Bible stories : 08 Jacob, part 1.

Part 1 : Jacob and Esau

1700-ish BC.

The word “dearth” means “a lack of something.” For example, in the Old Testament, there is a dearth of references to certain things, such as fertility clinics. But we’ve already heard about God stepping in to help out at certain key points, such as helping the Israelites escape across the Red Sea when the Egyptian cavalry is coming after them. Wait….that hasn’t happened yet and is a major spoiler. So let’s think of another example. How about God helping Abraham and Sarah to have an adorable baby son when it seemed like they were way too old to be parents? That’s a good one.

Skip forward two generations. Abraham has Isaac, and Isaac has married Rebecca, and they have some good years, just the two of them where they find their marriage footing and all that, and then they have not one, but two kids. Two boys.

A super hairy one that they name Esau, which means “hairy” in Hebrew, and Jacob, which means something as well, but not “hairy.” The important thing to know about them, besides one of them being hairy, is that despite the fact that they are twins, one of them is in fact older. This is not simply a birth certificate kind of deal. This is a big deal.

It’s a big deal because the oldest son gets not only the best inheritance...he gets everything. He gets it all. The winner truly does take it all. So despite the fact that a few minutes separate two brothers at birth, those few minutes will affect the destinies of each respectively in massively different ways.

The fancy word for this is birthright. Esau, the hairy one and the oldest, owns the birthright. He owns it, fair and square, by virtue of the fact that he fought his way out of Rebecca’s womb first. This birthright means that not only does Esau get the entire inheritance, it also means that he will be considered master over his brother. So yeah. It’s a big deal.

On a certain day at a particular time, it is late in the day. Esau has been out hunting, because he loves to hunt. “Love” is an understatement. That’s his thing, what he loves more than anything. More than anything, as we’re about to find out. Esau is a fellow who likes to live in the moment. Action, violence, loud, the adrenaline of hard physical activity. Of course Daddy Isaac loves both his boys, but if he had to pick one, it would be Esau.

Younger brother Jacob is a fellow who likes to plan ahead and dream. Cooking, thinking, studying, the joy of conversation and quiet. Of course Mama Rebecca loves both her boys, but if she had to pick one, it would be Jacob.

So Esau is out hunting on this particular day at this particular time. It’s not been a good hunt, but of course a bad hunt is still better than just about anything else. Except he didn’t catch anything. He is famished. And the aroma of something delicious is drifting his way…

“What’d you make, Jake?” he barks as he walks in. “I’m starving.”

Jacob calmly looks up. “Vegetarian stew. You’re not starving. If you were starving, you’d be too weak to carry that gigantic bow. You’re extremely hungry. There’s a difference. You’re not starving.”

“Whatever.” Esau says. “Gimme somea that.”

“Say please,” Jacob says calmly (he can be maddeningly calm in moments of conflict).

“Please!” Esau says through his teeth.

“No.” says Jacob pleasantly. “I’m saving some for leftovers. And also, the dogs haven’t had seconds yet.”

“Please Jake, I am famished!”

“Well…” Jacob gets a gleam. “I suppose I could give you a bowl...in exchange for one little thing.”

“What thing?” Esau snarls.

“Umm, your, uhh, birthright,” Jacob says calmly.

“No.” says Esau.

“Okay,” says Jacob, motioning to his dogs. “Come here girls, come on, come get some more food, all yours! Uncle Esau doesn’t want any.”

The three dogs bound over and start licking the bowl while Jacob is dishing it out.

“Whoa whoa whoa wait…” Esau thinks frantically. “Yeah sure. Fine. You can have it.”

“Have what?” Jacob says. “I want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

“My birthright, you can have it. Now gimme.”

Jacob pushes the dogs aside and hands Esau the bowl they’ve been eating from. “There you go, bro. Hope you like it. I made it for you.”

Esau rolls his eyes and slurps the bowl down. He finishes that one and, without asking, dunks his bowl in the pot of stew and helps himself to a second. Jacob starts to protest, and then stops and lets his brother finish it off.

“Fair trade,” he whispers to himself.

Years pass. Isaac has developed glaucoma, cataracts, early onset diabetes and can barely see. He knows he’s going to go soon. Patriarchs in the Old Testament seem to have a good idea of when they’re going to go. He calls for Esau.

“I want to bless him,” he says.

This is not a casual little ritual. Again, this sort of thing is a big deal. A father blessing his son is a way of fulfilling a wish; of saying “this is the way things will be and you will be master over everything and everyone I own, including your brother.”

So Isaac has called for his favourite. Esau. In fairness, Esau is technically the oldest, so it wasn’t completely out of line that Isaac would be blessing him. However, remember who Mama Rebecca’s fave is? She overhears dying hubby Isaac requesting Esau’s presence, and she leaps into action. She runs to Jacob.

“Ask no questions,” she says. “Do exactly as I say.”

“Okay mom,” he says.

“Good.” she says. “Now go kill two goats from our herd, then bring them back. I’m gonna make stew. Lamb stew, but aside from that it’ll be vegetarian. It’s for dad. And we’re going to play a little joke on him: You, Jake, are going to dress up like Esau.”

“But why Mom?” he asks.

“Because,” she says, exasperated, “he’ll think you’re Esau and he’ll bless you. Hurry!”

“But...wouldn’t that be dishonest, Mom?”

“It’s hard to explain, okay. Just do what I say. I’ve got goat skins for you to wrap around your hands and neck.”

“What are those for?”

“Just go!”

Jacob, wearing Esau’s clothes and goat skins, takes Dad his supper. His last supper.

“Here you go, Dad,” he says, trying to deepen his voice.

“Who are you?” says Isaac feebly.

“Uhh, Esau, of course.”

“You don’t sound like Esau. And how did you catch a deer so quickly?”

“Because I’m super good at hunting, and God is on my side,” Jacob says nervously.

“You don’t sound like Esau. Come here,” Isaac commands.

Jacob does so, and Isaac squints, trying to make out the foggy and elusive shape that doesn’t seem quite right. He runs his fingers along his son’s face and neck and hands.

“Hmm...you don’t sound like Esau. But you smell like Esau. You feel like Esau. So you must be.”

He breathes in deeply. “You smell like like blood and victory. It is glorious and means you have been blessed by God, and now by me. May God give you all the water and wine and food you might ever desire, and may nations serve you and your descendants, and may your brothers bow down before you. A curse upon those who curse you and a blessing upon those who bless you!”

“Thank you, father,” Jacob whispers, and hugs him one more time before leaving. Isaac squints and watches his oldest son walk out of the tent…

...a few minutes later another figure arrives, carrying in a familiar aroma as he stomps in. “Hey dad, brought you grub. Wanna eat and then we can do the whole blessing deal?”

“Who are you?” Isaac asks, a feeling of dread starting to wash over.

“Uhh, it’s me. Esau.”

“No...you can’t be Esau,” Isaac says, trying to will the statement to truth.

“Why not dad? I’m definitely Esau. Who else would I be?”

Isaac sits upright; a violent movement that takes all of his dying effort. “Son, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to tell you. But it’s gone.”

“What’s gone?”

“Your blessing. I gave it to who I thought was you just a few minutes ago. But I know now that you are truly you. Someone who is not you has my blessing.”

Esau shrugs. “No big deal. Bless me too. Let’s do it.”

Isaac shakes his head. “That’s not how it works. That was it. It’s done. Your brother Jacob has deceived us and now has what was to be your blessing. And he already has your birthright. Both of us have made some poor choices in terms of your future.”

Esau starts to cry. “Jacob has taken first my birthright, and now my blessing! You’ve gotta have something for me! What do I get, dad?!”

Isaac, trembling, lays his hand on his sobbing son’s shoulder. “I give you this, the one blessing I can give you:

‘You’ll live far from good soil and water.
You’ll have to fight hard to survive and life will not be easy.
You will serve your brother.’ ”

Esau looks up. “That’s the blessing?”

Isaac continues. “But eventually, you’ll break his hold over you and things will be better. A little better.”

Esau’s tears stop flowing; he stands up, iron resolve stepping back to his voice. “Love you dad. Not your fault. Jake got us both. And he’s going to pay.”

“Where are you going?” Isaac calls out.

“I’m going to kill Jake.” Isaac says, and stomps off with sword in hand.

We do not know the precise sequence of events, but Rebecca has been listening and quickly warns Jacob take off; a suggestion he accepts without argument. “Go to Uncle Laban’s in Harran and stay there until it’s safe. Go. I will see you again.”

Jacob sneaks back in to see his father. Does he apologise? Does Isaac forgive him for his deceit? We do not know. But Isaac agrees that Jacob needs to run. Run fast and run far and run now.

So that is what Jacob does. He runs. And runs and runs and runs, for Esau’s rage is great. If Jacob stops running, he will die.

And that is the cliffhanger we end on.

Additional notes

I can’t help thinking of the western film Shane, in which Clint Eastwood rides off into the sunset. I can’t remember if he’s on a camel or a horse.