Beyond the Lectionary Text: Genesis 27
by Erin M. Stout
The future of God’s promise hangs in the balance of a family fraught with trouble.
The LORD had made a promise to Abraham that he would bless his descendants, and that through them, the whole world would be blessed. Abraham’s son Isaac was the result of that promise. Now, it is for Isaac to pass that blessing on to the next generation.
The problem, though, is that Isaac has two sons – twins. Which would receive the blessing? Before those twins were born, they jostled and struggled against each other in the womb (Gen 25:22). When their mother, Rebekah, asked the LORD why there was such a struggle within her, the LORD answered: “Two nations are in your womb . . . one will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). Esau is born first, and Jacob follows. According to the words of the prophecy, Jacob is the one the LORD has chosen.
Now the boys are grown, and their father, Isaac, is old. He is weak and blind, and does not know how much longer he has to live. He wants to make sure he passes on the blessing before he dies. Presumably, Isaac knows what the LORD had spoken to Rebekah. Isaac, however, has other plans. He is determined to bless Esau. He has a special love for his eldest son – largely because Esau is a hunter, and Isaac loves the taste of wild game (Gen. 25:28). And there are the customs of society, too. According to the laws of primogeniture, the oldest son is the one to inherit the blessing.
So, Isaac takes the situation into his own hands. Instead of blessing his son publicly, as was the custom, Isaac calls Esau to him privately. He instructs him to go out and hunt, and then to prepare a tasty dish. Isaac would eat this traditional pre-blessing meal, and then give his blessing to Esau. So Esau goes out to follow his father’s instructions.
Isaac is not the only one, however, to take the situation into his own hands. Rebekah has overheard the whole conversation, and she is determined that Jacob be blessed. Rebekah not only remembers that it was the LORD’s choice that her youngest receive God’s blessing; she also favors Jacob above Esau (Gen 25:28). So she devises a plan. It means deceiving her husband and betraying her oldest son, but it will get Jacob blessed.
Rebekah explains her plan to Jacob: They will take some goats, and she will cook some stew, just like Isaac likes it. Jacob will wear his brother’s clothes and cover his hands and neck with the goats’ skin (since Esau is a hairy man and Jacob’s skin is smooth). His father, Isaac, can’t see well. But if he touches Jacob, he will feel hairy skin. If he smells his clothes, he will smell Esau’s scent. Isaac will eat the meal, think he’s in the presence of Esau, and give Jacob the blessing he intended for Esau. Jacob gives a faint protest (not about it being wrong, but about the risk of getting caught!), and then agrees to go through with the plan.
When Jacob enters his father’s room, the charade begins. Right away, though, Isaac seems to suspect that something is amiss. And as they converse Isaac’s suspicion grows. “Who is it? . . . How did you find the game so quickly? . . . The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau. . . . Come near so I can touch you, and know whether you really are my son Esau or not. . . . Are you really my son Esau?” In the face of his blind father’s questions, Jacob persists in his deception. And in the end, Isaac gives the solemn and binding blessing of the LORD not to Esau, but to Jacob.
Jacob has scarcely left his father’s presence when Esau shows up, expecting the blessing his father had promised. As soon as he hears Esau’s voice, Isaac realizes what has happened, and he trembles violently. Esau responds with bitter tears and a plot to kill his brother. Rebekah urges Jacob to flee from home and devises a cover to explain why he’s gone (v. 46). She never sees Jacob again.
What a mess. Surely this is not the way the LORD intended to pass his blessing to the next generation. And yet, this is how God does pass on his blessing. God did not create his chosen family to be deceptive and dysfunctional. And yet, though they are a mess to work with, the LORD does not forsake them. Selfishness, secrecy, and duplicity drive a deep wedge in the chosen family. And yet, the LORD fulfills his promise – to them and through them. He does not decide to start over with a family more united and well-behaved. He builds a nation that will bless the world through them, sly and sinful as they are. And through that family tree, the LORD brings about the ultimate fulfillment of his promise: the Savior of the world.
God does not make excuses for our sins, and he allows us to experience the natural consequences of our actions. But the LORD does not give up on his people. He always keeps his promises. And here we encounter the grace of God. Scholar Bruce Waltke says, “Though the chosen are often unfaithful, God always abides faithful to his elect.”
It is not because of our exemplary behavior that the LORD keeps his promises to his people. It is because of God’s unwavering faithfulness and amazing grace. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6-8).
In Hebrew narrative, only two individuals converse with each other at a time. In our passage (which extends through 28:4), we listen in on seven dialogues, in seven separate meetings. First, Isaac meets secretly with his favorite son, followed by Rebekah hatching a plan with her favorite son. Next, Jacob carries out his deception of his father, receiving the coveted blessing. After this, Esau meets with his father, and both are grieved by the truth of what has just happened. Rebekah once again speaks with Jacob, giving him instructions to flee for his life, and then dialogues with Isaac, giving a cover of credibility for Jacob’s hasty departure. Finally, Isaac meets once more with Jacob to send him off.
In these seven dialogues, we can see the deep family division: Parents meet secretly with their favorite sons, husband and wife don’t speak to each other until the damage has already been done, Rebekah doesn’t say a word to her firstborn child, and the twin brothers don’t speak to each other at all.
This division is also highlighted by the way the twin boys are identified: “Isaac spoke to his son, Esau”; “Rebekah spoke with her son, Jacob” (vv.5-6).
Sometimes people want to do the right thing, but they try to accomplish it in the wrong way. Rebekah and Jacob were right to want Jacob to receive the LORD’s blessing. But instead of waiting on God to bring it about in God’s way, they resorted to family-rending deceit.
“Are you doing the right thing the the wrong way?”, asks an educational poster created by the San Marcos (California) Fire Department. The poster goes on, “For example, [are you] trying to eliminate fire hazards around your home and in the process starting a wildland fire?” It is a startlingly common occurrence: in a land susceptible to wildfires, even the simple task of clearing and mowing the lawn can spark a fire. “Lawnmowers, weedeaters, chainsaws, grinders, welders, tractors, and trimmers can all spark a wildland fire.” It is right for a homeowner to clear their yard of brush and debris. But if that person operates their equipment in an unwise way – in the heat of the day or when the wind is blowing, for example – what was intended to prevent a fire may actually cause one.
God calls his people to do the right thing (in the case of this week’s passage, passing the blessing on to Jacob). But in order for it to be truly right, God calls us to follow through in the right way.
Rev. Erin (Marshalek) Stout is co-pastor of Faith Christian Reformed Church in New Brighton, MN.