Genesis 25

Abraham lies down for his final rest and is buried with Sarah; the first, founding generation passes its baton and the great heritage takes a step forwards. Isaac though does not get much time as narrative center in Genesis, for already in this chapter his twin sons Esau and Jacob are born, the very famous story of the sold birthright occurs, and we have more than enough hints to realize that Jacob will dominate not only his brother but very much of our attention in what follows. He, after all, will become Israel (Chapter 32). There is a detail about Isaac in this section that is both comforting and evocatively prodding however, but I think it is probably easy to miss amidst the excitement of the fast moving telling of Rebekah’s conception, oracle, the boys’ growth, and their rivalry.

As mentioned, the tale of Esau trading his birthright and status as heir to the (extremely slightly) younger Jacob for a meal is astonishingly well-known in Western culture: “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down [Jacob’s freshly made stew], for I am famished” Esau colorfully remarks in verse thirty, with the result thereafter coming in verses 33b-34: “So he [Esau] swore to him [Jacob], and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.” The implications of this act within the setting of place and time have been widely discussed, as have the theological, conventional, literary, and other affixed aspects, and for my part I do not find much that could be added. We shall therefore turn instead to a trio of verses related to Isaac and his subtler role in the drama.

Note what comes to the fore when the verses below are read in conjunction:

25.20-21; 26b: “Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac pleaded with the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. …Isaac was sixty years old when they [Esau and Jacob] were born.”

Human pregnancies are long within the animal kingdom (although elephants, whales, dolphins, and probably others I am unaware of beat us), but they do not reach to twenty years! Rebekah is symbolically connected with Sarah in being unable to have a child (and not only her, for example the soon-to-be-met Rachel, Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel, Samson’s unfortunately unnamed mother, and the New Testament’s Elizabeth, mother of John the Bapitzer (a better rendering it seems than “the Baptist”), amongst others), but rather than trying to find another spouse or partner we are told that Isaac pleaded with God/“God” for intervention, and that his prayers were heard and positively answered. However not, it appears, very speedily. The lesson here on steadfastness is as obvious as it is profound, and hence probably in danger of being moved over or even ignored. I think though that the text – in breaking things up this way – asks us to pause and to consider, particularly if we reflect that in the immediately proceeding episode of the stew and birthright the idea that one never quite knows what may happen and how far the consequences might extend is spelled out quite clearly. Throughout their long struggle and their long wait, how could Rebekah and Isaac have been feeling? Did they lose faith? If they had there is no indication that Isaac took matters into his own hands to provide an heir such as his very father had done (Chapter 16); what about the divine promise of uncountable progeny? Did they still believe in it? Had they resigned themselves to merely seeing what unfolded? We have naught to go on for these queries, and hence the story compels us to wonder and to compare ourselves. What might we do? How much can we trust, how much can we bear when there are no visible results and nothing to motivate? If Isaac teaches us anything here it is either the stubbornness or the groundlessness of hope; but both of these are beautiful.

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