Characters Like These: Reflections on Genesis 25:19-34

But surely that word cannot mean that here! If any one word may be used to characterize Jacob the trickster, tam in this Joban sense would hardly be it! This will be made clear by the very next story. The NRSV's translation "quiet" seems a hopeless guess, attempting to contrast the boys in terms of their activity: one rushes about hunting while the other stays at home, quietly sweeping the hearth and cooking prize-winning Sinai soup. I have always thought that the word is employed here ironically. The very last thing Jacob is, tam, will haunt him throughout the tale. As we read his story, the word will become more and more painfully ironic. Because each twin is as he is described, "Isaac loved Esau, because he loved the game" that the boy trapped, "while Rebekah loved Jacob" (Gen.25:28). We do not need to get a direct statement of the reason for Rebekah's love for Jacob, because we know that YHWH has told Rebekah before the boys' births that Jacob will be served by Esau, appearances and birth order notwithstanding.

And the prophecy soon begins to be fulfilled, this time in a particularly sad, yet hilarious, way. "Once Jacob was stewing a stew (the noun and verb come from the same root), and Esau came in from the field famished. Esau said to Jacob, 'Let me eat right now some of that red stuff, because I am famished!'" (Gen. 25:29-30) Note that the stew has become in the sight of the crude Esau, red stuff; he is, shall we say, less than a gastronome! Now Jacob reveals to us just who he is. Instead of magnanimously offering his starving brother some of his stew, he quietly demands, "First, sell me your birthright" (Gen. 25:31). This of course is no small matter. The birthright is Esau's entire future; without it he in fact has no future, no leadership in the community, no ownership of the land, no part of the promise of YHWH, given long ago to Abraham. Still, the dolt grabs the deal without a hint of thought of any of these things.

"So Esau said, 'Well, I am about to die (of hunger, we presume); what good is a birthright to me?'" (Gen. 25:32) Still, Jacob wants to be absolutely certain that his brother is as bone-headed as he appears to be, so he says, "Swear to me right now." In other words, seal the deal with your ironclad vocal announcement that you swear that the birthright is no longer yours to employ. It is the ancient equivalent of a notary public. Esau swears, and immediately in a comic scene of sloppy gorging, the man of the hunt "ate, drank, rose, and left," wordlessly despising his birthright, belching with satisfaction as his future is handed unceremoniously to his wily brother, the heel-grabber, Jacob. Jacob is a loan shark, a used car salesman, a bookie in a cheap suit, not at all to be trusted by anyone, but Esau is duped and trussed up by his own appetites, used by his brother who silently twirls his moustache and grins a very satisfied grin.

And so the story of YHWH moves forward, carried by an airhead fool and a clever sharpie, on the make for the next victim. Esau will hardly be the last person that Jacob tricks and uses for his own purposes. Just what are we to make of all this? How can YHWH's desire for the world that this family will "bless the nations" ever find its fulfillment? Stay tuned! And never forget that we are Jacob and we are Esau and YHWH, thank God, is still YHWH.

7/6/2014 4:00:00 AM