Rebekah

May 26, 2004 | 13 comments
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I’ve been thinking about Genesis 27 where, according to the headnote, Rebekah ‘guides’ Jacob in receiving a blessing intended for Esau. Even the Institute manual concedes that this story “is a troubling one in many respects.”

I’ve heard several explanations for this passage, all of which confuse me:

(1) most interestingly, an LDS friend reported that her daughter’s Christian preschool simply taught this story as a What Not to Do, along the lines of Cain. I’ve never heard this in an LDS context, however, probably because we need to believe that we have a genuine line of p’hood here.

(2) we might suppose that she was inspired to do this unusual thing, like Nephi killing Laban. Perhaps, but I am bothered that the divine directive is missing from the story.

(3) many scholars see Isaac as a ‘weak link’ among the patriarchs and, if you think about it, he doesn’t really do much, stuff is done to him. (near sacrifice, servant sent to find wife, etc.). The point of the story is then . . . I don’t know–that God works around and through weak links? I don’t know.

(4) the end justifies the means. Eh.

(5) This from the seminary student book: “Apparently, Isaac [later] recognized that the Lord inspired him to bless the right person. The story of Jacob and Isaac [sic–what about Rebekah?] helps us realize that the Lord inspires his servants to accomplish his will in spite of their weaknesses or incomplete knowledge of the situation.” This seems to have something in common with the ‘weak link’ theory. I am bothered by the implication that one could draw: it is OK to deceive priesthood leaders in order to get them to do what you want if you think you know better than they do.

(6) Something is missing from this story and if we had it, all would make sense. Maybe. This position is suggested in the Institute manual (along with the ideas that (b) Rebekah has received a revelation or (c) Isaac was in the wrong here).

(7) A presenter at a CES Conference once claimed, that by reading the last verse of ch26 and the first of ch 28, one could conclude that Rebekah and Isaac were in cahoots, that Isaac knew about the whole thing, and the trick was on the kids. I still can’t figure that one out.

Anyone? Anyone?

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13 Responses to Rebekah

  1. Julie in Austin on May 26, 2004 at 12:24 am

    fix

  2. Ben Huff on May 26, 2004 at 1:32 am

    Hey! This was the topic of a paper that was supposed to be part of the program at the first conference of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology this past March. Unfortunately, the presenter had to cancel. He had an interesting theory about the role of matriarchs in preparing their children for the priesthood etc. Maybe he’ll present it next year.

  3. David King Landrith on May 26, 2004 at 1:41 am

    I think that any choice besides number 6 (“something is missing”) treats Genesis more like Bob Woodward’s journalistic history than holy writ. Any reasonably careful reading shows that Genesis is a jumble of related but otherwise independent stories/traditions strung together with narrative transitions. Three quick examples:

    (1) Gen. 4:20-21 tells us that Jabal is the father of “such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle,” and that Jubal is “the father of all such as handle the harp and organ,” yet Noah’s genealogy reveals that neither Jabal’s nor Jubal’s descendants survive the flood.

    (2) Ishmael is 13 years old when circumcised (Gen 17:25), and Jacob appears to born one year later (Gen. 17:21). Jacob grows and is weaned (21:8), so he is at least a year old (perhaps even 2 or 3) when Abraham gives Hagar the boot. This makes Ishmael at least 15 (perhaps 16 or 17) if we assume a coherent narrative. But the description of Hagar’s departure describes a much younger boy: Hagar “casts [him] under one of the shrubs” to die; shortly thereafter God tells her, “lift up the lad [Ishmael], and hold him in thine hand.”

    (3) Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin (Gen. 35:17), but she is somehow still alive two chapters later (Gen 37:10) when Jacob asks Joseph if he and Rachel will “indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?”

    And the list goes on and on. Given the ubiquity of gaps and anomalies, it seem to me that the only reasonable assumption is that some critical piece of information (perhaps a condemnation or a commandment) had been dropped/sanitized from the tradition before it became the record we now have.

    That said, the favoritism of the younger son over the older is a continuing theme in Genesis, starting with Cain and Abel and ending with Ephraim and Manasseh (file under “God chooses whomever He will”). And Jacob pays the piper later, when he wants Laban to favor his younger daughter (Rachel) over his older (Leah), and Laban refuses. And so Jacob ends up working an extra 7 years to get his girl due to an analogous birthright issue.

  4. Ben Huff on May 26, 2004 at 2:32 am

    I like #7; it kind of makes sense, actually. You can imagine if Esau was ready to kill Jacob over the incident, there would have been a commotion over giving Jacob the birthright no matter how it came about. Isaac was old and blind, which might have affected Esau’s resolve to be obedient; maybe this was a way of sparing Esau the guilt of not honoring his father on top of his other faults.

    I’m not sure why we have to suppose Rachel is still alive when Jacob refers to her in connection with Joseph’s dream. In the dream, the parents are represented by the sun and moon, and we are talking about a dream here . . . but certainly there is room to suppose there is something missing from the story.

  5. danithew on May 26, 2004 at 12:09 pm

    Jacob is perhaps the most-manipulated (by others — particularly women) personality you will see in the Hebrew Bible. Whether it’s the story of how his mother influenced him to deceive his father for the father’s blessing, the story of how he came to be married to Leah and Rachel, the story of the mandrakes — where one wife exchanges her evening with Jacob for the mandrakes (which by the way, were a prescription for sexual potency). In addition one has only to look at his relationship with his employer Laban, with his sons (the story of Joseph), etc. The more I think about it, the more I start to feel sorry for Jacob, as he was always being deceived or pushed around. But he is one of the most interesting and best-described personalities in the scriptures.

    It’s true though, that Esau saw Jacob as the manipulator. Esau actually says, when he loses his birthright, “Yaacov Yaacveni” or in other words … “Jacob Jacobed me.” My understanding is that Jacob’s name means “usurper”… though I’ve never looked this up and verified it.

  6. Charles on May 26, 2004 at 1:45 pm

    2 and 6 work well together. Perhaps the divine instruction was omitted as the early church was patriarchal and did not want to validate God speaking directly to women? Just an off the cuff thought.

  7. Kevin Barney on May 26, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    I see this as part of a continuing polemic in the patriarchal narratives against the injustices of the ancient law of primogeniture. At every turn in these narratives, we find that the younger brother supplants the eldest and is the one to receive the birthright blessing. Thus, Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over Reuben, Ephraim over Manasseh (where Joseph actually switches his arms, to bless Ephraim with his right hand and Manasseh with his left), and so forth.It even shows up in the BoM, with Nephi supplanting Laman (and the Lamanites have a long tradition of believing–with some justification–that they was robbed!).

    I think a parallel theme might be the injustices of the entailment of property to males only as reflected in the works of Jane Austen, such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The manifest injustice of the nearest male heir inheriting the entire estate while the women are left to rot is an ongoing theme in these novels.

  8. Julie in Austin on May 26, 2004 at 3:34 pm

    Charles–

    Intriguing, but then why not clean up Hagar’s *two* angelic visitations a mere dozen chapters ago?

  9. Gary Cooper on May 26, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    Well, this story is certainly one of my Old Testament favorites, and I can tell you that here in Oklahoma, where most of the members are converts (like me), the explanation I give below has always resonated, as it mirrors “real life”, as well as being humorous. Is it speculation? Sure it is, that’s why it’s so much fun! To wit:

    1. The text tells us that Isaac was blind and apparently senile, or least Rebekah was convinced he was senile. This doesn’t excuse her actions (which, come on now, really are comical, don’t you think?), but it does make here anxiety about Isaac’s “making a mistake” with the blessing understandable.

    2. Clearly, despite Esau’s many sins and failings, Isaac had a “soft spot” for him. This also makes Rebekah’s conduct and fears at least understandable.

    3. jacob was simply too smart and spirtual a person to have honestly believed that God could “mess up” and let his prophet make a mistake on something so important as the bestowal of the patriarchal blessing, but how many men can say “no” to their mothers? Especially as strong-willed a woman as Rebekah seems to have been? Can’t you just picture the conversation between Jacob and Rebekah?

    “Mom, have you lost your mind? God doesn’t operate this way! I’m sure Jehovah will get this straightned out.”

    “Now Jacob, hush up! I’m your mother, I bore you, fed you, and changed those diapers of yours, and I’ve never seen you push your way from the table when I’ve set dinner down, and…”

    “Okay, okay, okay, Mom! I’ll do it! But I want you to know I think this whole plan of yours is ridiculous!”

    So, poor Jacob puts on the hairy get up, and can’t you just see him thinking, on the way to his father’s tent, “Boy, when I get married and get out on my own, things are going to REALLY be different in MY home!” (And of course, as danithew points out, they weren’t different. Poor Jacob!)

    4. Then, once Jacob goes through with the charade, the whole thing begins to come unraveled, when, SURPRISE!, Isaac notices that “the voice is Jacob’s, but his arms are like Esau’s….Hmmm, I wonder if Rebekah’s up to something again!” The text doesn’t say that last part, but don’t you think Isaac knew his wife well? I am convinced that Isaac wasn’t quite as “senile” as Rebekah thought he was, especially since he lived for over 24 years after this incident.

    5. There can be no question the actual blessing given Jacob was inspired, and fulfilled. When, after Esau finds out what has happened and becomes enraged, Isaac’s statement that “yea, and he SHALL be blessed,” tells me that A) he had spoken under the influence of the Holy Ghost, and he knew it, and B) he may very well have known the whole thing all along.

    6. Let’s run with this last point, which is frankly just as valid as any body elses’ speculation here. The text tells us that Rebekah was motivated to action when she heard Isaac tell Esau to fetch some venison, because he wanted to give him his blessing. Now, did Isaac *say* he was going to actually give Esau the patriarchal spiritual blessings of the firstborn, or did Rebekah just *assume* that? Isn’t it at least *possible* that Isaac wasn’t quite as senile as Rebekah thought he was? That in fact, he may have come to terms by now with Esau’s wickedness, and had planned at this point to give him a lesser blessing, and give Jacob the greater blessing anyway? That he realized the whole charade when “Esau” (jacob in disguise) spoke in Jacob’s voice? “Oh, that Rebekah! She thinks I’m senile, and look what she’s put poor Jacob up to! And he’s doing it, because he always obeys his mother, that dear boy! Well, I’ll play along, I just hope I don’t start laughing, and give the game away!”

    Then, after Jacob leaves and Esau returns, could Isaac’s “reaction” (“What? Did I not already bless thee?”) have been just as feigned as Jacob’s subterfuge? The terror and fear Isaac felt might very well have been the sudden realization that Esau was capable of reacting to this in some horrible ways—how could he placate Esau, with that terrible temper of his? Did not his very nickname, Edom, mean “red”?

    Now, this story is just as speculative as anything, but isn’t it as least possible that this, or something like it, is the real explanation for the story? Why do many of us assume that the Patriarchs were any different than we are? Were they really more solemn, perfect, and grave as they get shown in the movies? Couldn;t they be imperfect, human, with personal idiosyncracies and funny family ways that are just as screwy and funny and messed up as all of our own families are? Am I suppoesed to believe that God exalted these men and women beacuse they were “greater than human” and larger tha life? Or is it possible that God exalted them *in spite of* their human frailties and weaknesses and littleness of soul? is it possible the only substantive difference bewtween me and you and Abraham/Isaac/Jacob, etc., is that they exercised the faith to overcome themselves, through the Atonement? Hmmm…Wouldn’t that mean that the difference between me and these exalted men and women is a matter of choice? Will I exercise their faith, or won’t I?

    Finally, let’s each ask ourselves these questions:

    1. Can I be exalted, just like Isaac and Rebekah?

    2. Do I have the kind of faults that they seem to have had?

    3. Could an incident this wacky happen in my own family?

    If the answers to these questions is “yes”, even a “qualified yes”, then what does that tell us about the real value of these stories? What does it tell us about how close our own exaltation may be, and how truly dependent that salvation is, not on our *conditions*, but on our *choice*.

  10. Grasshopper on May 26, 2004 at 4:09 pm

    I’m not sure how much the priesthood line of authority influences our LDS reading of this passage. After all, we don’t hold to the “one line only” descent of the priesthood: anyone who is worthy can receive the priesthood, regardless of birth order.

    And I’m not sure the divine directive is missing from the story. It may not be as explicit as we’d like, but Genesis 25:23 may very well be such a divine directive: “The elder shall serve the younger,” which is very much the content of the blessing Isaac ends up giving Jacob.

  11. Grasshopper on May 26, 2004 at 4:28 pm

    I’m not sure that the descent of the priesthood line of authority has a great bearing on our LDS reading of this passage. We don’t adhere to the “one line only” descent of priesthood authority; anyone who is worthy can receive the priesthood, regardless of birth order.

    And I’m also not sure that the divine inspiration is lacking from the story. It’s not as explicit as we might like, but Genesis 25:23 may be the divine directive: “The elder shall serve the younger,” which was the content of the blessing Isaac ended up giving Jacob.

  12. danithew on May 26, 2004 at 8:30 pm

    It’s kind of interesting to see the role that food plays in Jacob obtaining the birthright AND the blessing. Esau sells his birthright for lentil soup. And then when Isaac is prepared to give the father’s blessing, he requests that Esau prepare a tasty meat dish first.

    These two stories might tell us something about these two brothers and their culinary specialties. Which do you prefer: soup or BBQ? If so, it’s no wonder Isaac favored Esau. I just can’t picture picture Isaac saying to Jacob: “Before I give you a blessing, make me some of that hearty lentil soup.”

  13. Weston C on May 27, 2004 at 11:39 pm

    I don’t know. I’ve had some mighty good lentil soup that could stand up against any cuisine.

    I’m sure a number here have to have read Orson Scott Card’s suggestion in his telling of the story in Rebekah. I think Card does a rather good job of resolving the tension around the idea that the blessing was given based on a deception: Isaac was assured by the Spirit as he went to give the blessing that he was giving it to the right son, though he had misunderstood the significance of birth order and his sons temperaments beforehand, and Rebekah had a role to play in putting the right son in the right place at the right time.