If in last week’s portion we saw God recede to the background, in this week’s portion, with the story of Isaac and his family, things really begin to fall apart. God’s great promise to Isaac of blessing and abundance – “I will deliver on the promise which I made to Abraham your father” – rings a little hollow on the tableau of competition and betrayal between his sons.
One can sense that things are a little off in the first passage: “This is the genealogy of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham gave birth to Isaac.” That’s it; that is the beginning and end of the genealogy. Highly unusual, because when the Bible starts with a genealogy it usually gives a list of all the offspring of the individual, just as it had a few verses previous with the genealogy of Ishmael. But here Isaac didn’t even have children yet. It is as if the genealogy is summed up as being “the son of…” and the story of Isaac is eclipsed by the story of the rivalry between his two sons.
After this one-passage genealogy, Isaac appeals to God on behalf of Rebecca who is barren; Rebecca becomes pregnant but there is so much commotion among the twins inside her that she seeks out God. “And God said to her: ‘there are two nations in your belly… and the great will serve the younger.'” This is the grand plan, and Rebecca takes note (but there is no indication that she shares the information with her husband).
As they are coming out of the womb, the competition is already on, with Jacob clinging to Esau’s heel. (The name Jacob (Yaakov) is the verb form of the word “heel” or, literally, “will follow.”) But Jacob doesn’t want to follow – he wants to be first. Thus begins the competition between Jacob and Esau – or, more correctly, Jacob’s competition with his Esau and with himself – to be the firstborn that he is not. Jacob will do whatever it takes to make up for not being number one.
That drive causes Jacob to have Esau forswear his birthright in exchange for a meal, and later, sinisterly guided by his mother, Jacob deceives his near-blind father into giving him the firstborn’s blessing. The anguish and pain felt by father and son when Esau comes to the tent after Jacob beat him to the blessing and Isaac realizes the ruse, is described in dramatic language not seen elsewhere in the Bible: “and Isaac was seized with very great trepidation… [and Esau let out] an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father: ‘bless me, too, my father.'” With such description, it is difficult to remain unmoved by the dramatic scene and the pain caused by the deception.
Yet it is hard to understand the role of God in this story.
On the one hand, we (and Rebecca) know from the onset that there will be a great competition and that Jacob is destined for greatness. Even Isaac, after being subjected to Jacob and Rebecca’s fraud, also comes to realize this. When Rebecca and Isaac send Jacob off to find a wife – and escape from Esau’s brooding to kill him – Isaac blesses Jacob (again): “And God will give you the blessing of Abraham to you and your seed to inherit the land in which you dwell which God gave to Abraham.” Astoundingly, there is not even a hint of reprimand. And after Jacob sets off on his journey in the next portion, God too blesses him.
Yet neither does Jacob’s treachery go unpunished. In next week’s portion he will learn – and suffer from – real treachery at the hand of Laban, which will make stealing the blessing look like child’s play.
So why does God make Jacob go through all of this? Couldn’t he just have come out of the womb a few minutes earlier and all this competition would have been unnecessary?
Well, God clearly doesn’t make things easy for man. Just as He brought Abraham to the near sacrifice of Isaac, God says Jacob will be master but deliberately places him second.
Jacob embodies this God-endowed human struggle from day zero: getting from where you are to where you are “supposed” to be.
Point A and point B are clear when God speaks to Rebecca even before she has given birth. The path to get there is up to Jacob. God may have implanted within Jacob this “need to be first,” but how and whether Jacob acts upon that God-instilled desire is up to him.
This story does not have a happy ending. In “getting there” Jacob acts on it ignobly, for which he will go on to suffer at the hands of Laban. By the end of this week’s portion you have a torn family: two older parents, one son who wants to kill the other for having betrayed him, the other son flees for his life.
But this grim outcome doesn’t change what is the essence of Jacob or the human challenge he represents: of getting from where you are to where you are “supposed” to be.
Nor does God give up on Jacob, nor do his parents. And so, in spite of all that happened, Isaac blesses Jacob as he is about to set out on his journey. Isaac blesses in acceptance of the fact that Jacob is trying to fulfill his God-given destiny, even if he erred terribly in the implementation. For this unquenchable desire and ongoing quest, Isaac realizes, Jacob will inherit the land which God promised to Abraham.