GENESIS 24 ff.: THE CONTEXT
Chapter 24 tells of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. When Abraham was old (24:1), he sent a trusted servant to Abraham’s own country (24:4) to get a wife for Isaac, so that Isaac wouldn’t have to marry a Canaanite woman (24:3). Abraham was from Ur of the Chaldees (11:28) and Haran (11:31)—Mesopotamian towns—so the servant went to Nahor (24:10), a town in northwest Mesopotamia, to look for a wife for Isaac. He prayed for God to reveal to him the right young woman for Isaac (24:12-14), and the Lord pointed him to Rebekah (24:15 ff.).
Rebekah had a brother named Laban (24:29), who will be important as the father of Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel (chapter 29). Laban will trick the trickster, Jacob, forcing him to marry Leah before allowing him to marry Rachel. Jacob will repay Laban’s trick with one of his own, which will result in him prospering at Laban’s expense (30:25-43).
But in chapter 24, Abraham’s servant negotiated with Laban and Bethuel, Rebekah’s father (24:47), for Rebekah to marry Isaac. The servant returned to Canaan with Rebekah, where Rebekah met Isaac (24:64-65). “The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done” (24:66), and Isaac “took Rebekah, and she became his wife. He loved her” (24:67).
Following the death of Sarah (chapter 23), Abraham married Keturah (25:1-6). At the age of 175 years, Abraham died and was buried in the cave of Machpelah (25:7-11). This story is followed by a listing of Ishmael’s descendants (25:12-18), which brings us to the birth of Esau and Jacob (25:19 ff.).
As we follow Jacob’s life from his birth until his death, the persistent theme will be conflict. Jacob will have conflict with Esau (25:19-34; 27; 32:3-21), and Isaac and Rebekah will be divided in their affections for their respective favorites (25:28). Jacob will have conflict with Laban (29:15-35; 30:25-43; 31), and Rachel will have conflict with Jacob’s concubines (30:1-24). Jacob will try to appease Esau (32:3-21; 33:1-17) and will wrestle with God at Peniel (32:22-32). Shechem will rape Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, and Jacob’s sons will deceive Shechem and kill him to avenge Dinah (34:1-31). Jacob’s youngest son, Joseph, will offend his brothers, who will sell him into slavery (37:1-36). Not a pretty picture!
GENESIS 25:19-20. THIS IS THE HISTORY OF THE GENERATIONS OF ISAAC
19This is the history of the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Abraham became the father of Isaac. 20Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Syrian of Paddan Aram, the sister of Laban the Syrian, to be his wife.
“This is the history of the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son”(v. 19a). This phrase parallels the earlier introduction to Ishmael’s genealogy (“this is the history of the generations (toledot) of Ishmael, Abraham’s son,” v. 12a).
This word toledot recurs a number of times in Genesis, in each occasion introducing a major figure (Adam, 5:1; Noah, 6:9; Shem, 11:10; Terah, 11:27; Ishmael, 25:12; Isaac, 12:19; and Esau, 36:1) and initiating a transition into a new chapter of Hebrew life. Here it introduces the account of Isaac’s life, which will also include the lives of Jacob and Esau, Isaac’s sons.
Genesis treats the life of Isaac quite briefly by comparison with the lives of Abraham, Isaac’s father, and Jacob, Isaac’s son. Abraham will be the father of many nations (17:4, 16), and Jacob (whose name will later become Israel—32:28) will become the father of the nation that will ultimately bear his name. Isaac is important primarily as the sacrificial lamb who made it possible for God to test Abraham’s faith (22:1-19) and as the one through whom Abraham’s lineage is passed to Jacob. In the various accounts that deal with Isaac, he is usually the supporting actor rather than the star.
“Abraham became the father of Isaac”(v. 19b). The listing of Ishmael’s descendants first mentioned that Ishmael was Abraham’s son, but then it says, “whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s handmaid, bore to Abraham” (25:12). There is no corresponding mention of Sarah (Isaac’s mother) in Isaac’s account. Chapter 23 recorded Sarah’s death and burial, and her name will be mentioned again only in her role as Abraham’s wife (25:10; 49:31).
“Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah” (v. 20a). This verse mentions that Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah—an advanced age for the marriage of the son of a prominent man. Verse 26 tells us that Isaac was sixty years old when Jacob and Esau were born. As we shall see, Rebekah will have difficulty conceiving a child. By virtue of verses 20a and 26, we know exactly the exact interval (twenty years) between the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah and the birth of their sons.
There is no corresponding mention of Rebekah’s age at the time of their marriage or at the time of Esau and Jacob’s births. This suggests that, unlike Sarah, Rebekah is still young enough to bear children.
“the daughter of Bethuel the Syrian of Paddan Aram, the sister of Laban the Syrian, to be his wife”(v. 20b). As noted above, the account of Abraham’s finding a wife for Isaac and the involvement of Bethuel and Laban is dealt with in considerable detail in chapter 24.
Arameans were a Semitic people who had settlements in Mesopotamia (east and northeast of Canaan) and in the area around Damascus (north of Canaan).
Paddan-aram is a region in the vicinity of Haran in Mesopotamia (see 27:43 and 28:2)—perhaps 150 miles (250 km) northeast of Canaan. This verse tells us that Rebekah was from Paddan-aram—something that we learned earlier in chapter 24. Later, Isaac will instruct Jacob not to marry a Canaanite woman, but to go to Paddan-aram to find a wife (28:1-2). Jacob will do so, in part to obey his father and in part to escape Esau’s wrath (27:41 ff.). He will meet Rachel there and work seven years for Rachel’s hand (29:20), only to be tricked by Laban, Rachel’s father (and Rebekah’s brother) into marrying Leah (29:23-25)—a delicious bit of justice—the trickster Jacob being tricked and trumped. Jacob will work another seven years to earn Rachel’s hand (29:30). Rachel (Jacob’s wife) will have difficulty conceiving a child (30:1) just as did Rebekah (Jacob’s mother) and Sarah (Jacob’s grandmother). In the end, Jacob will sire a number of children in Paddan-aram (35:23-26; 46:15). He will also employ considerable trickery to become wealthy in Paddan-aram (30:25-43)—resulting in conflict which necessitated Jacob’s fleeing the wrath of Laban (31:1-21), just as he earlier fled the wrath of Esau.
GENESIS 25:21-23. ISAAC ENTREATED YAHWEH FOR HIS WIFE
21 Isaac entreated Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren. Yahweh was entreated by him, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22The children struggled together within her. She said, “If it be so, why do I live?” She went to inquire of Yahweh. 23Yahweh said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb.
Two peoples will be separated from your body.
The one people will be stronger than the other people.
The elder will serve the younger.”
“Isaac entreated Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren. Yahweh was entreated by him, and Rebekah his wife conceived”(v. 21). YHWH or Yahweh is the name by which God will identify himself to Moses at the burning bush (3:13-14).
As noted above, Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel all experience difficulty conceiving a child. Each requires God’s intervention—a fact that emphasizes and re-emphasizes God’s role in choosing these couples for a special destiny and enabling them to play successfully their respective roles in bringing that destiny into fruition.
Abraham prayed for Abimelech’s wife and slaves so that they might have children (20:17) but there is no report of him praying for his wife, Sarah. Nor do we have any record of Rebekah praying for the ability to conceive, as Rachel and Hannah will do (30:24; 1 Samuel 1:10). However, Isaac prays for his wife, and God answers his prayer.
“The children struggled together within her” (v. 22a). Here we learn for the first time that Rebekah is pregnant with more than one child. The Hebrew word that is translated “struggled together” suggests a fierce, violent sort of struggle.
“She said, ‘If it be so, why do I live?’ She went to inquire of Yahweh”(v. 22b). Rebekah has been barren for twenty years. One would think that her joy at the prospect of having children would enable her to endure the discomfort of pregnancy with a certain amount of composure. However, her concern here has to do with issues beyond her physical discomfort. Is something wrong with the babies? Will she deliver them alive? Will she survive the delivery? Are their struggles in the womb an omen that they will suffer violence throughout their lives?
“Yahweh said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb. Two peoples will be separated from your body'”(v. 23a). Verse 23 has two instances of parallelism, which is common in Jewish literature. We see it often in the Psalms, and the Psalms have inspired modern poets to adopt parallelism. We see parallelism in both parts this verse. “Two nations…two peoples” (23a). “One people will be stronger…elder will serve the younger” (23b).
God informs Rebekah that she will be the mother, not only of two children, but of “two nations”—”two peoples”. Furthermore, these children/nations “shall be divided,” which suggests that the struggles in their womb will be typical of their relationship throughout their lives. This is not a matter of ordinary sibling rivalry; something more is at work here. Rebekah was right to be concerned. However, this word from God offers at least some reassurance. God is aware of the struggles between these two babies, and knows where those struggles will lead. As we will see in 23b, God has a plan.
“The one people will be stronger than the other people. The elder will serve the younger”(v. 23b). Is this simply a description of future events or a reflection of God’s will? Almost surely the latter! It is difficult to imagine that God would not take a decisive hand in the lineage of Israel, which he will treat as his firstborn (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9).
It is contrary to conventional practice for the elder to serve the younger. As we will see as the Jacob/Esau story progresses, the firstborn male receives as his due the birthright (25:29-34; see also 43:33) and the blessing (27:30-40). When God gives Moses the law at Sinai, it will prescribe that the firstborn shall receive a double portion of the inheritance—twice as much as any of his brothers—even if the father dislikes the firstborn or prefers another son (Deuteronomy 21:17). Also, God will claim all firstborns, whether animal or humans. Firstborn animals shall be redeemed or sacrificed, and firstborn sons shall be redeemed (Exodus 34:19-20). God will consider Israel to be his firstborn (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9), and those “who are enrolled in heaven” are considered to be the “assembly of the firstborn” (Hebrews 12:23).
The idea behind God’s claim on the firstborn is that parents tend to regard the firstborn as especially precious. By claiming the firstborn, God reminds us that he is the source of all blessings and can claim ownership of everything. It also tells us that God wants us to honor him with that which is most precious to us—not something of lesser value.
However, it is also true that God often chooses to work through the lesser rather than the greater, so he sometimes chooses someone other than the firstborn to carry the lineage through which he blesses us. God chose Adam’s third son, Seth, to be the one through whom the lineage would be transmitted (5:3-5). God chose Abraham’s second son, Isaac, to the one (Ishmael was Abraham’s first son). Now God is choosing Jacob, the second born, rather than Esau, who was the firstborn. He will choose Joseph over his elder brothers (chapters 37ff). Later, God will choose David, Jesse’s youngest son, to become Israel’s greatest king (1 Samuel 16). He will choose Solomon, David’s second-born (2 Samuel 12).
Edom will be the nation descended from Esau (v. 30; 36:1, 8), and Israel will be the nation descended from Jacob. God will regard Israel as his firstborn (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9), so that is the primary way that the prophecy that “the elder will serve the younger” will be realized. However, we will also see Moab playing a distant second to Israel (Exodus 15:15; Numbers 24:18; 2 Samuel 8:12-14; 1 Kings 11:14-16; Obadiah 1:18).
GENESIS 25:24-26. THE BIRTH OF ESAU AND JACOB
24When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red (Hebrew: admoni) all over, like a hairy (Hebrew: sear) garment. They named him Esau. 26After that, his brother came out, and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel. He was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
“When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb”(v. 24). The first part of the prophecy of verse 23 comes to pass.
“The first came out red (admoni) all over, like a hairy (sear) garment. They named him Esau”(v. 25). Esau is the firstborn—the first of the twins to be delivered from the womb.
It is easy to see how the word Edom is derived from admoni, but less easy to see how that is true for the name Esau. Esau is hairy (sear), which will be important in the story where Jacob steals Esau’s blessing (27:1-29). Later, he will settle in Seir (32:3; 33:14, 16; 36:8).
“After that, his brother came out, and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel. He was named Jacob” (v. 26a). Jacob’s gripping Esau’s heel and the struggles that the infants had in the womb portend the conflicts that these brothers will experience as young men. Gripping the heel suggests deviousness, and Jacob will, indeed, be devious.
Again, it is easy to see how the name Jacob is derived from the Hebrew word for heel (aqeb). Given the deviousness that Jacob will later manifest, perhaps this is where we get the word heel—slang for a contemptible person.
The Hebrew word aqab—very much like the word aqeb—means “he supplants or deceives” which is how Esau will describe Jacob’s actions after Jacob steals Esau’s birthright (27:36).
“Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them” (v. 26b). As noted above, Jacob was forty years old when he married Rebekah (v. 20), so this couple experienced twenty barren years before Rebekah delivered these twin boys. We know that Isaac had prayed for Rebekah to conceive (v. 21). Had he prayed for twenty years? That seems possible. In any event, this tells us something about prayer. The fact that prayer isn’t answered quickly or in the manner that we wanted/expected does not indicated that it hasn’t been answered or won’t be answered. Sometimes a lifetime of prayer is answered only after the death of the one who prayed.
GENESIS 25:27-28. ISAAC LOVED ESAU, BUT REBEKAH LOVED JACOB
27The boys grew. Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field. Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28Now Isaac loved Esau, because he ate his venison. Rebekah loved Jacob.
“The boys grew. Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field. Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents”(v. 27). It is clear that these are fraternal rather than identical twins (the product of two eggs rather than one), because they are so different.
Esau is a hairy outdoorsman—a skillful hunter—a man of the field—characteristics that we tend to associate with manly strength. But he will soon come in from the field hungry (v. 30).
Jacob is a quiet man—a smooth man (27:11)—an indoors man—a man who lives in tents. We might think of him as the first geek. Fathers tend to be concerned about sons of this sort. Is he too quiet—too reserved? Is he equipped to succeed in a tough world? Does he have any fire in his belly? Will he be courageous when courage is required? Will he have any ambition? Will he be a mama’s boy?
Those concerns would be even more pronounced in that primitive world. In those days, a quiet, reserved young man couldn’t get rich programming computers or performing intricate financial calculations. But, as we will see, Jacob’s strength is based on wits rather than muscle, and he will prove himself capable of outwitting nearly every competitor—beginning with his he-man brother.
“Now Isaac loved Esau, because he ate his venison”(v. 28a). Parents ought not to take sides—to prefer one child over the other—but many do. Jacob (to be known later as Israel) will prefer Joseph to his other children (37:3-4; 44:20). These things happen in families.
This verse says that Isaac loves Esau, because he is fond of game—and Esau is a hunter who puts meat on the table. But I suspect that there might be more involved than Isaac’s fondness for steak and ribs. Fathers want strong sons, and Esau is the archetypal manly man. It seems natural for Isaac to prefer Esau.
“Rebekah loved Jacob” (v. 28b). We aren’t told why Rebekah loves Jacob, but we can make an educated guess. While Esau is in the field hunting, Jacob spends time in the tent with his mother, and Rebekah enjoys his company. Esau prefers the company of outdoorsmen, but Jacob enjoys the company of quiet men like himself, thoughtful men—and he is comfortable being around women as well. It seems natural for Rebekah to prefer Jacob.
GENESIS 25:29-34. ESAU DESPISED HIS BIRTHRIGHT
29Jacob boiled stew. Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am famished.” Therefore his name was called Edom. 31Jacob said, “First, sell me your birthright.” 32Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die. What good is the birthright to me?” 33Jacob said, “Swear to me first.”
He swore to him. He sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils. He ate and drank, rose up, and went his way. So Esau despised his birthright.
“Jacob boiled stew” (v. 29a). As we will see in verse 34, this is a lentil stew. Lentils are legumes, like peas or beans. Perhaps Jacob has raised these lentils in a vegetable garden. That would be consistent with the picture that has been portrayed of Jacob as an around-the-house person.
“Esau came in from the field, and he was famished” (v. 29b). We have heard that Esau is a skillful hunter, but he has apparently failed to bag any game on this hunting trip. Otherwise he would have built a fire and roasted meat to satisfy his hunger—or he would have offered to trade Jacob meat for lentil stew.
“Esau said to Jacob, ‘Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am famished.’ Therefore his name was called Edom” (v. 30). In verse 25, Esau came out of the womb red (admoni). Now he asks for “that same red stew” (ha adom). It is from this word adom, then, that the word Edom comes—Edom being the nation that Esau will found.
“Jacob said, ‘First, sell me your birthright'” (v. 31). The birthright is “the special privilege assigned to the first-born (son) of any father. This meant, in the first place, that he inherited two portions, that is, double the portions for the other males…. The right of the firstborn also meant leadership among the brothers after the death of the father” (Jorge Pixley, in Sakenfeld, page 471; see also Deuteronomy 21:17).
Jacob’s quick and decisive response tells us that he has been coveting Esau’s birthright and has been waiting for an opening that would allow him to wrest it from Esau.
As we will see later, Jacob also covets Isaac’s blessing—a blessing that belongs to Esau by virtue of his firstborn status. While Jacob makes no attempt to deceive Esau to get his birthright (Esau makes it easy—deception is unnecessary), Jacob will use deception to obtain the blessing (27:1-29).
“Esau said, ‘Behold, I am about to die'” (v. 32a). If Esau is truly about to die, his comment makes sense. A birthright would be of no value to a dead man.
But we should not take Esau’s statement as fact. Esau is uncomfortable and exaggerates the significance of his hunger. His comment, “I am about to die,” is like our common phrase, “I am starving to death”—a statement that tells us little except that the person who says it feels hungry.
“What good is the birthright to me?” (v. 32b). Esau’s response shows that he cares only for the present—that he is unwilling to delay gratification in favor of building a solid foundation for the future. It also tells us that his sense of priorities is stunted—that he overvalues present comforts and undervalues substantial privileges.
“Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first'” (v. 33a). In verse 32, Esau’s response indicates his casual attitude with regard to his birthright, but his response falls short of a promise to give his birthright to Jacob. Jacob is not about to allow an ambiguity to rob him of this opportunity to rob his brother. He is not about to let Esau say, “I didn’t say that!” or “I didn’t mean that!” He insists that Esau swear an oath that he will give Jacob his birthright in exchange for some lentil stew. Such an oath would constitute a solemn promise that would bind Esau to its provisions.
“He swore to him. He sold his birthright to Jacob” (v. 33b). Jacob requires an oath, so Esau gives him an oath. His only concern at present is the hunger in his belly. The future seems distant and the birthright unimportant, so Esau willingly enters into this foolish bargain to sell his birthright to Jacob.
“Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils” (v. 34a). With Esau’s oath in hand, Jacob honors his part of the bargain by giving Esau bread and lentil stew.
The KJV says “pottage of lentils” instead of “stew of lentils”—and apparently the phrase “mess of pottage” was used in some translation, giving rise to “mess of pottage” as a common phrase to describe something of small value.
“He (Esau) ate and drank, rose up, and went his way” (v. 34b). Esau seems never to waver in his carelessness. These four quick verbs rendered in quick succession—ate, drank, rose, and went—speak volumes about his character.
“So Esau despised (yibez—from baza) his birthright” (v. 34c). But just in case we missing the character implications of verse 34a, the author spells them out for us here. “Esau despised (baza) his birthright.”
But we should be careful about despising Esau for despising his birthright. We are often guilty of selling our birthright for a mess of pottage. Isn’t that what happens when we mortgage our future by using credit card debt for frivolous purchases! Isn’t that what happens when a young person quits school in favor of a minimum-wage job! Isn’t that what happens when a husband or wife decides to cheat on his/her spouse! Isn’t that what happens when we abuse tobacco or alcohol or drugs! Isn’t that what happens when workaholics substitute work for human relationships! Isn’t that what happens when Congress wastes tax-dollars on earmarks! Isn’t that what happens when we eat too much and exercise too little and neglect our health! Isn’t that what happens when we neglect the impact of our actions on the environment! The list goes on and on.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995)
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Towner, W. Sibley, Westminster Bible Companion: Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan