One of the aspects of scripture study as commonly practiced by LDS is the idea of applying the texts to ourselves. While we use Nephi’s term “likening” (1 Nephi 19:37) to refer to this, we haven’t really understood what Nephi means by it (which I’m not going to analyze here.) What we do instead, typically, is to read the scriptures expecting to find either simplistic models of modern behavior (and then putting ourselves into their situation) or doctrinal concepts we wish to propagate. The Old Testament authors rarely had either of those purposes in mind. Mismatches between expectation and reality tend to result in frustration, or in this case, often, “wresting the scriptures” to make them fit our expectations. (I’ve written on scripture and expectations elsewhere.)
What then, was the point, specifically for these chapters? I’m going to focus on two themes at play in the Jacob and Esau story, both having to do with ideas of identity.
Theme 1- The “Natural” Order- On the international ancient Near Eastern scene, Israel was a small and relatively unimportant country, surrounded by large and powerful empires that waxed and waned (primarily Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, then the Persians, Greeks, and Romans.) Awareness of that reality made them sensitive to stories about underdogs, about reversal of the natural order between strong and weak, big and small, important and unimportant. We can see this play out repeatedly in Genesis, in stories of a younger son gaining ascent over the firstborn son against the “natural” order. Think Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau in today’s lesson, Joseph over all his brothers, Ephraim over Manassah, (and then in the Book of Mormon, Nephi over Laman and Lemuel in 1Ne 16:37). David and Goliath may fit into this category as well. It’s likely that these stories were seen as potentially emblematic of Israel gaining ascent over Egypt, for example. Politically, this never happened, though one could make an argument that Israel conquered much of the world religiously through the spread of Judaism and Christianity.
Theme 2- Ancestors and the Origin of Peoples
We saw in the story of Lot and his daughters (and lots of wine) the Israelite explanation of who the Moabites and Ammonites were and where they came from, in terms of an ancestor. (I suspect the Moabites had a different traditional story of where and who they came from.) Today’s chapters between Jacob and Esau also function this way, in that they explain Israel’s third neighbor on the east (Edom) in terms of an ancestor, and also derive identity from the actions of Israel’s own ancestor and namesake, Israel/Jacob. Personal identity was heavily connected to immediate family, clan, and tribe, as well as more distant ancestors, and this is one reason why genealogies were important and somewhat malleable; you could “manage your brand” somewhat by which ancestors you included and which ones were left out. Think, for example, of the different things Matthew and Luke are portraying about Jesus in their respective genealogies. (See here for a great series on genealogies and what they were for.)
Jacob’s name shows up throughout these chapters in wordplay. When Jacob is born, folk etymology has him named ya’aqov (ya-uh-COVE)* because he emerges from the womb with a hand on Esau’s heel, ‘aqev (ah-CAVE). Later on, after Jacob acquires both the birthright and the blessing, Esau riffs on his name again. “Esau said, ‘Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted (Heb. ya’quveni) me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” (NRSV 27:36)
Or put otherwise, “Is he not rightly named Supplanter (or Cheater)? He’s jacob’ed me twice now!” All of these are riffing on jacob, the full version being Jacob-el, “God has protected.” The shortened form of the name is more susceptible to these folk etymologies, as the full name is highly unlikely to mean “God has cheated/supplanted” or “heel of God.”
Esau’s name also comes into play, though usually secondarily. That is, although Esau is seen as the progenitor of Edom and the Edomites, “Esau” has nothing to do with “Edom” linguistically. It’s all the other things around his name that connect him to Edom. When Esau is born, he is described as “red” ‘admoni, the same root as ‘Edom (25:25) and “hairy” se’ar which strongly resembles se’ir, Edom’s capital. By the time we get to Genesis 36:1, the text flatly states that “These are the generations of Esau, who is Edom.” Of course, all of this is unlikely to represent an actual historical event, as much as a later explanation of the relationship between the different countries and peoples based on traditional stories. Whatever historical kernels remain are extremely difficult to determine, so we study the story as a story.
Of note about Esau’s hairiness and hunting proclivities, the Jewish Study Bible says “To the ancient Israelite, Esau’s hunting, like his hairiness, suggested uncouthness and even a certain degree of danger. The uncouthness is also apparent in his blunt speech and impulsive behavior in the ensuing tale.”
(* In Hebrew, /b/ is pronounced as /v/ after a vowel, so we say ya’aqov instead of ya’aqob, ‘avraham instead of ‘abraham, ‘avimelech instead of ‘abimelech, etc.)
The Acquiring of Blessing and Birthright
One of the problems in this story is Jacob’s behavior. He seems at best cleverly cold and calculating and at worst, dishonest and conniving. Let’s look at these two events briefly with some notes from various sources.
25:29 ¶ Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished.30 Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red red stuff to gulp down, for I’m starved!” (That’s why he was called Edom/Red One.) 31 Jacob said, “Then sell me your birthright.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?”33 Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way and despised his birthright. -Fox’s translation
- “cooking a stew”-
“This phrase may connote plotting, as in our English “cook up,” “brew,” “concoct,” or “stir up” trouble.”
Fox, Five Books of Moses.
- “gulp down”-
“In rabbinic Hebrew [this verb] is employed for the feeding of animals. Its use here, unique in the Bible, is suggestive of Esau’s boorish manners.”
–JPS Torah Commentary
“traditionally rendered “faint,” actually means to be in dire need of food and drink.”
–JPS Torah Commentary. Esau exaggerates and places heavy value on his physical appetites. Cf. his statement of being on the verge of death.
- “red red stuff” Heb. Ha’adom ha’adom.
- “sell me your birthright” Jacob responds to Esau’s coarse grunt for grub with lawyerly language.
- “he ate and drank and rose and went his way and despised his birthright” Translation doesn’t quite catch the rhythm here. vayyochal vayyesht vayyaqom vayyelech vayyivez.
“The abrupt succession of five short Hebrew verbs effectively reproduces the chilling, sullen atmosphere in which Esau silently devours the meal.”
–JPS Torah Commentary
Esav’s impulsive personality is brilliantly portrayed by the use of four [actually five] rapid-fire verbs.”
– Fox, Five Books of Moses
- “despised his birthright”-
“the original reading audience would react to Esau’s blunt statement (“What good is the birthright to me?”) with horror, regardless of his extremity. There was intrinsic value connected to a birthright, not just utilitarian value. The only evaluation the text offers comes in the last verb of verse 34: “Esau despised his birthright.” This verb does not reflect Esau’s feelings about the birthright but comments on his valuation of it: He valued it so cheaply that he sold it for a bowl of stew.”
– Walton, NIVAC, Genesis.
When the time comes to acquire the blessing (which is separate from the birthright), at his mother’s direction and with her aid, Jacob pretends to be Esau. He presents his now-blind father Isaac with game (typical of Esau the hunter, but not Jacob), puts on goat-skin so he seems hairy (like Esau), and emulates Esau’s goaty smell. He responds to questions of identity by flatly stating that he is indeed Esau, several times. It’s clear that deception is intended and successfully accomplished, until Esau shows up and Isaac wonders why he’s back a second time. Without dealing with the issue of how blessings worked in Israelite thought, or whether God intended this to happen (as per the revelation to their mother years before), it’s clear that Jacob, the founder of Israel, was not entirely on the up-and-up. Returning to the question of identity, this kind of story probably suggested to later Israelites that, just as the younger surpassed the older, if they were to surpass the nations around them, it would not be through brute force or size, but cleverness and trickery.
Does this mean Jacob “gets away” with it? There’s no condemnation here in the text. But this is missing the forest for the trees again, by being overly focused on one chapter. What happens to Jacob later on? As it turns out, the deceiver who profits by his deception is in turn deceived. It’s not quite “karma” or “what goes around comes around” but close. Jacob, now the possessor of the birthright AND the blessing, will in turn be deceived several times about identity. When he goes to Aram to work for his future wife’s father Laban, he works seven years for her… and then the night of the wedding, the older daughter is switched for the younger. Jacob substituted the younger son for the older through deceptive identity, and he is repaid in kind by having the older daughter substituted for the younger through deceptive identity (presumably veils and a very dark tent.) And he must work another seven years for Rachel. Then at the ripe old age of his life, he is again deceived, this time by his sons through a particular garment and the role of a goat. While Jacob had used the goat’s meat, smell, and skin to deceive his father, Jacob’s son deceive him about Joseph’s death by using a garment (the “coat of many colors” which wasn’t, really) and a goat, whose blood is smeared on that garment.
So while Jacob is not punished per se, literary connections in the text (which will also include Judah, Tamar, Potiphar’s wife, and Joseph in Egypt) show that his deceptions set off a chain of deceit which comes back to bite him and echoes through his family for generations. These stories of the patriarchs and their families are much more like a modern morality tale, in which we see generally good-but-flawed people make mostly-good-but-sometimes-bad decisions, and how they affect those around them. It’s actually quite realistic that way. (For more on that idea of depicting “evil and its effects” see my old post here on studying evil and the role of literature/film.)
I have a handout for these chapters, with these three quotes that really summarize well the take-away. Robert Alter’s feels particularly powerful to me, especially on Fast Sundays.
The stories of Genesis are often challenging and stimulating, but they seldom if ever propose simple models to be imitated.- John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 90.
The purpose of the Jacob/Esau narrative in Genesis 25 is to “[provide] an explanation of why Jacob is more suitable as the covenant heir… It is not that Esau trades the covenant blessing away (remember that the birthright relates to material inheritance), but rather he shows his attitude towards his heritage. If he so lightly esteems his material inheritance, what reason is there to believe that he will value a covenant birthright?” -John H. Walton, Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary, 558.
Esau, the episode makes clear, is not spiritually fit to be the vehicle of divine election, the bearer of the birthright of Abraham’s seed. He is altogether too much the slave of the moment and of the body’s tyranny to become the progenitor of the people promised by divine covenant that it will have a vast destiny to fulfill.- Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 41.
- Camels, again.– A few lessons back, I referred to camels as one of the indicators of long transmission and late writing of the patriarchal stories. Now I’d like to complicate the camel issue, because it is not as cut-and-dried as it first appears, and both assumptions and models play in to the question. It remains true that physical evidence for domesticated camels in Canaan during the patriarchal period is minimal, though not entirely nonexistent. The question is how we treat the text. At times, other texts from the ancient Near East will refer to the presence of something for which physical evidence is lacking in the time period the text was supposedly written. Sometimes the text can be firmly dated, and confirmed to that time period. In that case, the textual reference becomes evidence for the existence/presence of X, even though all physical evidence is lacking. While we cannot date Genesis precisely, should Genesis’ references to camels be taken as soft evidence that they were domesticated and present in Canaan earlier than the physical evidence indicates? (I wrote about similar issues here, a long time ago.
- Patriarchal history– Some details about the patriarchs show both that a) they weren’t necessarily idealized models for the Israelites to follow and b) some aspects of the stories as handed down are indeed historical. How so? For example, the patriarchs do several things that are illegal and shameful under the law of Moses, such as marriage with half-sisters (Abraham does it) or marriage with full sisters (Jacob does it.) If these stories had no historical root in a pre-Mosaic early second-millenium, i.e. they were entirely historical “fabrications” from a later period, these are not details about your founding fathers you would be likely to adduce. If I can draw a parallel, if we were to make up all the details about Joseph Smith’s life, we certainly wouldn’t make him a polygamist, because of all the legal, cultural, and social distaste (and misunderstanding) of that practice. Rather, we’d make reflect him our modern ideals of marriage, monogamy, and equality. That the Old Testament includes such details (and others) strongly implies a historical kernel to these stories.
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