Bereshit 25:19 to 26: 22


David Brooks



We are in the first year of the full triennial cycle, which includes the latter half of Genesis Chapter 25 and the first half of Chapter 26.  My D’var focuses just on Chapter 25: verses 19 to 34.  In these 16 verses, the text shifts from the digression on Hagar and Ishmael – the “other” nation from the Abrahamic line – and “reverts to its central theme, the fortunes of those who are heirs to God’s covenant.”[i]   There is plenty to keep us interested in these few verses, which include the famous story of Esau selling his birthright for a mess of potage, as the saying goes.  It turns out that this was not such a terrible thing, but I am getting ahead of the story, so let’s start at the beginning.


Right off, there is a small mystery.  Using Plaut’s translation, the text says: “This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.  Abraham begot Isaac.”  (Ber., 25:19.)  It seems we are being told the same thing twice.  However, by definition, there is nothing superfluous in the Torah, so the repetition must be intended to teach us something.  The common interpretation is from Rashi, who says that the repetition teaches the sceptical that Abraham and not Abimelech (the king with whom Abraham left Sarah for a short time) was Isaac’s father.  Other interpretations are that Isaac was the son who really counted, or that Abraham himself took care of Isaac’s education.[ii]


Let’s jump to the complaint of Rivka, who was suffering from a difficult pregnancy.  First there were 20 years when she wasn’t able to conceive.  Then, she did become pregnant but only after a special entreaty to God from Isaac (some say Isaac and Rivka, as if to say they want to have a child together).[iii]  And now this almost unbearable pain, as indicated by her statement: “If it is like this, why do I live”, or perhaps, more liberally interpreted, “If this birth is so important, why do I suffer so.”[iv]  She poses her question directly to God, or at least that is how I interpret the words:  lidrosh et HASHEM.  As indicated, she uses the four letter Tetragrammaton (here represented by HASHEM), which is the personal name of God.[v]  However, the rabbis who composed Midrash Rabbah in the early part of the Common Era did not much like the idea of God talking to a woman.  They had to admit that God had talked to Sarah (whom they call “that righteous woman”), but that, they say, was a special case.  They appear to think it unseemly or perhaps immodest that God should talk to a woman, or vice versa.  Thus, the rabbinic consensus is that Rivka’s method of enquiry was to go to one of the academies of the time.  Even this is going too far for some, and they conclude that she was simply asking other women whether pregnancy was always so difficult.  So much for the God who has no sex and is above gender distinctions.


In any event, Rivka gets an answer.  She learns that she is carrying twins, and that each twin is to be the seed for a nation.  We almost have the Abraham story over again, except there it was two women, each with one son.  Here it is one woman with two sons.  However, as before, they are not friendly siblings.  They are already struggling in the womb, and from that point on the rabbis find every way to blacken poor Esau’s name.  For example, they say that, whenever Rivka passed by a synagogue (forget that synagogues did not exist at the time of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs), Jacob tried to emerge, but whenever she passed by a heathen shrine, Esau tried to emerge.   When the words twins is used in Genesis 25:24, it is spelled in a highly condensed fashion (pronounced “tomim”) where we would expect either t’wmym or t’wmm (both pronounced “te’omim”). Later in Genesis (38:27) when Tamar gives birth to twins, the word is written in one of its expected forms (t’wmym).[vi]  The rabbis deduce from this difference that, in the case of Rivka, only Jacob was righteous, whereas in the case of Tamar, both Perez and Zerah were righteous.  Still another interpretation is that Esau is the descendent of Laban’s wicked line, and Jacob of Abraham’s righteous one.  (This deduction is based on one of those plays on words that the rabbis loved.[vii])  We seem to learn that Esau was a good hunter who loved to go into the field, but, with some more word play, the rabbis deduce that he was clever at deceiving people, and that he was going into the field to rape and rob.  Jacob instead was in his tents (the word in plural), from which the rabbis infer that, in contrast to Esau, he was studying in not one but two religious academies at the same time.  All of this, by the way, is from Genesis Rabbah, Chapter 63.


Poor Esau.  He never seemed to get a break, which brings us to the mess of potage, which shows perhaps that Esau was likely one of those people with the ability to make a bad situation worse.  Clearly he had a very different personality from Jacob, and that would have been tough enough, but how can a pair of twins avoid sibling rivalry when the father favours one child and the mother the other.  (All of our patriarchs seem to have come from marginally dysfunctional families.)  In any event, I assume that you all know the story.  Jacob is cooking what many say are lentils as a mourning meal for Abraham, who has just passed away.  Esau comes home tired, and asks for some of them.  Jacob says, sure thing big brother, but let’s work out a trade.  I’ll give you my lentils; you give me your birthright.  And both transactions will be consummated right now.  (That’s the significance of the word kayom (lit. “as today”) in Genesis 25:31.  Some rabbis say that the lentils were only the symbol that consummated the deal, not the real price that Jacob paid, but others say that the mess of potage was indeed the price.[viii]


First of all, what was the birthright?  It was both symbolic and economic.  Symbolically, it indicated which male was to lead the family in the future, and it required of him that he take responsibility for ritual sacrifices, some of which carried the death penalty if performed improperly.[ix]  (Remember, this was before the priestly period and the centralization of the sacrificial service under the Levites in Jerusalem.  It foreshadows the later “quasi-holy” (Plaut’s term) status of the first born son, first male animal, and first fruits of the soil.[x]  Witness today’s pidyon ha-ben.)  Economically, the birthright conveyed a double portion of inheritance.  If there were four sons, the inheritance was split into five portions, and the first son – or more accurately the son with the birthright; we’ll come to the distinction in a moment – got two portions.  From Esau’s perspective, the symbolic duties were of little interest.  He could find women and start his own family whenever he wished, and, at least according to the rabbis, and he was not interested in religion.  (The latter they deduce from Esau’s statement, “V’lamah zeh li b’chorah,” – in effect, “What value is the birthright to me.”  They compare this with “Zeh Eli” – this is my God – and conclude that Esau denies God at this point.)  OK, so Esau was not inclined to think about the long term (he later regrets the decision; see Ber. 27:36); he was certainly not about to die if he missed a meal; and he may have been hopeless as a scholar.  I am glad the rest of us are not judged by such standards – but then I guess few of us are destined to found nations.


Now that we know what the birthright is, there are two issues.  Was the sale legal?  Was the sale moral?  The answer to the first question is clear: Yes, it was.  There are many records from the time that show that the sale of the birthright was possible, and that it often took place when the eldest son was in difficult financial circumstances.  As well, the father could displace the eldest son from the birthright, as Jacob himself did twice: first, in the case of Reuben, whom he considered too headstrong to lead the family, especially after he insulted Jacob by prematurely bedding his concubine, Bilhah; later, shortly before his death, when he chose to give the birthright to Ephraim, Joseph’s younger son – and Ephraim was indeed one of the surviving tribes.  Perhaps the best evidence that transfer of the birthright was possible is the legislation later in the Torah (Dev. 21: 15-17) that it is forbidden.  As stated by Sarna:[xi]


   It is a commonplace that legal prohibitions constitute sociological evidence of the most revealing kind.  A practice suddenly proscribed by law may be safely assumed to have been previously both socially acceptable and legally valid.


The much more interesting question then is whether Jacob’s purchase of the birthright under these conditions was moral. Though the classical rabbis do not say so explicitly, they clearly believe that it was not.  They make a few excuses for Jacob, as when they justify their view that Esau was also a trickster, and when they point out that Jacob was more qualified than Esau to receive the blessing: the one focussing on the eternal, the other on the here-and-now; the one exceptional, the other ordinary.  However, they also feel that it just sets the stage for the trick that Jacob and Rivkah will later play on the blind Isaac at the time of the blessing.  They make a direct parallel between these acts and Laban’s substitution of Leah for Rachel, as if to say:  “Turn About Makes Fair Play.”  The rabbis also note that the very next thing that is recorded in Torah after Esau gives up the birthright is that there is famine in the land.  Most importantly, they make an even stronger link between Jacob’s less than honourable early life and the series of “trials and tragedies” (Plaut’s words) that dog him throughout his life:  his need to flee from Esau; the early death of his preferred wife; the disappearance and apparent death of his favourite son; the constant turmoil within his family; and then his death in a foreign land.  No other patriarch says of his life that his days have been “few and bitter” (Ber. 47:9).  In the words of Nahum Sarna:[xii]


      All the foregoing makes quite clear Scripture’s condemnation of Jacob’s moral lapse in his treatment of his brother and father.  In fact, an explicit denunciation could hardly have been more effective or more scathing than this unhappy biography


The point is that God has already twice promised that Isaac would have offspring, and that one of them would carry on God’s covenant.[xiii]  Now God indicates which of the two children is to carry on the seed of the still-forming Jewish people: “And the elder shall serve the younger.” (Ber. 25:23) This statement makes clear that it is Jacob who has been chosen, and this election is quite independent of the questionable means that Jacob uses to get the birthright.  Indeed, by emphasizing his divine right, it is simultaneously condemning his eagerness to take it, something that was presaged when, according to the story (Ber., 25:26), Jacob emerged from the birth canal grasping Esau’s heal.  There was no need for Jacob to force the issue along, and, perhaps his impatience was what worried R. Huna, when he commented: “If he [Jacob] is deserving, he [Esau] shall serve him; if not, he [Esau] shall enslave him.”[xiv]  There was a long road to be travelled between the younger Jacob and the older Israel.  In summary:[xv]


. . . . there is every reason to believe that Jacob’s dealings with Esau and his father represent a stage of morality in which the successful application of shrewd opportunism was highly respected.  It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that Scripture should have cast the story in a mold of implicit reprobation, introducing the oracle element to make the transference of the birthright independent of subsequent events, and depicting the unbroken chain of Jacob’s misfortunes as the direct result of actions not regarded as reprehensible according to the standards of his time.



Let me close with just one comment on today’s Haftarah.  The selection is from Malachi, which means “My Messenger” and is therefore probably not the prophet’s real name, and he is complaining about the decline of social and religious morality in the time of Persian rule before the erection of the Second Temple.  The link between the Sedra and the Haftarah comes in the first several verses when, according to Malachi who is supposed to be transmitting the message, God uses the Jacob and Esau story to prove his love for Israel.  However, in making his case, Malachi goes rather too far when he has God claim to have loved (w’hb pronounced “va’ohav” meaning “I love or loved”) Jacob but hated (Śn’ty pronounced saneti” meaning “I hate or hated”) Esau.  My point is simple.  Even prophets misquote to make a point.  In Plaut’s view,[xvi] by this time Esau has come to represent Rome, not Edom, and, whereas there was rivalry between Israel and Edom, there was war between Israel and Rome.  To return to the Torah portion, remember that, as we learn in verse 26, Jacob emerged from the womb holding Esau’s heel, as if even then he was trying to force the issue and arrive first.[xvii]



[i].          Nahum M.Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York:  Schocken Books,1970), p. 181.

[ii].          Hertz Chumash.  Note to 25:19.

[iii].         Genesis Rabbah. 5.  The interpretation is based on the pronoun “lenokhach” which can mean opposite her, as if they prayed facing one another.  The point is that Jacob has already been promised offspring, but not Rivka.

[iv].         “Whether these words are precisely what Rebekah meant it is hard to say, for the Hebrew original is not wholly clear.”  Sarna, op. cit., p. 182

[v].         ____ __, United Synagogue Calendar for 5761; November.

[vi]._       Hertz Chumash.  Note to 25:24.

[vii].        H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis 1 (London: The Soncino Press, 1939), fn 1 to 63:4.  Play on Aramai, meaning Aramean, which, by a slight shift, can be converted to ram’ai, meaning rouge or cheat.

[viii].       Hertz Chumash.  Note to 25:33.

[ix].         Hertz Chumash.  Note to 25:30.

[x].         Plaut Chumash, p.  175; see also Sarna, p. 184.

[xi].         Sarna, op. cit., p.185.

[xii].        Sarna, op. cit., p. 184.

[xiii].       The two promises are made directly to Abraham, but one has to suppose that Isaac was familiar with them: Ber. 17:19 and 21:12.

[xiv].       Genesis Rabbah, 63:7.  No one is recorded as reacting to R. Huna’s comment, but neither did anyone challenge him.

[xv].        Sarna, op. cit., p. 188.

[xvi].       Page 55

[xvii].      In what may be a mild if amusing attempt to justify the fact that Esau emerged first, one rabbi notes that this proves that the first impregnation created Jacob and the second Esau, just as if one puts pebbles in a bottle, the last in comes out first.  I suspect that the rabbis knew better, but they were always willing to put scientific knowledge to one side if they wished to make a point.