A Stolen Blessing
Posted by foryourfaith on February 23, 2011
The account of Jacob in the book of Genesis tells the story of a complex man who lived in a world vastly different from our own. With a wonderful realism, punctuated by historical and religious mysteries, the narratives take a modern reader back nearly 4,000 years into the early second millennium BC.
It has been said that the Book of Genesis tells but one story, that of a younger son surpassing an elder. And nowhere is that pattern more vivid than in the powerful story of Jacob and Esau.
Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, was barren – like Sarah before her and Rachel after her. Yahweh intervened to allow her to conceive, but the babies in her womb so turned and struggled that she wondered if she could survive. She obtained an oracle from Yahweh, however, that gave the kicking in her womb epic meaning: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).
Twin boys were born, but they were hardly identical twins. The first to emerge, a red, hairy baby, was named Esau. The chance of birth had made him the firstborn, bearer of the birthright. In ancient times, the firstborn enjoyed a number of advantages. From a religious standpoint, the firstborn of any species possessed a degree of sanctity. Indeed, in Jewish law even today, a male firstborn must be “redeemed” from a priest at the age of 30 days. Before the initiation of the Israelite priesthood, it was the firstborn who performed all cultic functions. Finally, the eldest, who received a double share of the father’s inheritance.
But before the first infant was fully out, the hand of his brother emerged grasping his heel (Hebrew, ageb). Thus the second twin was named Jacob (Yaaqob). Jacob’s name illustrates the delight that the narrator repeatedly takes in audacious wordplays that can illuminate the characters in the story. The etymology of the name Jacob is “God protects.” But in the context of the story, the pun on the word for “heel” and the closely related word meaning “defraud” or “supplant” (agab) best reveals the character of Jacob.
The twins grew up to be very different from one another. Isaac’s favorite was Esau, “a skillful hunter, a man of the field,” while “Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents,” and the favorite of Rebekah (Genesis 25:27-28). Family conflict was inevitable.
Our next glimpse of the twins reveals Jacob cooking pottage, a thick red lentil soup. In came Esau, famished after a luckless day of hunting. “Let me eat some of that red pottage,” he begged. Jacob saw an opportunity and immediately grasped it. “First sell me your birthright,” he demanded. Esau could not see beyond his momentary hunger and swore that Jacob could have it. For a bowl of soup Jacob had gained the right to become leader of the clan and had brought the oracle given to Rebekah a step nearer fulfillment. Later Esau was angry with Jacob, but though Jacob might be criticized as opportunistic and self-serving, no apparent deceit was involved. The narrator condemns Esau because he “despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:29-34)
Time passed. Esau married two Hittite women. Isaac, more than a century old, grew blind and was apparently near death, and he wished to ive his patriarchal blessing to his beloved Esau. Such a blessing was thought of not just as a prediction of the future but as a powerful statement that would determine the future. It has been compared to an arrow; once shot it could not be called back.
Isaac told Esau: “Behold, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then . . . hunt game for me, and prepare for me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that I may bless you before I die.” But Rebekah overheard, and in one of the most striking displays of female initiative in the Bible, took matters into her own hands. She knew well the savory spices Isaac loved, and conspired to ensure that Jacob receive the valued blessing. She dressed Jacob in Esau’s robes, and put the skins of kids on his hands and neck because “Esau is a hairy man.”
Isaac was suspicious when Jacob, posing as Esau, arrived too soon, sounding so different from Esau. But the disguise worked. “I am Esau your first-born,” Jacob said. So Isaac spoke the powerful words over Jacob rather than his favorite. He would have the “Fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine . . . Let peoples serve you, and . . . be lord over your brothers.”
With dramatic poignancy, the narrator describes how Esau arrived just a moment after Jacob left. When he realized that the blessing had been given to his brother, “he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry” and begged for any remnant of a blessing that might remain. Isaac could only tell him, “By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose you shall break his yoke from your neck” (Genesis 27:40).
Hatred flared in Esau, and in desperation he made plans to break Jacob’s yoke by killing him. Rebekah heard of his threats but knew that her son’s anger would be short-lived. She urged Jacob to “flee to Laban my brother in Haran . . . until your brother’s fury turns away” (Genesis 27:44).
There follows a puzzling episode. After urging Jacob to “flee,” Rebekah arranged for Jacob to travel to Haran with Isaac’s full blessing to find a wife. Such a trip would have involved a caravan of gifts like the 10 camel loads that were sent when Rebekah was found for Isaac (Genesis 24:10). Later, however, it becomes clear that Jacob left home as a fugitive with only his staff in his hand. Such puzzles within the story indicate that more than one source may have contributed to the present narrative.
As Jacob traveled north, one phase of his life was ending, and another one, an uncertain future, was beginning. While he possessed both the birthright and the patriarchal blessing, he owned nothing but the staff he was carrying. At nightfall he lay down where he was. using a stone as a pillow, he fell into an exhausted sleep.
It was then that Jacob had the famous dream, where he saw “a ladder,” or more properly, “a staircase” reaching into heave and “angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” Without realizing it, Jacob had come to “none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:12-17). Jacob evidently understood that he had come to the sacred spot where angels move between earth and heaven on their missions for God.
From above the staircase Yahweh spoke: he renewed the promises God had made to Abraham and Isaac. The land of Canaan would belong to him and his multitudes of descendants, and Yahweh would be with him and return him to this land.
To mark the presence of god in the place, Jacob set up his stone pillow as a pillar, sanctified it with oil, and he called the place Bethel, which means “house of God.” He vowed that if god would bless him, Yahweh would be his God.
The tradition regarding God’s appearance to Jacob helps explain the importance of the ancient sanctuary at Bethel. Archaeological excavations have indicated that it was a flourishing city throughout the period of the patriarchs, and Genesis 12:3 indicates that Abraham lived outside Bethel for a period. During the time of the judges, Bethel was an important sanctuary, and when the kingdom split it was one of the principal temples cities of the north.
Jacob traveled some 400 miles north across the Euphrates River to Haran, the home of his uncle Laban in “the land of the people of the east” (Genesis 29:1). Just as his mother Rebekah had been discovered at a well, so Jacob immediately met and aided his cousin Rachel at a well near Haran. The well was covered by a huge stone that normally required several people to remove. But “when Jacob saw Rachel . . . Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban.”
For a month Jacob enjoyed the hospitality of Laban and his daughters Leah and Rachel (whose names mean “cow” and “ewe” (respectively). Rachel was lovely, but “Leah’s eyes were weak,” evidently meaning they lacked luster. Laban is possibly one of the most subtly drawn villains in the Bible. His very name, which in Hebrew means “white” and connotes purity, conceals an exploitative personality. But Jacob agreed to work for Laban – for very special wages. Jacob had fallen in love: “I will serve you seven years,” he promised, “for your younger daughter Rachel.” The proposal illustrates well how, in that ancient society, daughters literally belonged to their fathers: they could be paid out as wages for labor.
Laban agreed, and the seven years passed like days for the love-struck Jacob. The wedding night arrived. His veiled bride was brought to him, and the marriage was consummated. But when the veils were lifted, Jacob discovered not Rachel but Leah. With cold-blooded treachery, the man who was his benefactor had betrayed him.
Jacob was outraged. But Laban explained: “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the first-born.” He offered to give Jacob Rachel also – in exchange for another seven years of service.
Jacob now had two wives, one imposed upon him by fraud. And since “he loved Rachel more than Leah,” his second seven-year term of service to Laban was not marked by domestic bliss. The beloved Rachel – like Sarah and Rebekah before her – could not bear a child. Leah, on the other hand, had four sons very quickly. Scripture attributes her fertility to god’s compassion: “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb.” Indeed, the names Leah chose for her first three sons – Reuben, Simeon, and Levi – have Hebrew derivations that refer ruefully to her unfavored status. Her fourth son was Judah, which means, “I will praise the Lord.”
Rachel, watching helplessly as Leah bore son after son, “envied her sister.” “Give me children, or I shall die!” she cried to Jacob. Rachel adopted a tactic used by Sarah before her, resorting to concubinage. She gave her maidservant Bilhah to Jacob, with the understanding that the children would be considered hers. Bilhah bore two sons, Dan and Naphtali. Then Leah gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob, and out of this union came Gad and Asher. Shortly thereafter, Leah gave birth to two more boys, Issachar and Zebulun, and a girl, Dinah. Finally, “God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach’; and she called his name Joseph” (Genesis 30:22-24).
While the unintended marriage to Leah produced strife, it also helped to produce the bounty that would be the 12 tribes of Israel. In fact, two of Leah’s sons, Judah and Levi, would later become two of the most important figures of Judaism. From Judah would come the Davidic kingdom, and from Levi, the priesthood.
After the second seven years of labor, Jacob struck another strange bargain with Laban. He would continue to serve Laban, but only if he could begin to build his own flocks. He would take the black lambs and the speckled or spotted sheep and goats. Laban agreed, but then he quickly removed from Jacob’s care any such animals that were already in the flocks. But this handicap did not stop Jacob. In front of the watering troughs where the animals mated, he set up wooden rods with white streaks on them, believing that what the animals saw as they mated would affect the coloring of their offspring. Incredibly, the scheme worked, “the flocks bred in front of the rods and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled and spotted” (Genesis 30:39). Jacob “grew exceedingly rich” and God told him to leave Laban and return to Canaan.
Jacob’s two wives agreed to leave their father, and while Laban was off shearing his sheep, they fled with all their possessions across the Euphrates. As they left, Rachel secretly stole her father’s household gods (Genesis 31:19). Laban was incensed. He pursued them almost all the way into Canaan and would have done them harm except that God warned him in a dream to “say not a word to Jacob, either good or bad” (Genesis 31:24).
When Laban confronted Jacob he said that he could understand his desire to return to his home, “but why did you steal my gods?” Unaware of Rachel’s deed, Jacob swore that “any one with whom you find gods shall not live.” Laban began ransacking the tents: Jacob’s, Leah’s, the maidservants, and finally Rachel’s. By that time Rachel had hidden the gods (in Hebrew, teraphim) in her camel saddle and was sitting on them. She said she could not rise for her father, “for the way of women is upon me.”
What were these teraphim that Laban was so desperate to regain? They were probably small, rather common looking figurines, not valuable as objects, but valuable for what they represented. Some ancient texts suggest that they symbolized the legal right to an estate. Laban would have handed them down to his eldest son; so for Rachel to take them was tantamount to stealing the symbol of the birthright, if not the birthright itself.
In any case it is clear that the teraphim had important religious functions. They were widely used to obtain various kinds of oracles about the future and played a role in a clan’s worship. Throughout most of the history of ancient Israel, such teraphim continued to be widely used in spite of prophetic condemnations of them. The prophet Hosea listed them among the common religious institutions of the nation (Hosea 3:4).
Once Laban’s anger had abated, the two schemers were able to make a covenant between them. They set up a heap of stones as a “witness” that each would treat the other justly and that Jacob would not ill-treat his wives, the daughters of Laban. And the two men parted in peace.
As Jacob turned his attention toward Canaan, he was overwhelmed with fear. He had expected that Esau would meet him with great hostility. When his messengers brought word that Esau was coming with four hundred men, Jacob prepared for the worst. He divided his company so that at least half might escape destruction, prayed to God for deliverance, and strung out in front of him a procession of different droves of animals as gifts to appease Esau.
The night before Esau’s expected arrival, Jacob sent his family to safer ground across the Jabbok river, and he remained alone. That night he experienced one of the most mysterious manifestations of God ever described in the Bible. The Book of Genesis simply says “a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day,” but he could not overcome Jacob. The man “touched the hollow of the thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint,” but still Jacob would not release him. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” he said. The man asked his name, and he replied “Jacob.” “Your name shall no more be called Jacob,” the stranger said, “but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Still Jacob wanted to know his name. The man refused but gave Jacob, now Israel, the blessing he desired (Genesis 32:30).
Jacob could hardly believe what had happened. He called the place Peniel, meaning “face of God,” because, he said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:24-32).
Esau’s wrath, which Jacob feared, turned out to be graciousness, welcome, and forgiveness. By now Jacob had learned the value of such qualities; indeed, meeting Esau was the fitting conclusion to his wrestling with God and men. “To see your face,” Israel told his brother, “is like seeing the face of God, with such favor have you received me” (Genesis 33:10). Jacob was ready to continue the line of patriarchs to whom God had promised so much.
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