This parashah has one of the best known stories of the bible- the selling of the birthright. Esau is hungry and asks his brother, Jacob, for some lentil stew he was making. Jacob says he will give it to Esau if Esau sells his birthright as the firstborn to Jacob. Esau is hungry, probably not even near death or starvation, but as the bible says, he “hated his birthright” (took no special interest in it) so sold it for some soup. If you read carefully, you will realize that Jacob also gave Esau bread and drink. He wasn’t all that cruel.
The next thing that Jacob “stole” was the blessing of the firstborn that Isaac was going to give Esau. Now, this is also on Rebekah’s head because the whole scam was her idea. Once Esau learns of this he lets it be known he is planning to kill Jacob, so Rebekah (again with some deviousness) gets Isaac to send Jacob away.
For both a Patriarch and Matriarch of Judaism to steal, lie and cheat, you would wonder why they were so loved by God, right?
But let’s look a little closer at this. As for the “theft” of the blessing, I don’t think it is right or fair to say that Jacob “stole” Esau’s blessing. Here’s why: Jacob was, legally (for lack of a better term) the firstborn ever since Esau sold that birthright. As such, he was entitled to whatever the firstborn is entitled to receive, which included the blessing. True, Isaac may not have known about the sale (most likely he didn’t- if you were Esau, would you tell your father you sold your birthright?) so to get what did belong to him, Jacob had to use a bit of subterfuge to ensure he received what was, now, rightfully his.
As for the original sale of the birthright, we can only wonder what would have happened if Esau had refused to sell it. After all, how far away from the tents of Isaac and Rebekah could Jacob have been? Was it so far that Esau would not have been able to make it all the way there? And would Jacob, really, have allowed Esau to starve? I always say you can’t make an argument from nothing, but I have to tell you, even if Esau refused to sell the birthright I just don’t see Jacob letting his brother starve or die of thirst.
Anyway, it doesn’t really matter what would have happened if the birthright hadn’t been sold because the fact remains it was sold. Esau was a man of the moment- now, now, now. Jacob was a thoughtful man, planning out his moves and showing patience and maturity.
When we read about the events in the bible we need to remember to filter them with the cultural ethics of that time. It was a very lawless period, and even though there is evidence that moral codes existed, it was certainly not like anything we know today. For instance, both Abraham and Isaac said their wife was their sister so men wouldn’t kill them to be able to marry her. Therefore, if the woman was married it was morally wrong to have sexual relations with her, but if you murder her husband, then it’s OK to marry her. Adultery is definitely out, but murder is fine. Huh?
I would go as far as to say that when Jacob bought the birthright of Esau, it was Esau who is the real villain because he had no respect for himself or his obligations that come with being the firstborn. Back then the firstborn was to not just to get a double-portion of the inheritance; he was to be the leader of the family. There were responsibilities on him because the family was more than just parents and kids- there were all the servants, too. Remember Abraham took 300 men with him to fight against the 5 kings when he rescued Lot. Isaac is very wealthy and powerful, meaning he must have had many servants. Esau, as firstborn, was responsible to take over the family business, if you will, and be the leader. From what we read about him, it doesn’t seem that he would have been all too keen on that. He liked to hunt, he was a man of strong emotions, of immediate desires and needs, and he apparently (by his choice of wives) didn’t “get it”, as far as being faithful to God was concerned. He really had it all going for him, and yet he thoughtlessly threw it all away for a bowl of stew.
Jacob, on the other hand, showed faithfulness, thoughtfulness and planned ahead whereas Esau planned as far as his nose, and no further. Esau was not a very good choice to carry on the position of Patriarch, and Jacob clearly was. The fact that he fooled his father to gain the blessing that (as I explained above) he really deserved only showed that he was willing to do what needed to be done to attain that which he was entitled to. We see this later on, when Laban tries to fool and cheat him out of the rightful payments, and Jacob turns it to his advantage. But…that’s for later on.
In Genesis 25:23 God tells Rebekah that she will have two sons, and the elder shall serve the younger. Jacob was God’s choice from the beginning, so we could say that anything Jacob did in order to secure his position as the birthright holder was in keeping with God’s will.
In that verse God tells Rebekah she has two nations in her womb, …”even with
When Jacob took his entire retinue with him to return to the land of his father, Esau seems to have had many more men with him than Jacob had. Esau was the stronger of the two, but he (Edom) eventually served his brother (when Israel was under David) so what God told Rebekah was fulfilled. We can see that this shows strength in numbers is not going to get in the way of God’s plan. We see that throughout the bible, and even today- the creation of Israel, the 7-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, even in the midst of the current terrorism, Israel is the weaker of the surrounding nations yet they cannot come even close to subduing or overcoming this tiny little nation. That’s because this tiny little nation is like an iceberg- we only see the land of Israel but what supports Israel is the Lord of Lords and King of Kings- the Holy One of Israel, God, Almighty. Nothing is more powerful, so although the people of one nation may be more powerful than the people of the other, Israel has God on their side and no nation or group of nations can stand against Him.
We may not understand or even agree with what the Patriarchs and leaders we read about in the bible did, but it represents that they were no different from us than we are from each other. God is the God of doing great and wonderful things with schmo’s and schlemiels like you, like me, like Abraham, like Jacob, like Shimshon (Samson), and even with people like Jonah, who was about as unwilling a prophet as any I’ve ever read or heard about.
God can do whatever needs to be done, with whomever He chooses to do it with. If you want to be one of those He chooses, then remain faithful, listen for His guidance, accept His grace and don’t worry about the opposition.
What can man do to us when God is with us?