Wibble Wednesday: All This Has Happened Before (Genesis 25:19–28:9)

This week I’ll be discussing פָּרָשַׁת תולדת (“Descendants” portion) which includes most of the interesting events of Isaac’s life. I use the word “interesting” very loosely here.

The quick snarky summary: With Abraham dead, his dim, passive son is thrust into the role of primary protagonist, for which he is singularly unsuited. He tries doing exactly what his father did, but that doesn’t really push the narrative forwards, so his children up the tension with a bit of sibling rivalry.

So, Isaac. I hinted at this last week, but Isaac is problematic. I find him in some ways the most interesting of the patriarchs, and what I find interesting about him, perversely, is how boring he is. He quite literally has no character whatsoever, and that’s a pretty severe failing in one of the most revered figures in Jewish myth. He never does much of anything, and seems relegated entirely to the role of plot-device in the stories going on around him: a sacrifice for Abraham, a prospective groom for Rebecca, a dupe for Jacob. It’s kind of odd that he got through centuries of editorial meddling without either being elided completely or bulked out to actually be a character in his own right. I’ve worked on the assumption that Genesis is cribbed from a web of Mesopotamian metamyths, and it’s possible that Isaac ends up being the stand-in for every story where there’s a family member of narrative utility but little actual story of their own, but that nonetheless makes for an unsatisfying whole when many prayers invoke the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” instead of “God of Abraham, Jacob, and that timewaster in between them”. One expects a little bit more from patriarchs. The matriarchs are similarly uncharacterized, but that comes as less of a surprise in context, given how little time ancient cultures spent valuing women; that said, Rebecca seems to be a much more involved and intelligent character than her husband.

But whence comes this rant of mine? Previously we only saw three significant events involving Isaac (his birth, binding, and betrothal), and he could definitely be forgiven for not taking an active role in the first. The last of those events occurred when Isaac was 40 years old, and maybe he does something else later? Am I perhaps a bit premature in judging him as a do-nothing waste of air? Yeah, probably, but this section will do little to dispell that view.

Incidentally, since I assigned a specific age to Isaac at a specific time in the narrative, I’d best watch my steps, because the story gets a little convoluted chronologically here. Isaac is thirty-seven years old when the events of Genesis 23 take place (verified by the difference in Sarah’s ages from Isaac’s birth to death), forty during Chapter 24 (as given in the synopsis in Genesis 25:20), and seventy-five years old at the time of Genesis 25:7–11 (here looking at the differential in Abraham’s age). I can only take this last one as either an arithmetical error or a decision to force narrative coherence on the Abraham story by including his story in achronological order, because large parts of Chapter 25 emphatically take place while Abraham is still alive.

So what actually took place in those 35 elided years? Herding and prosperity mostly, as summed up briefly in Genesis 25:11. And no children, because we’re explicitly told that Rebecca didn’t have children until twenty years after marriage. But, hey, after all that delay she got a twofer, with an extra dose of sibling rivalry, so significant that the kids are fighting before they’re even born, and they’re prophesied to be ever at war, Reading the usual ethnic and national essentialism which we’ve seen before into this, it’s obvious that this is a pretty active bit of anti-Edom propaganda: the Edomites are, according to later sections of the text, Esau’s descendants. Exegetical sources decided the Romans were Edomites, an apparently arbitrary attempt to shift extant propaganda onto a new enemy. Under the circumstances, the prophecy in Genesis 25:23 is actually a bit maddening; while the “older will serve the younger” bit is, like the anti-Canaan slurs way back then, a transparent supremacy play, the assertion that “one nation will be stronger than the other” is a vacuous statement missing some rather important information. I thought it might be a translation oddity, but pretty much no translation clarifies which nation is which.

Now, despite being twins, Esau came out first, and for inheritance purposes, this established him as “first-born”. In each section, it seems I’ve had a focus on some aspect of ancient Near-East culture — hospitality and contract law previously — and this time it looks like a little discussion of inheritance practice might be in order. Inheritance was not as simple, as a general rule, as “first-born gets everything”, with such practices as polygyny, concubinage, and kinship adoptions. Concubines’ children generally didn’t “count” unless the father really wanted them to, and likewise with multiple wives a man might designate favorites (muddying the waters, both of these aspects changed by locality and time period). An adoptee might be designated as an heir, even in the presence of natural-born sons, and then again might not. So the practice was pretty complicated, but in this case it was mostly cut-and-dried: as first-born, Esau had inheritance by default; Isaac had socially acceptable ways of changing that state of affairs if he really wanted to, Semitic inheritance law being, given the cases described above, actually pretty flexible.

So we learn that Esau and Jacob are very different sorts. Jacob stays in camp cooking lentil stews, and Esau hunts. I can’t help but see a comparison to Cain and Abel here, since once again we have one son preparing meat, and the other with vegetables, and a paternal authority who prefers meat and thus favors the meat-bringer. But this time the veggie-grower is actually the one we’re supposed to cheer for. It’s not entirely clear why at this point, other than because he’s our ancestor; his behavior in 25:29–34 isn’t exactly noble or kind. When Esau comes home after hunting, which, even in an agrarian and civilized society, does in fact enrich and support the family, he quite reasonably asks for a portion of the family’s food. It seems like Jacob might have left his “WWAD?” bracelet in his other tunic, though, because this scene is not exactly one of Abrahamic hospitality. Given a chance to rip his brother off and take advantage of his exertion, Jacob jumps right in. Also, as might be relevant later, it’s not abundantly clear that this contract’s even valid by local custom: inheritance, as seen above, was primarily under the control of the patriarch, and it wasn’t actually the heir’s to give away (he could give away the actual proceeds of the inheritance, but not the inheritance itself, to split hairs). For instance, an heir might lose his birthright by disgrace, so what he’s sold would cease to exist. This detail’s a bit fuzzy, though, so let’s take it as given that Jacob’s bought himself into inheritance of Isaac’s wealth.

But we’ve been neglecting the hero of our story! In Genesis 26, we get some of Isaac’s wacky exploits. He’s finally on his own, taking charge of his own life, and so, with famine all around, he up and moves to Gerar, home of the Philistine king with the Semitic name of Abimelech. There he tells them that Rebecca is actually his sister, and… wait, wait, wait. Did we just steal the plot of Genesis 20 wholesale? Why, yes, we did (and never mind that that one is itself a minor variation on a story from Genesis 12). A few names are changed, of course (although, if this is the same Abimelech, he must be quite aged at this point), and since this is Isaac, the story’s completely excised of fun and interesting details, like Abraham actually being related to Sarah and the court of Abimelech being stricken with infertility.

The rest of this chapter describes a conflict over water rights. Like the incident immediately before it, it’s shamelessly stolen from an episode in the life of Abraham, this time from Chapter 21. As in Chapter 21, Abimelech’s people seize the patriarch’s wells, and as in Chapter 21, he and his captain Phicol come out to negotiate (but this time he also brings his buddy Ahuzzath), and as in Chapter 21, they strike an accord of peace, and solemnize it by naming a well after their oath (seemingly unaware of the fact that they gave that name to the exact same well before, back in Genesis 21:31).

It is honestly bewildering how this story managed to get attached, with virtually identical details, to both of the patriarchs. I assume it only appeared once in one of the original texts, but somehow got cloned, but I’m surprised that nowhere along the way was either of the clones removed. Definitely, if it were Isaac’s story and not appearing at all in the Abraham myth, it would go a long way towards equalizing the apparent importance of the patriarchs, giving Isaac a narrative role of furthering and continuing Abraham’s quest towards friendly relations with the local peoples, instead of making his story a pointless recapitulation of an accord which presumably was already established.

Chapter 26 closes out with the one and only actual indictment we see of Esau’s character: he marries women his parents dislike. The specifics of why aren’t clear at this point, but Genesis 27:46 and 28:6–9 suggests that their nationality is the sticking point: both Abraham and Isaac married within their immediate family, and apparently Hittites are a little too distant for Rebecca’s comfort. At this point in history, that’s not too much of a stretch: marriages for alliance purposes weren’t uncommon, but voluntarily marrying outside of your nationality seemed to be a rarity.

And finally we get to the central drama of this parsha, the one story in this section which everyone with a passing familiarity with the Bible has heard in some variation. Isaac, grown old and feeble and blind, wants to bless his progeny, and specifically, bless his heir. As mentioned previously, it’s not clear what Esau’s sale of the birthright in a previous chapter signified: it’s explicitly stated that his father preferred him (even, perhaps, notwithstanding his unsuitable marriages), and I don’t think you can actually sell love, so as the preferred son Esau might still have been entitled to Isaac’s blessing (evidently Isaac himself thought so, and his opinion is the one that counts).

It’s only on the basis of the birthright argument (and maybe the unsuitable-wife bit) that Jacob has any remotely moral basis for claiming the primary blessing, and what little justification he has I’d argue is rather dissolved by the use of deception against an innocent party. But nonetheless, we’re presumably meant to regard as admirable the fact that, at his mother’s urging, he lied to his father and deceived him into breaking the family apart. In the blessings themselves Genesis 27:29 and 40 are the real kickers: like so many family pronouncements (Noah’s curse of Canaan, Abraham’s blessing of Ishmael), it specifically implies the inferiority, servitude, and eventual conquest of the “lesser” brother. Draw your own unsavorily transparent ethnic/nationalistic conclusions as to what we’re supposed to get from that.

The conclusion of the story is, I must confess, not quite as I remember. I got a vague impression, learning these stories, that Jacob fled a fugitive from Esau’s fury and with no delay, but actually the story as depicted suggests greater subtlety, that Jacob left home by permission, openly, and with his destination explicitly given. That he was fleeing from Esau’s anger is accurate, but there’s a cunning subterfuge suggested, which bridges nicely with the established insularity of Isaac’s household: his stated purpose is to marry inside of the family, so he goes to work for his uncle Laban, last seen as a minor character back in Chapter 24.

As a cute epilogue, Esau apparently got the hint that his wives annoyed the parents, because he decided to take another wife from inside the family, his cousin Mahalath. So really, he’s not such a bad sort once he got with the program, but unfortunately for him, he’s the designated antagonist. Fortunately, when we next see him, he’ll have mellowed out a lot and the authorial opinion of him will be much less prone to character assassination.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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