Jacob and Esau: Tol’dot – Genesis 25:19-28:9
Part II: The Prize and the Deception
In the last blog, I described the character of the two brothers. In this blog, I depict how the dynamic of their relationship works out in Jacob obtaining Isaac’s blessing.
Recall, there are three, rather than two blessings. Actually, as we shall see, there are four, for there is even one referred to before the first, but it is given no descriptive content. The first fulsome blessing, as distinct from the one without any content, was ostensibly meant for Esau; Jacob receives it. “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, Abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, And nations bow to you; Be master over your brothers, And let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you, Blessed they who bless you.” (Genesis 27: 29-30)
Then there is the one given as a substitute to Esau, as a consolation prize.
“See, your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth And the dew of heaven above. Yet by your sword you shall live, And you shall serve your brother; But when you grow restive, You shall break his yoke from your neck.” (Genesis 27: 39-40)
In both blessings, each gets rich. But in the first, one emerges as a ruler. In the second, the individual will live as a samurai, by his wits and by means of his sword. And never remain willing to be a serf to any other. Esau is too much of a free spirit.
Then, in the next chapter, comes the third blessing given directly to Jacob whom Isaac recognizes as Jacob. “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women. Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother, May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.” (Genesis 28:1-4)
Look at the difference between the three blessings. Only in the third does Isaac guarantee that Jacob will be the direct heir to the lineage of Abraham, that Jacob will become the don of this family. Like Isaac before him, Jacob is commanded to travel back to the family homestead, to travel back to the equivalent of Sicily as it were where he will both be safe from the wrath of Esau and obtain a wife from his own tribe, by marrying a cousin, a daughter of his mother’s brother, Laban. Then and only then, only on this condition, will El Shaddai, bless him. Not Isaac, but God Almighty Himself will bless Jacob. And the fallout from that blessing – ownership of the promised land assigned to Abraham.
Contrast this with the first blessing. It is not a promise, but a request. “May God give you…” And what does he get if God blesses him – abundant rain, rich crops from the earth. Supremacy and power over other people, including his own brothers. Most of all, it is a blessing for others, not Jacob, for people will be blessed who recognize Jacob’s worth – an irony for the interpretation that Isaac did not recognize who his son really was. Others will be cursed who curse the Hebrews, the direct and rightful heirs of Abraham.
This could not be a blessing intended for Esau. Esau was not a farmer, but a hunter. Why would he want abundant rain and rich soil? Further, as is clear from the rest of the story that follows, neither brother wants the other to bow before him, even when, each in his own way, seeks reconciliation with the other. Esau is not in search of power over others. However, coercion is the only way Esau knows how to survive. He could become a gunslinger, a lone lawman, a Wyatt or Virgil Earp, a Wild Bill Hickok or one of the less known Western marshals such as Johnny Behan. Jacob will get power inadvertently as people come to respect Jacob for who he is, not because he lords over the people with coercive force. Those who respect and comprehend the worth of Jacob and the people descended from him will he be blessed.
Now look at the second blessing that Esau does receive, the consolation prize. He too shall be a farmer with good rains and abundant soil. Not exactly a prize for a great hunter and adventurer. But Esau is condemned to live by the rule of the sword, through might rather than right. And though condemned to serve his brother, he will grow restive at being a servant and break the yoke that holds him in the position as a military commander and, possibly, a settled farmer. Thus, his energy, his might, his self-assurance, will all be of benefit to him. For Esau will not end up in service. But he is also not destined to win the respect of others, for, unlike Jacob, he will not be recognized as a righteous man, but he will be respected as the fastest gun in the West, a loner in defence of the law. Both Esau and Jacob will receive the blessing that is truest to their character and their role in history, the blessing of liberty, different types of liberty, but, in each case, one favoured by God.
Now I believe we are in a position to understand what happens when Jacob supposedly tricks Esau in receiving the first blessing. Recall who is bestowing the blessing, an old, blind father who was born as a late-life gift to both his parents, but grew up to be a passive character following his father willingly and quietly, ready to be slaughtered simply on the command of God. He was probably most likely traumatized by the effort, a man who weds a beautiful woman who is as wilful as he is not. She falls in love with him at first sight (or, as someone suggested to me, fell off her camel because she was so distraught at the impulsive and wilful (wrong) choice that she made). Isaac follows the pattern of his father and pretends Rebekah is his sister, not his wife, to Abimelech. Isaac is quickly caught and embarrassed, but Abimelech becomes his protector. And Isaac, working hard, makes a go of it and becomes wealthy.
However, when the Philistines challenge him, he does not fight back but moves on to find new wells, or, rather, to restore the wells his father once used. He is clearly not a fighting man; he is passive and perhaps a coward. But Abimelech protects him and God blesses him and promises him many heirs, but not because of who he is and for what he does, but for the sake of his father, Abraham. Isaac, the child born of joy, of laughter, has turned out to be a nebbish. And look who each parent favours. The wilful, independent Rebekah favours the passive, obedient and reflective child. The male parent, the introvert and scholar, favours the elder who is adventurous and can also supply him with wild game to eat.
Suddenly we jump years. Isaac is old. He is blind. He calls to his eldest. Esau replies, “I am here.” Isaac asks Esau to hunt the game he so loves. After that, after he eats the meal prepared from the game, he promises he will give Esau his innermost blessing. Is the promise of abundant rains and rich soil and crops, the supplication of other nations and rule over others, his innermost blessing? Or is the second fulsome blessing the one most suited to Esau, the one innermost in his thoughts, rather than the first, so unsuited to Esau’s personality? Perhaps Esau wanted Esau out of the house and delayed for awhile so he could secretly bestow his blessing on Jacob.
Here, I have to introduce a sidebar on Isaac. Though passive and somewhat of a nebbish, his name is laughter. But we have not seen much of it, certainly in the commentaries or character of Isaac as interpreted by most bookish commentators. They seem oblivious to the lightness of being. But irony and a twinkle even in a blind eye goes a long way to understanding Isaac. Isaac’s character must be read with laughter, with jocundity in mind. One is helped if the story of Jonah is understood as a satire and if one understands Hegel’s or Kierkegaard’s or Northrop Frye’s writings on irony. The misreading of Isaac’s character is akin to Plato’s misreading of Socrates. Aristophanes understood Socrates for he, like Isaac and Jacob, live in The Clouds.
As Kierkegaard wrote:
There is an irony that is only a stimulus for thought, that quickens it when it becomes drowsy, disciplines when it becomes dissolute. There is an irony that is itself the activator and in turn is itself the terminus striven for. There is a dialectic that in perpetual movement continually sees to it that the question does not become entrapped in an incidental understanding, that is never weary and is always prepared to set the issue afloat if it runs aground—in short, that always knows how to keep the issue in suspension and precisely therein and thereby wants to resolve it. There is a dialectic that, proceeding from the most abstract ideas, wants to let these display themselves in more concrete qualifications, a dialectic that wants to construct actuality with the idea. Finally, in Plato there is yet another element that is a necessary supplement to the deficiency in both the great forces. This is the mythical and the metaphorical. The first kind of dialectic corresponds to the first kind of irony, the second kind of dialectic to the second kind of irony; to the first two corresponds the mythical, to the last two the metaphorical—yet in such a way that the mythical is not indispensably related to either the first two or the last two but is more like an anticipation engendered by the one-sidedness of the first two or like a transitional element, a confinium[intervening border], that actually belongs neither to the one nor the other (Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, 121).
In the first story of Jacob so easily getting the birthright, seemingly the most important reward, from Esau, we have an example of irony that sets up the action, that serves as a stimulus for reflection, that belongs to the sphere of the mythical, that allows the reader to anticipate and the writer to adumbrate what happens in the seemingly more serious competition for Isaac’s (and God’s) blessing. In the mythical part of the parsha, the action is almost over as soon as it starts. In metaphorical irony, in irony focused and derived from the real interplay of characters, that belongs to plot rather than character portrayal, the stress seems to be on performance, but the meaning is about the suspension of belief, about the suspension of any simple resolution about what is taking place, about preventing any simplistic understanding, and, thereby, about resolving mis-understandings.
Look at how the trickery proceeds. First, it is Rebekah’s idea, not Jacob’s. Second, she tells Jacob that she overheard Isaac tell Esau to fetch him some game. Not a lie. I want, Rebekah says to Jacob, you to take advantage of the long time it will take before Esau hunts down some wild game and prepares a meal to just grab a couple of baby goats and she, Rebekah, will prepare them into a delectable meal. You, Jacob, take it into Isaac to get his blessing. Did Isaac deliberately send Esau on a task that would take some time? Did Isaac know that Rebekah, just as Sarah overheard God’s messengers in discourse with Abraham, was also standing in the doorway overhearing Isaac’s conversation with Esau? Was Isaac aware or unaware of his wife listening to his conversation with Esau?
However, to understand the second metaphorical irony, we must understand that it consists of negation, of denying what is first put forth on the surface, of the trickery in obtaining the birthright. Getting the blessing, getting the guarantee, not a verbal transfer of a phenomenal prize in exchange for a cup of hot soup, is where we will find the real action. The second tale explicates the meaning of the first.
Jacob objects to Rebekah’s initial proposal. He does not say, “I do not even sound like Esau.” He says, in anticipation of his father feeling his arms, that he lacks Esau’s hairiness. Jacob is smooth-skinned. ‘If my father catches me, I will be revealed as a trickster,’ he tells his mother. Rebekah reassures him that it will work. Anyway, if Isaac finds out, the curse will be on her head for she is the initiator of the ruse, not Jacob. There is no explanation of why the trick will work, why Isaac will be taken in by someone who sounds like Jacob, why simply wearing Esau’s clothes, and hence smelling like Esau, why covering his arms with goat skins, will suffice to trick Isaac.
Initially, it seems that Isaac is onto the trick. Who are you? “Which of my sons stands before me?” (Genesis 27:19) Then Jacob tells an outright lie. “I am Esau, your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.” (Genesis 27:20) It’s unbelievable! Unbelievable that Isaac will be taken in with such a simplistic scam. It is even unbelievable that Jacob would tell an outright lie to his father, even on the direction and command of his mother. Isaac is now even more suspicious. ‘How did you hunt down the game so quickly?’ he asks. Jacob lies a second time. “Because the Lord your [not my or our, but your] God granted me good fortune.” (Genesis 27:21) Even more suspicious, Isaac tells him to approach. He feels his arms and find them to be hairy. He is perplexed. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Genesis 27:23)
Why did Isaac not check Jacob out further? Why did he not call on Rebekah or a servant to verify who stood before him? After all, the person before him sounded just like Jacob and any blind person depends on his ears much more than his sense of smell or touch to decide who or what is in front of him. It was not as Isaac he was about to die. He was in no real hurry. He still had lots of time. Even after he blessed Jacob, he retained his doubt. “Are you really my son Esau?” (Genesis 27:25) Jacob lies a third time. “I am,” he replies.
Talk about identity theft! Isaac then asks for the food and smells his son’s clothes, really Esau’s clothes, and then offers him the first blessing, which is really the second one for the first is given before he eats, but it does not have any content.
Let me ask a number of questions. When did Jacob become so unscrupulous? It seems totally out of character. He is the good son, the obedient son. Jacob’s eldest son will deceive him about Joseph’s death. That could be excused, for Jacob’s eldest son wanted both to save his own skin (literally) and spare his father pain at the loss of his favourite. But to lie directly to your father and tell him you are the older brother just to get a blessing! For it is clear that he would get a blessing in any case. And why is Isaac literally so unbelievably naïve? And why does Rebekah concoct such an outlandish and virtually preposterous ruse?
I suggest a possible answer. Jacob is the one really being tricked. For what was it all for? Not to supplant Esau to inherit the right of primogeniture. For the blessing he does get, after the empty vessel of the first one, is one of riches. Nations will bow down in gratitude, as the nations do that go to share in the wealth of Egypt thanks to Joseph’s foresight. But those nations do not bow down in servitude, but in appreciation. The only mastery Jacob, and, via Joseph as well, that Isaac will obtain is mastery over his brother. And even that will not last. For Esau will break the yoke of servitude.
But no nation will bow down to him and his progeny even in just gratitude unless he smartens up, unless he loses his naiveté, unless he learns somehow to become a Machiavellian. As Rav Kook wrote in a commentary on this parsha, “Even negative character traits have their place in the world. Ultimately, they too will serve the greater good.” And if Jacob can learn to lie boldly to his father, admittedly under Rebekah’s direction, if Isaac is in on the trick and recognizes that Rebekah is correct in her prescience that Jacob is the only choice for the future of the family, then, like Michael Corleone, Jacob must switch course, or be made to switch course, but not as in the case of the Corleone family, by external circumstances, but through the guidance of the parents, primarily Jacob’s mother. He must, as Michael does, learn to acquire the koyach, the strength, the guts, the determination, the will-power, to become the don. Jacob has to learn to be a heel. Bad ways must be aufgehopt to serve a higher purpose. Isaac has to be in on the trick. He may be blind, but he is not stupid. But Jacob is not in on the trick. There is no indication that he recognizes that he is the true spiritual heir, for all he demonstrates is reluctance and his own father’s passivity under the circumstances. But in the process, he learns to tell three very bold lies.
Isaac knows full well that taste and touch and smell cannot be the primary methods of confirmation. Either hearing or sight is needed, and, as well, we recognize that hearing is often, it not always, a better tool for recognizing another’s identity than sight. Isaac knows full well that Jacob will not supplant Esau, except as the don, but he must do it so that the family can continue and thrive, but do it in his own way consistent with his character, but also through a degree of character transformation.
The irony of the story is Isaac’s self-perception, his critically activist role while appearing as a passive dupe. After all, Abraham cannot pass the baton to Jacob except via Isaac. If the key to such a transfer is understanding the positive role of deception, if it requires understanding how getting a birthright cannot simply be accomplished by blackmail, by trading a cup of hot soup in return for becoming the heir to a nation, but requires connivance of a very serious order, connivance which Jacob clearly has to acquire and which we, as Isaac’s progeny, must understand. If the game was as simple as it first appears, then we are the ones who do not understand the sophistication of trickery and its importance, and therefore how we need to proceed as a light unto the nations, as the expression of the lightness of being, by hiding our light, by being seemingly blind, by appearing as a fool and a dupe and, therefore playing the role as one of the wisest of our forefathers.
We will have to see in future blogs whether this interpretation becomes more plausible as we go forward.