Of stolen blessings and self-fulfilling prophesies

Detail: Isaac Blessing Jacob by Bartolome Esteban Murillo. (Wikimedia Commons)

What are we to make of the conspiracy on the part of Rivka and Yaakov to steal the blessing that Yitzhak meant to give to his eldest son, Esav? Surely this is treachery of the highest order! What does the Torah itself think of this act?

Blessing or prophesy?

But first, what is this all about? What is this “blessing” that Yitzhak wanted to give Esav? We get a hint at what is at stake when Rivka overhears Yitzhak saying to Esav: “Take your weapons…and prepare me food such as I love, that I may bless you before I die.” The phrase “before I die” is the key: a deathbed blessing is not a blessing at all, but a prophesy. The blessing brings forth into consciousness things that one “knows,” but is not aware of knowing. It offers a clear view of a person’s strengths and weaknesses, which, if he internalizes this knowledge, can cause the prophesy to come true.

Nor must the “deathbed” blessing be given only when one is near death. Rather, the blessing is in the nature of a “final decision” on who will lead the family and carry on the father’s legacy. Yitzhak will live many more years, and will be still alive when Yaakov later returns from his stint in the house of Lavan. But in a sense, Yitzhak is ready to step out of the story, leaving the action to his sons.

Or to his son. For there can be only one firstborn, only one designated patriarch. The firstborn is the inheritor of the family wealth, history, and traditions. In the case of the family of Avraham, it is the Firstborn who will inherit God’s blessing to Avraham to become a great nation, through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed,” and to whose seed “I will give this land.” In short, Yitzhak’s chosen son will inherit the Covenant between Avraham and God.

Yitzhak’s blindness

The trouble is that at this crucial time, Yitzhak has become old “and his eyes have dimmed.” He is in no position to see what his wife and his younger son have known for years, that his beloved eldest son is not the right choice to inherit Avraham’s mission. In fact, Rivka may have known this from before the boys were born. Finding herself dealing with an unusually difficult pregnancy, Rivka consults an oracle, which, in the way of oracles, is ambiguous:

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall diverge from your belly. One nation will struggle against the other; and the elder shall serve the younger.
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה׳ לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גוֹיִם֙ בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר:

We usually translate this as I have done here: “the elder will serve the younger.” However, it could also be interpreted the other way around: “the elder, the younger will serve.” Indeed, it would have been far more natural for Rivka to interpret it in the second way. And yet, for whatever reason, she seems to interpret it as favoring the younger son.

We soon learn that there are reasons to think she is right. Esav, thinking only of short-term discomforts, is ready to forfeit his birthright for the immediate pleasure of a good meal. Not exactly a trait one wants in a leader who will need to make serious sacrifices for the sake of long-term goals! It should not be lost on the reader that Yitzhak’s choice of Esav seems to be based on similar considerations: “Because of the game in his mouth.” There are hints already that Yitzhak’s blindness is more than just in his eyes, and that he’s basing a world-changing decision on very short-sighted criteria.

And so, it comes as no great shock when Rivka decides to turn the tables and win for Yaakov what she believes was his by right all along. Never mind the birth order, and never mind tradition! And so, under his mother’s direction, Yaakov dresses in his brother’s best clothes and lies to his father, saying “I am Esav, your firstborn.” He wins the blessing, but at the cost of his identity.

Why did Yitzhak not rescind the blessing?

And Yitzhak? When he realizes his error, he is taken with great trembling: “Who was it who hunted game and brought it to me?” But he already knows the answer. His suspicions had been right all along: “The hands are those of Esav, but the voice is that of Yaakov.” Why, then, does Yitzhak conclude by saying that, despite the deception, “blessed shall he be”?

It would appear that Yitzhak realizes only now that he had underestimated his younger son. Perhaps his favoritism wasn’t based on shortsightedness after all, but on a realistic consideration of the neighborhood in which he lived. After all, just before this portion of the narrative, we have been told how Yitzhak was forced to move from place to place, his troubles with Avimelech and with the tribesmen of Gerar. Perhaps Yitzhak reasoned that only a man of the hunt such as Esav could survive in such a hostile environment. And perhaps Yaakov’s ruthlessness in stealing the blessing showed a side of Yaakov that Yitzhak had hitherto been blind to. Perhaps cleverness has just as much survival value as skill at arms.

Whatever the case, Yitzhak does not rescind the blessing, even when he realizes his error. In fact, he confirms it, telling Esav “I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants, and sustained him with grain and wine. What, then, can I still do for you, my son?” It seems that despite Yaakov’s “coming with guile” to steal the blessing, Yitzhak seems to have changed his mind about the future relationship between Yaakov and Esav. And in fact, he will later give Yaakov the true blessing of the heirs of Avraham.

The price of deception

But just because Yaakov had good reason to do what he did does not make it right… The rest of the Book of Bereshit will be about the consequences. The long shadow of Yaakov’s deceit will fall over him and his family until the end of his life. His deceit will be matched, measure for measure, by his being given Leah for a wife, rather than his beloved Rahel. The competition between Yaakov and Esav will be reflected in the protracted conflict between Yaakov’s own sons—a conflict which will ultimately lead the entire clan to slavery in Egypt.

We are left wondering: what would have been Yaakov’s fate—and that of the nation he founded—had his patriarchy had cleaner beginnings? The Torah provides no answers, nor does it offer an immediate moral judgement of Yaakov’s actions. But as will become increasingly clear in the sequel, beginnings matter. Doing what is right, but in a way that is flawed, can—and will—lead to long-term consequences.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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