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The voices of Jacob and Rebekah.

The stories of the patriarchs, their wives and kin, in the Book of Genesis, are unmatched in world literature. One of the most familiar tales is that of the stolen blessing.

Rebekah, Isaac's wife, overhears her husband instructing the elder of two twins, Esau, to hunt for game that he might make for Isaac a splendid meal, which would be followed by Isaac giving him a unique, firstborn son's blessing. Instead, Rebekah instructs her favored son, Jacob, to kill a kid so she can cook a special meal for her husband. She clothes Jacob's arms in goatskin, so that Isaac, with his failing eyesight, will take Jacob, the smoother-skinned lad of the two, for Esau. Isaac, upon Jacob's approach, says, in a wonderful line, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the arms are the arms of Esau." (The Hebrew is conventionally translated as "hands of Esau," but "arms," properly forearms, makes better sense.) Baffled, the old man gives the blessing to Jacob. Esau returns from the hunt to find that he has been tricked. Interestingly, he blames his brother, and no blame attaches itself to the mother (1) who inspired Jacob's latest treachery--Jacob had already induced Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of stew. Esau wails when he learns he has lost his chance for Isaac's blessing, and asks his father if he, too, can be blessed. Isaac gives him another blessing, but he cannot revoke the words he has spoken to Jacob, which give him dominion over his brother.

When one reads this story, one might think that Jacob is the main focus of the narrative. This is true on the whole, inasmuch as Jacob will see God (in the form of a "man" or angel) "face to face," and win the name Israel (Genesis 32:24-32). The Torah is quintessentially a narrative about God and Israel, and Esau plays second fiddle to his brother.

Yet the story of the stolen blessing is deeper than that. Let us take a closer look at this well-known episode. First of all, it is impossible to overstate the importance of this little story; not only does it have multiple connections to the narratives that precede it, radiating out to what follows, but it is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the great founding stories of the people of Israel. In the Biblical account, Rebekah's love for Jacob wins out over Isaac's preference for Esau, but at a price. At the end of the tale, Rebekah learns of Esau's bloodthirsty hatred for what Esau terms his 'trickster' (in Biblical language, a play on the name Jacob) brother, Jacob, and the alarmed Rebekah has Isaac send Jacob away to marry her kin in Haran. This separates Jacob from the mother who loves him, but leads him to father the children who Hill become the ancestors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The focus shifts to Jacob and his doings, and only on his return from Hal-an does he have to deal with his brother, Esau. Only then Esau assumes the largest role he plays in the whole of Genesis (Genesis 36), a sort of genealogical history of Esau and his clan, is the last time Esau takes center stage).

Interestingly enough, Isaac and Rebekah, following this tale of their old age, fade from the text of the Book of Genesis. Whereas Isaac's name is mentioned from time to time, and a death notice fitting to his importance in the patriarchal scheme is accorded him, yet unlike the matriarch Sarah, the same is not accorded to Rebekah. She is only mentioned sporadically as the Book of Genesis proceeds.

An interpretation of Rebekah and Isaac's roles from the Midrash Rabbah (Gen. R. 65:6) is worth inserting here, as it summarizes the rabbinic understanding of this tale. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who lived in Palestine in the third century CE, quotes from Proverbs 17:26, "deeming the wicked righteous or deeming the righteous wicked--both are an abomination to the Lord," and he says that not only did Rebekah do what she did because she loved Jacob more than his brother, but she didn't want Esau to enter and mislead the 'old man' (Isaac)--"both an abomination to the Lord"--and ben Levi further says that Isaac's eyesight suffered because he "deemed the wicked righteous," i.e. took wicked Esau for a righteous man. That view of the matter is a bit harsh, as later in the Book of Genesis Esau shows he isn't wicked. Given the opportunity to slay Jacob, Esau shows forbearance, forgiveness, and mercy (Genesis 33:4-17), as Rebekah foretold (Genesis 27:44). Of course, the Rabbis deemed Esau wicked, since he was identified with Edom, an enemy of Israel, in many places in the Bible. (Consider, for example, the Book of Obadiah), and the name Edom was later used as a code word for hated Rome. Yet Yehoshua ben Levi's point of view is apposite since in this chapter, Esau nurses a murderous hatred for his brother and plans to kill him after their father dies because Jacob has succeeded in receiving the blessing their father meant for the elder brother, Esau (Genesis 27:41).

Yet the Biblical account makes sure to underscore the importance of Esau in the making of what will be Israel. It never forgets that Esau, like Ishmael, is of the seed of Abraham. Two notices of Esau taking wives frame the story of the stolen blessing.

When Esau was forty years old, he took for a wife Judith the daughter of Beari the Hittite and Basmat the daughter of Alon the Hittite; and they were a great grief to Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 26:34). There is a direct connection of Esau's marriages to our story as it should be understood as part of what motivates Isaac and Rebekah to send Jacob away (cf. Genesis 27:46, where Rebekah says, "I feel absolute disgust for these Hittite women; if Jacob takes a wife from among the Hittite women ... why should I remain living?"); at least he will not marry the people of the land (of Canaan)--something Abraham was anxious to avoid in procuring a wife for his son Isaac (Genesis 24:3-4). And Esau does an act of repentance; when he learns that Isaac detests marriages with the "people of the land" and that therefore Jacob is to marry with Rebekah's people in Paden-Aram, Esau takes another wife, this time "the daughter of Ishmael, son of Abraham" (Genesis 28:9). Esau's marrying into Abraham's family is to be seen as an attempt to please his parents in contrast to his other marriages that gave them so much vexation.

The tale we have been discussing connects to the earlier tale of Jacob obtaining Esau's birthright for what is some kind of stew, as it appears from the words of none other than Esau himself. Esau says, "Is this not why they call him "trickster" (Jacob) because now it is twice that he has tricked me--he took my birthright (bkrty) and now he has taken my blessing (brkty) ... (Genesis 27:36). Already in the earlier story, that of the birthright, we learn that "Isaac loved Esau because he [put] game in his (Isaac's) mouth, and Rebekah loved Jacob" (Genesis 25:28) Thus we are to understand that the incident of the birthright and the episode of the blessing together comprise one tale. Consequently, Isaac's request to Esau for game, and his promise that then he would requite Esau with his blessing are entirely of a piece with his attitude already in the episode of the birthright (Genesis 25: 27-34).

Indeed, to go back further still to the story of the birth of the two boys, Esau and Jacob, Rebekah learns from the mouth of God that "two nations are in your womb ... and one nation will struggle with another, and the older Hill serve the younger" (Genesis 25:23). From this last mentioned verse we learn (although it is not mentioned specifically in the tale of Isaac's blessing of Jacob) that Rebekah had God's blessing when she saw to it that it was Jacob who received Isaac's firstborn benediction. Perhaps God's words to Rebekah are what led her to favor Jacob later. And in Genesis 28:3-4 Isaac gives his son Jacob the blessing God gave to Abraham, and he explicitly calls it "the blessing of Abraham." The contrast between Abraham and Isaac drawn in the Torah is very interesting. Whereas it says of Abraham, "Abraham grew old, with length of days, yet YHWH blessed him in everything" (Genesis 24:1). On the other hand, speaking of Isaac, the Torah says, "It happened that Isaac grew old, and his eyes grew dim from seeing ..." (Genesis 27:1). In the latter story, the whole incident hinges, however, on Isaac's ability to confer blessings. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi understood correctly that in God's view it was Jacob who deserved to receive the birthright and the blessing, since it was through Jacob that the "blessing of Abraham" was to come to pass (cf. Genesis 28:13-14).

Another twist in this tale is the fact that Esau is hairy and Jacob is smooth, hence the need for the Rebekah- inspired subterfuge to deceive the old man with failing eyesight with a kid's skin. The Hebrew word for "hairy" is very close to an old Hebrew word, Seir, for the neighboring country to the southeast of ancient Israel and Judah, Edom, just as the 'soup' or 'stew' in Genesis 25 is called the "red stuff" (adom) and is a play on the name Edom, as the text says outright. The wordplay in both instances is evidently another way of showing that Jacob's role vis-a-vis Esau is built into the Hebrew language and hence is God ordained (as in the wordplay mentioned above of the play on Jacob's name as 'trickster' and on blessing and birthright).

The tale of the stolen blessing is somewhat prefigured in the earlier history of humanity found in the Book of Genesis. Indeed, it is my conviction that the story that is featured so prominently after the Eden narrative, the first murder (Cain and Abel), takes its place in order to shed light on the history of Israel as narrated in Genesis 27-28, the story of how Esau's desire to kill his younger brother brought about the formation of the people Israel. The parallels between the two episodes are too strong to be ignored, as are the concomitant contrasts. In each there are two boys or youths, sons of a patriarch (Adam will be the ancestor of Edom!). In the twin stories of Jacob and Esau, the stories of the birthright and the blessing, it is Esau whose name is the one more punned upon. In the story of Cain and Abel, it introduces Adam and Eve, and then the story launches into a play on words on Cain's name, one that cannot be reproduced in English as it relies on a sound association between the Hebrew form of Cain and the verb "to acquire, create." In both stories the brothers fill differing roles. In the Cain and Abel story, Abel, the younger, is a shepherd, while Cain is a "worker of the earth." In Genesis 25:27, the contrast is drawn between Esau, the "expert hunter" and Jacob, a "simple man, dweller in tents." Incidentally, the word I translate as "simple" could mean "innocent, pure," and is the opposite of the later exposition of Jacob's name to mean "trickster." However that may be, in both cases God's favor is shown to the younger brother, resulting in murderous rage in the older brother. Only in the case of Jacob, who is shortly to receive the blessing of the name Israel, the younger brother escapes death. Cain on the other hand does not escape the branding of "murderer" on his forehead. The story thus anticipates, as it were, the later bloodshed that there would be between Edom and Israel (Jacob so fears his brother's blood revenge that on his return, he divides his party into two camps [Genesis 32:7]), as mentioned, for instance, in Psalm 137:7 (cf. Numbers 20:18).

Also, in both the Adam and Eve narrative and the Jacob story a woman induces a man to eat food in a way that isn't strictly kosher (Eve induces Adam to eat the apple, while Rebekah prepares wonderful food for Isaac in place of Esau's cooking). Thus the seemingly simple tale of Rebekah and Jacob's deceiving Isaac into giving Jacob what is in Isaac's view Esau's due has many reverberations in the Book of Genesis, and of course, beyond.


(1.) When Jacob fears that Isaac will feel him and curse him instead of giving him the blessing, Rebekah says the curse will be on her (Genesis 27:12-13).

PHILIP STERN is a biblical scholar (Ph.D., NYU). He has published in scholarly forums such as Biblica, the Hebrew Union College Annual, and Vetus Testamentum and has published what is now a standard work in the field, "The Biblical HEREM: A Window on Israel's Religion" (Brown Judaic Studies, Scholars Press: 1991). Among other things, he was the philological editor for a translation of the Book of Genesis that appeared in W. G. Plaut's "The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition, URJ Press, 2005). He is currently working on a new translation and commentary to the Song of Songs. He has contributed some thirty essays to Midstream.
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Title Annotation:Biblical Texts
Author:Stern, Philip
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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