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Chapter 2: Jacob and Esau

Although the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are recited as a litany of the founding fathers of Judaism, the Bible treats Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, as something of an intermediary once he becomes an adult. His life seems to have been comparatively uneventful and few details are given. It is his son, Jacob, who assumes a major role in the ongoing narrative of the Jewish people.

It is Jacob who became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel and it is through him that Judaism traces its heritage.[1] But it was not supposed to be that way. Jacob had an older brother, Esau. They were twins, but Esau was the firstborn; it should have been through him, and his children, that the Hebrew people traced their ancestry.

From the time they were conceived, the twins were engaged in a struggle for supremacy. Ultimately, it was a struggle between the male and the female principles, which the brothers manifested in varying degrees. The Bible tells the story of that conflict and of the difficult pregnancy it caused their mother.

Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebecca...and Rebecca became pregnant....She was going to have twins, and before they were born, they struggled against each other in her womb. She said, "Why should something like this happen to me?" So she went to ask the Lord for an answer.

The Lord said to her, "Two nations are within you; You will give birth to two rival peoples. One will be stronger than the other; The older will serve the younger."[2]

In an era when the status of an elder son was firmly fixed by custom and by law, this prophecy would have seemed ludicrous. The oldest son automatically assumed the position of authority in a family.

Esau was born first. The Bible notes that even at his birth he displayed characteristics that are usually associated with masculinity. He is described as having a ruddy complexion when he was born, and of having rough skin that was "like a hairy robe."[3] He was the stronger twin and it was this physical strength that allowed him to be born first. But Jacob challenged him right up to the moment of birth: the Bible reports that Esau was born with his brother clinging tightly to his foot.

As he grew older, Esau continued to exhibit traditionally male characteristics. He developed into a bearded, outdoors kind of a man. (The name Esau means hairy.) In biblical times, as today, he would be seen as the embodiment of the male principle. He was a hunter who spent his time alone, roaming the land in search of animals to kill for food. In lifestyle and physical appearance he was a "man's man."

Jacob, the younger brother, was smooth skinned. His physical appearance was different and so was his lifestyle. He led a more settled life, close to the domestic scene where he tended the crops that were grown for the extended family. It was work that demanded relatedness and cooperation with other people.

The physical appearance and characteristics of the brothers, so clearly delineated in the Bible, symbolize the differing development of the two men. Jacob was the one in whom the evolving female principle was manifesting itself, and because of this he was his mother's favorite. "Jacob was a quiet man who stayed at home...Rebecca preferred Jacob."[4]

But Esau, the son who showed no signs of the feminine, was his father's favorite. "Esau became a skilled hunter, a man who loved the outdoors...Isaac preferred Esau, because he enjoyed eating the animals Esau killed."[5] Esau was a loner, a man whose lifestyle demanded neither cooperation nor communication with others.

It was his lack of the female principle that put Esau at a disadvantage when dealing with his more highly evolved brother. And this lack of a more balanced development caused Esau to impulsively give away his most important possession--his birthright. The Bible describes the situation that led up to that crucial moment.[6]

It was the end of a fairly typical day. It was late, and Esau had been out hunting. He had not been able to find any game and by the time he got home, he was tired and hungry. In the meantime, Jacob had prepared some lentil stew for his own meal. Although Esau preferred the venison that he usually killed for himself, the soup that Jacob prepared seemed especially appetizing at the end of a long and unproductive day.

Esau asked if he could have Jacob's supper for himself and, in an offhand manner, Jacob made the outlandish demand of receiving his brother's seniority rights in exchange for the food. Amazingly, Esau agreed to this. "Esau made the vow and gave his rights to Jacob....He ate and drank and then got up and left. That was all Esau cared about his rights as the first-born son."[7]

Jacob, the brother who manifested the female principle, could give up a meal because he was aware of needs beyond those which could be physically met. For him, the promise of a birthright was more important than the immediate gratification of his appetite.

But because Esau denied himself any expression of the feminine, he did not have the same ability to put off present satisfaction in the interest of future gains: an ability that gives evidence of the maturation process at work; of evolutionary development manifesting itself.

This lack of development also marked his father, Isaac. Because of choices he had made throughout his life, in his maturity Isaac, like his oldest son, did not manifest the female principle. He did not have access to the kind of perception that goes beyond the range of sensory input; he had only the physical senses to rely on for information. It was this limited ability that caused him to make an irreparable mistake: he gave his patriarchal blessing to the wrong son. And in biblical times, that blessing had all the reality of an accomplished fact. People believed that whatever good it called for would come to pass.

The blessing was traditionally given near the end of the father's life. When Isaac thought the time had come, he called Esau to his side and said: "I am now an old man and don't know the day of my death. Now then, get your weapons--your quiver and bow--and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die."[8]

Rebecca, the wife of Isaac, overheard this conversation and as soon as her older son left to go hunting, she summoned Jacob. She was determined that this favorite child of hers would be the one to receive the blessing. And she had a plan to achieve her objective.

She told Jacob: "Listen carefully and do what I tell you: Go out to the flock and bring two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies."[9]

Jacob, always practical, reminded his mother that his body type was smooth, while his brother was hairy--all over. Isaac's eyesight may have failed, but his sense of touch was still good.

His mother was undaunted: "Rebecca took the best clothes of her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob. She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins."[10] Now he would feel and smell like Esau.

Jacob took the meal to his father. At first Isaac was hesitant: he was not sure who had brought the food, and he thought he recognized Jacob's voice. But when his son kissed him, and he felt the roughness of skin and smelled the animal hides, he no longer had any misgivings. He told Jacob, "Come near so I can touch you, my son." And when he felt that the hands "were hairy like...Esau" he was reassured. Then he asked for the food.

"My son, bring me some of your game to eat, so that I may give you my blessing." Jacob brought it to him and he ate; and he brought some wine and he drank. Then his father Isaac said to him, "Come here my son, and kiss me." So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said, "Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field."[11]

No subtle nuances or innate characteristics identified Esau for the old man. The knowledge of his son was limited to what he could determine from sensory perceptions. It was this superficial identification that caused him to mistake Jacob for Esau. Jacob, bound up in animal hides, smelled and felt like Esau; therefore, he must be Esau. So although Jacob spent a good deal of time with his father, serving him the meal and providing conversation and companionship for him while he ate, Isaac still mistook his younger son for Esau.

When the meal was finished, and his appetite had been satisfied with the meat that he craved, Isaac gave his blessing to the wrong son. "May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you."[12] It was the fulfillment of the prophecy given to Rebecca many years before--the prophecy that her younger son would have dominion over his older brother.

When Isaac realized he had given his blessing to the wrong son he "began to tremble and shake all over." Esau begged for some kind of blessing for himself, but it was too late. Everything had been given to his brother. In that culture, the spoken word had the force of a binding contract: it could not be rescinded. So instead of a blessing, Isaac gave his son a revelation of the future. He predicted that Esau would continue on the path he had already chosen. He would remain a wanderer and a hunter. He would not make the transition from a nomadic life to an agricultural one. "No dew from heaven for you, no fertile fields for you. You will live by your sword."[13]

The relationship between Esau and his father is similar to the relationship between Ishmael and Abraham. Both fathers wanted their oldest son to be their heir, and in both cases, the Lord said that was not to be. There were also similarities between the sons.[14] Each was a skilled hunter who roamed the land in search of prey and each had a younger brother who stayed closer to home, raising crops and domestic animals. But more importantly, both men symbolized the line of descent in which the development of the female principle was not a factor. And as if to seal this bond between them, Esau married the daughter of Ishmael.

The Bible criticizes Jacob for the deceitful way in which he deprived his brother of the patriarchal blessing [15] and goes on to tell how he reaped what he had sown when he became the victim of another man's deception.[16] But in spite of his shortcomings, he was the more highly evolved brother. Jacob was the one in whom the female principle was able to find expression, so it would be through him that Abraham's descendants would trace their heritage.

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