Genesis 25: Jacob’s Birth and Stolen Birthright

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Almost twenty years pass between the close of Chapter 24 and the beginning of Chapter 25. They are silent years, but after twenty years of married life, Isaac and Rebekah have no children. So Isaac prays to the Lord on her behalf because Rebekah is barren. This is one of the few actions that is truly Isaac’s. Overshadowed by his father, by his wife, and by his children, Isaac is rarely shown as a man of action. But here, he intercedes for his wife who is barren, much like her predecessor, Sarah. You will recall that as Rebekah left her family, one of their blessings was that she would be “a mother unto thousands and millions.” Those words must have echoed in her ears as twenty years slip by without a child. Perhaps the servant and Isaac have wondered about this too. The servant is certain that Rebekah is the one God chooses for Isaac. She passes the test at the well; her family allows her to leave; and when the time comes, she is eager to go. Surely divine providence has brought her to Isaac. But after all that, how is it that she is unable to bear children? Why would God choose a wife for Isaac who cannot bear descendants?

Unlike Sarah, however, Rebekah is not past her childbearing years. And neither she nor Isaac suggests using one of her handmaidens. In fact the problem is mentioned here, only in one line. It simply says that Isaac prays, and the Lord heeds his prayer and Rebekah conceives. Since there is no suggestion that any time has passed, one might get the impression that Isaac’s prayer is very effective. This also indicates God’s intervention in providing the promised descendants. If God can provide the right wife, He can certainly resolve any problems with barrenness.

But if Isaac’s concern is that Rebekah can’t conceive, Rebekah’s concern is that she does conceive. It is a very difficult pregnancy. The Bible says that the “children struggled.” The narrator has tipped us off by saying “children.” We know there is more than one child in her womb. The word for “struggled,” however, is usually translated as “smashed.” It would be like saying that the children “smashed themselves inside her.” Or “they crushed one another inside her.” These are no gentle quickening movements; instead there is a sense of violence about them. Already, even in the womb, they are at battle. Perhaps she is concerned she might lose the pregnancy, or maybe her real concern is that she has to bear this pregnancy. So Rebekah inquires of the Lord: “If it is like this, why do I exist?” Life is so unbearable that she asks if it is worth living. She’s not sure whether she can go on under these circumstances. The phrase “inquires of the Lord” is used in seeking divine guidance in matters of great anguish.

It is not clear how she receives her response from God. There does not seem to be any divine vision or appearance of an intermediary. We can assume that Rebekah is praying too, and that God answers her prayer. God’s response is forthcoming and tells her four things. There are two sons in her womb; they will be the fathers of nations; the nations will not be evenly matched; one will be stronger than the other; and the elder will be a slave of the younger. Each bit of information clarifies and intensifies that which has been stated previously. Whether or not this satisfies Rebekah is unknown, but she keeps these words in her heart and apparently does not share them with Isaac.

This is important information to remember for the years to come, because it will explain a great deal about her relationship with her sons. Like so many other times, God has set aside the cultural order of first-sons. The younger will be chosen over the elder, much like Isaac himself was chosen over Ishmael. Before they are even born, then, Rebekah knows that the younger son has been chosen to carry the covenantal promises.

It is unclear whether the pregnancy is any easier after that, but the next verse declares that twins are born. The first part of the oracle of God’s response has been fulfilled; there are two sons in her womb. Esau is the first to be born; he is described as being red and hairy. Scholars aren’t sure whether the word “red” refers to his complexion or the color of his hair. The word is used later to describe David, so it is not a disparaging term, although redheads were thought to be somewhat sinister and dangerous. “Hairy” is a play on the word Seir, the place where Esau will live. Later on, the Edomites will occupy Seir. The second twin is Jacob, and he emerges clutching Esau’s heel. Hence, his name is derived from the word “heel.” The twins, obviously not identical twins, are named in accordance with the divine oracle. Esau is named after the way he looks; Jacob is named after his actions. Already he is grabbing at Esau’s heel.

The aside to the reader says that Isaac is sixty years old at the time of their birth, which confirms that twenty years have passed since he married Rebekah. No doubt their joy over the safe birth of their sons is unbounded.

As the children get older, their distinctive characteristics become even more pronounced. Esau is the great hunter, the outdoorsman; Jacob is quieter, preferring to live inside, in tents, maybe near his mom. The word used to describe him generally means “perfect,” though many would argue that his character is far from perfect. In today’s society he might have been the type of child that prefers reading to running around. Whether this explains his mother’s preference for him is unknown. No other reason is forthcoming, though she surely remembers the oracle. And Isaac prefers Esau, presumably because of their shared love for venison.

Esau, it seems, is quite successful in his hunting escapades. He is the outdoors type; he loves to hunt and travel around. In the absence of high-powered rifles with scopes, he will have to get close to his prey. Hunting is a risky business, but he loves it, loves moving around. Jacob, on the other hand, is a quiet man, more introverted, less flashy. His life will have been more orderly, less spontaneous, more settled.

The next scene, then, is fraught with irony. As it is, Esau comes back from a hunting expedition, famished to the point of exhaustion. At that precise moment, Jacob is in the tent busily making a stew. Esau begins drooling at the very thought of food and politely asks Jacob to give him a share of the red stew, which probably means meaty. It is exactly the kind of meal fancied by an experienced hunter. Jacob, however, in a most brusque fashion, proposes a trade – he will trade food for Esau’s birthright. It’s hard not to presume that he has been thinking about this for some time. Moreover, there is no “please” in his response to Esau, nothing to soften his ultimatum. Jacob knows what he wants and goes after it. Did Rebekah inform him of God’s oracle, or is he unwittingly acting out the role assigned to him? Interestingly, there are provisions for buying or selling one’s birthright among ancient laws. A birthright could have been bartered, but it would have been very unusual for the younger brother to initiate such a transaction.

Even more surprising, however, is Esau’s immediate acceptance of Jacob’s terms. It’s as though the narrator has gone to great lengths to portray him in less than a positive light. The explanation given is that this is an indication of how little he values the birthright. And a birthright is no small thing. It honors the firstborn son who is held in special regard. It gives the firstborn son double the inheritance of any other sons. This has already been demonstrated in Isaac’s life. After Ishmael was sent away, Isaac inherited everything, even though Abraham has other sons later on. But Esau apparently reasons that if he dies from starvation, the birthright will be of little use to him. This is hard for us to understand since he hardly seems at the point of death. Perhaps his careless indifference is intended to spurn the sacred institution of the firstborn.

But Jacob is not satisfied with a verbal agreement. He makes Esau swear an oath, perhaps knowing that after he has time to think things over or he recovers his strength, he will change his mind. Esau is only too happy to comply. The oath is sworn; and he eats the bread and lentil stew in silence. Afterwards, the Bible says, “He went his way and despised his birthright.” This is, no doubt, a serious offense in the eyes of the narrator. However, Jacob is never chastised for his deceitful methods in obtaining what he missed out at birth. But, this is only half the battle. Typically, a blessing goes along with the birthright, and Jacob has to figure out how to garner that as well.