WISDOM FROM THE BEGINNING – PART VI – SECTION II
AND EXILE GIVEN TO JACOB
I. In chapter 27 and the beginning of chapter 28, the text describes the conferral of two blessings to Isaac, one regarding power and prosperity and the other involving the covenant.
A. The account of Jacob's reception of Isaac's blessings of great prosperity and power and then of the covenant is surrounded by accounts of marriage by Esau and Jacob. The marriages, of Esau to those outside of the covenant and of Jacob to relatives blessed by God, reflects the centrality of marriage to the covenant.
1. As a prelude to the episode regarding the blessings, the text recounts that Esau marries, at the age of 40, a Hivite and a Hittite, members of pagan tribes, which the Chosen People would later conquer when returning to the Promised Land after the Exodus. Even at that age, he still does not seem to understand the importance of handing on the covenant to those raised in the family.
- Later on,
marrying within the faith would be very important to Jews. One
could marry a foreigner, as Joseph does with his Egyptian wife and Boaz,
King David's grandfather does with Ruth, but the woman must become
Jewish, lest the faith be compromised. See Gen. 48:5-6; Ruth 4:17.
1. It turns out
that Isaac will live to be 180, but he does not know that. For
he is blind and his senses of touch, feel and smell are defective as
C. Behind all of the action is the central importance of the blessing, which cannot be revoked. Despite all of his failings, Isaac still speaks with the power of God and his words thus have great supernatural effect.
1. In the text,
the word for "blessing" berakhah occurs seven times, and the related
verb for giving a blessing, twenty-one times, three times seven.
That notion dominates the scene.
2. Isaac gives
blessings to both Jacob and Esau, although the latter is very mixed.
It is noteworthy that the first two blessings, given to Jacob and Esau,
although of supernatural origin, are not particularly spiritual.
In the first blessings, Isaac does not seem to confer the blessing of
the covenant, but simply a benefit of prosperity and influence.
II. The conferral of the blessings upon Jacob and Esau occurs in seven interpersonal scenes, most of them centering around Isaac in one way or another, and two more scenes of planning, both involving Rebekah.
A. In the first scene, Isaac sends Esau out to hunt game and prepare him a meal. He only mentions the blessing at the end, for Esau does not appreciate its importance.
1. The repeated
idea of the beloved son and Esau's response, "Here I am," creates
an ironic parallel to the account of the offered sacrifice of Isaac.
2. Isaac offers
"the blessing of my soul" which is a poignant description, but one
that neglects to mention God. Isaac presumably understands that
the power comes from God, but he has failed to emphasize the point to
3. Isaac tells
Esau to hunt among the Canaanite fields, which are presumably the best
ones. It is likely that it was precisely by being in these fields
too much that Esau became attracted to the Canaanite women that he married.
4. Esau, for
all of his flaws, is immediately obedient to Isaac.
B. Meanwhile, Rebekah,
who has probably been anticipating just such a development, overhears
the conversation and develops a very bold and risky plan. Understanding
the importance of the blessing, she knows that she must act now or never.
C. In the second interpersonal scene, Rebekah describes the situation quickly to Jacob and convinces him to carry out his role.
1. It is clear
that she is the one in charge and that Jacob, while pointing out the
obvious problem in the plan (i.e. that his skin, scent and voice are
nothing like Esau's) is willing to trust her.
2. She does change
Isaac's description of the blessing to a "blessing before the Lord,"
emphasizing God's role. Jacob, unlike Esau, understands the
religious significance. Rebekah may also be justifying the deception
on the grounds that God wants the final result of Jacob receiving the
3. The meat comes
from among the family herds. At one level, Jacob has to take the
animal from the family herd because, even if he does know how to hunt,
he will not capture an animal before Esau. But also, at a deeper
level, this conferral of blessing on the on the shepherd rather than
on the hunter, indicates a transitioning of society to a more domestic
4. There is cooperation
between the talents of Jacob and Rebekah, indicating the joint roles
of man and woman. But there is also an almost comic element in
Jacob wearing Esau's (presumably over-large) clothing and camel hide.
D. In the next scene, Jacob brings the meal to Isaac and obtains the blessing.
1. Jacob begins
by calls to Isaac "Father." Isaac, puzzled, responds, "Here
I am; who are you, my son?" There is a parallel with the
exchange between Abraham and Isaac at Mount Moriah. See Gen. 22:7.
There, the father was keeping the son Isaac in doubt. Here the
son is deceiving the father, also Isaac.
2. Jacob flagrantly
lies to Isaac in what is probably the worst scene of the event.
3. Isaac is understandably
suspicious, both because of the speed that the meal was provided and
because of Jacob's voice. Jacob probably made some effort to
imitate Esau, but it would be very difficult, especially on such short
4. Isaac is partially
deceived because Rebekah has made the hide of goats similar to Esau's
skin. (She may have done so sometime before, anticipating just
such an event.)
5. Isaac, still
suspicious, eats and drinks a great deal. His judgment probably
becomes more impaired.
6. Finally, however, when he smells Jacob, with Esau's clothes, Isaac is convinced. The scent of the fields no doubt brings back glorious memories of his own time in the wild, where he is now unable to go.
E. The blessing is threefold: agricultural/economic, political, and (to some degree) spiritual.
2. The political
blessing calls for Jacob (whom Isaac thinks is Esau) to rule over his
brothers and over nations. Later on, the prophets and psalmists
would promise a future king and Messiah who would rule over nations,
but in God's righteousness and holiness. See, e.g., Ps. 2:6-11,
72:1-17, 110:1-7; Is. 9:5-6, 11:1-17; Jer. 23:5-6; Ezek. 34:23-31; Micah
5:1-5; Zech 9:9-10. It does not appear that Isaac fully understands
3. The final
blessing is spiritual, but incomplete. It does contain the promise
to Abraham that nations that bless his family would be blessed, and
nations that cursed him would be cursed. But there is no
notion here of all nations being blessed through him. Compare
with See Gen. 12:3, 18:18, 22:18. It appears that Isaac does not
fully understand, or is unable to confer, that blessing.
4. Note worthily,
the blessing does not include land or descendants, which is some indication
that it does not in itself confer the covenant. It is likely that
Isaac wanted the covenant to go to Esau and is giving the blessing of
power and prosperity that (he thinks) are needed for it.
F. Right after Isaac leaves, Esau returns and prepares the meal, apparently without anyone else's help. He then asks Isaac for the blessing, and Isaac realizes that he has been deceived.
1. The text describes
the poignancy for Isaac and Esau both.
3. The text portrays
the entirely innocent Esau in a sympathetic light. Esau asks over
and again for Isaac's blessing, but Isaac knows that the power has
been given to him once for all.
4. But, in a final creative act, Isaac gives Esau an ambiguous blessing. The blessing is three-fold, with each aspect having a potentially positive and negative side.
G. The similarities and contrast between the blessings to Isaac and Esau may say something about religious and secular power.
1. The blessing
of prosperity (clear for Jacob, ambiguous for Esau) reflects the fruitfulness
of the earth, not great wealth in gold or silver. There is a suspicion
in Jewish and Christian thought about having too much wealth that one
does not have to work for. See, e.g., Duet. 8:11-15, 17:17; Ps.
49:14-15; Prov. 28:11, 20-22. The blessings of prosperity are
more along the lines that one be able to enjoy the fruit of their labor.
See, e.g., Duet. 7:12-15; Ps. 128:2-4
prosperity for Jacob emphasizes the bread and wine, signs of the sacred.
Bread, wine and oil would especially be signs of God's blessings.
See Ps. 4:8, 104:14-15, Joel 2:24, Is. 55:1-2.
3. It is Esau,
not Jacob, who will live by the sword. With the exception of the
conquest of the Promised Land, the religious power was not meant to
be war-like. See, e.g., Duet. 17:16; Matt. 26:51-52.
4. All nations
are meant to bless the religious power and the religious power should
have influence. But Esau, representing secular power, can always
become restless and overthrow its influence. The power of religious
authority works through freedom.
H. Esau is understandably angry at Jacob and resolves to kill him after Jacob has died. He still loves and respects his father, and thus does not want to cause him anger or sorrow. Despite Isaac's infirmities, he still wields much power.
- Esau makes
this resolution internally. It is not clear whether he actually
would have carried it out, for he is very impulsive.
- It is not clear
what he means to accomplish by killing Jacob. For, if Isaac is
dead, he cannot then confer the blessing upon Esau. It may be simple
anger, a desire to show his power, or a desire to make sure that he
gets all the animals and servants.
I. Rebekah somehow figures out about Esau's intentions, perhaps by overhearing him as well. She, like everyone else, thinks Isaac will die soon. And so she tells Jacob that he must flee to her family's homeland for the time being. The flight will enable Isaac to seize the property and control the servants, but that is not of the greatest importance.
- As usual, the
focus is on Rebekah. It is her plan, and she concludes that she
is worried that she will lose both Jacob and Esau on the same day.
J. In order to give an excuse for Jacob's flight, Rebekah comes to Isaac with concerns about Jacob's marriage. She does not want to distress Isaac by giving him the real reason.
for all of his faults, still cares about marriage. When reminded
about Esau's foreign wives, he may also have been persuaded that he
gave the blessing to the right son.
2. Although her
argument to Isaac does not present the whole truth, it probably does
present part of it. She probably did have a real concern about
whom Jacob would marry, a concern she does not present to him.
K. In the final scene, Isaac calls Jacob and, before sending him forth, gives him now the blessing that God gave to Abraham and ,through him, to Isaac.
Isaac greets Jacob and apparently has forgiven him.
2. Isaac then
gives Jacob the instruction to go the land of his uncle Bethuel to find
a wife. Jacob emphasizes Bethuel, while Rebekah emphasized her
brother Laban, emphasizing her knowledge of who was in charge.
- Here, he
uses the mysterious term "God Almighty" (El Shaddai), the term God
used for Himself in renewing the covenant with Abraham when promising
him the a son by Sarah. See Gen. 17:1. With the prior blessing
to Jacob, he had used the more general term for God, Elohim.
- The blessing
directly refers to blessings God gave Abraham and specifically includes
the blessings of countless descendants and the land. The last
word on Isaac's lips are that of his father, Abraham.
L. One is left at the end with the clear idea that the covenant was passed onto Jacob, rightfully so, but also the uncomfortable feeling that great blessings of prosperity and power went to him because of deceit.
1. It should
be noted that there is no approval of the deceit. In fact, Jeremiah
and Hosea would condemn it as a model of future deceit by the Chosen
People and others. See Jer. 9:3; Hos. 12:4.
2. While it seems almost certain that God intended that Jacob inherit the blessings of the covenant, it is not as clear that God wanted him to receive the full blessings or prosperity and power. That combination of spiritual power with material power and wealth could be dangerous and corrupting. The friendship between the spiritual power of Isaac and the worldly power of Abimilech and his associates described in chapter 26 may have been more the model that was intended.
III. Having received the blessing of the covenant, Jacob must now leave home and travel to the land of Laban and his household.
A. Beginning with Abraham, it is a constant theme that those blessed by God must often leave home, at least for awhile and sometimes permanently, to carry out their mission.
- In this case,
it is particularly important for Jacob, whose inclinations are to stay
at home. Unlike Abraham's servant, who went with his master's
wealth in an organized attempt to find a wife for Isaac, Jacob appears
to leaven with little wealth, except his cleverness.
B. Shortly after setting out on his journey, he has a critical dream of angels ascending and descending upon a ladder.
1. Up to this
point, Jacob has not shown any particular piety. But now that
he has the covenantal promises, God will begin giving him visions.
He grows in devotion to match his responsibilities.
5. This event
is the first of three of God's manifestations to Jacob. The
other two appearances would occur when Jacob and Esau are about to be
reconciled and the third when Jacob and his family are about to settle
down again in the Promised Land and Jacob tried to cleanse them of all
their idols. See Gen. 32:23-31, 35:9-12.
C. Upon awakening, Jacob begins to sense the divine, having previously been unaware, a sense that begins in him a deep conversion.
1. Jacob admits
that he did not hithero recognize the divine in that place, or perhaps
anywhere. Jacob has grown up with Isaac in the midst of God's
blessings. But, as with so many people, he must travel elsewhere
to find the divine.
2. As with Abraham
before him, and the saints continuously, he feels an overwhelming awe
and a fear at the divine. See, e.g., Gen. 15:12; Is. 6:5; Luke
5:8; Rev. 1:17-18. It appears to be the first time he has felt
such a sense of God; and he is both attracted and afraid of it.
Fear of the Lord is ever at the beginning of wisdom. Ps. 111:10;
Prov. 1:10, 9:7; Sir. 1:12.
3. The conversion is still immature, for Jacob attaches an excessive importance to the place, rather than the openness to God. But it is a start.
calls the place Bethel, which means "house of God." It would
become an important city, in the area of the tribe Ephraim.
would become a pagan site, but would then be reconsecrated as the tribe
of Ephraim took it over. See Judges 1:22-25. The Ark of
the Covenant was housed in Bethel for a while during the era of the
judges, between the leadership of Joshua in the first decades after
the entry into the Promised Land and the establishment of the kingship
about 1020 B.C. See Judges 20:18-28. When Israel became divided after
Solomon died in 922 B.C., the first king of the north, Jeroboam I, sinfully
established a religious shrine in Bethel to keep the northerners from
going to Jerusalem. See 1 Kings 12:26-33.
4. Jacob pours oil over the "the head of the stone" that he was sleeping on. The gesture anticipates the pouring of oil upon future priests and kings, who would also have the role of bringing the power of heaven to earth. See, e.g., Ex. 29:17; 1 Sam. 10:1. The pouring of oil seems to be a natural gesture that God will later take up for consecrations. It is now used in the Church, both for the blessings of churches and for the sacraments of Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick, as well as a symbolic gesture in Baptism. With the sacraments, it is meant to reflect a consecration to God for a special purpose. (Anointing of the hands is a part of the sacraments of Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick.)
D. Jacob then makes a three-fold promise based upon his experience of the divine.
1. The promise
is premised upon God protecting him, providing for him, and bringing
him back to his own land. There is not the full confidence we
would like, but perhaps that is understandable, given that he is just
beginning his real life of faith. God does sometimes give signs
to confirm one's faith. See, e.g., Is. 7:10-16. Likewise,
although considering it to be a weakness in faith, Jesus would give
signs if people were honest in seeking them. See, e.g., Mk. 9:14-29.
The miracles in John are, in fact, called signs, intended to bring about
belief, as He does with St. Thomas a week after the Resurrection.
See John 20:24-31. In this case, the dream already confers this
promised sign. The question is whether God is really the author
of the dream.
2. The first
promise that that, if God brinks him back, Jacob will accept the God
of his father as his God as well. The implication is that he,
now at least in his 40s, has not done so already. He is open to
believing in the true God, but he wants evidence.
3. The second
promise is related to the first one, namely, that he will build a shrine
at that location for the glory of God. Of course, God does not
need the glory we give him through buildings, but He still approves
of them because it is fitting and helpful to salvation. See, e.g.,
2 Sam. 7:1-16.
4. The third promise is to give to the Lord a tenth (tithe) of everything God gives him. This promise not only reflects the idea of the tithe that Abraham gave to Melchizedek and anticipates the idea of the tithe so common in Jewish and Christian thought, but also indicates a growth in Jacob's spiritual life.
a. First, with this third promise, Jacob for the first time refers to God in the second person, rather than in the third person. His prayer is becoming more personal.
Jacob begins to recognize that his gains come from God, and thus his
obligation to be grateful, with the tithe only giving back to God a
portion of what God gave to him.
E. Jacob's spiritual growth, however, will take time to develop, with many ups and downs. His first meeting with Rachel and twenty years working for Laban, as well as his subsequent return, will recount much of that journey of faith.