The Complete Book of Genesis
Chapter 25 and Chapter 26
The middle of Chapter 25 announces: "This is the story of Isaac." Except it's not; the "story of Isaac" is actually the stories of Rebekah, Esau, and Jacob—of everyone but him. As a child, he vanished after Abraham didn't sacrifice him. Now, as an adult, he's still a cipher—the Harpo Marx of Genesis. During the long chapter about Abraham's effort to find a wife for Isaac, the groom himself doesn't say a word. He's a bit part in his own marriage—he shows up only in the last couple of verses of the chapter, to silently escort his bride Rebekah home. After Esau and Jacob are born, he again disappears as his sons take the limelight. Practically all we hear about Isaac is that he preferred Esau to Jacob, because Esau was a hunter and Isaac "had a taste for game."*
The Lord appears to Isaac only once—compare this with Abraham, who was chatting with God daily. And when He does appear to this minor-league patriarch, it's clear that Isaac doesn't really matter to him. God promises Isaac prosperity, but not on account of anything Isaac has done—only because his father Abraham had obeyed the Lord.
(Isaac doesn't even get to think up his own tricks. He and Rebekah pull exactly the same "she's my sister" ruse on King Abimelech that Abraham and Sarah pulled on both Abimelech and the Pharaoh.)
Jacob is so perplexing—a favorite of God's who appears to have no moral compass, no filial feeling, and the heart of a con artist. Earlier, Jacob wheedled the birthright out of his older twin Esau in exchange for a bowl of pottage. In this chapter, Rebekah and her favorite son, Jacob, con Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing that belongs to Esau. In the beginning of the story, Jacob is reluctant to help his mother scam the blind and dying Isaac, though not for ethical reasons—he just fears he will get caught and "bring a curse" upon himself. But Rebekah, the original Lady Macbeth, urges him on. She shushes him, and tells him, "Just do as I say." She cooks goat stew for Jacob to give Isaac, since Esau was supposed to bring meat to his father. She comes up with the idea of covering Jacob's hands and neck with goat skins, so he would be as hairy as Esau. Jacob warms to the fraud as it continues, eagerly playing the role of Esau. When Isaac asks him how he hunted down the animals for the stew so quickly, Jacob cavalierly invokes God with his lie: "Because the Lord your God granted me good fortune." Isaac, believing Jacob to be Esau, gives him his grand blessing—making him master over his brothers and promising him wealth and power. And when Esau returns, there are no backsies. In a heartbreaking moment, poor, innocent, stupid Esau weeps and begs, "Bless me, too, Father!" But Isaac can't undo his blessing to Jacob and can only give Esau a lame substitute benediction instead. Esau vows to kills Jacob after Isaac dies.
This story is enthralling and troubling for several reasons. First, I don't think I've ever read anything that's so grim on the relationship of brothers as this first half of Genesis. Cain and Abel, Ham, Shem, and Japheth, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, and soon Joseph and his brothers. The relationship of brothers is purely antagonistic: They battle for inheritance, for God's love, for their father's respect. They conspire against each other, narc on each other, murder each other. There's not a single act of love or kindness between brothers so far. Brothers are only enemies. Was nomadic life so difficult that only one son in any family could hope to prosper?
And if brothers are bad, women are worse. The blessing story is a reminder of just how uncharitable the Bible is toward women, who have so far been either invisible, foolish, or vindictive. Think about the women so far: Eve, suckered by the serpent. Noah's wife doesn't even get a name. Sarah is tricky (pretends to be Abraham's sister), capricious (sends Hagar to Abraham, then rages about it), and cruel (exiles Hagar and Ishmael). Lot's wife dies because she can't refrain from looking back. Lot's daughters rape him. And Rebekah hoodwinks her husband and punishes her older son. I suppose you could argue that Rebekah, with her icy Machiavellian cunning, is a woman to be proud of. She seizes power from her husband and dominates her sons. She controls every scene she's in. She's vivid, if not good.
Her fierce intelligence raises another point about the story. God doesn't suffer fools gladly. It's clear that Esau's chief failing is that he's dumb. He loses his birthright because he's impatient for lunch, and loses his blessing because he's not smart enough to recognize that Jacob might steal it. Jacob and Rebekah, for all their faults, are smart. Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob—the three great brains of Genesis so far—get what they want—and earn God's blessing—because they finagle, cajole, argue, deceive, play mind games, and even use God to advance their lies. And the Lord seems to love it.
This may explain Genesis' ambivalent attitude toward Isaac. He may be sick and blind, but he's still feckless. Isaac is at the heart of two of the Bible's most vivid stories. As a child he is almost sacrificed, and as a dying man, he is tricked by Jacob and Rebekah. In each story he is the passive victim. He never speaks up for himself: He doesn't chastise his father or punish his son. He's easily gulled by Jacob and manipulated by his wife. All the while, he appears just to want a simple life, eating meat. He's the accidental patriarch. Is it any surprise that God—and the author of Genesis—is so much more interested in Abraham and Jacob?
Jacob dreams of a stairway reaching up to the sky, with angels climbing up and down. So, that's the famous "Jacob's ladder." Hmm. I don't understand why this has resonated so profoundly in the world.
God appears to Jacob in the dream and makes him an even better promise than He did to Abraham and Isaac. Not only will his descendants be everywhere, as He also offered Abraham and Isaac—God also makes this very personal commitment to Jacob: "Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."
My wife and I have many evangelical Christian friends, and one thing that strikes me about them is that they have this Jacobian sense of God's interest in their lives. Like Jacob, they feel that God/Christ is with them, and that God/Christ will not leave until He has done what He has promised them. But I don't know any Jews who feel this way (or at least who talk this way). The Jews I know don't act or talk as if they have a personal relationship with God. They pray to God and feel that God works in the world, but not that God takes a personal interest in them. (Of course it could be that I am friends with the wrong group of Jews.) Do Christians have more of this Old Testament sense of God acting in everyday life than Jews do? If so, why?
Chapter 29 and Chapter 30
The Big Love chapters: Jacob courts Rachel, but his uncle Laban foists Rachel's sister on him instead. Jacob works the extra seven years and marries Rachel, too. The sisterly rivalry between Leah and Rachel makes Cain and Abel seem rather mild by comparison. It is full of backstabbing and envy. Jacob starts fathering sons left and right with Leah. This makes barren Rachel despondent, so she dispatches her maid Bilhah to Jacob. Then Leah's maid Zilpah gets into the act with a couple of sons, then Leah again, and finally Rachel herself gives birth to Joseph. The two greatest moments in the rivalry: First, the mandrake incident, which echoes the story of Esau and the pottage: Leah sells still-childless Rachel some mandrakes—a tomatoey kind of fruit with aphrodisiac powers, according to Etz Hayim. In exchange, Rachel has to give Leah a night with Jacob. Leah, who seemed to be barren after bearing four sons, gets pregnant again. The other moment: When Rachel's maid bears a son, Rachel gloats, "A fateful contest I waged with my sister; yes, and I have prevailed."
The last half of Chapter 30 is spectacular entertainment. Two all-time great tricksters—Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban—cross and double-cross each other. Laban had yoked 14 years of work from Jacob to court his two daughters. Jacob wants to strike out on his own, and it's payback time. As payment for his years of service, Jacob asks for all the streaked and spotted goats and sheep. Laban agrees, but then secretly removes all the streaked and spotted animals from his flocks. Jacob, realizing he has been fooled, tricks Laban right back, selecting out the healthier animals and breeding them to be streaked and spotted, and leaving the feebler animals for Laban. It's like a David Mamet movie. (Jacob's eugenic breeding scheme, incidentally, relies on a bit of nonsensical animal husbandry.)
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.