Jacob and Esau

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Hendrick ter Brugghen, Esau Selling His Birthright, c. 1627.

The Book of Genesis contains the story of Jacob and Esau focusing on Esau's loss of his birthright to Jacob and the conflict that had spawned between their descendant nations because of Jacob's deception of their aged and blind father, Isaac, in order to receive Esau's birthright/blessing from Isaac.

This conflict was paralleled by the affection the parents had for their favored child: "Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison, and Rebekah loved Jacob." (Genesis 25:28). Even since conception, their conflict was foreshadowed: "And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to enquire of the Lord. And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger." (Genesis 25:22–23)

Then at birth, “his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob”. This passage in Genesis 25:26 is as if Jacob was seemingly trying to pull Esau back into the womb so that he could be firstborn.[1] The grasping of the heel is also a reference to deceptive behavior.[2]

Birthright[edit]

In Genesis, Esau returned to his brother Jacob being famished from the fields. He begged his twin brother to give him some "red pottage". (paralleling his nickname, Hebrew: אדום‎ (`Edom, meaning "Red").) Jacob offered to give Esau a bowl of stew in exchange for his birthright (the right to be recognized as firstborn) and Esau agreed.[3]

The birthright has to do with inheritance of goods and position both. The tale is typically biblical. Esau acts impulsively. As he did not value his birthright over a bowl of lentil stew, by his actions, Esau demonstrates that he does not deserve to be the one who continues Abraham's responsibilities and rewards under God's covenant, since he does not have the steady, thoughtful qualities which are required.[4]

Horst, Gerrit Willemsz. - Isaac blessing Jacob

Jacob shows his wiliness as well as his greater intelligence and forethought. What he does is not quite honorable, though not illegal. The birthright benefit that he gains is at least partially valid, although he is insecure enough about it to conspire later with his mother to deceive his father so as to gain the blessing for the first-born as well.[4]

Later, Esau marries two wives, both Hittite women, that is, locals, in violation of Abraham's (and God's) injunction not to take wives from among the Canaanite population. Again, one gets the sense of a headstrong person who acts impulsively, without sufficient thought (Gen.26:34-35). His marriage is described as a vexation to both Rebekah and Isaac. Even his father, who has strong affection for him, is hurt by his act. This action alone forever rules out Esau as the bearer of patriarchal continuity. Esau could have overcome the sale of his birthright; Isaac was still prepared to give him the blessing due the firstborn. But acquiring foreign wives meant the detachment of his children from the Abrahamic line. Despite the deception on the part of Jacob and his mother to gain Isaac's patriarchal blessing, Jacob's vocation as Isaac's legitimate heir in the continued founding of the Jewish people is reaffirmed. Daniel J. Elazar suggests that the Bible indicates that a bright, calculating person who, at times, is less than honest, is preferable as a founder over a bluff, impulsive one who cannot make discriminating choices.[4]

Hunted[edit]

Esau is furious and vows to kill Jacob (Genesis 27:41). Rebekah intervenes to save her youngest son Jacob from being murdered by her eldest son, Esau.[5] At Rebekah's urging, Jacob flees to a distant land to work for a relative, Laban (Genesis 28:5).

Jacob does not immediately receive his father's inheritance. Jacob having fled for his life, leaves behind the wealth of Isaac's flocks and land and tents in Esau's hands. Jacob is forced to sleep out on the open ground and then work for wages as a servant in Laban's household. Jacob, who had deceived his father, is in turn deceived and cheated by his relative Laban concerning Jacob's seven years of service (lacking money for a dowry) for the hand of Rachel, receiving Leah instead.[6] However, despite Laban, Jacob eventually becomes so rich as to incite the envy of Laban and Laban's sons.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, 1624.

Reconciliation[edit]

Genesis 32–33 tells of Jacob and Esau's eventual reconciliation. Esau showed forgiveness in spite of this bitter conflict. Jacob sends his whole family and multiple waves of gifts to Esau as they approach each other in hopes that Esau will spare Jacob's life.[6] Esau refuses the gifts, as he is now very wealthy and does not need them. Jacob bows down before Esau and insists that Esau receive the gifts. (After this, God confirms his renaming of Jacob as "Israel".) Jacob gets the name Israel after he wrestles with the Angel of God as he is traveling to Esau. His hip is knocked out of joint but he keeps on wrestling and gains the name.[7]

Views of the Birthright[edit]

The narrative of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob, in Genesis 25, states that Esau despised his birthright. However, it also alludes to Jacob being one who deceives.

In Esau's mother and father's eyes, the deception may have been deserved. Rebekah later abets Jacob in receiving his father's blessing disguised as Esau. Isaac then refuses to take Jacob's blessing back after learning he was tricked, and does not give this blessing to Esau but, after Esau begs, gives him an inferior blessing (Genesis 27:34–40).

References[edit]