By Rabbi Ariel Abel
This week’s reading relates how Isaac and Rebecca were childless. They prayed and were blessed with twins, Esau and Jacob. The pregnancy was difficult, the unborn children appearing to struggle with each other in utero.
Rebecca was told through prophecy that each of the twins would become competing nations. In rabbinic writings, this prophecy is seen to have been fulfilled by the emergence of two great religions: Christianity, identified with Esau, and Judaism, with Jacob.
As the lads grew up, they developed very different interests. Jacob managed no more than the homestead, while Esau ventured far and wide as a hunter.
One day Esau was famished from hunting and so begged his brother for some broth. His brother gave it him, but not before negotiating from him his birthright. Esau complained that in view of his hunger he might die, so he sold his birthright to Jacob and even despised it, with no regret for the sale. Years later, when Isaac grew old, before dying he wished to bless his firstborn son.
When Rebecca heard of this, she insisted that Esau’s younger twin, Jacob, dress in his brother’s clothes and take the blessing instead. As Isaac was blind, he proceeded to bless Jacob. Esau returned with his father’s favourite venison, and found that his brother had taken his blessing from him. Infuriated, he begged his father for a blessing as he was offered a paraphrase of Jacob’s blessing. Esau left the scene filled with hate and a death wish on his brother.
Their mother sent Jacob to her family in Mesopotamia. The last information we have of Esau is of his marriage to a daughter of Ishmael, in addition to his Canaanite wives.
This he did in reaction to his parents’ disapproval of Canaanite women, who had embittered their lives and, according to the Midrash, had blinded Isaac with their idolatrous incense. More than 10 years ago, I asked a predominantly Christian group of academics what their greatest question was concerning the Jewish Bible.
Their response in unison was: Jacob’s stealing of the birthright of Esau. In fact, Jacob returned the birthright on meeting his brother many years later.
The same Bible that recorded Jacob’s actions to his brother’s detriment also records his contriteness and return of the disputed family hierarchal honour in the family. Jacob repented in full for his misdemeanor.
• Ariel Abel is a rabbi in Liverpool and Southport