’ll see it again in the case of Ephraim and Manasseh, and later in the case of David vs. all his older brothers, just to name three.
According to one source, the fact that Esau is red and hairy is a double strike against him, culturally. Both are negatives – if this were a movie, there would be villainous background music and a nice long, lingering shot on this ominous infant. Then, Jacob shows up immediately afterwards, trying to get ahead. This is a lot of foreshadowing.
V27, the word translated as “quiet” to describe Jacob is the Hebrew word tam, which in most contexts – in particular in Job, where it is used several times to describe Job – is translated “blameless.” This strikes me as particularly interesting. 1) Why not translate it as “blameless” here? Because no one would ever describe Jacob as blameless, maybe, because he’s such a cheat for most of the story? Or for some other reason? 2) How does this word come to mean “blameless” in the first place? It also has the meaning of “complete;” in Exodus, it’s used for the way the curtains of the tabernacle are “completed” or “joined” at the top with rings; 3) Why “quiet” or “mild”? What is this really saying about Jacob??
V28, Rebekah and Isaac play favorites … maybe reflecting what Rebekah knows from v23, maybe just an ordinary human tragedy. As a human reader, I can’t think about this story very long, ever, without feeling miserable for the whole family, it feels so dysfunctional. If we knew them personally, we’d never visit without having a long, sad conversation in the car on the way home.
The little story in vv29-34 is remarkable. Jacob is cooking, Esau comes in, the word “famished” in v29 is used elsewhere in contexts where people have been fighting, sometimes it’s translated “weary;” it has a whiff of being near death around it.
Esau’s speech is crude and inarticulate in Hebrew. He calls the stew literally “that red-red” – this is not a guy who’s good at using his words.
The word “birthright” is a focal point, repeated four times.
In v34, the sequence of verbs that describes Esau’s activity is rapid, one right after the other, so it gives the impression of a quick burst of activity – Esau just acts. Jacob, on the other hand, thinks – ahead, and all the time. Esau may be a “cunning” hunter (v27), but he’s no match for his cunning brother in the end.
This might make us feel sorry for Esau. There is a way in which he’s the underdog here.
But the text is not sympathetic to him, anyway. The little epitaph “Thus Esau despised his birthright” reads like a deep condemnation of his whole value system. “Despised” is a strong word; it suggests contempt and turning away from something; people are likely to “despise” worthless or gross things in the Bible; people are grateful when God doesn’t “despise” them and their prayers; “despising” God or God’s word is especially heinous. It’s not that Esau treated his birthright as nothing; it’s that he treated it as worse than nothing, as something to throw away in disgust.
And if we read the “birthright” as the Torah of the patriarchs and matriarchs (which we probably should) … ah. Got it.
No wonder the rabbis don’t have a good word to say for this guy.