Genesis 27: Jacob Steals Esau's Blessing

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Some time after Jacob steals Esau’s birthright, there is mention of Esau’s marriage to foreign women. The Bible says, that his marriages were “a source of grief” to Isaac and Rebekah. The King James Version says they had “a bitterness of spirit.” We can only recall the lengths to which Abraham went to insure a proper wife for Isaac. He makes his servant promise that he will make sure Isaac does not marry a Canaanite. It comes as a big surprise, then, to hear that Esau has married two of them. And we wonder why Isaac hasn’t been more proactive in procuring a wife for his sons, much like his father had done for him. But Esau’s marriages certainly bring this question into the foreground: of how will the line of descendants be carried out?

One day, Rebekah overhears Isaac calling for Esau. Isaac tells him that he fears he might die soon, and before he does, he wants to give him the blessing. Given what we have just read about how upset both Rebekah and Isaac are over his marriages, it is hard to understand Isaac’s motivation or his urgency in giving him the blessing. Even more troubling is the fact that he only calls one of his sons. If he really thinks he is dying, he should have called both of them in for a deathbed blessing.

Isaac would be over a hundred years old at that point. It says that his eyesight is failing. Maybe it is, but his appetite certainly seems intact. He asks Esau to prepare some tasty food, just the way he likes it. They will have a meal together, and then Isaac will bless him. Esau shows no surprise and immediately goes out to do his father’s bidding.

However, Rebekah overhears their little secret. Surely she remembers the promise God had given to her forty years earlier. She knows that God’s blessing is destined for Jacob. Maybe she feels that she has to do something to prevent it from going to the wrong son. We’ll never know why she doesn’t go to Isaac directly and tell him of the oracle given to her, or at least remind him of it if she has previously shared it with him. Maybe they just aren’t that close. We do know that they each have favored one of the twins all these years. Perhaps they are more estranged than we would like to think.

As soon as Esau leaves, Rebekah calls Jacob to her and repeats Isaac’s words. She tells him what “his father and his brother” plan to do. This is further evidence of estrangement. There is, however, one notable addition to her words. She says that Isaac will give the blessing to Esau in the presence of God. No doubt this is added to impress upon Jacob the importance of what they are about to do. It also raises the question, however, that if the Lord has determined that Jacob shall receive the blessing, will He allow it to go to the wrong recipient? Rebekah isn’t about to take any chances. She has a plan that she shares with Jacob. Her plan is for Jacob to bring in two choice young goats. She will make the meal; Jacob will take it in to his father and receive the blessing instead of Esau. It appears to be a now or never situation.

We might expect Jacob to balk at this. After all, he is the chosen one, and we’d like to think that the one God chooses is, indeed, worthy of his/her calling. And in fact, Jacob is worried. But, the reason for his worry is that his father might discover the deception. After all, he and Esau are built quite differently. Esau is hairy; Jacob is smooth (in more ways than one). If Isaac figures out that the wrong son is before him, he will curse, not bless. In a world where blessings have real meaning, so does cursing. Jacob is not anxious to do this. The deception involves more risk than he is willing to assume.

Then Rebekah makes a remarkable statement. “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.” Jacob is persuaded and obeys his mother’s wishes. In the meantime, back at the tents, Rebekah finds clothes for Jacob to wear. She also covers his hands and the smooth part of his neck with goatskin.

Then she gives Jacob the tasty dish she has prepared, and he goes in to his father. He says, “I am Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you told me.” Isaac is surprised that he completed the task so quickly, but Jacob assures him that the speed of his success is attributable to God. Isaac, however, is still not convinced, so he asks to touch him “to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.” He is suspicious because the voice sounds more like Jacob than Esau. After touching him, he asks again, “Are you really my son Esau?” Jacob says, “I am” whereupon Isaac eats the tasty dish and blesses him.

He says, “May the Lord give you of the dew of the heavens, of the fatness of the earth, and of an abundance of grain and wine. Peoples shall serve you and nations shall bow down to you; you shall be a master over your brothers, and your mother's sons shall bow down to you. Those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed!” According to this, Jacob will be prosperous and powerful. The ancients believed such prophetic blessings had the power to establish reality. Therefore, once the words have been spoken, they cannot be disavowed.

As it is, Jacob has barely left the tent when Esau returns from hunting. The trip has been successful, and he has prepared the game just the way his father likes it. When Isaac is presented with a second request for the blessing, he cries out, “Who are you?” Esau replies, “I am your son, your firstborn, Esau.” Only then, does Isaac realize that he has been duped, and he knows precisely who the culprit is. It says that he “trembled violently.” The words are often used to represent great fear and alarm. One might have expected some anger, but there is no indication that Isaac is angry. Perhaps his fear is based on the sudden realization that God has accomplished His plan in spite of Isaac’s intentions.

Esau screams in protest, but Isaac does not relent, reiterating, “Indeed, he will be blessed.” Esau plaintively begs for a blessing too, but Isaac says, “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?” It raises many unanswered questions about the nature of the blessing, not the least of which is if this had been a normal deathbed blessing, there would have been one for each of them. But Isaac and Esau have schemed together to by-pass Jacob. Now Esau, instead of getting it all, is left with nothing.

Eventually, Isaac does “bless” him, but it is certainly different from Jacob’s. He says that Esau will live off the land, but under his brother, until he will “throw his yoke from off your neck. Needless to say, Esau is furious with Jacob and plots his revenge. He decides to wait until the period of mourning for his father has ended, obviously believing that his father really is on his deathbed. Little does he know that his father will live for 50-60 more years.

In the meantime, however, someone informs Rebekah of Esau’s plans. She is fearful for Jacob’s life and calls him to her, telling him to flee to her brother’s house in Paddam Aram. She says he will have to go only “for a while,” until Esau’s fury subsides. She expresses the hope that time will heal all wounds, and that it won’t be long before he can return. Unfortunately, she will never see him again.

There is no doubt that scholars have a hard time with this whole incident. How does one think about God’s promises being transmitted through devious means? At least when Jacob trades Esau’s birthright for a pot of hot soup, Esau is involved. He has the final say; he agrees to the deal. He knows what the terms are and makes his decision accordingly.

Here, however, it is another matter. Even though one is troubled by the fact that Isaac does not seem to be planning a blessing for Jacob, no one can say for sure that he wouldn’t have done something later. Up to this point, he is only talking to Esau. Subsequent events, however, leave Esau totally in the dark; he seems to have been truly victimized. So is Isaac, for that matter, although we find it hard to believe that even blindness could be given as a reason for not identifying the difference between real skin and goat hair. He does express some doubts by asking Jacob several times, “Are you really Esau?” But each time Jacob assures him, lying outright, saying, “I am.” This is surely not a high watermark for patriarchal integrity.

Interestingly, however, it is Rebekah who is treated most harshly by scholars. Initially, the whole deception is her idea; she convinces Jacob to deceive his father. She puts him up to it. It is one thing to have a favorite child; it is something else to use her love for that child to usurp what belongs to another – especially if the other is another son and the rightful heir. She denies Esau what rightfully belongs to him. Scholars have called her a trickster, a deceiver.

However, it seems that most scholars overlook one important factor—namely, God has told her that Jacob will be the chosen one. Why is it that Rebekah is condemned for her role in fulfilling God’s demands, when Abraham is revered for his obedience when he put his own son’s life on the line? Is it worse to be willing to deceive one’s husband than to kill one’s son? Neither of these are good options, of course, but if Abraham’s adventure with Isaac is thought to be his greatest test, then why isn’t Rebekah’s response to Isaac’s intent to bless the wrong son seen as her greatest test? In fact, some modern scholars are just beginning to make this connection.

If her main concern is the fulfillment of God’s plan, then this is the way she chooses to safeguard the blessing and maintain the link between Abraham and Jacob. In her own way, she is working hand-in-hand with the patriarchs who respond to God’s commands. Because of Rebekah, Jacob’s status is secure.