Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
The heart of the Jacob-Esau story begins in chapter 27. Isaac [Yitzak] is an old man, unable to see at all well any more. He wants some of the stew Esau cooks, so he sends him off, planning to reward him with his “innermost” [Tanakh] blessing when he returns. But Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, has a different plan. She calls her younger son Jacob and concocts a plan that will permit him to get the blessing he needs to be carrier of the promise God made to both Abraham and Isaac. Rebekka cooks up the stew she knows is Isaac’s favorite; she disguises Jacob so Isaac will not be able to feel the relatively hairless arms he has – one of the things that distinguishes him from his brother Esau. The Schocken version emphasizes the sensuousness of the story and its importance—Isaac hears Jacob, feels him, smells him but he cannot “see” him. So Isaac rewards Jacob [mistakenly - in his blindness] with the blessing—with Esau’s blessing, the elder’s blessing, entitling him to honor and a double share of all Isaac’s possessions. When Esau learns of the double-cross, he vows to kill Jacob. Rebecca steps in again to save her son and assure the proper outcome of the story. She says three times over the course of the deception and escape “listen to my voice” (27: 8, 13, and 43) and Jacob, of course, does.
There is clearly some resonance of this story in Jesus’ miracle at Cana, when his mother assumes that Jesus will “listen to her” even though he does not think it is time to begin his ministry.
Jacob must flee to Haran both because of the deception he has perpetrated against his brother and because Isaac does not want him to marry a local Canaanite woman. There he will see Rebecca’s brother Laban (Lavan) who will help him find a wife. He must find a wife there, not marry a local Canaanite or Hittite wife as Esau has chosen (Esau too finally takes a wife from among the Ishmaelites, but too late – see 28:6).
The blessing Isaac’s gives Jacob in chapter 28 is a variant of the promise “that you may become an assembly of peoples” and take possession of the land where you are staying (28:3-4). On his way out, he has a dream of a ladder or stairway rising up to heaven (like the figure of a Ziggurat). The dream is an encounter with God Himself, who renews the promise: “In you and your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.” Schocken translates this “all the clans of the soil.” I will review at the end of Genesis all the repetitions of the promise, the variations in wording, etc. But it is apparent from the very beginning of the promise-giving (2) that God intends Abraham’s faithfulness to be the source of world-wide blessing, not a parochial blessing for the Hebrew people alone. The seed of the whole redemption saga is in the promise to Abraham, and here he says, “I will never leave you until I have done what I promised you” (28:15). Jacob wakes to see the place and the rock on which he lay his head as “God’s holy place.” And he “cuts a covenant” with God—that is he takes on a reciprocal responsibility: If God remains with him, if he protects him on his journey; if he gives him bread to eat and clothing to wear and if God brings him safely back to the home of his father, “the Lord shall be my God” (28:21) and he (Jacob) will give a tithe of what he has to God (as Abraham gave Melchizedek a tithe). A lot of “ifs” in this covenant and this time the “ifs” are coming from the human side!
When Jacob gets to Haran, he meets Rachel by a well in Haran. The well has a covering stone so heavy (it says) that only when all the shepherds are assembled at the end of the day are they able to move it away. But here, when Jacob sees Rachel—the girl he falls in love with—he alone moves the stone back so she can water her father’s livestock (29:10).
At Laban’s invitation, Jacob stays and asks to marry Rachel after seven years work. When they time comes for the marriage, Laban deceives him, giving him Leah instead (with her maid Zilpah); but after another week, Jacob gets Rachel too (with her maid Bilhah). It’s kind of shocking to see how often we see the promises of God to man fulfilled through human trickery and underhandedness.
In chapter 30 we see Rachel confronted by the same problem Sarah had – an inability to have children. Like Sarah, she gives her handmaiden (Bilhah) to Jacob to see if he can get her pregnant – no problem. And finally “God remembered Rachel . . . [and] she conceived and gave birth to a son, saying, ‘God has taken away my shame’.” And this son is named Joseph. Rachel will have one more son before it’s all over. The children of Jacob, all but one sons, are born from the following women in the following order:
Leah Zilpah Rachel Bilhah
1-Reuben 7-Gad 11-Joseph 5-Dan
2-Simeon 8-Asher 12-Benjamin 6-Naphtali
Interesting also to note here the rivalry between the sisters Leah and Rachel, a rivalry that seems to mirror the rivalry between brothers Esau and Jacob as well as the rivalry Sarah had with her maidservant Hagar. Notice in these stories, the older is never the one favored, reflecting perhaps God’s “preference” for the lowly and second-class (by human reckoning).
After 20 years with Laban, Jacob decides to leave and return home. As pay, Laban has promised him all the black sheep and speckled goats, but again he tries to cheat him out of even this by giving the start-up flock of dark and speckled livestock to his own sons. But Jacob outwits Laban—devising a folk remedy involving striped and speckled rods, which by being made visible to the livestock in their mating times, produces the desired type of offspring.
Questions to Consider: