TOLEDOT: Was Isaac’s planned blessing of Esau a case of midah k’neged midah?

Many questions arise regarding the state of Isaac’s mind based on his passive behavior and seeming obliviousness to things he should certainly have known. As well, it appears that Rebecca – “the sister of Laban” – did not seek her husband Isaac’s counsel nor share vital information with him:

  1. There is Isaac’s quiescence to Abraham’s wanting to sacrifice him despite his being a mature adult in his 30s at the time of the Akedah. Surely Isaac, as a grown man, could have objected;
  2. The fact that Abraham did not trust a 40 year old Isaac to find a bride for himself despite the fact that the two lived far apart – Abraham in Beersheba, Isaac with his mother in Hebron/Kiriat Arba. This would indicate a frayed filial bond between father and son. Indeed, Abraham delegates the search for a bride to his servant Eliezer. Apparently, Abraham does not wait for Eliezer’s return so that he might approve or disapprove his servant’s selection;
  3. And then, there is Isaac’s need to be in his mother’s bed in order to have conjugal relations with his new bride;
  4. When Rebecca is troubled by the turmoil in her womb she does not consult with Isaac, but goes elsewhere for an explanation. And clearly she does not share this information with Isaac;
  5. Isaac seems oblivious to the fact that Esau had sold his birthright for a bowl of pottage – surely such news has a way of traveling. How could he not know?
  6. Rebecca either takes Isaac for a fool, or is indeed so much “the sister of Laban” that she feels confident in her ability to manipulate him into giving his blessing to Jacob rather than his preferred son Esau;
  7. Isaac is indeed fooled by Jacob’s subterfuge, or so we would think from a superficial reading of the text.

With regard to the usurped blessing, I would suggest that Isaac is not fooled at all. Not when he initially prefers to bless Esau, and not when he subsequently gives the blessing to Jacob.

It is never Isaac’s intention to give the blessing to Esau because Esau is his first born. He intends to bless Esau simply because he truly loves him more than he loves Jacob (if, indeed, he loves Jacob at all), and despite knowing of the lentil soup transaction.

Esau is no mere hunter. He is a hunter in the service of his father Isaac. When he returns from the field so famished that he would sell his birthright for a bowl of pottage he is coming from hunting for game with which to serve his father.

In Genesis 25:28 we are told ויאהב יצחק את עשו כי ציד בפיו that “Isaac loved Esau because his game was in his mouth” (i.e. he was feasting on Esau’s efforts). Three verses later, in the same chapter (25:31) Jacob tells a famished Esau מכרה כיום את בכרתך לי “sell me this day your birthright”. Indeed Esau gives up his primogeniture as a result of his dedication to his father – a fact that is not lost on Isaac.

Hence when Isaac summons Esau (27:4) and says; ועשה לי מטעמים כאשר אהבתי והביאה לי ואכלה בעבור תברכך נפשי טרם אמות “Prepare for me the delicacies that I have loved and bring them to me and I shall eat SO THAT my soul may bless you before I die” he makes no reference to Esau’s being son #1, or of this being the reason for the blessing. On the contrary, he wants to give the blessing to Esau for a meal, just as Jacob had bought the birthright for a meal.

This is clearly a case of midah k’neged midah, measure for measure. Isaac is very lucidly getting even with Jacob (and Rebecca “the sister of Laban”) for having hornswoggled the birthright from Esau when he was at his most vulnerable from an act of honoring his father, something Jacob apparently never did. Hence Isaac is now hoping to turn the tables on Jacob as retribution; using a meal as justification for doing what is otherwise unjustifiable since Jacob is now the legal owner of the title ‘first born’.

Indeed the first reference to “firstborn” appears only when Jacob is identifying himself to Isaac as (27:19) אנכי עשו בכרך “I am Esau your first born” – the first part (Esau) is an outright lie, but the second part (your first born) is technically true. Jacob is reminding his father that he has purchased primogeniture from his older brother. Isaac understands that he had to honor a legally executed claim, much as he may wish it were otherwise.

Had Jacob identified himself only as Esau, Isaac might well have called his bluff and sent him packing. But by declaring himself the ‘bekhor’, Isaac is left with no option but to give him the blessing he had reserved for Esau.

Now, of course it is true that things turn out as they are supposed to; That regardless of Isaac’s understandable preference for Esau and his alienation from Jacob who is favored by Rebecca “the sister of Laban”, the Divine plan is for Jacob to carry the legacy forward. However, this does not diminish from any ambivalence Isaac may feel toward Jacob, just as it never diminishes from the ambivalence Abraham has toward Isaac. Both obey
G-d’s will, but that’s what they were, acts of obedience and not necessarily ones of preference.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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