In all likelihood the last two verses of chapter 26 belong with our chapter 27, not with the previous chapter. The narrative picks up there with the distinction being made between Isaac’s twin sons. The interlude of peace and prosperity described in chapter 26, Isaac and Rebekah’s years together before the twins were born, is now forgotten. The importance of this information regarding Esau’s two Hittite wives is that it indicates to the reader that Esau’s lack of concern for covenant faithfulness was a fixed feature of his character and so was well-known to Isaac before he undertook to give Esau the blessing. In other words, Isaac knew better than to do what he was about to do.
v.1 The narrator studiously avoids calling Esau the first-born, since he had already sold his birthright. [Sarna, 190]
v.2 Isaac was in failing health, but he was hardly on his deathbed. He would live for many more years.
v.4 The blessing, along with the birthright, which Esau had already given away, according to the custom of that time made that son the primary carrier of the family’s heritage: economic, social, and religious. He would define the family’s understanding of itself. [Waltke, 377] By his father’s blessing Esau would have become the head of the covenant family. The formal ceremony of granting this blessing would have included a meal.
v.6 The narrator highlights the family rivalry by referring to Esau as Isaac’s son and to Jacob as Rebekah’s son.
v.12 Jacob’s concern was not with the morality of the plan but with its likelihood of success.
v.13 Rebekah’s spiritual values, in this case, may have been sound, but her method was deplorable. [Waltke, 377]
v.23 Here “blessing” is used in a more colloquial sense. Here it means simply “welcome.”
v.28 Dew is very important in Palestine, because in the dry months of the year – more than half the year – it is the dew that waters the plants. So, you have frequent references to dew in the Bible.
v.29 The irony is that Isaac, a sensual man, who was being led away from the Lord by his palate, was deceived by his senses. He felt Jacob and thought him Esau, he tasted the game, and he smelled the outdoors on Jacob and granted him the blessing. He should have paid more attention to what he heard!
v.36 Esau knew that the blessing already given was irrevocable, but hoped that the father could give him the blessing he would have reserved for his other son. [Sarna, 194]
v.37 This was the sacred custom of the time: that the blessing of the patriarch was inviolable. So God used that custom to accomplish his will to make Jacob, the younger son, the covenant heir of the family. More than that, it may be that Isaac finally realized he had been fighting against God and accepted defeat.
v.40 Throughout the OT Edom was a warlike nation, usually hostile to Israel, sometimes taking revenge when Israel was weak (e.g. Ps. 137:7). Take note. Isaac had planned to give everything to Esau, so now he had nothing left to give him but an “anti-blessing.” [Wenham, II, 211, Waltke, 381]
Now there can be no doubt, it is a point the Bible often makes, that God can use sin sinlessly to accomplish his purposes. The supreme example of that, of course, is the judicial murder of Jesus Christ which became the salvation of the world. But we see God bringing his purposes to pass through human sin many times in the Bible. Here the one God had chosen was granted the blessing of the covenant – the instrument by which he, rather than his older brother, became the head of the covenant family, the one responsible for handing the covenant on to the next generation – through the devious machinations of a mother and her son. That they stole it was sin and that they felt it necessary to steal the blessing was the result of the sin of Isaac. There is sin everywhere you look in chapter 27.
And here lies the powerful lesson of this discouraging account of believers behaving badly. The lesson is obvious: God will save his people and will save the world [remember, it is through these people whose behavior we are given to see here in chapter 27] in spite of them not because of them, in defiance of their ill-desert, not because of their moral worth, their merit, or their character. Gordon Wenham, in his excellent commentary on Genesis summarizes the lesson of the chapter this way:
“By setting this new step forward in the history of salvation in the context of such unprincipled behavior by every member of the family, each self-centeredly seeking his or her own interest, the narrator is not simply pointing out the fallibility of God’s chosen…but reasserting the grace of God. It is his mercy that is the ultimate ground of salvation.” [II, 216]
What I want you to understand, to appreciate, and even to feel as we consider this chapter is the emphasis placed on this point. The scholars of biblical narrative technique of the biblical writers’ narrative art, refer to what they call the pace of the narrative. Often it speeds along, covering many years in just a few verses or an important event with a few deft touches of the writer’s pen. But other times the pace slows and a single event is reported in much greater detail. This is a comparatively long chapter and it describes the events of some hours, not some days or weeks. In fact the pace of the narrative has slowed to a crawl. The narrator wants you to pause and to consider the story he is telling and to think about each and every thrust and parry of the conflict between the members of Isaac’s family. We might have thought that we would get similar psychological detail in the account of Abraham being told to sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah, but there is nothing in chapter 22 of the detail we get here in chapter 27. A point is being made. A lesson is being taught. We are going to experience a similar slowing of the pace in chapter 38, where we are treated to a lengthy account of the moral disintegration of Judah and his house.
Because the lesson of this history is so fundamental to a biblical worldview and because its demonstration is so thorough-going in the chapter, and because it is a lesson you and I have a very hard time taking to heart and practicing in our lives, I want to be sure you feel it with the full force of the narrative as the narrator intends for you to do. This is truth we must live with and live by every day of our lives. We should be as sharp-sighted about this as about anything! Let’s take the four characters in turn.
- We begin with Esau, as the chapter does, supposing it to begin at 26:33.
In fact, marrying outside the faith, adding unfaithful women to the covenant lineage is what scholars call “the frame” for this section of the Genesis narrative. That this is an important fact, and an indictment of Esau’s lack of faith, is indicated by the fact that a reference to Esau’s pagan wives both begins and concludes this episode. In 27:46, the last verse of our chapter, we hear of the misery that these two Hittite women caused Rebekah. These Canaanite women were the living proof that Jacob had leave Canaan to find a wife; that he had to go east, as Abraham had for Isaac, to find a wife from his own clan. The family couldn’t stand any more women like these!
We have already learned that Esau was a sensual man, a shortsighted man, a man of and for the world, a man so foolish and so spiritually clueless that he was willing to sell the family birthright for a bowl of stew! And here Esau was effectively a co-conspirator in his father’s plot to give the blessing to him. In that he was almost certainly guilty of having broken the oath he made to his brother of which we read in 25:33. He had sworn to surrender his birthright, but here he was, in effect, trying to get it back and to do so by nefarious means. But, since we have no higher expectations for Esau, he is the least significant of the players in this sordid drama.
- Isaac, on the other hand, is clearly the one most at fault. All are at fault, but Isaac chief among them.
We might not appreciate this at first reading; after all, he was the one who was deceived. We might suppose that he was the victim, not the perpetrator of the crime. But any early reader of the chapter would see immediately that Isaac’s behavior was greater rebellion against God than Rebekah’s. Isaac was the head of this covenant household. He was responsible for its loyalty to God, for its spiritual life. He was responsible for the fortunes of the covenant in the next generation, the generation of his sons. And throughout the episode he is revealed as a man who is at war both with the will of God and with his own conscience.
We spoke last time of Isaac’s failure to govern his family and to instruct and nurture the faith of his sons. Esau married two Canaanite women but, so we learn in 28:8, he didn’t realize that his wives were displeasing to his father until much later. Isaac was no Abraham, taking pains to teach his sons to marry a woman worthy to be the matriarch of the covenant family. Like many parents, he left critical decisions to be made by his children themselves whom he had not taught to be wiser. Isaac’s passivity was similar to that of Eli and David later, who lost their families through their own spiritual neglect.
But Isaac still had a soft spot for his eldest son. He knew, of course, that God had already said that the older would serve the younger. The parents had been told that before the twins were born. He knew that Jacob, not Esau, was God’s choice. But, as we read in v. 5, it was clear to all that Esau was Isaac’s favorite son. Esau was a man’s man and Isaac loved to eat the game he brought home.
And so, suddenly we read of Isaac’s plan to secure the blessing for Esau. The plan smelled to high heaven. First, Isaac was not on his deathbed; not in any obvious way. As a matter of fact, we will learn later that Isaac lived on for many years. Good grief, he was still alive when Jacob returned from Paddan Aram some twenty years later (35:28-29).
More important still, in any proper ceremony of patriarchal blessing in that culture both sons would have been summoned and each given an appropriate blessing. Further, the ceremony itself would have been public, with the entire family gathered. Why the secrecy here? The whole family was present when Jacob blessed his sons (49:1), Israel was present when Moses blessed them tribe by tribe (Deut. 33). But here everything is a secret. Isaac planned to bless Esau without anyone knowing what he was doing.
The fact is Isaac knew very well that what he was doing was controversial, was a violation of custom, and was not what he was expected to do. He knew that Esau had violated the covenant by marrying ungodly wives; he knew his oldest son had no taste for the things of God for Isaac was a sufficiently faithful man to be dismayed by Esau’s wives. More important, he knew that God had chosen Jacob to be the covenant heir and no doubt he knew that Esau had already surrendered his birthright to his younger brother. I think we can safely assume that Isaac knew only too well how much more interested in the covenant Jacob was than Esau.
But, Esau was his favorite. And he liked to eat the game that Esau hunted. Did you notice how often the words “game” and “food” occur in this chapter? The word of game occurs 7 times and the word for tasty food six times. As Professor Waltke tartly puts it: Isaac put his appetite before theology! The only reasons provided in the narrative for Isaac doing what he did were that Isaac loved to eat the game Esau hunted and that Esau was his favorite son. This is the emphasis that the narrator puts on Isaac’s motivations and it places Isaac in a most unfavorable light. Isaac knew that what he was doing was wrong; his secrecy condemns him! But he still intended, as we read in v. 7, to secure the Lord’s blessing for Esau! He knew he was bringing the Lord into his devious plan!
And all of this, of course, presumes a terrible development in Isaac’s marriage. This marriage was made in heaven; it was once full of the strongest and happiest feeling; but it was now, as we would say today, deeply dysfunctional. Isaac and Rebekah did not live happily ever after. They weren’t sharing, they weren’t even talking together about the most important things in their lives.
We have in this chapter the portrait of a thoroughly disagreeable man: a man of his senses not of faith. And, ironically, it will be his senses that let him down, as is the case with vast multitudes of people in the world. To live by sight is a curse if you cannot see what matters most for time and eternity. Here is Isaac following the promptings of his palate and seeking inspiration from his nose! [Kidner, 156] Christians are people of the ear – we listen to the voice of the Lord – when we become people of the eye we are sure to betray our faith. Among the four figures in this episode, Isaac is clearly the one who fails most profoundly and betrays most egregiously the covenant God had made with him.
- And then there is Rebekah.
She overheard her husband hatching his plot and promptly made her own plans to seize the blessing for her favorite son. Now she was right that Jacob was supposed to receive the blessing. Both parents knew that. And Rebekah acted on that conviction, no doubt. She was even willing to accept full responsibility for the deceit that Jacob was to practice on his father, as we read in v. 12.
But we can hardly excuse her behavior, despicable as it was. Deceiving a blind man was a deplorable thing to do. She doesn’t even seem to be troubled by what she was doing. She certainly demonstrated no faith in God. She seems to have assumed that God couldn’t have secured Jacob’s place by some other more honorable means. She knew she could reproduce Esau’s gastronomic masterpiece and set about to do so. [Kidner, 156] She was smarter than her husband and played him for the fool he was. So much for love in their marriage. Did you notice that when speaking to Jacob she referred to Isaac as “your father” not as “my husband?” She wasn’t going to let her husband stand in the way of what she wanted for her son.
And lest we think that the narrator doesn’t share such a negative assessment of Rebekah’s character, be aware that Rebekah was “gapped” as well as Isaac. Remember, Isaac was “gapped,” his life story was not told – the story that would have been the toledot (the family history) of Abraham – because he did not deserve to have his story told, believing man that he nevertheless was.
But so was Rebekah. We haven’t seen this yet, but in 35:8 we will read of the death and burial of Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, a minor character of whom we otherwise know nothing. She does not figure in the Genesis story in any way. But we are never told of Rebekah’s death and burial. We hear about Deborah precisely to draw our attention to the fact that we hear nothing of the matriarch herself. When did Rebekah die? How was she buried? She was gapped; left out deliberately. We only learn at the very end of the book and by the by that Rebekah had been buried with Isaac in the same tomb in which Abraham and Sarah had been buried. We are being told in this subtle but no less powerful way what the narrator thought of Rebekah as an exemplar of covenant faithfulness!
- And finally there is Jacob, who is to be the main character in this entire section of Genesis and in this era of the history of salvation.
Remember, Jacob’s other name is Israel. He is the most immediate progenitor of the people who will be the center of the Bible’s story for most of the rest of the Bible. It was Jacob who would carry forward the covenant of God with Abraham and his seed. Jacob entered this story when his mother told him her plan to steal the blessing from Esau. He objected, but his objection was not a moral or spiritual one. He didn’t ask whether it would be right to do what his mother proposed. He didn’t protest that it was unworthy of him to deceive his father and his brother in this way. He only expressed a concern not to get caught! “But my brother is a hairy man and I am a smooth man.” What is more, if the plan didn’t work, he was afraid of what his father would do to him. Nothing here suggests any concern for the honor of God, of the family, of his own reputation. And once convinced, he does his part with gusto!
But that isn’t the worst of it. That comes in v. 20 when, needing to convince his father that he could have killed and prepared the game in so short a time, Jacob said, “The Lord your God granted me success…” Talk about taking the Lord’s name in vain! He used God’s name to cover up his lie, to bluff his way through act of pure betrayal. He should have been struck dead on the spot!
So much for the covenant family and the people that God had favored with the knowledge of himself, with his grace and forgiveness, and with the promise of great blessing here and greater still in the world to come. We find each of them here having descended into a bitter, selfish, cruel battle to end up on top. In this long chapter, the narrative pace having slowed to a crawl, we do not find a single admirable character, a single admirable attitude, a single admirable act. It is sordid from start to finish. And the narrator lards on the details until we can’t help but feel the slime! And these are the people, at least three of them, whom God will not only bless, but use to save the world!
And what does that prove but this:
“That when we are unfaithful, God remains faithful.” And
“I will build my church,” Jesus said, “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
He has to do it for we would not and cannot! We are foolish, sinful, selfish people. We all are, both in the ways that are displayed here and in many others. Some of us have strong personalities, like Rebekah and Esau, and some weaker, like Isaac and Jacob. Some do the plotting and others simply go along. Some sin by omission and some by commission. But the fact is, we are all doing all the time things we know full well we ought not to do, saying what we ought not to say, and thinking things we ought not to think. We know better but we do it anyway!
Worse still, we often don’t behave as well as unbelievers around us! Esau probably comes out the best of the four of them in this dismal chapter. Esau, of all people! The narrator reports his convulsive sobs in v. 34 and, by so doing, intends for us to sympathize with the man. The narrator does not hide the fact that he was the victim of a cruel ruse. We know Christians who have betrayed their marriage and we know unbelievers who have been faithful to theirs. We know lazy Christians and hard-working unbelievers. We know Christians who cannot be counted on to tell the truth and unbelievers who are scrupulously honest. We know Christian cowards and unbelieving heroes. And I could go on and you know I could go on.
Here is the proof that Christians do not get favors from God because they are better than non-Christians or because they deserve them. They get the favor of God because of his grace and mercy to them in defiance of the fact that they do not deserve it. And lest we forget that fact, which is, after all, the foundation of our entire understanding of life and salvation, we have passages like this one that hold our noses in it until we can hardly stand it.
There is great comfort here. For the Christian ashamed of himself or herself we learn that God can and does love even deeply sinful people like us. There is cause for humility here, of course, and for sympathy with other sinners like ourselves. We are the very last people in the world who should ever utter “Tsk, tsk.”
This is not the world’s doctrine. It is utterly, profoundly, uniquely Christian because it is the Bible’s doctrine alone. No other religion or philosophy of life is so relentlessly honest about our moral ill-desert. No one deserves anything but punishment from God. That anyone is saved is sheer mercy. Mercy that God bestows and then refuses to take away when we spit in his face times without number.
To know that, really to believe that, to have that truth deep in the heart – stern and deflating as it may be – is the secret of life, of happiness, and of goodness. This is the truth that sets men free!