Saturday of Week 13 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 27:1-5, 15-29

We jump a couple of chapters in our story today. There is relatively little about Isaac in the Genesis story; he is seen mainly in relationship to his father Abraham and his two sons, Esau and Jacob. Today’s passage begins with Isaac already in his old age and blind. As we will see, he is blind in more ways than one. Before he dies he wants to give his final, solemn blessing to his heir – and whoever gets that blessing will be the heir.

He calls his elder son, Esau, into his presence. Isaac tells his son that he is now old and does not know when he is going to die. He gives instructions to Esau to get his hunting gear together and bring back some game. Then he is to take it and prepare the kind of savoury dish which Esau knows his father likes. Then Isaac will give Esau, his son and heir, a blessing before he dies. The language suggests a special blessing which was legally binding and, as a solemn deathbed blessing, especially efficacious.

Rebekah, the mother, happens to overhear this conversation. She is not happy because she wants the blessing to go to Jacob, her favourite son. She makes a plan to deceive her husband and reveals it to Jacob. It is not included in our reading, but Jacob had a serious problem with his mother’s plan. He was a smooth-skinned man but Esau was very hairy. If Isaac touched Jacob he would immediately know that it was not Esau he was blessing. Rebekah says she will take care of that problem.

After Esau had gone out into the countryside to hunt some game, Rebekah dressed Jacob in Esau’s best clothes, which were in the house. She also covered Jacob’s arms and the smooth back of his neck with the “fur of the kids” which had been killed to make the savoury dish. She then gave the savoury dish which she had prepared, and some bread for Jacob to bring in to his father. In the presence of his father, Jacob announces, “I am here.” “Who are you, my son?” asks Isaac. Isaac replies that he is Esau, his father’s first-born. Dressed in Esau’s best clothes, Jacob tells his father to get up and enjoy the dish he has prepared and then to give his son his final blessing.

When Isaac expresses surprise that the hunting has taken such a short time, Jacob smoothly replies that it was God who put the animals in his path. To bring God into the lie might seem blasphemous to us, but the mentality of the time would see no wrong in it, as every event was ascribed to God, ignoring ‘secondary (i.e. human) causes’.

Perhaps still a little sceptical, Isaac asks his son to come near so that he can feel him and make sure whether it is Esau or not. After touching him, Isaac comments that the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the arms are the arms of Esau. And then Isaac gives his blessing to Jacob, a blessing that was intended for Esau. Even then, the father still seems to have his doubts. He asks once more: “Are you really my son Esau?”, to which Jacob brazenly answers, “I am”.

Isaac then asks for the dish to be brought and give his blessing. The favourite dish is brought as well as some wine/ The dish had been prepared by Rebekah who would know exactly the tastes of her husband. The father then asks his son to come closer and to give him a kiss. As Jacob does so, the father recognises the smell of the clothes, the clothes of Esau, and he deception is complete. We might note that in his attempt to obtain the covenant blessing, Jacob, the father of Israel, betrays with a kiss. Later, it will be Jesus, the great Son of Israel, who will ultimately obtain the blessing for the new Israel, who will be betrayed with a kiss (Matt 26:48-49; Luke 22:48).

There then follows the beautiful blessing of Isaac given to Jacob but intended for Esau. In saying “Be lord over your brothers” Isaac unwittingly blesses Jacob and his descendants, thus fulfilling God’s promise made earlier to Rebekah. In chapter 25, Rebekah becomes pregnant with twins who jostle with each other within her womb. When she asks the Lord what is happening, he tells her:

Two nations are in your womb, and two people from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger. (Gen 25:21-23)

This is not an altogether edifying story. One evaluation from the New American Bible goes like this:

“What Jacob did in deceiving his father and thereby cheating Esau out of Isaac’s deathbed blessing is condemned as blameworthy, not only by Hosea (12:4) and Jeremiah (9:3*) but also, indirectly, by the Yahwist narrator of the present story, who makes the reader sympathise with Esau as the innocent victim of a cruel plot, and shows that Jacob and his mother, the instigator of the plot, paid for it by a lifelong separation from each other. The story was told because it was part of the mystery of God’s ways in salvation history – his use of weak, sinful people to achieve his own ultimate purpose.

*‘Put no trust in any brother. Every brother imitates Jacob, the supplanter…’

And the Jerusalem Bible comments:

“The morality is immature but the lie reported here mysteriously serves God’s purpose; the free divine choice preferred Jacob to Esau.”

We need to remember, too, in an earlier scene not read during the liturgy at this time, that Esau, simply because he was very hungry, had exchanged his birthright with his brother Jacob in exchange for a bowl of red soup. The author of Genesis makes the laconic comment: “That was all Esau cared for his birthright.” He is seen therefore as having forfeited his birthright in a very trivial and irresponsible way (see Gen 25:29-34). Jacob, then, was technically entitled to what his brother had yielded to him, and he did that in the way we have seen.

Even so, we probably still cannot give our full approval for his behaving in this way, but it is an example where a less than good action produces, in the long-term, desirable results. We can all probably think of similar examples from our own lives. We may have felt unjustly deprived of something which we thought was due to us, but as a result something far better came into our lives. As people like to say, “God can write straight with crooked lines.”

Jacob and his mother definitely deceived Isaac and were dishonest with him, but subsequent events clearly proved that Jacob was going to be a much better patriarch than Esau. We have no right to act unjustly or falsely, yet we do need to realise that good things can come from the immoral or mistaken actions or decisions of others.

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