A. This is the "story of Isaac" - Toledot means story OR generations OR even children, so the range of meaning at the beginning of the portion is broad. Is this a story about Isaac, or not, or actually much more, even all of the above? Conventional thinking says Isaac is a minor figure, but, as we study today, think about whose story this is in a fresh way and on your own. And we'll discuss this issue more toward the end of the hour.
Let's begin by reading 25:19-23. What's going on here?
(Isaac does pray to God on behalf of Rebecca. But the action quickly goes to the twins struggling in the womb, and Rebecca inquiring of (praying, according to Ramban, lidrosh), and being answered by God. She calls out to God, and God answers. The direction from God is through Rebecca. Thus, the story seems at least at the start to be about Rebecca and her role in the grand narrative. )
B. Why is God's answer significant, especially the part about the older serving the younger? Shall we wait until the story plays out, or do you have thoughts at the outset?
(She is given direction from God on how she should live out the struggle that will occur between the two boys and with Isaac. It is through Rebecca that God expects leadership and decisions and action regarding the destiny of the Divine promise. And Rebecca is shown Divine intention, it appears. Also, it may speak more universally about our experience, that of Israel and actually most of us, that there can be pain and conflict in birth and life, from which we have challenge and struggle, with working out to do and growth and reconciliation, however our destiny may turn out.)
C. Read 25:29-34. What does this tell us about Esau and Jacob? What's right and wrong in the story?
(Let's begin with a basic reality, however messy it plays out: the line, that is, the promise and call to be God's, CAN'T go through Esau. He prizes a single meal when famished (maybe both in physical hunger and faith) more than his birthright.)
Here's how Roger Williams sees it: "Esau will part with the heavenly birthright for his supping, after his hunting, for god belly; and Jacob will part with porridge for an eternal inheritance."
Yet, as we begin to know the man who will become "Israel," (struggler with God) by name, the man who does, and probably should, inherit the mantle of patriarch and be a towering figure in our history, we see less than admirable features in him. He seems to take advantage, to be selfish and opportunistic.
This dual nature within Jacob is well illustrated by the meaning of his name. Get this: Yaakov means Heel-holder, perhaps one who over reaches. Yet, his name could have been short for Yaakovel, May God Protect. This story has its complexities - to be sure. So, which is it for Jacob? Is he a heel holder or one whom God protects? Either? Maybe both?
II. Read 26:12-18.
A. This is an important role and gift of Isaac's. He was a restorer of ancient wells, the wells of his father, as well as his father's names (names!) for them. What does this mean to you?
(This could be literal, of course. He maintained the inheritance in the land (and the water resources it so vitally required). Thus, he kept alive the promise made to his father and inherited by him. But this could be spiritual as well. We've talked about wells!
The spiritual sources, the ideas about God and human behavior, "dug anew" by Abraham had perhaps been "stopped up" by local forces and interests. Isaac "opened them back up" and gave them their old names. So, while not inventing, he preserved and kept the chain going.
After the akeda and after the loss of Sarah, it is instructive that this connection between Abraham and Isaac is recognized and accentuated beautifully through this image of the restoration of wells. Plus, it's a mission that will surely have meaning for Jacob and all of Isaac's descendants, including us, as students of this story.)
B. Read 26:19-22.
These verses could be taken literally, of course, but Ramban, among others, saw future meaning in these different wells.
The first well, esek (contention), is representative of the first Temple, which, though a well of living water (or as Jeremiah would say "a fountain of living waters, the Eternal) was destroyed.
The second well was called sitnah (enmity), which might represent the second Temple, which was destroyed.
The third well he called rechovoth (spacious) could be representative of the future house, done without quarrel and with which God will enlarge the borders, broader, winding about higher and higher (perhaps as a Third Temple in the future). This could mean a fulfillment of the prophetic dream we discussed in our study of the prophets, of a time when all peoples will come to worship God with one consent, or, for Christians perhaps, a fulfillment through Jesus.
By the way, why would the Philistines plug up wells? Is it because they thought if they couldn't have the water, no one should? Or that they wanted to block the dissemination of Abraham's ideas about God and humankind. Whichever, perhaps the third well opens up the possibility that all can share. This, again, is about water but ultimately it might be about faith and access to God for all.
III. Chapter 27 (which should have been read and studied)
1) Do we have conflicting visions or prophecies from God? Isaac seems to prefer passing the inheritance through Esau, and Rebecca has a sense of direction from God. (27:4-7). But is this really so? Let's look closely.
It looks like a conflict. BUT look back at 26:34-35. Read it.
How do these verses complicate the story?
(Perhaps it's more complicated. Both Rebecca and Isaac were vexed at Esau's marrying Judith. Was Isaac trying to "reclaim" Esau as the "hunting son" to God's way through the blessing? There's a tradition in this family of the father trying to stay close to the "other" son (Abraham with Ishmael). And the son of the Akeda might have been especially sensitive to the son. OR maybe there's more. Let's keep digging.
(I've used the metaphor of digging! Perhaps we today are sort of restoring old wells, do you think?)
2) Let's think for a moment about Rebecca and Jacob. As we mentioned earlier in the story with regard to Jacob, isn't there likely to be a heavy price to be paid by those who deceive? (Note Rebecca's request of Jacob to go fetch two goats to prepare for food for Isaac (9) and the deceitful use of Esau's garments (15). We'll later see Jacob brought his son Joseph's tunic in the blood of a goat with a deception of his death in it. These are but a few of the "paybacks" Jacob will suffer. How strong is the case that Rebecca and Jacob were, at best, using bad means to effect a good end, or, at worst, outright wrong and unethical?
3) Now let's turn back to Isaac, a man of taste and touch, who seems to have had his eyes grow bleary. Does this mean a "loss of vision?" Or, to the contrary, does it mask true vision? Let's dig and see.
A. Read verse 18. Isaac asks, "who are you, my son?" What does this mean? (This could be literal and inquisitive. It could mean, "which son are you?" OR "what kind of person are you"?)
B. Now read verse 20. Would Esau have answered as did Jacob that his success was due to God? (This is unconventional to be sure, but could it be that Isaac has a sense this is Jacob and at some level accepts the facade? After all, wouldn't Jacob recognize the voices of his sons, even if he couldn't see well? Could he have known?
Read 27:33. Could his "trembling" have been more about a recognition and sadness about the coming "war" between the brothers and a concern about how they could possibly be reconciled than surprise at what happened?
C. Since Isaac said to Esau that his brother acted with guile, why didn't he retract or curse the deception and perhaps the deceiver? Couldn't wrong be righted, if indeed real wrong was done? Was it impossible for Isaac to retract, once given, on the basis that the spirit of the Holy One now lay with the other son? OR, however much he seemed to "want" to bless differently, was he copacetic with the blessing he gave?
D. What is Esau's blessing? (both rich, as is Jacob's, and foreboding)
How do you explain that Esau now lives by the sword but will be prevailed over by Jacob? (40). What does Isaac mean when he says that when Esau grows restive, he will break his (Jacob's) yoke from his neck? Is this political or historical? Does it involve the outcome of clan warfare in the future?
OR is it much more fundamentally about these very brothers and his hopes for them? For those "who've read ahead," what might this be about as their drama continues later in the text?
And, perhaps most important, is Isaac de facto trying to revise, or at least mollify, the fate God spelled out to Rebecca that the older will serve the younger? Perhaps the older will serve the younger but "without the yoke." Is Isaac, thus, living true to God's will but working in the muck of real, gritty life in the family to create hope for both, peace between them, and reconciliation of all before God?
(the "wrestling;" the separation, the conflict, and the accommodation and reconciliation between the two after conflict; and perhaps all having the yoke to others put off in the distant future when we all are yoked only to God.
Isaac may be more visionary spiritually and in faith than he is in physical eyesight! He seems to be pained at the conflict, perhaps reconciled to Rebecca's (and God's) direction, yet wanting his sons to have hope and well-being in the future, if not actual reconciliation.)
E. Here might be an even more important question: What does all this do to affect our understanding of the concept of blessing, especially for two such different people, given under these circumstances? (Is it possible that while Rebecca gets it right as to Jacob being the proper inheritor, Isaac, though dim of vision, works hard to set the stage, after conflict, for a sense of blessing for both and a hope of how all this might work out for them and ultimately for all of us with God?
Isn't this what the "wounded" patriarch might be trying to achieve; thus while short of physical vision, he might have a profound vision for his family and its and our future. Is he, rather fundamentally - though wounded, without much originality, clearly flawed, and without sight - a true peacemaker? Is this what laughter means?
So, maybe, in an important way, this is the story of the "merely transitional" patriarch, Isaac, after all!)
4) When Esau developed vengeful thoughts toward Jacob, what does Rebecca do? What's her direction to Jacob? What do we recall about her brother, Laban (to whom she sends him) that portends future challenges? She knew her brother. Why did she send the boy there? (She knew her sons! Mothers do! He might get protection there, but he might also have to grow up, and learn the ways of the world, including how to deal with traders, deceptions, etc.)
Reflecting on 28:1-5, how does Isaac react to Rebecca's sending Jacob off to find a wife from the same family/source from which he got his wife? And how does he move so quickly from "being deceived" to parenting Jacob in a manner satisfactory to Rebecca while giving Jacob such a powerful blessing? Thoughts?
(Was Rebecca that dominating? Was he simply victimized by wife and son and had to accommodate himself? Had he seen that she was right and/or that he was wrong? Or, more likely, was he trying to be the best father he could to these very different sons throughout, including the way he helped Rebecca move Jacob to the next stage, while anticipating in pain the departure in pain of Esau, the conflict between the two sons, and his hopes and prayers for their reconciliation - and ours.)
I don't have a profound conclusion today. Let me just ask all of you today: who in this room has been a parent? Ok, now this question: as much as you may have devoted yourself in faith and love of God to that task, how many of you had real challenges with your children?
I love this story because, laid out in the midst of an amazing family drama, it is all about how our ancestors (modeling for us) handle the complex challenges of family in a way that best serves God, adds the value God expects of His human partners, and includes the reality of pain and imperfection that always accompany our work, even when we're doing our best.
So, I've lured you back with great narratives, the world's finest love story, and the promise of children who will carry on your dream. My lure for the next two weeks: given all the problems that we've seen crop up today, you must come back to find out how in the world it all works out!
Stay tuned. See you next Sunday.