The dysfunction that has typified Isaac’s family since the birth of Esau and Jacob reaches its zenith with the events of this text. Isaac attempts to pass along the family blessing to Esau – his firstborn – but is thwarted by the scheming of Rebekah and Jacob. As a result, the headship meant for Esau ends up with Jacob, and God’s plan that the older son will serve the younger comes to pass through cheating and deceit. The message of Genesis 27 is that God uses the actions of men to fulfill His plans whether those actions are righteous or sinful. God never needs sin to accomplish His goals, but neither can sin ever prevent them.
The story takes place presumably after the last event mentioned in Chapter 26 – Esau’s marriage of two Hittite women when he was forty years old. It also takes place when Isaac is old and blind. Both of these facts mean that Esau and Jacob are well into middle age, even though the story reads as if they are still under their parents’ care. Throughout the study of the text it pays to remember the twins’ age and that they aren’t boys simply caught up in their parents’ intrigues.
Isaac’s actual age isn’t mentioned, but the tone of the story makes it sound as if his death is imminent. However, he will actually live for many more years and will even live to see all of Jacob’s sons (35:28-29). Why he decides to pass along the blessing now is not entirely clear. Perhaps his blindness makes him realize he can’t act as patriarch much longer and it’s time to get his house in order.
He calls for Esau and tells him he wants to pass the family blessing along to him. Isaac is second in the line of God’s chosen people and he now wants to formally pass that baton to his oldest son. There is no way to know why he doesn’t acknowledge that the birthright actually belongs to Jacob. It seems reasonable to assume he knows of the bargain between the boys as it wouldn’t do Jacob any good to have it without his father’s knowledge. However, it likely happened years ago and perhaps Isaac forgets or chooses to ignore it.
He tells Esau to go out and hunt game and prepare a savory dish for me such as I love (remember that Isaac loves Esau more than Jacob primarily because he has a taste for game – 25:28). Isaac wants his favorite food so he can pass along the blessing presumably as part of a celebratory meal. He sends Esau on his way and sits back for a long wait as Esau will have to find the game, kill it, dress it, and prepare it (Esau apparently can do it all).
Isaac doesn’t realize that his wife Rebekah has listened to everything he said to Esau and has an entirely different perspective on his plan than he does. Esau is Isaac’s favorite, but Jacob is Rebekah’s. And Rebekah knows that God said Esau would serve Jacob (25:23). So she decides to take matters into her own hands and make sure that Esau doesn’t get the blessing that in her mind properly belongs to Jacob.
She waits for Esau to leave and then finds Jacob. She tells him the situation and then outlines her plan. She will make the food that Isaac loves and Jacob will take it to his father and pretend to be Esau. That way Isaac will actually bless Jacob while believing he’s blessing Esau. It’s a simple plan that just happens to be completely deceitful and disrespects Isaac and cheats Esau.
Jacob’s answer to his mother is revealing. He points out that Esau is very hairy and he isn’t – what if Isaac feels him when he brings in the food and finds out he’s not Esau? Then Isaac will curse Jacob instead of blessing him, and he will be worse off than if he didn’t go to his father at all. He’s very worried that Rebekah’s plan won’t work. What he isn’t worried about is the overall intent of the plan. He doesn’t say to Rebekah, “How can I deceive my father and cheat my brother? How can I sin against God while seeking His blessing?” He’s totally OK with the cheating and deceit – it’s the getting caught that bothers him. [For a completely opposite reaction to the suggestion of sin, see Joseph’s response to Potiphar’s wife when she urges him to sleep with her – Gen 39:9.]
Remember that this is one of the patriarchs of Israel. This is a giant of the faith. God will use Jacob in a huge way. He even names his chosen people after him. Yet throughout Jacob’s life we see episodes like this one. God always uses flawed men – because there isn’t any other kind – and we should be encouraged that He does. We must never forget that the Bible recounts stories to show God’s greatness, not man’s.
Rebekah reassures Jacob by telling him that any curse of Isaac’s will be on her, not him. All Jacob has to do is listen to her and everything will work out. Rebekah’s character doesn’t exactly shine in this story. She has no problem at all deceiving her husband for the sake of her favorite son. There’s no doubt who she values more.
So the plan goes forward. Jacob brings her two choice kids from the family flock and she prepares them just the way Isaac likes them (Esau will surely not bring back a goat from his hunting so it’s interesting that Rebekah assumes she can deceive Isaac with the two kids – perhaps it’s the way she prepares the meat that assures her success). She gets some of Esau’s clothes (Esau and his wives apparently still live in the house?) and gives them to Jacob to put on. She then takes the goatskins and places them on Jacob’s arms and neck so he will feel just as hairy as Esau (just how hairy IS Esau that goatskins feel like him??). She gives the food to Jacob and tells him to take it to Isaac.
Jacob goes to Isaac with the food and instantly runs into a problem. He’s there awfully quick for someone who supposedly had to hunt and find game and prepare it for eating. That’s Isaac’s first question to him, “How is it that you have it so quickly, my son?” Jacob thinks well on his feet, however, and responds, “Because the Lord your God caused it to happen to me.” [But, you know, that old Grinch was so smart and so slick, he thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick! “Why my sweet little tot,” the fake Santy Claus lied, “there’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side. So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear. I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.”]
Wow. So Jacob is willing not only to lie to his father and cheat his brother – he’s willing to invoke God’s name to cover his tracks. And notice his terminology – “Yahweh your God.” He effectively tells Isaac that the same God who entered into a covenant with Abraham is the God who gave him success in the field so he can inherit Abraham’s blessing – just as Isaac did. Jacob is a perfect example of how a man doesn’t earn his place in God’s favor. It’s good for him that God chose him before he was born as there is nothing in his life to this point that justifies that choice.
Throughout this scene, Isaac is suspicious. Too many things don’t add up. He questions Jacob about the quick turnaround. Twice he asks him who he is (“Who are you my son?” – “Are you really my son Esau?”). He asks him to come close enough to feel his skin and make sure it’s hairy. He points out that Jacob doesn’t sound like Esau (the one thing Rebekah didn’t cover with Jacob – apparently she just assumed the other proofs would outweigh the difference in voice), and finally has Jacob kiss him so he can make sure he smells like Esau. He becomes convinced it’s Esau, but not before being skeptical to the end. You wonder if living so long in a house divided has made him (justifiably) paranoid.
After finally believing it is in fact Esau who stands before him, Isaac blesses him. It is useful to see his words as both a blessing and a prayer. It’s not that Isaac’s words have some mystical power. It’s that he prays that these things will be true of Esau and that he effectively passes along to him the special blessing that resides in the family because of Abraham. In that sense this is not just any blessing; it is the passing on of the headship of the family through whom God has promised to bless the world. It is why Isaac can’t repeat the blessing later – there is only one who can be the head.
Isaac prays that God will bless Jacob materially with both possessions and descendants. He says that people and nations will serve him along with his family and that those who curse him will be cursed and those who bless him will be blessed (same thing God said to Abraham – 12:3).
The blessing is everything Jacob and Rebekah wanted. The plan has worked perfectly. There’s no way it could’ve gone better. But Esau now returns.
Esau comes back from hunting almost immediately after Jacob leaves Isaac’s presence. He prepares the food just as Isaac likes and brings it to his father. He walks in and says – likely with joy – “Let my father arise, and eat of his son’s game, that you may bless me.”
After a confused Isaac asks him to identify himself and Esau tells him, “I am your son, your first-born, Esau,” Isaac begins to panic (it’s easy to imagine the sick feeling he must have, isn’t it?). He actually trembles violently and asks Esau who it was that came to him with food earlier and received the blessing. To make sure both of them understand the situation, he says, “Yes, and he shall be blessed.”
Esau understands what Isaac means – the blessing is gone and he’s out of luck. He cries out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and says to Isaac, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!”
Isaac knows he can’t do anything to help Esau. The blessing can’t be recalled or repeated. He also now understands what happened and likely hates that he didn’t stay skeptical when things didn’t seem right before. He says to Esau, “Your brother came deceitfully, and has taken away your blessing.”
At this Esau truly erupts (it seems likely that Rebekah overhears all of this – no way to know whether she’s pleased or frightened as she listens). He refers to Jacob’s name meaning ‘deceiver’ and complains that Jacob stole his birthright and now has stolen his blessing. It’s interesting how Esau portrays the birthright switch; the truth is that he bargained it away because he didn’t think it was worth anything. He lost the birthright because of his own shortsightedness, not because Jacob stole it. It fits better with this situation, however, to spin it as a theft instead of a foolish loss.
Isaac explains how he blessed Jacob. He says he made him master over Esau and all the family and prayed for God’s abundance to come to him. There is truly nothing left for Esau. “Now as for you then, what can I do, my son?”
Esau pleads with Isaac to come up with a blessing for him. “Do you have only one blessing, my father?” Isn’t there something Isaac can do? Jacob deceived his way into the blessing while Esau did everything he was asked, doesn’t justice demand that there be something for Esau? How can it be fair that Jacob comes out of this with everything and Esau serves him forever? How can this have all gone so wrong so fast? How can a day that was supposed to be one of the best of his life turn so quickly into the worst? The unfairness and hopelessness of the situation cause Esau to weep loudly after he pleads with his father.
The author of Hebrews refers to this story to make a point about repentance (Heb 12:16-17). He says that Esau’s weeping is an example of an immoral man (apparently there are aspects to Esau’s character that aren’t recounted in Genesis) regretting his sin but not repenting of it. Esau earlier thought so little of his birthright that he threw it away for a good meal. Now he loudly weeps for his loss and wants it back. However, what he mourns is the loss of blessing, not his actions that brought it about. By selling his birthright he treated with disdain his place in the line of Abraham. He showed very clearly that he didn’t care about his family’s place as God’s chosen people. And even now – when he suffers for that decision – he doesn’t change his attitude or turn from that choice and seek God. He simply regrets the effects of his choice.
There is a difference between true repentance and worldly sorrow. When we hate the effects of sin but don’t necessarily hate the sin itself, that’s worldly sorrow. It’s natural to regret our sinful choices when we suffer as a result. But if the regret stems solely from what the sin does to us rather than what it does to God, then we’ve missed what repentance is. Repentance is understanding that regardless of how awful a sin makes us feel, or how terrible its ramifications are, the worst part of it is what it does to a holy God (a holy God who hates sin and hates what it does to His image in us). Thus repentance includes rejecting the sin and turning from it so as to no longer reject God. He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion (Prov 28:13). Regret and sorrow don’t equal repentance. Regret and sorrow and turning away for the sake of God equal repentance.
Isaac goes on to “bless” Esau, but his blessing sounds an awful lot like a semi-curse. He actually reverses what he said to Jacob in regard to abundance. He says that Esau will dwell away from the fertility of the earth and away from the dew of heaven, the same two things that Jacob will enjoy in full. He also reiterates that Esau will serve Jacob. The only bright spot in the whole speech is that Esau will eventually break Jacob’s yoke from his neck (this likely refers to the nation of Edom – Esau’s descendants – becoming independent of Israel in the distant future).
So everything God said about the brothers when they were in the womb has now come to pass. The younger will rule over the older. God chose Jacob and rejected Esau and this is the result. And the fact that it happened as a result of blatant sin doesn’t change the outcome. God accomplishes His plans through sinful men. God’s sovereignty is never limited or foiled.
Esau hears the blessing for what it is – a horrible substitute for the real thing. As a result he vows to himself that he will kill Jacob. He won’t do it right away. He will wait for his father’s death (if he knew how long in the future that will be he might not be so patient) and then seek his revenge. Jacob won’t get away with this treachery.
Esau apparently doesn’t keep his feelings to himself as his words get back to Rebekah. It’s interesting to consider what Rebekah and Jacob thought Esau’s reaction would be. Was it all that hard to anticipate that Esau would be REALLY upset? And that someone like Esau – who has shown that he’s not exactly even-keeled – might take fairly rash action as a result? Nowhere in Rebekah’s conversation with Jacob did they discuss what Esau’s reaction to their scheme would be. Now, however, that lack of planning comes back to haunt them.
Rebekah calls for Jacob and tells him Esau wants to kill him. As a result, Jacob needs to leave Canaan and travel back to her brother Laban’s house – her homeland – and stay there. She tells Jacob to stay with Laban a few days (Jacob will stay more than 20 years), until Esau’s rage subsides.
Rebekah ends her words to Jacob by making an interesting statement. She says if Jacob doesn’t leave, she will be bereaved of you both in one day. She apparently assumes that if Jacob stays, Esau will kill him and then be executed for the murder.
What will Rebekah’s and Esau’s relationship be like from here on? Esau obviously knows Rebekah favors Jacob and so likely assumes she was in on the ruse. Consequently, he may not feel overly positive toward her (although since he’s lived his whole life with his parents divided over their favorites perhaps his relationship with her hasn’t been great for some time). However, he certainly won’t raise a hand against his mother so they likely just coexist for the rest of her life.
To facilitate Jacob’s leaving, Rebekah goes to Isaac and urges him to send Jacob back to her homeland to find a wife. The vehicle she uses to convince Isaac is their shared dislike of Esau’s Hittite wives (who perhaps live with them). She doesn’t mince words. She says she’d rather die than have Jacob marry women like Esau married. It could be that she exaggerates here so that Isaac sees the urgency of sending Jacob away, but since the text already said that Esau’s wives brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah (26:34-35), she likely tells the truth and gives us even more insight into just how dysfunctional Isaac’s family is. Sounds like a really fun house to live in, eh? [Isaac loves Esau. Rebekah loves Jacob. Jacob and Esau hate each other. Everybody hates Esau’s wives.]
As a result of Rebekah’s pleading, Isaac calls Jacob and tells him he must not take a wife from Canaan but needs to travel to Paddan-aram and take a wife there. He then repeats some of the earlier blessing and pronounces it over him. It’s interesting that Isaac doesn’t display any negative feelings toward Jacob at all. Perhaps he’s resigned to what happened and attributes it to God’s hand? He also doesn’t seem to be harsh toward Rebekah, although the effect of these events on their relationship is impossible to gauge (and he probably assumes she was part of it because of how the food Jacob brought to him was prepared).
So Jacob leaves. And Rebekah – albeit unknowingly at this point – pays a dear price for her scheming. She will not see her son for more than twenty years and perhaps won’t see him again at all (the Bible doesn’t record her death so we have no way of knowing if she’s alive when Jacob returns). She gets the blessing for Jacob, but she pays a huge price personally.
The last event in this story is somewhat pathetic. Esau hears about Jacob leaving and why he left. He knows that Isaac and Rebekah sent him away specifically so he wouldn’t marry as Esau did. He realizes – apparently for the first time – that his father doesn’t like his wives (he’s apparently not bothered by Rebekah’s rejection, just Isaac’s – and even though it seems that Isaac hasn’t liked his wives all along, Esau just now realizes it). So Esau (remember his age) decides to remedy the situation and put himself back into his father’s good graces. He goes to the Ishmaelites – his relatives – and finds a wife there. The irony of his choice is that he takes a wife from the descendants of the rejected son of Abraham. One rejected son marries into the family of another. Esau once again comes up short.