I will concentrate my questions on Genesis 25:19-34 and 27:1-45, and I will add Genesis 33:1-20 to the reading because I think it rounds out the story of Genesis 27.
Verse 19: We expect a genealogy to follow when we are told, “these are the generations of so-and-so,” but here none follows. What meaning does the word “generations” have in this verse? Does that tell us anything about the usual meaning of genealogy? Does it add any depth to our understanding of genealogy? The form of this genealogy is unusual in that it first mentions Isaac and then goes back to Abraham, his father, rather than going immediately to Isaac’s descendants. How would you explain this unusual form?
Verse 20: Why do you think the writer mentions Isaac’s age when he married? Why is it important that we know the ethnic identify of Bethuel—and therefore also Rebekah and Laban? (See also Deuteronomy 26:5.)
Most modern translations identify Bethuel and Laban as Aramean rather than Syrian.
Verse 22: Why do you think the writer makes a point of what seemed to Rebekah like a fight between the twins she is carrying? Rebekah is having a difficult pregnancy and asks, “If this is the way it is, why am I here?” In other words, “Why do I continue to live?” Though many pregnant women have asked this question, perhaps all and especially those with multiple babies, her case is different: she asks the Lord about it and receives an answer. Compare Genesis 27:46. What do you make of the similarity of the complaint? Is it significant that Isaac entreated the Lord for his wife because she was not conceiving, but that she goes to the Lord for herself about the difficulty of her pregnancy? Is the difference between the way Isaac dealt with infertility and the way Abraham did significant?
Verse 23: The answer has the form of a poem:
Two nations are in your womb,
and two manner of people will be separated from your body;
and one people shall be stronger than the other;
and the elder shall serve the younger
Does seeing this as a poem tell us anything about what the Lord has said to Rebekah? Do you think that Rebekah understood what this poem meant until later? If so, how? If not, why was she given this answer when she asked? If we did not already know what is going to happen, we could understand the first line as a repetition of the Abrahamic blessing. The second line is more specific, but “two people” could refer to the descendants of one child, so it still does not necessarily tell Rebekah that twins will be born.
Wordplay seems to be at work here (though almost certainly a wordplay that Rebekah would not have understood or perhaps even noticed): the word for “shall serve” (more literally translated “will be a slave of”) rhymes with “Jacob” and has the same three consonants. It is something we can see if we look closely, perhaps something inserted by the narrator rather than the literal recording of what was said. In addition, the Hebrew word for “younger” may be a word play on one of the names for Esau, Edom. What is the point of this kind of wordplay?
We do not know whether traditional Jewish inheritance laws applied in Isaac’s time, but many interpreters assume that they did. According to those laws (see Deuteronomy 21:17), the eldest son got two shares of the inheritance (birthright) and each other son got one share. But that could be changed if the father desired. Presumably the Lord could control birth order, so why did he arrange things in this way, a way contrary to what would be expected? Why do you suppose the younger brother so often is the leader in both scripture and Church history?
Verse 25: David, too, was described as reddish or ruddy, probably meaning “red-haired.” (See 1 Samuel 16:12 and 17:42.) Is that significant?
Here is another wordplay: the Hebrew word for “reddish” (admoni) is a wordplay on “Edom,” in other words, Esau. In the ancient Near East, hairiness was considered to be, by itself, a sign of being uncivilized. What is the writer doing by giving us this detail?
Verse 26: The struggle continues, even as the infants leave their womb. The name “Jacob” probably means something like “May God protect,” but since it sounds like the word for “heel” in Hebrew, the writer uses that play on words to make his point. Why does the writer do this, make up an etymology for the word “Jacob”?
To understand the Old Testament we must gain a taste for such plays on word and puns and for things like patterns of speech, etymologies (true or false), parallels, the forms of story, and the idea that an event can be both real and symbolic. Those kinds of textual matters and attitudes are generally overlooked, thought inconsequential, thought of as secondary traits (“only metaphor”), or denied by those of us brought up on the kind of thought that has been the norm in European and American cultures since about 1500. That isn’t how we write history. However, when we overlook them, think them insignificant or merely secondary, or deny them, we are insisting that the writers of the Old Testament must have (or should have) thought like us and that they must have (or should have) written as we would have written. That is arrogance, an attitude that will cause us to read things into the Old Testament that are not there and to overlook important things the writers included. We need to practice reading the scriptures as the writers wrote them rather than as we would have written them. If we are to read what they wrote literally—in other words, as they wrote it and for what the text itself says (rather than for what it would say if it were understood as a modern text, as a transcription of a video recording)—then we cannot insist on reading it in our terms and with our methods.
Why do you think Moses and the other Old Testament writers were interested in puns and plays on words, etc.? Why does the verse tell us Isaac’s age when Esau and Jacob were born? What do we see by comparing what we learn here about Isaac’s age with what we learn about it in verse 21?
Verse 27: What is the contrast between the two brothers? Why might this contrast be included in the story? Specifically, what do the words “cunning” and “simple” show us?
The Hebrew word translated “simple” means “complete,” “sound,” “whole.” The most natural translation is “perfect,” but that seems unlikely, even if we understand “perfect” as discussed in Lesson 6. (Note, however, that the Hebrew word for “simple” or “perfect” here is not the same as that in Genesis 6:9.) Some other translations: “peaceful,” “quiet,” “wholesome.”
Is it significant fact that Esau liked the outdoors and Jacob preferred to stay around the tents? Does the contrast between these two brothers teach us anything about either them or ourselves?
Verse 28: The struggle between Jacob and Esau has its counterpart in the relation between Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac prefers Esau because Esau provides the food he likes; Rebekah loves Jacob. Why aren’t we told the reason for Rebekah’s preference?
Verse 29: “Sod” means “made.” Pottage isn’t anything in particular. It just means “something boiled in a pot.” Later we learn that it is red (verse 30) and then that it is a lentil stew (verse 34), though lentils would probably not make the stew red. Why do you think that this verse gives us no details when it describes the stew, though the details are given later? Why was Esau faint, in other words, exhausted? Here “field” does not mean a cultivated field, but the open country side.
The Hebrew says something like: “Let me swallow [a formal word rather than an ordinary one] some of that red stuff.” What does this show us about Esau?
Why do you suppose the story emphasizes the word “red”? Esau is red, he asks for red pottage, the word “Edom” is a play on the word for red (as is the name “Adam”). What might that color be here to indicate?
Verse 31: Esau has said “please” (verse 30), but Jacob’s response is curt: “Sell me your birthright right now.” What do you make of this difference in the way the two brothers speak to each other?
It is tempting for us to moralize at this point, trying to decide whether Jacob was right to ask for the birthright, especially since almost all readers know what is going to happen in a chapter or two. But is Moses interested in the moral question? Rather than asking about what we are interested in, we should ask, “What does the story itself tell us to look at and think about, above and beyond what we are interested in?” It isn’t that we can’t discuss the morality of what occurs. Neither is it that we can’t have sympathy for Esau. Though he portrays Esau as uncouth, Moses clearly has sympathy for him. (See, for example, Genesis 27:33 and 27:38, where Esau is portrayed very sympathetically.) Other biblical writers are also sympathetic to Esau. (See, for example, Hosea 12:2-3 and perhaps Jeremiah 9:3). However, we don’t want to get so involved in those aspects of the story that we miss its real point.
What is the real point of this story? What does it tell us about the lives and blessings of Jacob and Esau? What does it tell us about these events from Jacob’s point of view? from Esau’s?
Word Biblical Commentary(2:178) suggests that the word translated “right of the firstborn” (bkrh) is an anagram of the word that we translate “blessing” (brkh). If that is right, there is another wordplay at work here. What could the writer be doing with that wordplay?
Verse 32: How seriously should we take Esau’s statement that he is about to die? Is there anything in the story that will help us decide whether he is actually on the verge of death or whether he is just exaggerating because he is hungry? How does what we say in answer to this question affect what we take to be the meaning of the last half of this verse? Can you think of any reasons why Esau might have thought that his birthright was of no value to him? Does the contrast between Esau and Jacob that we saw in verse 27 help us understand what is going on here?
Jacob responds with what is, in Hebrew, a three-word reply that we can represent as “swear to-me now.”
Why is everything that Jacob says in this story so curt? There are traditional Jewish stories that say the birthright was represented by a holy garment of skins (the garment given to Adam, the garment Noah was not wearing when Ham mocked him). If we accept those stories, what might we infer about the transaction between Esau and Jacob?
Verse 34: It is possible to interpret the pottage of lentils in this verse as different than the red pottage that Esau requested in verse 30. (See D. Daube, Studies in Biblical Law 193-200.) In that case, Esau asks for one thing (red pottage), makes a deal for it, and gets something else (lentil pottage). What might that reading suggest about how to understand this story? Notice the terseness of “and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way.”
The Hebrew is even more terse. We could translate it, “He ate, drank, got up, and went away.” What might Moses be trying to show us by writing in that way?
Why does Esau, who has previously in the story been rather talkative, say nothing at all now? It is rare that the narrator in Genesis intrudes to make a point. Usually he just tells the story and does so in a way that allows the story to make its own point. Here, however, he inserts a moralizing conclusion: “So Esau showed contempt for the firstborn rights.” Why does Moses insert that comment?
Verses 1-5: This is the first of five dialogues that Moses uses to tell this story. The others are verses 6-17, verses 18-29, verses 30-40, and verses 41-45. Consider studying the chapter by focusing on those five “scenes” and asking what each scene is supposed to show readers. The story in these verses is straightforward: Isaac asks Esau to prepare a meal for him and promises Esau a “deathbed” blessing. Since meat was exchanged as a symbol of ancient covenants (cf. Genesis 15:8-11, 17), the meal Isaac asks for may be symbolic of the fact that a covenant is to be established or passed on. Is it normal for the father to summon only one son for his deathbed blessing? (Compare Genesis 49 and 50:24-25.) Most other blessings to sons are given when the father knows he is going to die and as part of the preparation for death. (See, for example, Genesis 47:29 and 50:24 and Joshua 23:14, as well as 2 Nephi 1-4.) What is the significance of the fact that Jacob says that he does not know when he will die (verse 2)? Why does Isaac add “such as I love” to his request for savory meat? Why does Isaac say “[so] that my soul may bless thee” rather than simply “so I may bless you”? What do these verses show us about Isaac’s intentions? Suppose that you had never read the Bible before and, so, did not already know the story as it will unfold. What would you think at the end of verse 5?
Verses 6-10: Here too the story is straightforward. The writer is an excellent story teller. We see Isaac’s expectations described in the first four verses of this scene, then we see the plot that is to come about in its next six verses. There aren’t going to be any surprises, so those reading the story will have to concentrate not on the ending, but on how that ending comes about and what it means to those involved. In verse 5, Esau was referred to as “his son.” In verse 6, Moses refers to Jacob as “her son.” Why does he do that? Isaac said, “that my soul may bless thee.” Why does Rebekah change that to “that I . . . may bless thee” (verse 7)? What is the significance of the phrase “before the Lord”? Why does Rebekah offer to prepare the stew (verse 9) rather than have Jacob prepare it, as Isaac expected Esau to do? Does what we know of Laban, Rebekah’s brother, (Genesis 24:29-31)) help us understand this story?
Verses 11-12: The culture of the Bible differs from other ancient Near Eastern cultures in that it gives more strength to the mother’s authority. This is a patriarchal society, to be sure, but it is a patriarchal society in which women have more authority than they have in other patriarchal societies of the same time period. (See the inclusion of mothers also in places such as Exodus 20:12 and 21:15 and 17, as well as Proverbs 1:8 and 6:20. However, see also Numbers 30, the entire chapter.) Here, for example, Jacob seems genuinely torn between obeying his mother and deceiving his father. Is Jacob torn by duty, motivated by fear, protesting insincerely, .?.?.?? How are we to understand what he says in these verses, and what in the text justifies your answer? Is Deuteronomy 27:18 relevant to our understanding of Jacob’s response?
Verse 13: What do we see of Rebekah here? If the blessing given to Jacob could not be changed and given to Esau, how could the hypothetical curse, had it been pronounced on Jacob, have been transferred to Rebekah? Is this merely something that Rebekah and Jacob overlook, or is her offer a rhetorical way of encouraging her son, a way of saying “That will never happen”? Rebekah says the same thing to Jacob at the beginning of verse 9 and at the end of verse 13, but she doesn’t say it in the same way. How do you explain that difference in tone?
Verses 14-17: Why do you think the writer includes so many details, many of which are repetitions of things he has already told us? Who does most of the acts in these verses, Jacob or Rebekah? What does that tell us? How does each person act, with any noticeable alacrity or enthusiasm?
Verses 18-24: Which persons appear in this scene (verses 18-30)? Which do not appear? Why is the scene built in that way? Do we see Jacob hesitating here? Does that change our reading of the previous verses, or do we see that Jacob has changed? Does Isaac doubt that he’s speaking with Esau? How many proofs does he demand? Might Jacob’s three deceptions have anything to do with the story of Peter’s denial? Is a type of some sort at work in the New Testament event?
Verses 26-27: What finally convinces Isaac that he is dealing with Esau? Notice how Jacob has gradually gotten closer and closer to Isaac and finally is intimately close to him. There is something very poignant about verse 27. The tension has mounted and mounted: Isaac thinks he hears Jacob, but he is told it is Esau. But he has returned from the hunt too quickly; . . . . Step-by-step we see Isaac questioning who he is dealing with, and we can imagine Jacob becoming more and more fearful that he will be exposed. Isaac feels his hands and still isn’t reassured. So he asks who he is speaking to and Jacob must lie to him if the ruse is to succeed. Isaac agrees to eat, but still seems hesitant. Finally, Isaac asks for a kiss, the final test. We can imagine how frightened Jacob must have been. But Jacob pulls it off: Isaac is finally convinced by the smell and immediately gives his blessing. Why does this ruse work when there were so many places that it could have gone wrong?
Verses 28-29: Notice the connection between Esau’s clothing (verse 27) and the blessing that follows. How would you explain the point that Isaac is making? Does that point also have relevance to Jacob? Isaac promises Jacob perhaps three things: the bounty of the earth, rulership over others, and that those who curse him will be cursed while those who bless him will be blessed. (The last of these three may not be a separate blessing. It may be a repetition of the second blessing.) Part of the first promise (“plenty of corn and wine” or “new grain and wine”) may indicate the materials used in the temple ritual. If so, the bounty of the earth includes priesthood authority. The second promise also can be construed as priesthood authority, especially in a patriarchal period. If the third promise is a separate blessing, what might it have to do with the priesthood? How does the blessing’s wording differ here from its occurrence in other places (e.g., Genesis 25:23)? Are those differences significant? Is it connected to Joseph’s dream (Genesis 37:7, 9) and the bowing that his brothers will do?
Verse 30: Why might Jacob have left so quickly after the blessing was given? Notice how the narrator moves the story along: just as Isaac finishes his blessing and Jacob leaves, Esau returns. Just as we were beginning to feel some relief from the tension building up as Jacob passed the tests his father posed, just as we might have begun to feel comfortable with what has happened, Moses shifts the perspective of the story to Esau and a new tension begins to build. Now we will see Esau’s reaction.
Verses 31-33: Isaac is quickly convinced that he is indeed speaking with Esau. Does Moses want us to feel sympathy for Isaac? What makes you think he does or doesn’t? Why does Moses go to such lengths to allow us to see Esau’s and Isaac’s emotions? He doesn’t normally tell us very much at all about people’s emotions. Why is Isaac in such a panic?
The Hebrew word translated “trembled” is used to refer to the trembling associated with great fear, as in Genesis 42:28, Exodus 19:16, and 1 Samuel 21:1.
What is the significance of the end of verse 33, the last part of Isaac’s cry?
Verse 34: It is difficult to read this verse without hearing Esau’s cry. The writer portrayed Esau so unsympathetically before, why does he now portray him so sympathetically?
Verses 35-38: Can you hear the resignation in Isaac’s answer to Esau (verse 35)? What tone of voice do you imagine Esau using when he says what he says in verse 36? In verse 37 Isaac seems at a loss. He’s already given everything to Jacob. How does Esau’s tone change in verse 38? Is it the same as in verse 36? Is it the same as in verse 34? What is Esau asking about in verse 38? Do we know of other father’s deathbed blessings in which only one son was blessed or one was excluded? Does this suggest anything about Isaac and Esau’s original plan?
Verses 39-40: Esau’s blessing, too, has three parts. The first part is the almost same: the riches of the earth (but without the promise of “plenty of corn and wine,” the ritual materials that perhaps indicate priesthood and temple service). Modern commentators tend to read verse 39 privatively: these things are being taken from Esau rather than given to him; he is to become a wanderer like Cain. If that is true, what do you make of this scene? The second part of this “blessing” is the reverse of the second part of Jacob’s blessing: you will serve your brother. How can that be a blessing? How is it a blessing to serve Jacob? Given the kind of authority implied for Jacob, what kind of service might be implied for Esau? The third part is the promise that Esau will be able to throw off his brother’s yoke. The third blessing indicates that Jacob (or his descendants) will put a yoke on Esau’s neck. The yoke indicates more than just the service of a lesser brother; it indicates slavery. Thus, though Jacob has received a wonderful blessing, the blessing on Esau indicates that the authority given to Jacob and his descendants is an ambiguous one. It can be exercised unrighteously and, when it is, those over whom it is exercised unrighteously will be blessed to break that yoke off of themselves.
Verse 41: Now what is Esau’s mood? How have we seen that mood change in the last few verses? Has it shifted from one thing to another, or has it grown in generally one direction? What kind of character do we see in Esau? Why does he postpone his vengeance? What becomes of Esau’s threat? (See Genesis 33:1-15.)
Verses 42-45: If the Esau’s hatred was something that he said in his heart (verse 41), how was it reported to Rebekah (verse 42)? Once again we see resourceful Rebekah. She tells Jacob to stay with her brother a few days. How long did he end up staying (Genesis 31:38)? Why do we see no response to Rebekah by Jacob? What might this story about Jacob (later called “Israel”) and his dominance over Esau have said to the nation Israel about its self-understanding? What might it say to us about our self-understanding as latter-day Israel? What ought it not to say?
Verses 1-3: What do we expect to follow these verses? Does Jacob / Israel arrange his family in order of his feelings for them, with the favorites at the rear, or does he arrange them according to their birth order? (Compare Genesis 32:7-22.) Verse 3 tells us that Jacob / Israel was at the head of the procession? Does that help us decide what he is doing? Does Jacob / Israel’s bowing have anything to do with the blessing he received (Genesis 27:29)?
Verse 4: Why is this such a surprise? Has Esau changed his character, or does this show him as he was before, impulsive? Does this event change the meaning of what happened earlier? The parable that we usually refer to as that of the “prodigal son” (though it is also about a father and a second son) uses the language of this verse to describe the welcome the father has for his lost son. The language of running, embracing, falling on the neck of the other person, and weeping is common to stories of relatives meeting each other in the Bible. Does that tell us anything about the early Christian understanding of this particular story?
Verse 5: Some commentators have noticed that Jacob / Israel doesn’t refer to his children and other possessions as “blessings,” but as things that have come by the grace of God. (See also verses 8 and 10.) Why might he emphasize grace or favor rather than blessing?
Verses 8-9: Try to see through the formalities and customs of ancient people. What is going on here?
Verse 10: Why does Jacob / Israel allude to his experience with God here? (See Genesis 32:24-33.) In effect, he says, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me [as God has accepted me?], so you should accept these gifts.” How do we make sense of his comparison of his relation to his brother and his relation to God? (Compare 1 Samuel 29:9, 2 Samuel 14:17, 20; 19:28.)
Note that this comparison of Esau to God is underscored by the fact that the Hebrew word translated “receive” (meaning “accept”) is also a term used for the temple sacrifices (see Leviticus 2:1, 3-7).
Verse 11: Does this verse answer the question of verse 5, about blessing and favor? Jacob / Israel says, “God has been gracious to me, so take these gifts.” What point is he making? How does this story of reconciliation compare and contrast with the story that is to come of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers?
Comments on this post should be made at Feast upon the Word.