Genesis 27

Again, one of the most famous stories in the Bible – and indeed in the Western literary canon – is found here in Genesis: Jacob deceiving his father in order to get the (sociohistorically) coveted parental blessing prior to the patriarch’s passing away. The blessing itself is merely a series of words, but culturally the weight given to such is made clear, and especially by Esau’s heart-wrenching reaction when he learns that Isaac has already bestowed on another what should – traditionally – have been his. The pathos of verses thirty through forty-one, when Jacob’s trickery (and Rebekah’s, although neither Isaac nor Esau are described as realizing her part in the proceedings) is discovered, is astounding, and the cry of “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!” (verse thirty-eight) that Esau utters nearly moves one to tears, however later commentators may have attempted to shift sympathy to Jacob as the people’s and nation’s founder. In reading the text as it is we must feel deeply with Esau, thinking on what he has been through and the manner in which Isaac was so summarily duped while Esau was far enough away not to have been able to do anything about it. The entirety strikes as being profoundly unjust, a rotten core buried beneath remarkable beauty, much like the Buddha’s disturbing abandonment of his wife and child when he left his palace home to seek meaning and truth in life. Good can triumph from any sort of beginning it seems – which is reassuring – but how we yearn for a positive start. Such, perhaps, is another great lesson which simply must be accepted.

Rather than dwelling on the duplicity here, however, on my present reading I am struck by the recurrence of a single term and what it indicates for the interplay amongst the characters in this masterful storytelling. The word is nefesh and it was originally connected with “throat” or “neck” but then later came to mean “breath” and, perhaps through that association or in conjunction with it, “life force”, “psyche”, “spirit”, or “soul”. (See James Kugel’s wonderful The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible (New York: Free Press, 2003); this is discussed explicitly on page 165. Interestingly, “person” can be found listed for this word as well.). In this section it is rendered as “innermost”, and we can see it connected with the “blessing” in verses four, nineteen, twenty-five, and thirty-one, and there is moreover a symmetry involved too: 27.4: Isaac-Esau; 27.19: Jacob-Isaac; 27.25: Isaac-Jacob (thinking him Esau); and 27.31: Esau-Isaac. I think we might rightly employ the technical label of chiasmus to this structure (A, B, B’, A’), and in addition to giving the tale balance it meditates on aspects of the relations between parents and children, as well as on those between siblings. Isaac shows favor to his elder son Esau – “soul” favor, the greatest degree possible – Jacob the younger desires the same from Isaac and then receives it (albeit against his father’s will), only to have Esau ask for that which had been promised and instead be forced to settle for a very distant replacement: Family as microcosm for the human condition.

The “soul” desires blessings and not curses, it/we want little more than to be accepted by our mothers and fathers, both in a literal and figurative sense. We wish to belong and to be acknowledged, to have a place and – we think – thereby too a purpose. If that is lost (or given away; one shudders at noticing Esau’s regret and the blame placing he engages in at verse thirty-six: “First he [Jacob] took away my [Esau’s] birthright [as relayed in 25.30-34] and now he has taken away my blessing!”) we become set adrift and in the horror of that respond the only way we know how: by crying out, wailing, helplessly pleading for that which already is to somehow be otherwise. Yet the facts on the ground do not change, and we have no recourse but to try again, to turn (re-turn), and in our best efforts to purely hope that this time things may be different. Will they? It is a toss of the dice, and maybe not even God/“God” is aware of how such will land. There is nothing more quintessentially homo sapiens though then to make that push into the unforeseen; and that, surely, is itself a blessing.

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