The story of the life of Jacob in the Book of Genesis presents us with a dynamic which many modern families know all too well, namely sibling rivalry. As much as parents make every effort to show equal love and attention to all their children, the fact is that one child’s personality or character traits may appeal to us more, perhaps because they remind us of ourselves at the same age. This dynamic was certainly true when it came to Isaac and Rebekah, the parents of Jacob and his brother, Esau.
Prior to giving birth, Rachel was told by God, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” As the children grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac love Esau, because he was fond of game, but Rachel loved Jacob. (Gen. 25:27). From a very early age these two young men were treated differently by each parent and this had to have had an impact on their development.
The tension between Jacob and Esau begins rather early in their story. One day, while Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. He ask Jacob for some of that “red stuff” 1 since he was famished. Jacob says to him, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau says, “I am about to die, of what use is my birthright to me?” Jacob has Esau swear to him first before giving Esau any food. Esau swears and is fed.
The contrast between the two brothers here could not be more vivid. Esau is a volatile individual who is caught up in the moment and in his physical needs. He is desperate for some of the ‘red stuff’ which Jacob prepared. For Esau, the birthright, which represents concern for the future, is altogether unimportant. Both his personality and outlook are captured in the final words of this account: Esau ate and drank and rose and went his way.
Jacob is the exact opposite. He is pictured as shrewd, calculating, and concerned about his future status. Without any prodding from his mother, who later manipulates the stealing of Isaac’s blessing, Jacob senses his brother’s weakness and takes immediate advantage of him. He trades the momentary gratification from the food for the long term material benefits of the birthright. He knows what his brother needs, even craves, and barters some of the food which he concocted for his future well-being. 2
That alone is quite a contrast between these two men; however, there seems to be more to the story which is not being said. Why would Esau, a hunter, need to go to his brother, a tent dweller, for food? Was it truly the food he wanted or need or was there some more? As twins, these two men share a bond which many others do not share. They are actually two halves of a whole, so, perhaps, Esau was reaching out to his ‘other half’? In that case, Jacob not only acts shrewdly, but he also rejects his other half by taking something which was not rightfully his.
Their father, Isaac, son of Abraham, was an old man and he called for Esau. Esau came to him and he asked Esau to go out and find game for him so that the food which he likes can be prepared. Isaac knows that his time on Earth is short and he wants to bless Esau before he dies.
Esau goes out and does as his father wishes. While he is talking to Isaac, his mother, Rebekah, is listening at the opening of the tent. After Esau leaves she goes to Jacob and tells him of Isaac’s plan to bless Esau when he returns. She tells Jacob to go and get two kids so that she can prepare them for Isaac, then Jacob, not Esau, will take the food to him.
Jacob says, “Look, my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am a man of smooth skin. Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him, and bring a curse upon myself and not a blessing.” (Gen. 27:11) His mother said, “Let your curse be upon me, my son, only obey my words, go, and get them for me.” Then she took Esau’s best clothing and put it on Jacob. She put the skins from the kids on his arms and the smooth part of his neck, she prepared the food, and gave it to Jacob to bring to his father.
He entered the tent saying, “My father”, and Isaac said, “Here I am; who are you my son?” He said, “I am Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you asked. Here is the food which I have prepared, sit up and eat so that you may bless me.” Isaac wonders how Esau came back so quickly. Jacob says it is because the Lord God granted him success. Isaac has his son step closer so he can examine him and see if this is really Esau. He smells his clothes, touches his arms, and kisses his neck. The hands are Esau’s hands, but he is hearing Jacob’s voice. “Are you really my son, Esau?” Jacob said, “I am”. He brought the food to Isaac and received Isaac’s blessing.
While it might strike us as strange that a father would not know one son from another, it is important to keep in mind that they are twins and would like have had similar mannerisms and other characteristics. Nevertheless, it is precisely because Isaac responds openly when confronted by Jacob as he feigns being Esau that we learn about the nature of relationship from him, especially those who are parents. Just listen again to the syntax of the phrase which Isaac utters: “Here I am; who are you, my son?” Isaac might not know which of his sons is standing before him, yet he is open to whoever it is. It does not matter if it is Esau or Jacob; he is there for both of them. This is the challenge that parents face every day if they are blessed with more than one child or are part of an extended blended family. Even though they may have somewhat different feelings for each of their children and step-children, can they respond in a meaningful way to each one? Are they truly open to each one’s particular needs and they make themselves available to them? Isaac is often characterized as being merely the son of a great father and the father of a great son—a generational transition between Abraham and Jacob. He is not thought of to be very substantive, forceful, or important. Yet, in his response to Jacob we see him in a different light. He not only challenges Jacob’s very nature by asking him, “Who are you, my son?” He also seems to love and respond to his children. He is ready to say “hineini” (here I am) to both Esau and Jacob. 3
Jacob had barely left the tent after the blessing when Esau returned from hunting. He entered the tent and said, “Let my father sit up and eat of his son’s game so he may bless me.” Isaac did not know who this was and when he realized what had taken place his trembled violently. When Esau heard that Jacob had stolen his blessing he wept bitterly and said, “Bless me father also.” Isaac said, “I have already made him lord over you, and I have given him all his brothers as servants. What then can I do for you, my son?” He said, “Have you no blessing for me also?” Isaac offered him a simple blessing which confirmed what he had already said to Esau.
If we had the impression that Esau was an uncouth hunter whose only concerns were his creature needs and who had himself to blame for his predicament that surely is not the case here. His very human response elicits our sympathy and we see him as a deeply moving figure, the victim of a terrible plot.
Not only do our sympathies lie with Esau, if we are honest with ourselves we can identify with him. Each of us who is one of several children in a family, or has more than one child feels the hurt of a son who is deprived of his father’s blessing. We all have been there in one way or another. We remember those times when we did not receive the expected reward or affection from our parents; or worse, that we knew in our hearts that our brother or sister tried to undermine our relationship with our parents. How many times have parents been manipulated by one of their children to the detriment of another? Yes, Esau’s painful words are our words: We utter them: We hear them: “What about me, Dad?” “Do you only have time for my sister?” “Is there only one child important in your life?” Is it any wonder that we would rather ignore Esau’s complaint and remain deaf to his cries? For to listen to them is to open ourselves up to our own frailty. 4
Not surprisingly, Esau hated his brother after what he had done. He said, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching, then I will kill my brother Jacob.” Rebekah was informed of what Esau had said and she begged Jacob to leave because she did not want to lose two sons in one day. She told him to go and live with her brother, Laban, in Haran until Esau’s anger had turned away.
Jacob received a blessing from Isaac before he left. He told Jacob that he is not to take a wife from among the Canaanite women, but must marry one of the women from house of Laban. Jacob arrived at Laban’s home with very little. Laban had two daughters, Leah and Rachel. His uncle asked him what his wages should be if he were to work for him. Jacob asked for Rachel’s hand in marriage. He worked for seven years for Laban and finally the time for the wedding had arrived. Laban sent Leah to lie with Jacob instead of Rachel and the next morning he realizes that he had been deceived.
Much in the same way that we can wonder how Isaac could not tell the difference between Esau and Jacob, we wonder how Jacob could not tell the difference between Leah and Rachel. Here the shrewd man, Jacob, is taken advantage of by one who is just as shrewd, if not more shrewd, his uncle/ father-in-law Laban. He worked for another seven years in order to marry Rachel. He also gave Bilhah and Zilpah to his daughters as their maid servants.
Jacob spent twenty years working for Laban before his return home. After separating from his father-in-law, Jacob ends up in Mahanaim. He sends messengers to Esau telling him that he had been living with Laban and that even though he had left with little he returns with quite a caravan. The messengers convey this to Esau and return to tell Jacob that Esau is coming out to meet him with four hundred men. Jacob was very afraid and divided his family into two camps so that if one is attacked the other will be safe.
It is clear that from the very outset, even prior to sending gifts to Esau and dividing into two camps in order to protect his family and possessions Jacob focuses our attention on the conflict. There indeed are two camps—Jacob and Esau, the two sides of one whole. It is Jacob himself who makes the symbolism clear to us, when he implores God just a bit later: “And now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from my brother, from the hand of Esau.” His brother Esau is the “other camp”, his other side.
So what choices does Jacob have as he about to confront the Other in his life? Why should we expect Jacob to be any different than we are? When confronted by the part of ourselves with which we struggle, our own shadow(s) or perhaps our sibling(s), we are quite adept at erecting protective defenses.
Rather than confront Esau directly, he hopes to appease him by sending him all sorts of gifts in the way of animals. His hope was that after receiving these gifts perhaps then Esau will accept him. We also believe that we can appease our shadow by focusing on something else and hoping that it will go away. Just as Esau was not put off by Jacob’s gifts, but went out to meet him, our shadow is not put off by our attempts to distract ourselves.
Understanding that this shadow is another aspect of our personality, perhaps one that we would rather not have, allows us to become more whole by accepting this aspect of who we are. This does not mean that we have to give in to it, but simply acknowledge that it is present so when it does make its appearance known we are not afraid of it.
What was said of the shadow can also be seen in the relationship of Esau and Jacob. In spite of being sent gifts, Esau comes out to see Jacob with four hundred men. Jacob is forced to confront the “other” (shadow) and finds that Esau has mellowed since the last time they saw each other. Esau embraces and kisses him and encourages Jacob to move back to Seir together.
Just as we are uncomfortable giving in to our shadow because perhaps we know that it is not good for us, Jacob knows that living together with Esau would not be a good idea. Prior to Esau returning to Seir, Jacob tells him that he must stay where he is out of concern that if he drives his animals too hard they will die. However, Esau should go on ahead of him and his camp will catch up to them. Esau heads back to Seir while Jacob and his family travel to the city of Shechem.
Jacob continues to live with different sides of himself, as symbolized by the distance he and Esau have moved apart after their fateful meeting. To be sure, they see each other again at their father’s burial. Just as Ishmael and Isaac before them, they stand as brothers in the field and pay their father their last respects. As if the Bible writer were trying to show us just how close the two were, at that moment he describes their family constellations. If we compare their genealogical trees closely we see clearly their similarity. The genealogy of both Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom) come from four matrilineal lines and their respective numbers are about the same.
However, lest we believe there was a full reconciliation between Jacob and Esau, the text immediately emphasizes that the two brothers could not yet be united. As they had to be separated from the womb, so, too, they now could not dwell in the same place. Esau took his wives and his children and all he possessed and went into a land far away from his brother. Their substance was too great for them to dwell together; and the land in which they sojourned could not bear them both. Esau settled in the hill country of Seir, while Jacob resides where his father had resided, in Israel.
The brothers, shadows of each other, two sides of one whole, the shepherd and the hunter, could not live as one. Each would have to continue to stand alone. So like his predecessors before him—Cain, Lot, and Ishmael—Esau traveled eastward to Seir, leaving Jacob to fulfill the covenant that was tied to the land of Israel.
Like Jacob and Esau, we too might become reconciled with our siblings; the other side of ourselves, yet that moment of understand will not necessarily last forever. Reconciliation does not always mean unity and identity, at least in a world which is not yet Eden. 5
1)It is because Esau used the phrase “red stuff” as well as the fact that he
was born with red skin that he also came to be known as “Edom”.
2)Norman J. Cohen Self, Struggle and Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives (VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006) p. 101
3)Cohen, p. 107
4)Cohen, p. 108
5)Cohen, p. 123