This week, we look at Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:9, meaning “generations”). I’ve noticed that people tend to mine the chapters in this portion for their theological/prophetic significance, but my focus is going to be a little more mundane. Precisely because there’s so much one could study and glean spiritually from the story of Jacob and Esau, I think it’s easy for one to miss the human nature that’s right there, in between the lines, sometimes; so that’s what I’m going to write about.
Toledot presents an incredibly careful, subtle depiction of a family divided. And while I don’t intend to act explicitly as Jacob’s apologist, I will say upfront that when I pay attention to what the portion actually says, I find myself thinking that he’s gotten a worse rap than he really deserves in the whole affair of Esau’s cheated blessing. Here’s why.
First of all, Genesis 25:27 says that Jacob was an אִישׁ תָּם (ish tam). In English, this is typically translated “mild man,” or words to that effect – Jacob was “plain,” “even-tempered,” “homely,” “quiet,” etc. But the word תָּם (tam) encompasses more than that. It actually means perfect or blameless, and is used to describe someone who is complete/perfect in beauty or physical strength; sound or wholesome; morally innocent and having integrity. This same word was used by God to describe Job (Job 1:8; 2:3), and when it comes to Jacob, I suspect the way the verse is commonly translated has been coloured more by how people have traditionally viewed his actions rather than any particular nuance that’s suggested in the text itself. But when read plainly, it causes certain things to come into focus – for instance: if Jacob was a morally upright man, how are we supposed to view his deceiving his aged, blind father?
I believe the answer to this goes back to God’s prophecy to Rebecca in Genesis 25:23,
“Two nations are in your womb,
Two peoples shall be separated from your body;
One people shall be stronger than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.”
Rebecca knew, from before her children were born, that God was going to favour Jacob. Scripture doesn’t tell us if she ever shared this knowledge with her husband, but once her sons grew and their characters became apparent, it would’ve been obvious why He was going to do so. But Genesis 25:28 says that Isaac loved Esau, who was skilled at hunting, “because game was in his mouth” (כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו).
This is ironic, because directly after recording that fact, Scripture tells us Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of stew. … The text almost seems to be suggesting that what was conceived as a weakness in the father was birthed as a full-fledged flaw in the son – they were both subject to the influences of their appetites.
Jacob would’ve known this, and saw the chance to barter for his brother’s birthright when the time came. … A superficial reader might be tempted to think he took advantage of the situation, but the fact is, Esau agreed to the transaction fair and square – he was not coerced, deceived or manipulated into it. And considering the fact a firstborn’s birthright is supposed to be so much more valuable than a paltry helping of pottage, I think it more accurate to say that Jacob knew his brother wasn’t worthy of the privileges and responsibilities the birthright conferred on him (bearing in mind that the birthright wasn’t just about the blessing of special inheritance, but also the obligation to assume leadership and helm the future of the family) – so he obtained it in a bold act of opportune shrewdness. And ultimately, Genesis 25:34 confirms the rightness of this decision by flatly stating that Esau despised his birthright.
But the really tricky bit comes with the blessing of the firstborn, which Jacob didn’t obtain in the same straightforward manner – how are we supposed to look at that?
Well, there’re a couple of things which I believe to be of note in the process of figuring this out:
- The sale of the birthright happened in the boys’ youth (Genesis 25:29-34): it is recorded as taking place before Esau was married at the age of 40 (Genesis 26:34), and long before Isaac had reached old age and his eyes had dimmed (Genesis 27:1);
- When Jacob’s deception was discovered (Genesis 27:30-35), Esau said, “He has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright, and now look, he has taken away my blessing!” But see – Isaac didn’t react to this. He didn’t express any shock, anger or surprise that this was news to him. In fact, father and son were focused only on discussing whether there could be another blessing for Esau.
These things imply that Jacob’s transaction with his brother was open knowledge in the family (though it probably wasn’t discussed very often because it would’ve been an understandably sore subject) – which means that Isaac would’ve known that the birthright now belonged to Jacob, and therefore the blessing ought to have gone to him. But he wanted to bless Esau anyway – almost like Abraham saying, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” to God, even as God was right in the middle of promising him a son who would come from Sarah (Genesis 17:15-19). … And like Sarah refusing to let Ishmael inherit with Isaac – even resorting to the ethically questionable act of banishing a helpless woman and her child to the mercies of the wilderness – so Rebecca resorted to deception, that her chosen offspring might get his full inheritance.
… Perhaps Isaac disapproved of what Jacob did, and never accepted the validity of his deal with Esau in all those years. Perhaps he thought it only proper for a firstborn to receive the firstborn’s blessing. … Or perhaps he truly favoured Esau that much. We can’t know for sure what led him to want to bless his older son still. But we know that his decision to do so forced Rebecca’s hand, who supported Jacob as the rightful heir – firstly because of God’s promise; secondly because he already had the birthright; and thirdly because he fundamentally possessed the more deserving character of the two.
If Isaac had been able to recognise these things, Jacob would never have had to deceive his father to get what was his. But while Scripture never speaks in a way that condones the deception itself, it does give us enough information to keep us from simply picturing Jacob as a self-interested moral weakling, as some people are wont to make him out to be. For while it was one thing to get his brother to give up his birthright in an open exchange, it was quite another for him to perpetrate deliberate deception on his own blind father… and his reluctance to do so is seen in his attempt to reason his mother out of it (Genesis 27:11-12). Moreover, Malachi 1:2-3 says,
“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?”
Says the Lord.
“Yet Jacob I have loved;
But Esau I have hated.”
If Jacob really had been the dishonest, manipulative supplanter that some people accuse him of being, I don’t think the Scriptures would’ve called him a blameless man, nor would God have professed love for him… certainly not in stark contrast to His disdain for Esau.
So when you put all these things together, you see that the truth is a little more complicated. The truth is, both Isaac and Esau had a share in what happened, and not just Jacob and Rebecca – Isaac for continuing to favour the son whose food he loved even against his objective judgement; and Esau for not valuing his birthright in the first place.
And when you mix these factors together under one tent (as it were), you get a family that, while being undeniably marked out for God’s plans, is still a very human family – criss-crossed with the same conflicting lines of stubbornness, loyalty, faith and favouritism as any other. And this humanness is seen, especially, in the aftermath of the whole affair – for instead of recognising his own responsibility in the matter, Esau vowed to kill his brother. And Rebecca’s wit is displayed once again in her getting Isaac to send Jacob to Padan Aram – ostensibly to look for a wife, but really to escape Esau’s wrath until he calmed down.
But at this point, surprisingly, Scripture records a change. Isaac summons Jacob and says to him,
“May God Almighty bless you,
And make you fruitful and multiply you,
That you may be an assembly of peoples;
And give you the blessing of Abraham,
To you and your descendants with you,
That you may inherit the land
In which you are a stranger,
Which God gave to Abraham.”
Now that Jacob had gotten both the blessing and birthright of the firstborn, Isaac accepted that this was the son through whom God would bring about His promises to his family; and he blessed him accordingly. Not only that, when Esau saw his father doing this and telling his brother not to take a Canaanite wife, he realised that the local women displeased his parents. And this headstrong, carnal personality, who’d always done as he pleased – who’d been married, for decades, to two Hittite women who caused his parents great grief and yet had never noticed it – finally took notice. And he went and got an Ishmaelite wife in response.
This action, in turn, was another witness to Esau’s character. The gravity of the loss of his birthright and blessing, it seems, dawned on him at last, and wrought a pain great enough to finally cause him to reflect on just how things could’ve happened the way they did for him. … It wasn’t enough to change his mind about killing Jacob, but it was enough to make him a little more sensitive to his parents. But at the same time, he didn’t address the real problem, which was the fact he married Hittite women in the first place – he didn’t put his wives away, which would’ve truly made his parents happy; he simply went and took another wife who was not a Canaanite, hoping that would achieve the same result.
And this was the problem with Esau: he never really learned what repentance was. He fell short of it in all the ways that mattered… like King Saul, who was instructed to utterly destroy the Amalekites and all their property, but instead spared King Agag as well as the best of the plunder, sheep and oxen. Moreover, he twice justified himself by saying that he did this so he could sacrifice the choice things to God, all the while ignoring the fact that he was being fundamentally disobedient (1 Samuel 15).
So the saddest thing about Esau’s lost blessing – the greatest tragedy of his life – was that even though he wept, he wasn’t weeping for the right reasons. He didn’t weep over his own foolishness, out of a godly sorrow that leads to repentance. He wept simply because he perceived, in his denial, that he’d been unfairly wronged by his brother. He wept because he’d realised, over the years, just what he’d given up for that fateful bowl of stew… but he still hadn’t realised what it was about his own character that caused him to give it up in the first place. And this is why Hebrews 12:17 says of him, “For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.”
Esau cried bitterly, but his tears were cried in vain. And because of this failing, his brother had to run for his life, as it were, and experience much hardship on his own journey to find his destiny as the third patriarch of Israel.
… So next week, we look at Jacob’s journey to Padan Aram and his life there, where he ended up staying for 20 long years.