The Torah: Genesis: Isaac and Jacob

Genesis 25:19-36:42

Jacob and Esau: chapter 25:19–34

In the Hebrew culture, a woman’s inability to have children was a reproach. It struck at the core of the Hebrew belief that every family stemming from Abraham was part of the covenant of God. Infertility, a “barren womb,” was embarrassing to a wife and could end a loving relationship. The denial of motherhood was a crushing blow. And few acts of God could be a more direct blessing than the reversal of a woman’s infertility.

The answer to prayer in the case of Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, is only one example of God’s miraculously “opening the womb.” So it had been with Sarah (Genesis 15:2-6; 18:12-14; 21:1-3). So also it would be with Rachel (Genesis 29:31; 30:22-23), with the mother of Samson (Judges 13:2-24), with Hannah (1 Samuel 1:2-20), and at the beginning of the New Testament with Elizabeth, of whom John the Baptist would be born (Luke 1:5-25).

Eventually, Esau and Jacob were born to Isaac and Rebekah. As firstborn son, Esau was destined to become head of the family and inherit a double share of the estate. However, he sold his birthright and forfeited any claim to the blessing that went with it. While God does not say anything good about Jacob’s strategy in tricking Esau, he openly condemns Esau’s attitude. Esau was worldly minded (Hebrews 12:16-17). He was destitute of spiritual insight and of appreciation for the blessings of God’s covenant with Abraham. He, like many today, lived only for the moment.

Isaac and Abimelech: chapter 26

Since the Philistines did not migrate from the Aegean Sea to the southern coast of Canaan until the early 12th century B.C., the reference to them in verse 1 must be explained. It seems likely that a later editor updated the ethnic designation of a non-Canaanite people originally known as Caphtorites (Deuteronomy 2:23) by calling them “Philistines” (Jeremiah 47:4; Amos 9:7).

In this chapter we see how Isaac became afraid that Abimelech would kill him and take his beautiful wife, Rebekah. Like his father before him, Isaac lied about his relationship to his wife. He repented, though, and, during the years that followed, God allowed him to prosper.

Out of jealousy, the men of Gerar plugged Isaac’s wells and tried to get rid of him. Gerar was on the edge of a desert, so water was precious. If someone dug a well, he was staking a claim to the land. To plug up someone’s well was an act of war. In the end, Isaac moved to Beersheba, where God encouraged him with a special revelation. Here, for the first time, we see the title that would later become so familiar: “The God of your father Abraham” (Genesis 26:24).


Isaac blessing Jacob

Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.’ He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy, like those of his brother Esau; so he blessed him” (Genesis 27:22).

Isaac blesses Jacob: chapters 27–28

God already told Rebekah (Genesis 25:23) that her older son (Esau) would serve her younger son (Jacob). But when she heard that Isaac was going to bless Esau, she took matters into her own hands and devised a plan to trick Isaac, who was blind, into blessing Jacob instead.

Shortly after blessing Jacob, Isaac realized the deception, but still recognized Jacob as heir to God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 27:30-33; 28:1-4).

In the ancient world, the time of death was a time when the powers of the dying head of the family could be rallied to enable him to pronounce his last will and testament in the form of a blessing…. The act of blessing in words of poetry set the blessing into motion and brought about what was pronounced. Once these power-laden words of blessing were spoken, they could not be recalled…. The [patriarchs] understood the blessing to be very much under the control of God. (Walter Harrelson, Genesis, Genesis to Revelation Series, p. 63)

Although the blessing became Jacob’s, he paid a heavy price for the deception. Esau hated Jacob and wanted to kill him. Isaac and Rebekah’s relationship was damaged, and Rebekah apparently never saw her favorite son again.

Fleeing for his life (Genesis 27:41-45), Jacob eventually reached the city of Luz, where God appeared to him in a dream. In it, God repeated to Jacob the promises he had made to Abraham and Isaac, adding his personal guarantee of blessing and protection (Genesis 28:10-15). Jacob renamed the city Bethel, meaning “house of God” (verse 19).

A mother’s love

Frederick W. Robertson, a 19th-century English preacher, gave a memorable sermon titled “Isaac Blessing His Sons.” Robertson read Rebekah’s words to her son Jacob: “Go out to the flock and bring me 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…. Let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say” (Genesis 27:9-13).

Robertson explained that even the most passionate human devotion, if unprincipled, will not bless but destroy. Said Robertson: “Here we see the idolatry of Rebekah; sacrificing her husband, her elder son, her principle, her own soul, for an idolized person. Do not mistake. No one ever loved child, brother, sister, too much. It is not the intensity of affection, but its interference with truth and duty, that makes it idolatry.

“Rebekah loved her son more than truth, that is, more than God…. The only true affection is that which is subordinate to [God’s higher authority]…. Compare, for instance, Rebekah’s love for Jacob with that of Abraham for his son Isaac.

“Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son to duty. Rebekah sacrificed truth and duty to her son. Which loved a son most? Which was the nobler love?” (Sermons on Bible Subjects, E.P. Dutton & Company, London, 1906, p. 78).

Jacob meets his match: chapters 29–31

These three chapters cover the years of Jacob’s exile: the years of service for his two wives and for flocks of his own. This episode shows how God often permits us to reap the shame and sorrow of our self-chosen ways (Galatians 6:7).

Jacob met his match in Haran with his uncle Laban, who proved to be just as deceitful with Jacob as Jacob had been with Esau.

When Jacob ran into Laban, one cheat met another. Just as Jacob had taken advantage of his brother by playing on his love for food (25:33), Laban cheated Jacob by playing on his love for Rachel. Additional ironies: Jacob learned his deceit from his mother, Laban’s sister. And eventually it was Laban’s daughter Rachel who enabled Jacob to escape her father’s cheating grasp. (The New Student Bible, NIV, commentary on Genesis 29:25)

The deceit over Leah (Genesis 29:15-30) made Jacob’s home life miserable. Leah, the unloved wife, hoped with each new son to win her husband’s affection. Rachel, on the other hand, was bitter because she was not able to have children. It is hardly surprising that the law later commanded, “Do not take your wife’s sister as a rival wife…while your wife is living” (Leviticus 18:18).

Although Laban took advantage of Jacob, God still blessed Jacob materially. Eventually, Jacob responded to God’s encouraging promise: “Go back to the land of your fathers…and I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3).

Jacob wrestles with God: chapter 32

As Jacob was returning to Canaan, he was confronted by God. The confrontation took the form of a wrestling match. In this struggle, Jacob revealed one of his most impressive traits: persistence. He persisted even after his hip was “touched” by God, holding on until God blessed him (verses 24-26). Jacob’s leg was “wrenched,” but he emerged from the struggle a new man. As a result, God changed Jacob’s name (verses 27-28). Jacob, “the ambitious deceiver,” became Israel, “the prince who prevailed with God.”

Jacob meets Esau: chapter 33

Articles about Genesis in “Exploring the Word of God”

In spite of Jacob’s miraculous experience at Peniel (Genesis 32:30), he still had to learn to trust God completely. He feared Esau and bowed before him, hoping his gifts would appease his brother (Genesis 32:13-21). But God had changed the heart of Esau. To Jacob’s amazement, his brother welcomed him with open arms (Genesis 33:4).

The story of Esau’s remarkable change of heart is one that we should not forget.

Life can bring us some bad situations. We can feel cheated, as Esau did, but we don’t have to remain bitter. We can remove bitterness from our lives by honestly expressing our feelings to God, forgiving those who have wronged us, and being content with what we have. (Life Application Bible, NIV, commentary on Genesis 33:1-11)

Jacob returns to Bethel: chapter 35

Humiliated by what had happened at Shechem, Jacob was forced to leave. Showing a repentant attitude, he quickly eliminated the corrupt family practices of idolatry and returned to Bethel, the place where God first revealed himself to Jacob.

Christians can learn a lot from Jacob’s example. Have we forgotten our spiritual commitment? Maybe we are not as close to God as we used to be. Perhaps we have settled down in our own Shechem. We need to have the courage to emulate Jacob, who renewed his relationship with God and completely turned his life around in response to God’s direction.

Esau’s family: chapter 36

Esau’s family had settled in the hill country of Seir in southeast Canaan (verse 8). Eau was completely different from Jacob. Esau was worldly. Bethel and its altar were not for him. The New Testament calls him a “profane person” (Hebrews 12:16, KJV). The word profane originally referred to an enclosure outside the tabernacle that was not set apart for any sacred purpose. In Esau’s life there were no sacred enclosures. He lived on an earthly plane, concerned only with the immediate. Unlike Jacob, Esau apparently never developed the spiritual dimension or meaning in his life. Jacob and Esau were brothers, but they were spiritual strangers. God wants us to be more like Jacob. Jacob was not perfect, but he did return to God and demonstrated that he would live according to the will and promises of God.

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