While the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25-28), seems to make it appear that Jacob is a scheming person who “stole” Esau’s birthright and blessing, it is important to remember that all is not as it seems, when viewed through the Hebrew mindset. We need to recognize that Esau was a very passionate and sensual person (hence, his name which means “red”). He lived in the moment, not caring what the future held; while Jacob, sat in the tent, thinking and planning his future.
To understand the story, we must go back to the beginning of the saga where ADONAI Himself TOLD Rebecca (Rivkah) Isaac’s (Yitz’chak’s) wife, that the older will serve the younger! (As the saga winds down, we see that Mom made sure this would come to pass!)
Genesis 25:20 Yitz'chak was forty years old when he took Rivkah, the daughter of B'tu'el the Arami from Paddan-Aram and sister of Lavan the Arami, to be his wife. 21 Yitz'chak prayed to ADONAI on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. ADONAI heeded his prayer, and Rivkah became pregnant. 22 The children fought with each other inside her so much that she said, "If it's going to be like this, why go on living?" So she went to inquire of ADONAI, 23 who answered her, "There are two nations in your womb. From birth they will be two rival peoples. One of these peoples will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger." (CJB)
We see the babies emerging with the firstborn, very hairy Esau (who seemed to be the stronger and more aggressive of the two), and clasping his heel was his brother Jacob. The story then immediately continues with the boys as adults. Dad, Isaac, favored the firstborn Esau because he was a skilled hunter and had a taste for game (v. 27-28). Mom Rebecca preferred Jacob, the quiet, thoughtful, young man.
What we must understand also is that Esau was a passionate, boisterous womanizer (he took a total of 3 wives (Genesis 26:34 & 28:9), two pagan Caananites and one from the line of Ishmael, who is the forefather of today’s Arab nations), “lived in the moment” and liked instant gratification. Hence – because he was starving one day, he simply sold his birthright when Jacob mentioned it to him….
Here’s what author Avigdor Boncheck asserts in his book, Studying the Torah: A Guide to In-Depth Interpretation, concerning the two issues about how Jacob got the birthright and the blessing:
In adumbrated fashion our story now looks like this:
+ And Jacob made pottage.
+ And Esau came from the field.
+ And Esau said, Let me devour. And Jacob said, Sell me today.
+ And Esau said, Behold I am going to die.
+ And Jacob said, Swear to me today.
+ And he swore and he sold his birthright.
+ Now Jacob had given Esau bread and pottage.
+ And Esau ate and drank and rose and went away.
+ And Esau despised the birthright.
The sense here is that Jacob had already given the food to Esau before their discussion of the birthright and its sale. Needless to say, this is radically different from our first impression of the events of this story. The picture we now get is that when Esau came in from the field and asked to devour the red, red stuff, Jacob gave it to him immediately, with bread and drink to boot.
And while Esau was engrossed in wolfing down his food, Jacob brought up the topic of the birthright and offered to buy it from his brother (for cash, we can assume). Esau couldn’t be bothered with such inanities for he was going to die, in any event. So he cavalierly sold it to Jacob. And thus Esau “despised” his birthright!
With this interpretation, offered by the Hak’tav V’Ha-kabbalah, the question of the morality of the pottage/birthright sale evaporates. Not only had Jacob not taken advantage of the desperate Esau, he had, instead, graciously served him. Only later did they work out a deal about the birthright. The fact that Esau would sell his birthright while under no duress only highlights the last words of our text, “And Esau did despise the birthright.”
The reader might protest that we have prettified the story. But this interpretation, in fact, has told it as it is. The text bears it out. That this jars our accustomed way of understanding the story only highlights the importance of approaching the Torah-text with openness and without preconceived notions. Well, you say, if Jacob was really in the right in this case, what can we say about him deceiving his blind father, Isaac, and stealing the blessing intended for Esau? Ah … but that’s another story!
And here it is:
The biblical story of Esau selling his birthright (Genesis 25:19–34) to his younger brother Jacob for a pot of porridge is proverbial. Several chapters later (chapter 27), we read of Isaac blessing Jacob, who had come in disguised as Esau:
“And the lads grew up; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a plain man, abiding in tents. And Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison; but Rebecca loves Jacob. And Jacob sod pottage; and Esau came from the field, and he was faint. And Esau said to Jacob, Let me devour, I pray thee, from this red, red thing, for I am faint: therefore his name is called Edom. And Jacob said, Sell me this day your birthright. And Esau said, Behold I am going to die; and what is this birthright to me? And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he swore to him; and he sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he did eat and drink, and he rose, and went, and Esau despised the birthright.” (Genesis 25:27–34)
The key word in chapter 25 is “birthright” or “firstborn” (both in Hebrew have the same root “bechor”) but it appears only four times. When we cross over (chapters and years) to the culmination of the birthright sale, when Jacob comes to take the fruits of his earlier purchase as Isaac blesses his son (chapter 27), we find the word “firstborn” (or birthright) again.
“. . . And he (Jacob) came to his father and said, My father; and he said, Here I am; who are you, my son? And Jacob said to his father, I am Esau your firstborn; I have done as you have spoken to me: arise, I pray you, sit and eat of my venison, that your soul may bless me. And Isaac said to his son, How is it that you found it so quickly, my son? And he said, Because the Lord God has caused it to happen before me. And Isaac said to Jacob, Step near, I pray you, that I may feel you, my son, whether you are my son Esau himself or not. … And he stepped near, and kissed him, and he smelled the odor of his garments, and blessed him, and said, See, the odor of my son is as the odor of a field which the Lord has blessed. … And it came to pass, as soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, and Jacob was yet scarce gone out from the face of Isaac his father, that Esau his brother came in from his hunting.
“And he also made savory meats, and brought them to his father, and said to his father, Let my father rise and eat from his son’s venison, that your soul may bless me. And Isaac his father said to him, Who are you? And he said, I am your son, the firstborn, Esau. And Isaac trembled with an exceedingly great trembling, and said, Who then is he that has hunted venison and brought it to me, and I have eaten of all before you came, and have blessed him? Yea, and he shall be blessed. And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceedingly bitter cry, and said to his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father. And he said, Your brother came subtly, and has taken your blessing. And he said, Is it because he was called Jacob that he has supplanted me these two times? he took my birthright and, behold, now he has taken my blessing.” (Genesis 27:18–36)
Here the code word in Hebrew, bechor, is repeated three times. The “Seven Key”[*] clues us in to the connection between the two events: four plus three equals seven. Jacob receiving his father’s blessing as a grown man is the ineluctable denouement of the childhood barter between the rash, impetuous Esau and the farsighted Jacob.
[*] In numerous passages throughout the Torah, we find that individual words or word combinations are repeated in patterns of seven or multiples of seven. This is done with an encompassing consistency and a fascinating ingenuity. The Seven Code can be found in every one of the five Books of Moses.
(You can learn more in Avigdor Boncheck’s book, Studying the Torah: A Guide to In-Depth Interpretation.)