Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 27

In this chapter, Jacob deceives his father and appropriates his brother's blessing.

First off, note that this is an unspecified time after the previous events. We see the Isaac is now a very old man and cannot see clearly due to age-related illnesses. So this is not a continuation of the prior events, even though it relates to the same individuals.

This actions in this chapter are so morally questionable.  Even though this passage does not explicitly condemn Rebekah and Jacob's action, at the same time, I do feel that the deception is implicitly condemned, for reasons that we will see later.

One thing I'd like to mention is that Jacob is the one whose name means deceiver, and yet it is actually his mother Rebekah that conceives the deception, and that spurs him onwards. Jacob is actually hesitant here, when he describes the risk of getting caught. They both go the such great lengths to maintain the deception that there really is no question they are doing wrong. Putting on his brother's clothes, wearing the skin of a lamb to cover his hairless skin, and then lying about his name are all levels of this deception and while the genesis of the idea came from his mother Rebekah, Jacob shows a willingness to go through with it actively when he lies to his father about his name.

Some points of interest. First, it appears that Isaac cannot differentiate between his sons by their voice. This is surprising to me, although Isaac demonstrates quite a bit of skepticism when Jacob says he is Esau, demanding to touch his skin and smell his garments. And indeed, Isaac says "the voice is the voice of Jacob", but the other factors of the deception outweigh this misgiving.

Second, I thought it was amusing that the skin of a young goat was so similar to the skin of Esau. Was he really *that* hairy? This amuses me greatly.

Lastly, note that Jacob lies about his name, saying that he is Esau. This might not appear significant now, but it will show up later as a story element.

So in conclusion, Rebekah conceives the lie, but Jacob agrees to go through with it, and receives the blessing as a result. As it was explained before, Rebekah preferred Jacob, possibly because the Lord told her that he would be ruler over his brother. Isaac, who had heard no such thing, preferred his elder and wilder son, Esau. It's also interesting to note (from a sociological perspective) that Jacob, the tamer son, is ruler over Esau, the man of the fields. This can possibly be related to the later Israelite's divergence from nomadic pastoralism into a more settled agriculturalism, though such an analysis would depend greatly on the date of writing for this material. Nor would such a theory explain the strong nomadic bias of almost all of the rest of the text.

Regarding the blessing itself, my only comment is to note its similarity to both 1) the Abrahamic promise (bless those who bless you...) and 2) God's promise to Rebekah about Jacob (the older shall serve the younger). In Jacob's life, such promises will be combined in him and he will be the next carrier of Abraham's promise. What was before imparted to Isaac, through the spoken word of the Lord, will now be imparted to Jacob through the deceitful theft from his father Isaac. Yet, as Isaac later notes, such a blessing cannot be withdrawn.

I do think it's interesting that Isaac considers the blessing irrevocable. This is not how most modern readers would think of "blessings" or words in general. The concept of "taking back" what you say is fairly pervasive to modern life. But that is not how the bible operates. The bible later says the "gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). This means that once given, they cannot be withdrawn even if they are used for something besides what God intended. Even if good gifts given for good purposes are twisted to evil ends, they cannot be withdrawn. This is obviously a big deal and is one of the central explanations of how evil happens in the world, and misunderstanding it is why many people are confused or angry at how God allows evil. The common, or perhaps universal, illustration of this is Hitler (blah blah blah Godwin's Law). Hitler is widely regarded as a very charismatic leader and skilled orator, yet he used these gifts to evil ends in destroying much of Europe. Yet God never revoked the gifts given to him, because that is not what God does. Once given, a gift, calling or promise of God cannot be broken no matter what is done with it. This is the agency of human free will, and the judgment of man is not the gifts that we are given, but it is the actions that we take with them.

Next, Esau's response is perhaps all that could be expected of him. He is clearly distraught and blames Jacob for the theft of his birthright and blessings. On the second point, he's right. On the first point, the bible notes that Esau "despised his birthright", so the blame should at least be shared. Such logic is, of course, inaccessible to Esau who just had his fatherly blessing stolen from him and is not in the mood right now to view Jacob favorably about anything.

Isaac's blessing of Esau is.... less than ideal. :) It is not the sort of blessing that I would particularly want, just speaking for myself. But, as so often happens, Esau doesn't get a choice in the matter. In this particular saga, he never even does anything wrong. He just goes out hunting and when he comes back, his blessing is gone and now he has to serve his brother and live away from the fertile blessing of earth and sky. This, also, seems so emblematic of life where we so often don't get the gifts or calling that we desire and perhaps even that we deserve, even when it's not our fault. Esau, too, will be judged by what he does with the (mixed) blessing he is given.

So now Esau wants to kill Jacob, and Rebekah (ever scheming) provokes Isaac into sending Jacob away to her brother in Haran. Notably, Haran is not in the promised land, so one of the first results of Jacob's deception is that he is forced out of the land that he is supposed to inherit, contrary to the command given to Isaac (though from what we've seen so far, God has never spoken directly to Jacob, so it's a command he would not know).

The story continues in the next chapter.


Anna Tan said...

If Isaac is old enough that he's blind (almost), it's possible he's also quite deaf... which may be why he doesn't trust his ears (though maybe he should have!)

...and yes, the fact that Esau was as hairy as a goat has always been rather amusing.

Anna Tan said...

And also, because I was doing some math... Isaac's likely more than 100 years old if he was 60 when the twins were born, and Esau was 40 when he married and all this happens after that... and I'm boggled at how old everyone is and why we're in such a hurry to live our lives. Then again, society and life spans have changed.

Also, you said "Isaac, who had heard no such thing, preferred his elder and wilder son, Esau."
I was wondering what's the likelihood that Isaac, whilst he may not have heard the prophecy directly, did not even have an inkling of it? Since biblical names are often symbolic/prophetic of the character of the person and Jacob was already named from birth to be a supplanter (sort of), he might have had a clue. But maybe ignored it.

Daniel S. said...

Of course it's possible Isaac knew about the prophecy. Amongst other things, Rebekah could have simply told him. Either way, Isaac is quite passive in these stories.