A Common Message
The three encounters between Jacob and Esau in this week’s reading seem to contain a common message. The first time the twins “meet” is in their mother’s womb. They pressed hard against each other, so hard that Rebekah went off to ask God what was happening to her. The response she received hinted at the future of her two sons: they will actually become the founders of two different nations—but not happily allied. “Two nations are in your womb, and two separate peoples will come forth from within you; they will keep struggling, one with the other, but [in the end,] the greater will be subservient to the lesser” (Gen 25:23).
When at last they were born, it was Esau who came out first, “red, like a hairy cloak.” This description fit his role as the future founder of the nation of Edomites: edom sounds like the word for “red,” and “hairy,” se‘ar, sounds like the name of Edom’s famous mountain, Mt. Se‘ir. As Esau was emerging from the womb, Jacob apparently tried to overtake him by holding on to his heel, a gesture that evoked Jacob’s name in Hebrew, ya‘akov (‘ekev means heel).
It was once the boys were grown that their second significant episode took place. Esau, who was a skilled hunter, came home after a long hunt, exhausted and famished. Jacob, who was a bit of a homeboy, was cooking up a red lentil stew, and Esau asked for a serving. Jacob demurred; “If you want it,” he said, “pay for it with your birthright.” The birthright was normally awarded to the firstborn of the family, and according to the law in Deut 21:17, it consisted of a double portion of everything in the father’s estate—certainly a hefty sum. But Esau is, as he says, starving, so he agrees to the deal.
In their third significant encounter, Isaac seeks to give his paternal blessing to Esau; he tells his son to put on his gear and hunt up some tasty game for a stew—then he will be able to bless Esau on a full stomach. Esau goes off, but meanwhile Rebekah has heard of her husband’s intention and sets out to frustrate it. She instructs Jacob to go to the flocks and fetch two kids for a stew that she will prepare. Then Jacob can go in to his father and pretend to be Esau and thereby get the paternal blessing intended for his brother.
For this to work, of course, Jacob has to take advantage of the fact that his elderly father is quite blind. Even so, when Jacob enters, Isaac suspects some sort of a trick. “Who are you, my son?” “I am Esau, your firstborn,” Jacob answers—an out-and-out lie! “The voice is Jacob’s voice,” Isaac says, “but the arms belong to Esau.” (Rebekah had taken the precaution of covering Jacob’s smooth forearms with goat hair, to be more like the skin of her “hairy” son Esau.) Isaac was thus torn between his sense of hearing and his sense of touch, but when he smelled the outdoor smell on the clothes that Jacob was wearing—Rebekah had borrowed them from her older son’s wardrobe and put them on her younger son—Isaac was convinced that this must indeed be Esau. He blessed him, asking God to award him with all the fine things of this world and, significantly, to make him the master of his brethren—including, it would seem, Esau.
These incidents have troubled interpreters from ancient times. Many have suggested that Esau really didn’t want his birthright, that he had actually “scorned” or “spurned” it (See Gen 25:34) —and that Jacob therefore did no wrong in relieving him of it. But that’s stretching things a bit. The verb translated as “scorned” in Gen often means something a little milder, and in any case, there’s no indication that this is how he felt about it before the fact. A wholly objective translation would probably say that Esau “thought little of” his birthright—and this might just as likely be meant to describe how he reacted after the fact, once he had sold it. In general, as many have observed, Esau does not appear to be a particularly clever fellow. He was most at home running around in the outdoors hunting wild game. Not a particularly deep thinker, he just didn’t understand what he was giving up.
As for Jacob’s lie, “I am Esau your firstborn,” a somewhat whimsical apologetic motif developed early—it is witnessed even in the book of Jubilees (ca 200 BCE). Since the Torah was originally given without vowel-marks or punctuation, one could read Isaac’s question, “Who are you, my son,” as if it were actually two questions: “Who are you? My son?” Jacob’s answer could then be likewise divided into two answers: “I am”—that is, I am your son. However, “Esau [is] your firstborn.”
But apologizing for Jacob’s behavior misses the whole point. The common pattern of these three encounters, wherein Jacob the Little Guy keeps trying, and ultimately succeeds, in getting what was supposed to be his brother’s (the birthright, the blessing) is actually a representation of the prediction that God had given Rebekah when her twins were pressing together in her womb: “Two nations are in your womb, and two separate peoples will come forth from within you; they will keep struggling, one with the other, but [in the end,] the greater will be subservient to the lesser.”
This wasn’t talking about two individuals—it wasn’t at all about the later life of the two brothers themselves (as most interpreters seem to think). It was about the two nations that they would found, Edom and Israel. As the Torah says explicitly, Edom was a kingdom when the future Israel was merely a ragtag collection of vaguely connected tribes (Gen 36:31)—which is to say, Edom was initially the big guy and Israel was the little guy trying to catch up. But eventually Israel did catch up. During the reign of King David, according to the account in 2 Samuel, Edom was defeated and thereafter became a vassal of David’s (2 Sam 13-14). That is what these three incidents actually point to, the moment when “the greater will be subservient to the lesser.”