Because we often read the Bible woodenly, especially those of us who have been taught that the Bible is mostly about teaching religion, we often miss the point, especially if the point is in story rather than theological discourse. And especially if we are not inclined to see the humor and the humanness of these stories. The central story of Jacob in Genesis 25:19-33:20 (minus the appendices in chapters 34 and 35) is a case in point. The story ponders the mystery of chosenness—the mystery of a grace that Jacob comes to only slowly and then, perhaps, only partially to understand. It’s a story not only about an ancient patriarch and about the people who trace their origin to him, the people of Israel, but about all of us who have heard the call of God, about our own chosenness. For that reason and others, it’s a story that is worth returning to over and over again.
To get at the heart of the story of Jacob, ask this not-so-simple question: can you steal a blessing? Most readers assume that you can and read Genesis 27 as an account of precisely that, the theft of a blessing. Among the characters in the story, clearly Jacob and his mother Rebecca assume you can steal a blessing. Their machinations are designed to do exactly that. Esau and his father Isaac assume not only that a blessing can be stolen but that in the story it has been stolen by the nefarious Jacob, whose very name can mean, “heel-grabber,” someone who trips up someone else. But can you, really, steal a blessing? Or are blessings in reality not whatever your father says they are but that grace-filled destiny that comes from God? Something that cannot be stolen. Scorned, repudiated, yes, but not stolen.
The story, which answers this question, begins in a curious way, with an omen delivered from some sort of oracle. Omens have a peculiar power. They purport to speak for a deity and to announce the future. But frequently the omen itself in the imagination of those who receive it becomes its own destiny. The most famous of these is from Herodotus, the Greek historian. According to Herodotus, when Croesus king of Lydia consulted an oracle, he was told that a great empire would fall. He assumed that the omen referred to Persia, his enemy, and so went to war. In fact, the empire that falls is not Persia but his own Lydia. Omens are often not as they seem.
Such is the case for the omen that begins the Jacob story. The story of the omen, Genesis 25:15-26, begins sweetly with Isaac, the much-neglected patriarch, praying for his wife to have children. His prayer is heard, and she becomes pregnant. But soon there is a war in her womb. With one of those wonderfully onomatopoeic Hebrew words, the narrative tells us that her children were “razazing” inside her (Hebrew rāṣaṣ). You don’t need to know Hebrew to get the meaning.
Rebecca, wondering about all that “razazing,” goes to inquire of Yhwh. In the manner of oracles, Yhwh speaks to Rebecca in a pithy and enigmatic poem. The poem goes like this (my translation):
Two nations are in your belly; two peoples will diverge from within you. One people will grow stronger than the other; and the greater will serve the lesser.
This is not how the oracle is read in most English translations. All the translations I checked interpret the last line as “the older will serve the younger.” I checked the NIV, ESV, NRSV, ASV, KJV, NLT, and The Message (if you don’t know what some of those abbreviations stand for, don’t worry; the point is that they all agree: it’s the older son serving the younger). In the next few verses, the narrator helpfully tells us that Esau was born first and that Jacob came out of the womb grasping Esau’s heel, so the issue seems settled: the lines mean that Esau, the older, will serve Jacob, the younger. But this is not what the Hebrew says. It is in fact a parade example of translators not paying sufficient attention to the text. And, I might add, to what happens later in the story.
The line that almost everyone else seems to translate “the older will serve the younger” is actually in Hebrew “the greater will serve the lesser.” This is not the same thing, at least, not necessary so, as we shall see. The word for “greater” is very common in Hebrew. It can mean “large” or “numerous” or “great” in a number of different senses. It does not mean “older,” except perhaps here and only here because it is associated with the second word, a word that often does mean “younger.” But this word can also mean “small” or “smaller” than whatever it is being compared to. So, the line in question can mean, “The larger will serve the smaller,” or, alternatively, “The greater will serve the lesser,” or, at the price of stretching the meaning of the first term, “The older will serve the younger,” as the translators have it. The point is that omen is ambiguous. Who will serve whom? This question will play itself out in the narrative to follow, as we shall see in later posts. At this point in the narrative, it’s important for translators to leave the omen ambiguous, which they seem constitutionally unable to do. The story lies in the tension between what God intends and how the family of Isaac understand what God intends.
Like the translators, the main characters in the story can not leave the omen alone to play itself out. Omens being omens, they have their own interpretation, and they are determined to make their interpretation the one that comes true. You can see in this story the powerful role that expectations play in families. Rebecca and Jacob are not going to sit back on their heels (to make another pun on Jacob’s name) and let happen what happens. They feel entitled to their interpretation: the older, Esau, will serve the younger, Jacob. Even if they have to cheat and steal to make it happen. This is an early example of using one’s theology for one’s personal gain, something that has not ceased to this day.
With that in mind, we come to the story of the blessing as told in Genesis 27 and to the question with which we began: can one steal a blessing? Genesis 27 is a classic example of Hebrew narrative: full of humor, plot twists, and irony. It’s subtle and sophisticated. I’ll not do it justice in what follows. For my money, the Hebrew writers are the best storytellers anywhere and anytime.
The story opens with old and blind Isaac telling his son Esau, the vigorous outdoorsman, to hunt up some game and prepare it the way old Isaac likes it so that he will be able to do his fatherly duty and bless his oldest son Esau. Apparently, blessings issue from a happy stomach. Fatefully, Rebecca overhears the conversation between Isaac and Esau, and horrified that Esau will in fact receive the blessing, enlists Jacob in a scheme to fool the old man, which they do. Lots of humor in all this, and questions, too. Is Isaac really fooled? Was Esau really that hairy? (Or was this a way for the Hebrew writer to throw a little shade on Esau’s progeny, the hated Edomites.) I would love to pause on all that delicious storytelling, but the point isn’t the ruse that Jacob and Rebecca use to trick Isaac; it’s the blessings that Isaac gives to Jacob and, belatedly, to Esau.
There is something curious about these blessings. They don’t look like they have been reversed. The blessing for Jacob looks like the blessing one would have to give to Jacob. Two details stand out. The first is that the blessing is agricultural, not as one might expect for Esau, pastoral. It begins with a bit of joke, “See, the smell of my son” (The NIV hilariously renders “See” as “Ah,” avoiding the joke.) Was Esau’s smell so thick you could see it? (More shade on the Edomites?) It then invokes the dew of the sky and the fatness [fertility] of the land which together will produce bountiful grain and wine. This fits what the story has already told us about Jacob (Genesis 25:27), not Esau. Second, it gestures to the Abrahamic blessing in which Yhwh promised to bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse him (Genesis 12:3). The promise runs through Jacob. (I’ll come back to this in subsequent posts.) Here it’s enough to observe that Esau in his choice of wives has already stepped out of the line of promise. It appears that the blessing Isaac gives Jacob was always Jacob’s blessing. What he and his mother have so crudely stolen was his all along. The theft is pointless. While the Isaac family is engaged in cheating each other, God’s sovereign purpose plays itself out.
But not in the way you might think. Let me give you a bit of a spoiler: the story ultimately, several chapters later, turns out not to be just about Jacob but about Esau. And Esau turns out to be the good guy. Esau’s blessing anticipates this. At the beginning, it is full of conflict and violence, but at the end, it opens to a kind of freedom:
Your [Esau’s] dwelling will be where the land is not fertile,/and where there is no dew from the sky above./You will live by your sword,/and you will serve your brother,/But when you break free, you will throw off his yoke from your neck.Genesis 27:39-40
Each to his destiny, Jacob and Esau. No blessing was stolen. God’s blessing can’t be stolen. Each received the blessing that they were to receive all along. In this is the mystery of chosenness, which is not about who goes to heaven but about what our roles are on earth. For Jacob, that mystery is the mystery of a people to whom God grants his name and who become the very presence of God on earth. There is no apparent reason for this. It’s not that Jacob has some quality Esau lacks. Jacob is portrayed in the stories that follow as untrustworthy, but nevertheless the line of blessing goes through him.
Esau’s destiny will have to wait, but it will come. The rest of the story plays out this plot, arriving at a surprising and wonderful ending. In these posts, we will come to that ending, but first we need to follow Jacob as he runs straight into the arms of someone as untrustworthy as he is, his uncle Laban. But before he gets there, he’s stopped at a place called Bethel, and there he has a dream, a dream that he completely misunderstands. And not only him, but many of the subsequent readers of the story. It’s to that subtle, funny, and Important story I will turn next. Stay tuned.