Sunday, October 12, 2014

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 27:1-28:9

In this installment, which we could begin calling "The Old and the Restless", Jacob continues his trickery with the help of his shifty Aramean mother; Isaac makes a careless blunder when casting a spell; Esau gets a really raw deal again because, well, Yahweh just hates him; and then all four main characters act like none of it ever happened. 

Genesis 27:1-4
We learned from the end of chapter 26 that Esau got married at 40. This makes Isaac at least 100 when we get to this passage. But let's see if we can narrow down how old these people are. We already know that Isaac is 60 years older than Jacob and Esau. If we calculate Jacob's age when he has his first son, about eight years later, then Jacob and Esau must be between 71 and 76 years old in this passage making Isaac at least 131 and Rebekah at least 106.

I know what you're thinking. How on earth can Jacob and Esau be in their seventies at this point in the narrative? How does one arrive at that? I'm so glad you asked. In Genesis 47:8-9 the unnamed pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is and Jacob tells him he's 130. That is in the second year of famine Joseph predicted from the pharaoh's dream, which came after seven years of plenty. We learn from Genesis 41:46 that Joseph was thirty when he was put in charge of Egypt. This means Jacob was 91 when Joseph was born. Jacob worked for his uncle for twenty years, but he didn't get married for the first seven of those twenty. However, Jacob had to have had time after Joseph was born to enact the scheme that leads to him fleeing his uncle at the end of chapter 30.

Are you still following this? Jacob's first wife Leah had seven kids before her sister Rachel had Joseph, setting the minimum time between Reuben the first born's conception and the birth of Joseph at seven years and the max at twelve. Of course, all of this assumes that Leah was just popping out kids in rapid succession, even though clearly that's not what happened, meaning there's no realistic way to reconcile the timeline of the accounts of the births of Jacob's children with the chronology. Regardless, this means the youngest Jacob could possibly be is around 79 years old when he has his first kid and 71 when he flees to his uncle immediately following the events of this chapter. He's no more than 76.

Now, you can probably give or take a year or two here or there or find some kind of minor quibble with my calculations, but there is simply no way to escape the fact that if you accept the internal chronological markers of Genesis, Jacob and Esau are in their seventies. Isaac is in his hundred-and-thirties and Rebekah is easily over the century mark. What this means is that from here on out when "Moses" writes about these interactions between Jacob, Esau, Isaac, Rebekah and Laban in these accounts, they are all really old. Is that the way you remember this story from Sunday school? A bachelor in his seventies tricking his father with the help of his mother and fleeing in fear from his twin brother and then going to work for his hundred-and-twenty-year-old uncle? Is that the way this story reads?

Anyway, on to the narrative. Isaac wants to bless his oldest son Esau before he dies so he tells his red, hairy seventy-some-odd-year-old son to grab his bow and go hunt some wild game and fix him some food he likes. We're told that Isaac is nearly blind and that he thinks he could die any day now. All the other characters seem to agree with this assessment. In verse 19 it's suggested that he's even bed-ridden at this point, as he has to be told to sit up to eat something. His life is coming to a close. Except it's not. Isaac is going to live to be 180. He dies the year Joseph is promoted to second in command of Egypt. He's got another half a century to live. Turns out he was way wrong about being on death's door. Maybe he got better?
"'I feel happy. I feel happy."
Of course, there's another possibility. Maybe 27:1-45 comes from the pen of a different writer than the one who later mentions Isaac's age and has Jacob eventually returning to his father. Maybe Moses didn't write Genesis? Maybe some redactors/compilers tried their best to weave several different sources together into a coherent narrative, but either weren't aware or didn't care that all these problems would result. Nah. That's crazy talk.

Genesis 27:5-17
The spry hundred-and-some-odd-year-old Rebekah is eavesdropping and overhears her husband tell Esau he's about to give him the blessing. The shifty Aramean hatches a plot to trick her husband into blessing her favorite son, Jacob, instead. Recall that the oracle Yahweh had told her that the older would serve the younger. It's not clear if she ever told anyone else and if this prophecy factored at all into her plan here. In any case, the whole plot is centered on the assumption that this magic mumbo-jumbo that Isaac is about to utter is actually binding.

These incantations that supposedly bring blessings or curses actually have objective power and can't be taken back. We've already seen what the angry curse of a hungover Biblical figure did to an entire group of people in condemning them into slavery and genocide. This stuff is serious and Yahweh is totally OK with it. In fact, he makes sure it happens and doesn't allow take-backs, even if someone gets duped the way poor, blind Isaac is about to. Is this your god, Christians? You don't get to jettison this stuff just because of Jesus. This was his god too, remember? I suppose one can say this was all part of Yahweh's plan all along that that's why he permitted it the way Paul does. It doesn't change how this looks to the people involved. Isaac is tricked and because he said the magic words to the wrong son, that blunder is binding and has negative consequences for all of Esau's descendants. That theme of inescapable fate is quite common to ancient mythology, by the way.

Rebekah's plan is to take not one, but two goats, slaughter them and cook them up just the way she knows Isaac likes them. Jacob will bring the meal in and trick Isaac into blessing him instead. Jacob raises the point that he's not hairy like his brother and is worried his father will curse him if the ruse is discovered. Rebekah tells him she's got that covered and that any hex that Isaac places on Jacob would magically be transferred to her instead. She then makes some goat skin gloves and a matching scarf for Jacob and puts some of Esau's clothes on him so both touch and smell are covered.

Genesis 27:18-29
Jacob goes in with the meal and identifies himself as Esau. Isaac isn't buying it just yet, though. He's skeptical about the speed at which Esau was able to prepare this meal and he asks to feel his son. Our storyteller can't do all that foreshadowing and have Rebekah go through all that trouble for nothing, right? Isaac touches the goat hair and this apparently matches Esau. Really? Esau is hairy like a goat? Well, if Moses says so.

Anyway, Isaac notes that even though the voice is Jacob's, this must be Esau because he's so hairy. Just to be sure he puts Jacob on the spot one more time and asks him again if he's really Esau. He couldn't have thought to maybe ask him something that only Esau would know? "Hey, son, remember that thing I told you that only you would know about..." He's obviously still suspecting that something might be up and this is a really big deal. He can't just include a caveat or escape clause in his blessing? Maybe something like, "This blessing is null and void if it is being pronounced upon anyone other than Esau." Of course he can't. It doesn't fit the purposes of this folk tale. Instead Isaac says the magic words and the deed is done for all time.

Genesis 27:30-33
No sooner does Jacob leave when Esau comes in with some food for Isaac. Isaac asks who it is and when Esau tells him, Isaac realizes he's been punked and starts to shake violently. He asks who else hunted game and brought it to him, as if the answer isn't obvious. Of note is that Isaac says he "ate all of it." Remember how much food Rebekah prepared? Two goats worth. It seems Isaac's appetite is still pretty healthy while he's half-blind, feeble and on his fifty-year deathbed.

Genesis 27:34-38
Esau begs his father to bless him and notes that Jacob the heel-grabber was rightly named. Isaac tells him there's nothing he can do. He can't pray to Yahweh and ask him to take it back. He can't reverse the blessing. The fate of an entire group of people rested on this. Sorry, Esau. Sucks to be you and all your descendants for all time. Those are the breaks. Suck it up and deal with it. Now, did this really happen or is this yet another bit of folkloric propaganda attempting to legitimate the subjugation of the Edomites?

Genesis 27:39-40
Esau insists on a blessing so Isaac gives him one...sort of. It's more like an unblessing. The Edomites will be a warring tribe destined to have all the crappy hill country land and will be subjugated by the Israelites until one day when they finally overcome their enslavement. Again, this writer seems more acquainted with events of the 8th and 7th centuries BCE than the Bronze Age when this was all supposed to have taken place. I wonder why that is?

Genesis 27:41-45
Esau says (to himself?) that as soon as he's done mourning his departed dad, he's going to kill Jacob. Are you chuckling to yourself? I was when I remembered that Isaac is going to live for another fifty years. Again Rebekah overhears yet another private conversation, leading a critical reader to ask just how often this storyteller is going to repeat this trope. Again she summons Jacob and tells him to hurry and flee to her brother. He can stay there and she'll send word when Esau isn't upset anymore and has forgotten all about how his descendants get to be subservient to his brother's, all because he was able to trick their father into saying the magic words over him. Time heels all wounds, right? Get it? Heels. Jacob. See, I can make puns too, Moses.

Understand the urgency of the passage. She is afraid for her son's life and he needs to flee immediately. Now, let's keep that in mind when we look at the next part.

Genesis 27:46-28:9
Rebekah goes to Isaac and tells him she's really distressed about Esau's wives...that he's been married to for the last 36 years. She tells Isaac she doesn't want Jacob to end up marrying one of those nasty daughters of Heth also lest she die. I guess that makes sense. Jacob is a seventy-six-year-old bachelor. Any day now he's going to want to take a wife for himself, right? You know, one might be inclined to wonder about Jacob waiting this long to take a wife if it weren't for the fact that he later seems to have no problem finding his way around the opposite sex.

Isaac calls for Jacob and blesses him. Wait. What? Blesses him? Again? This is a guy who was just violently shaking because his youngest had pulled a fast one on him and now he's blessing the guy. Isaac isn't portrayed as feeble, infirm or blind in this passage. He's got full control of his faculties and his biggest concern seems to be that his son not marry a Canaanite. In fact, it's almost like Esau is getting cut out of the blessing because he intermarried with Canaanites and not because of Jacob's trickery. In fact, everyone in this passage acts as though the events that preceded it never even happened, including Esau. What in the world is Moses thinking?

Could this be a different author with a completely different explanation for why Jacob gets favor and Esau doesn't? Hmmm. If only there were a way we could tell these apart. I know. What is the divine name used in this passage? Is it Yahweh? Nope. It's El Shaddai. That's interesting. And what about geography? Is the land of the Arameans called Haran like in the other passages or Paddan Aram? Well, what do you know.

One more thing. Remember the last two verses of chapter 26, right before the stealing of the blessing narrative in chapter 27? Let's just see what happens when we put those two verses together with 27:46-28:9. Maybe they form a single, coherent narrative:
And Esau was forty years old, and he took a wife: Judith, daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath, daughter of Elon, the Hittite. And they were a bitterness of spirit to Isaac and Rebekah. And Rebekah said to Isaac, "I'm disgusted with my life because of the daughters of Heth! If Jacob takes a wife from the daughters of Heth like these daughters of the land, why do I have a life!" And Isaac called Jacob and he blessed him and command him, and he said to him... (Richard Elliot Friedman's translation from The Bible with Sources Revealed).
Oh, snap! Well, if I didn't know any better I'd say 26:34-35 and 27:46-28:9 comes from one author who prefers the name Paddan Aram for the land of the Arameans, uses a name other than Yahweh for the deity, has a real problem with intermarriage with Canaanites and gives that as the real reason why Jacob was preferred over Esau. Conversely 27:1-45 comes from a different author who tosses the name Yahweh around like it's candy and likes to concoct complicated folk tales with overused tropes and puns to explain stuff. But that can't be. Moses wrote Genesis.


  1. Oh man. So much for that long ago film I watched as a kid where Jacob and Esau were running around looking like twenty. Old dude grabs Jacob's arm in just the right place with the goat hair, all gnarly and shit. Picturing it as a seventy-year-old ripping off his blind papa who lives on for another fifty years afterwards just ain't the same. Another childhood memory stolen! ;)

  2. I never really took it to mean that God was 'allowing' this stuff to happen, I always felt like God was deliberately manipulating events. For instance, Jacob rips off Esau: I always assumed God *MADE* that happen, to further His plans.