21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, "Why is this happening to me?" So she went to inquire of the LORD.
23 The LORD said to her,
"Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger."
Christians who praise the Bible for supporting strong family values might need to reread Genesis which is riddled with families with serious issues. But that's a post for another day. The story of Jacob and Esau is an intriguing tale on self-identity, deception, struggle for power, and redemption. If you sit down and really read Genesis (look up a few Hebrew words) you may find that it is an amazing text which touches on several areas on the human experience. Here are the verses I will be referencing on Jacob and Esau.
[Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Gustave Doré]
The story begins with Rachel questioning God about her jostling sons and God responds that they are fighting for superiority (one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger). Esau, the firstborn, was born incredibly hairy and Jacob was born holding firmly onto his brothers heel (that's one strong neonatal grip, or more likely symbolic of Jacob's weakness and dependence on the stronger brother). Esau grew up to be an outdoors man, a skilled hunter, and dearly loved by Isaac. As the firstborn he was energetic, a natural leader, destined for success, and the heir to Isaac's blessing and birthright. Jacob grew up being the quiet, stay at home brother. He may have helped the women in the camp with daily chores (he also cooked) and was loved by his mother, Rebekah. What initially caught my eye was that both parents admired their polar opposites. In Genesis, Isaac does not speak much (can you blame him after almost being sacrificed by his father?) as a second born himself, and does not carry the characteristics of a natural leader like his father, Abraham, who challenged God's justice and led men into battle (Genesis 14). The introvert Isaac loved his outgoing and energetic son, Esau. Rebekah, a strong-spirited and independent woman, loved her quiet, introverted son, Jacob. In chapter 24, Rebekah ran to water Abraham's servant (sent by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac) AND his 10 camels, and she also made the decision to marry Isaac despite her family's hesitancy. The weak father loved and admired the stronger son, and the strong mother loved and admired the weaker.
Rebekah doesn't say a word about her encounter with God (ch. 25) as Isaac was prepared to pass his blessing to Esau. This is where things got a bit complicated for me. What is the difference between birthright and blessing? I, who have yet to delve into Judaism and the Old Testament, thought they were one and the same. The Birthright dealt with inheritance after the father's death, with the firstborn receiving a double portion of the inheritance over his siblings. The Blessing was a designation of the head of the extended family/tribe after the father's death and also usually went to the firstborn although this was not always the case (click here for a more detailed explanation.) Yet even after Esau traded his inheritance for food and even after Esau married Hittite women, which was a source a bitterness between Esau and his parents, Isaac STILL decided to pass the blessing (leadership) onto his irresponsible eldest son. If Isaac knew about Rebekah's encounter with God then Isaac was deliberately opposing God's will for his own purposes. Click here for a very interesting explanation for Isaac's decision to bless Esau.
After Jacob craftily obtained Esau's birthright the strong-willed Rebekah noticed the prime opportunity to have Jacob also grab the blessing (more on both topics in Part 2). The uncertain Jacob worried that the disguise as Esau might fail and Jacob might receive a curse instead. Rebekah, throwing all caution to the wind, tells Jacob that the curse would fall on her, the schemer, instead of him. But if Rebekah was attempting to fulfill prophecy (the older will serve the younger) then why would God allow any curse to fall on her? Or was Rebekah merely scheming to have her favorite son has head of the tribe? Whatever her true intentions were poor blind Isaac was deceived into blessing the wrong son (or maybe the right son), leaving the twice deceived Esau desperately pleading for ANY blessing.
38 Esau said to his father, "Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!" Then Esau wept aloud.
39 His father Isaac answered him,
"Your dwelling will be
away from the earth's richness,
away from the dew of heaven above.
40 You will live by the sword
and you will serve your brother.
But when you grow restless,
you will throw his yoke
from off your neck." (Genesis 27:38-40)
Esau, the hunter and defender of the land is left penniless to serve his weaker brother. Maybe Esau deserved it, or maybe he was meant to forever wrestle with the hardships of life so that he may learn to appreciate the beautiful things in life. Esau comes across as unappreciative, rebellious, and an unforgiving brother. Maybe as twins, and polar opposites, they must both allow the traits of the other brother to grow within themselves. In her book, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis, Karen Armstrong states that Jacob too must wrestle with his deception and "until he [Jacob] was reconciled with Esau, his twin, and with the Esau within himself, he would find no peace." They must seek out and find their inner selves despite the meddling wills of their parents. The family is divided and will travel down separate paths only to conclude that peace can not be found until they seek to reconcile the differences both between and within themselves. Abraham's descendants, whom through the world would have been blessed, wrestle with blessing each other.