YEAR A: SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
(Sunday between July 10 and July 16)
There is a sense of déjà vue at the start of this reading with the matriarch in the story, this time Rebekah (rivkah), being barren (‘akurah). Her name in Hebrew even echoes her situation to a degree. Later (26:1) the land will again be threatened by famine (cf. 12:10).
The story of Genesis moves on. Abraham and Sarah are dead. The promised son, Isaac, is now a man of mature age. The story curiously passes over Isaac and the note in 25:19 really introduces the story of Jacob and Esau (chs 25-33). Isaac, so long awaited, is essentially a transitional character in Genesis. He figures only in as much as he passes on the mantel of promise to his son Jacob, who will become the father of the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Isaac does play a fleeting role at the start of this passage. He entreats Yahweh on behalf of his barren wife (v. 21). In uncustomary fashion Yahweh allows himself to be entreated. Unlike the story of Sarah and Abraham, little attention is given to the theme of barrenness here as Rebekah falls pregnant quickly. The point of living with the promise against the odds has already been made. This story is now concerned with the turmoil that arises from fertility, not barrenness. In the Abraham/Sarah story the expectations of humans in barrenness were overturned. So here we find their expectations in fertility do not always stand.
Unlike Sarah, we hear Rebekah speaking to God about her situation. The twins she bears struggle within her womb and she seeks advice from Yahweh. The word ‘inquire’ (darash, v. 22) may imply more than our English translation suggests. The word is rare in Genesis-Numbers. It occurs elsewhere in a technical sense of someone seeking knowledge from God (e.g. Exod 18:15; Deut 17:9; 1 Sam 9:9; etc.). If the technical sense is meant here (and the address to Yahweh suggests that) then the implication is that what is declared here is not so much an answer to a momentary problem, but is a declaration determinative of the future.
Yahweh’s word (v. 23) stands at the beginning of the story of Isaac’s descendants and shows us what is to come. It determines the course of events. Unlike the Abraham story, this tale is not about a promise, and whether faith or doubt in the promise will prevail. Here the outcome is not in doubt. What is unknown is how it will be achieved. The struggle in Rebekah’s womb foreshadows the future struggle between the brothers over what is central to the promise. While God sets in motion the course of events in the narrative, the characters will have a hand in how those events play out. Yahweh’s word does not resolve the struggle between the brothers, nor will Yahweh absolve the characters involved of any of their actions or motives. Yahweh will work within the struggle to achieve his end.
Verses 24-28 continue the theme of struggle. As the twins are born Jacob grips the heel of Esau, foreshadowing his desire to grasp what belongs to his brother. They are contrasted at every point: one becomes a hunter, the other a ‘quiet man’; one an outdoors type, the other more fond of indoors. Even the love of their parents is divided between them (v. 28). The intriguing little tale of how Jacob took advantage of Esau’s hunger to get him to give up his birthright, the portion of inheritance belonging to the oldest child (vv. 29-34), heightens the divisions. Esau despises what is a privilege and coveted by Jacob. The emphasis on food foreshadows the scene to come in Genesis 27 even as it characterises the players in this family drama. Esau’s love of food and disregard for his birthright (v. 34) set up a contrast between him and the rest of the family who stand under the promise. His despising of that which is to be passed on from one generation to the next cuts him off. This insight into Esau’s character lessens his appropriateness to receive the blessing in Genesis 27 in the eyes of the reader. On the other hand, while Jacob’s desire for both birthright and blessing is understandable within the family structure, his way of achieving these ends is inappropriate.
While the narrative moves quickly with few details, it contains nearly all the themes and motifs we find in the next nine chapters. First, there is the theme of strife. The twins struggle in birth (v. 26) just as they will in life (vv. 29-34; chs. 27, 35 etc). Strife will emerge in other relationships as mentioned: between Jacob and Laban (ch. 31); Leah and Rachel (30:1); and ultimately between Jacob and Yahweh (ch. 32).
Second there is the theme of deceit and theft. In vv. 29-34 Jacob ‘steals’ Esau’s birthright. Theft of various sorts will re-emerge in the narrative, but so will blessing – by their father (ch. 27), by Laban (31:55), and by Yahweh (32:29). The similarity in words between birthright (bekorah) and blessing (berakah) suggests a complex relationship between the two.
Third there is the theme of inversion. This is prefigured in Yahweh’s speech to Rebekah – the elder will serve the younger (25:23). The younger sister Rachel will be favoured over Leah (29:15-20); Jacob will inherit the things due to his older twin, Esau; Joseph will later ascend over his older brothers. The way Yahweh will work out his promise will not be in accord with human power, political, social or religious assumptions.
In the Abraham story barrenness set the scene and there was a question of whether faith or doubt in Yahweh’s promise would prevail. At the beginning of the Jacob story strife and deceit set the scene, and the issue is how Yahweh’s word moves to fulfilment in the midst of a complex, deceitful, and divided world. None of the characters is without blemish. They cheat, steal, deceive, plot, trick and lie. And yet these are the very people with whom Yahweh choses to become entangled and give his promise. This murky world of human reality is the arena wherein Yahweh’s word is brought to fulfilment. As one writer says, ‘there is a realism about this text’. It rejects any romantic pietism we might attribute to it. There is an invitation to the preacher likewise to engage the relationship between God, God’s word, and the complex, often deceitful and strife-ridden world we live in.
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