This is the final post in a series about reading the Bible from right-to-left, that is to say, through the eyes of the ancient Hebrews. In case you haven’t read the previous four posts I’ll quickly tell you what they were about in case you want to go back and read them later (if you have you can skip to the next paragraph). In the first and second posts we explored how the first alphabet (Hebrew) differed from the final form of the Greek alphabet in two significant ways. First, Hebrew has no vowels; second, it is read from right-to-left. We looked at the fascinating worldview shift that shook the globe when the Greeks changed their alphabet (hint: this is when the great philosophical tradition emerged). All of this leads us to the main point: Hebrew thought is different from Greek thought. In the third post we explored what we actually mean when we speak of Hebrew thought and Greek thought. In the fourth post we tested this by looking at Exodus chapters 19 and 20 where we read about the great God encounter at Sinai. Here, and finally, I want to test this out not through a specific text, but through a lengthy narrative that takes up nine chapters of the book of Genesis: the story of Jacob and Esau.
When you read through the story of Jacob and Esau you get the feeling that Esau was something of an ancient redneck; culturally low-brow but a good hunter. His parent’s named him “Hairy.” Fitting. Within a matter of verses you begin to realize that he was also really impulsive. One day, for example, he comes in from hunting and smells a stew that his brother Jacob had made and immediately grunts, “Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff.”1 There is a Hebrew word for stew (nazid), but Esau is apparently too hungry to use it. Instead, he asks for “red red stuff.” Robert Alter explains that “the writer comes close to assigning substandard Hebrew to the rude Esau.”2 Esau wanted the “red red stuff” so bad that he did the unthinkable: he sold his birthright to get it. Welcome to the world of Esau.
Then there is Jacob. Whereas Esau wasn’t exactly the sharpest pencil in the box, his brother Jacob was really smart. Not professor smart mind you, Jacob was con-artist smart. His parents named him something like “Deceiver.” When the twins where born, Esau came out first but Jacob, not far behind, was apparently grabbing his heel3. He was a sly little fox. Welcome to the world of Jacob.
The key event of the Jacob and Esau narrative (Gen 27) is the day that Jacob deceived his Father and stole Esau’s blessing. But before that, at the brothers birth in fact (Gen 25), we’re told that Isaac (the twins Father) loved Esau whereas Rebekah (the twins Mother) loved Jacob. There are significant family issues here. This bit of information gives the context for what happens in Genesis 27. We read that one day while Esau was out hunting, Rebekah took Jacob aside and told him that she had a plan whereby Jacob could steal Esau’s blessing. This blessing was more than simply a good word spoken over a son it was, rather, what we might refer to as performative speech. Something happens when words like these are spoken. Well, the long and the short of it is that the plan succeeded and Jacob received the blessing meant for Esau. After this Esau wanted to kill Jacob. Jacob got out of Dodge.
Let’s pause here for a moment. I’m pretty sure that most people assume this blessing-stealing event was actually a part of God’s plan. In Genesis 25 we read that the Lord told Rebekah that “the older [child] will serve the younger [child].” Rebekah was simply trying to help move this angelic word along. So, were Rebekah and Jacob right to steal the blessing?
Many years pass before Jacob and Esau see each other again. Jacob knows that the time to face the music – which is to say face his brother – has come. He’s scared for his life so he sends all kinds of gifts to Esau in an attempt to appease him before actually meeting him. Finally he comes face to face with his brother half expecting to be killed. We’re told that Jacob bows down seven times before his brother, but Esau, much like the Father in the story of the prodigal son, “ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.”4 After this beautiful scene plays out, Esau tells Jacob to keep the gifts that he sent him. Here’s where things get interesting. Jacob says,
“‘O, no, pray, if I have found favor in your eyes, take this tribute from my hand, for have I not seen your face as one might see God’s face, and you received me in kindness? Pray, take my blessing that has been brought you, for God has favored me and I have everything.” And he pressed him, and he took it.”5
Did you catch it? Jacob said, “take my blessing.” This massive detail is easily missed: Jacob is giving Esau’s blessing back to him. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that at this point we need to “go back and read the story again.”6 And what do we notice when we read it a second time? We notice that there was a second blessing given to Jacob. When Jacob is leaving the nest for good we read that Isaac, this time knowing full well that it was Jacob, pronounced a second blessing over him. An intended blessing over him. It’s a very different blessing this time.
“May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now reside as a foreigner, the land God gave to Abraham.”7
Look at how different these two blessings are in nature. As Sacks points out, the first blessing – the stolen one – was about wealth and power. The second blessing, though, was about children and land. Here’s the thing, the first blessing was perfect for Esau. He was a hunter and therefore a blessing about power and wealth were fitting. The second blessing, the one about children and land, was about something different. Children and land have to do with covenant. Isaac had planned to give a different blessing to each of his sons. The blessings were tailor made. Rabbi Sacks concludes that “there never was a need for deception. Isaac did not intend to disinherit Jacob, nor did he mean to hand on the covenant to Esau…Isaac loved Esau even though he knew that the covenant would be continued by Jacob. Why? Because that is what it is to be a father. Isaac loved Esau for what he was, not for what he was not.”8
When we read through the First Testament we see this all the time – you need to whole story to interpret any part of the story. You almost have to read the story backwards to make sense of it. This is, of course, true with many of the New Testament books as well. You need the whole book of Romans to understand any of the parts of Romans, for example. But I think it may operate in a different way in these masterful Hebrew narratives. Have you ever felt bad for characters like Esau? I think that’s part of the point. These stories do their work on us in multiple ways. The words tell us one thing: God chose the older, but our emotions tell us another: it’s not fair. It’s only when all of these things converge, and when we read backwards through the story that we realize the truth: “The choice of Jacob does not mean the rejection of Esau.”9 You won’t find this spelled out in a single verse (even though there are clues dropped along the way). You need to see the thing in its entirety. So who is Jacob, a deceiver or the one chosen to carry out the covenant? Yes. And who is Esau, a violent, compulsive “ass of a man” (words used for Ishmael10), or a loving brother who acts in the manner of the father in the prodigal son story? Yes. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts and the tension, alas, is crucial.
(Of all of the five posts I’ll grant that this one has the greatest overlap with proper New Testament reading. Still, the more that I study the Hebrew Bible the more I see the unique genius of the way the Hebrews told their stories. Jewish scholars have a wonderful way of opening our eyes to what has been there all along and can help save us from forming un-storied flat doctrine. If you’re interested, I’ve recommended some authors and books here.)
1 This is Robert Alter’s Translation for his The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. Kindle loc. 3241
3 His name more literally means “heel-grabber.”
4 Gen. 33:4
5 Gen. 33:10-11, Alter’s translation, loc. 4299
6 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence p. 134 (hardback)
7 Gen. 28:3-4
8 Sacks, Not In God’s Name p. 136
9 ibid. p. 142
10 Gen. 16:12