Friday, September 18, 2009

Wrestling with God and Man: Part 2- Deciever and Decieved

Genesis 25:29-34 (NIV)
29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, "Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I'm famished!" (That is why he was also called Edom.) 31 Jacob replied, "First sell me your birthright." 32 "Look, I am about to die," Esau said. "What good is the birthright to me?" 33 But Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.

[Esau Selling His Birthright, by Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1627.]

Jacob and Esau wrestled each other before birth. There is even a Jewish legend which state that "Each of them wished to be born first, and it was only after Esau threatened to kill Rebekah, his mother, if he was not permitted to be born first that Jacob acceded (Midrash ha-Gadol [ed. Schechter, Cambridge, 1902] on Gen. xxv. 22; comp. Pesiḳ. R. [ed. Friedmann, Vienna, 1880], p. 48a)Read more here.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 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.

Jacob (Hebrew: יַעֲקֹב‎, meaning “supplanted” or “held by the heel.”) was born struggling with and dependent of his brother. His flesh may have been weak but the soul was strong. It is in this struggle that Jacob is caught between fighting and loving his brother. Not much is said of Jacob's childhood outside of a short tale of Jacob swindling (or trading for) Esau's birthright. Unless brought up within a Jewish tradition, the tale sounds pretty straightforward. But when you take a closer look the tale becomes increasingly richer and more complex. It starts off innocently with Jacob cooking a stew. I've read a few commentaries referring to Jacob "cooking" a scheme. Clever but the more interesting part was the stew itself which the Talmud (Bava Batra 16b, sorry could only find the reference, no link) mentions are lentils which in Jewish tradition are cooked as a mourners meal alluding to the death of Jacob's grandfather, Abraham. The stew that Jacob was cooking was meant for Isaac sitting shiv'ah, (Hebrew: שבעה, "Seven") NOT Esau. Of course this is how later Jews interpreted the scripture but it is still important to understand how they read their own holy books instead of a just through the lens of Christian interpretation. So Esau marches back home after a day of hunting and demands to eat the mourner's meal meant for Isaac. The short-sighted Esau did not take Jacob's reply about his birthright seriously and wanted to devour anything that was immediately available. Esau probably didn't even take the oath seriously as some of us may have done as children while crossing our fingers behind our back (in Jewish tradition it's been said that they were both 15 at the time of Abraham's death). But the oath was said and Esau, who as firstborn thought he would still receive everything he deserved, did not worry that his timid, mild brother could take everything from him. Click here for a detailed and interesting analysis on Jacob and the selling of the birthright.

As we continue reading it is Rebekah who "cooks" a scheme to have Jacob claim both birthright and blessing. We see the real Jacob this time as he does NOT protest from going along with the plan, he is worried of getting caught! I wonder what the quiet twin was thinking while dressing up in his brother's clothes? Worse yet, try and imagine what Jacob was thinking during the last lines of the blessing.

Be lord over your brothers,
and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed
and those who bless you be blessed."(Gen. 27:29)

Jacob, for fear of getting caught, must have been trembling as Isaac asked Jacob to come close enough to smell him. This, as Rashi states in his commentary, is what convinced Isaac that this was the right son because he smelled the Divine fragrance of Eden.

Is it not so that there is no odor more offensive than that of washed goat skins? But this teaches us that the fragrance of the Garden of Eden entered with him. [From Tanchuma Buber 16] (Click here to read Genesis 27 with Rashi's commentary.)

Immediately after the blessing Jacob runs off for fear of facing his brother still garbed in his clothing. When Esau comes back to finally receive his blessing poor Isaac realized that he may have passed on the Divine blessing to a total stranger. Yet after this fleeting thought he realized that it was indeed Jacob because the person he blessed smelled like paradise. But it also could have been that Isaac knew of Jacob's cleverness and realized that his strong-willed wife, Rebekah, had taken part in the scheme. I found Esau's response intriguing as he asked if this is the reason why his brother was named Jacob.

Did Esau think that the naming of Jacob was prophetic in some way, and that he (Esau) was destined to a lower status than his brother? In verse 37, Isaac does not respond to the first question but to the second he merely states what is done is done, Jacob is now the master over Esau. Isaac could only promise that at the time when he grows restless (or when he grieves) is when he will be released of this hold from his brother's yoke. Isaac understood Esau's pain and comforted his son by telling him that when he makes amends with his brother, Jacob, that he will be released of his pain caused by deception. Regrettably Esau, does not find it easy to forgive his brother for taking his birthright and blessing. The Deceiver and the Deceived have years to mull over this one event. Nothing is said of how Esau dealt with the deception as the text follows Jacob to Haran. The silence of the Genesis writers builds the suspense during Jacob's return. Had Esau forgiven him or had he held his grudge for years? Jacob endured much during his years away from home, and in the back of his mind he must wondered what his twin had endured. But before he can return, Jacob must come to find himself and discover his journey with the Divine before he faces his brother.

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