The text we are studying for Sunday, November 11 is Genesis 27, with a focus on verses 5-10, 18-19, and 21-29. This is the story of Isaac’s blessing, a blessing he offers to his son Esau, but gives to his son Jacob, in a tale of deliberate deception and mistaken identity. Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re making our way through the long family epic in Genesis. Last week we read about the birth of Isaac’s sons, Abraham’s grandsons, and saw something of their difficult family situation. Between that story and this is the account of Isaac and Rebekah’s stay in the country of Abimelech, which is reminiscent of the story of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt. The fallout from this story will propel Jacob to leave home, spend time in Haran with his uncle Laban, meet and marry his wives Rachel and Leah, and father all the children who will be “the children of Israel” after he wrestles with an angel and has his name changed to Israel in chapter 32.
The blessing Isaac wants to give is clearly important, as it is the focus of the entire narrative. Commentators sometimes make general statements about “blessings” of this time and place being irrevocable, or being “performative” – the words having special power or effect in and of themselves, or being exclusive. I think we need to take these statements with a grain of salt, because this story is some of the most important evidence we have for what “these kinds of blessings” were like. If we’re going to use the text itself to tell us about itself, we just need to say that: from the text, it seems the blessing is important, can’t be taken back, and can’t be shared – at least not the way Isaac sets it up – so it has the quality of a material thing, like a piece of property, or of a once-in-a-lifetime event.
We already know this family has issues. These issues play out dramatically in this story. The question this has posed for centuries of readers is what we are supposed to make of this. Surely we are not supposed to take away from the story that lying and deceiving our close relatives and “taking what is not given,” as the Buddhists would say, is an example we’re supposed to follow? On the other hand, Rebekah is a prophet, Jacob is the ancestor of the nation of Israel, God has already designated Jacob as the carrier of the promise and never says a word against either of them in this story, so this way of doing things appears to … work.
The rabbinical commentators mostly seem to go with a combined hypothesis designed to save face for all the important actors: Isaac has a complicated plan to bless Esau with material well-being and reserve the “blessing of Abraham” for Jacob; Rebekah, a prophet, knows Jacob needs the well-being, too, to make good on that blessing of Abraham, so makes sure he gets it; Jacob, technically, doesn’t lie, and has to obey his mother, and is off the hook because she is a prophet. This reading is more than happy to throw Esau under the bus: he was planning to steal animals if he couldn’t find any, he speaks harshly to his father, he never uses the name of the Holy One, etc. [So, for instance, Rashi; a summary of the traditional answers that comes down on the side of the source hypothesis; a detailed “blessing of Abraham” analysis)
Matthew Henry, on the other hand, throws Rebekah under the bus: she’s out of line to try to engineer the proper result, and should have left things up to God. But God will work with whatever we give God, so, there’s that. I assume this is because his theology makes him less concerned with saving the reputation of the grandmother of the nation of Israel.
Frederick Buechner, a modern reader, in “The Magnificent Defeat”, points out that …
the shrewd and ambitious man who is strong on guts and weak on conscience, who knows very well what he wants and directs all his energies toward getting it, the Jacobs of this world, all in all do pretty well.
But that is not the end of the matter at all, on Buecher’s [incomparable] reading.
A different line of reading suggests that Isaac is attempting to go against God’s wishes, and his trembling in v33 – which is a very strong word, in other contexts translated as “dread” or “terror,” which would be more reasonable in an encounter with God than in the face of a … family mess-up, even one as giant as this – is an indication of his full realization that he was trying to cheat God, and that his plan failed. It might be possible to take the implication in v36, that Isaac had not reserved a blessing for the son he thought was Jacob, as support for this reading.
Many readers point out that God can bring about God’s desired results even when human beings are doing their darnedest to mess things up. I go along with this, of course.
But isn’t the real source of our problem here the idea of “the blessing” in the first place? Isn’t the real problem here that this blessing is depicted as a precious and valuable gift, which can neither be shared nor modified, in the hands of a physically insensitive and self-absorbed patriarch (which may be a metaphor for spiritual dullness – compare Eli’s similar near-blindness in 1 Samuel 3:2), who has the unilateral power to give it away inappropriately? Wouldn’t all the ethical problems here be solved if this weren’t the situation?
And who made this the situation? As far as we can tell, it was people, not God.
[Although, to be fair, my way of reading here challenges the rabbinical understanding, which is that God does give the blessing, which can then be passed along; in order for Isaac to bless Esau, God has to give him another blessing, which God does, because Esau cries. Because God is like that. I agree that God is like that, but I’m willing to raise this challenge, too.]
So the people in the story have set up a situation, a description of “reality,” that is highly questionable from an empirical standpoint, and is designed and guaranteed to create problems emotionally and interpersonally, and then, predictably, respecting and working within the confines of that situation leads to further problems.
What about calling out the situation? What about remedying the flaws in this humanly-engineered situation? What happened to that option? Just sayin’.
I think that might not be such a bad take-away for us.
CLOSER READING: Just a couple of literary notes. First, notice that there are two parallel stories, vv1-4 and vv5-13, in which each parent in each of the parent-child factions in the family gives instructions to the child about means, meat and making food.
Second, notice the pronouns: Isaac calls his son, Esau; Rebekah calls her son, Jacob. Isaac is your father. Etc. The use of pronouns throughout the story underscores the factional dynamics in this family story.
Finally, I admit, and despite all the midrash that tells us that Esau is a ne’er do well and a thoroughly rotten character, and despite his Cain-like response to the bitter disappointment of the event in v41, the scene of Esau pleading with his father for one blessing, just one, in vv34-38 is so heartbreaking …
Oh, God, if only this were the only such human story …