Read Genesis 25:19–26.
The account of Isaac: an introduction
The book of Genesis is put together in a very deliberate way to show to the readers, members of the community of the Christian faith, how God’s redemption moves along. We travel from the grand story of the creation down to the point where the family of Jacob would journey from Canaan to Egypt to be kept alive by God through the work of Joseph. Throughout the book we read the phrase, “This is the account…” or “These are the generations of…” (cf. Gen. 2:4; 5:1, etc.). We meet just such another section again in Genesis 25:19, the account of Abraham’s son Isaac.
As is true of several of the other accounts that make up the book of Genesis, this section (which covers Genesis 25:19–35:29) does not focus in great detail upon the man Isaac. In fact, Genesis 26 is really the only major chapter that is devoted to God’s story in the life of Isaac. For the rest of this portion of Genesis, much more is devoted to Jacob and, to a lesser extent, to Esau. These accounts are focused on “what became of…” Like so much in Biblical history, there is a forward-looking concern. These accounts move us ahead from one point to another point, from one figure to another figure in redemptive-history. Thus the account of Isaac is going to tell us, in the main, what became of Isaac, what happened in his family.
The opening verses (25:19, 20) quickly tie us into material from the past before moving us ahead to the new story. The great patriarch Abraham, the father of all believers, has two sons: Ishmael and Isaac. Yet it is Isaac who is the son of the promise, the carrier of all the redemptive-covenant promises (Gen. 21:10, 12). Ishmael gets a brief account (25:12–18) to tell us that indeed God fulfilled His promise to make a nation from Ishmael, a nation that would live in hostility with its neighbors (see Gen. 16:11, 12; 21:13). Once Ishmael’s account can be nicely rounded off, then the inspired text turns us back to the main storyline.
Several things are noted: Isaac is Abraham’s son, a son of his father’s very old age, one who is born when his human parents are as “good as dead” (Rom. 4:19). But God is the God who works redemptive miracles to bring His promises into the world. Salvation is through miraculous and amazing grace!
Isaac marries Rebekah (see Gen. 24). Isaac is forty years old, and he loves Rebekah very much (Gen. 24:66). Furthermore, Genesis 25:20 underlines the fact that Rebekah is an Aramean, very closely related to her husband Isaac. The issue of marriage and whom one marries will come back again and again in this story of Jacob. Abraham had not wanted his son to marry any of the Canaanite women, and so he had sent his servant back to the northern area of the Fertile Crescent, to the region of Paddan-Aram, in order to seek a wife from among his relatives. Later on, of course, Jacob will return to this same region. Already now, the reader hears Laban mentioned, Rebekah’s brother and Jacob’s uncle, the man who will play an important role in the wives and the wealth that Jacob will acquire. One might say that the text is “looking ahead” for us at this point.
Another barren wife (25:21)
Students of the Bible are well aware of the fact that Sarah, Abraham’s beautiful wife, was barren and unable to have children. Yet God gave the miracle of a baby boy when she was very old! This is amazing, enough to make people smile and laugh (Gen. 21:6). But now we read of another beautiful wife, Rebekah, who is barren. This raises the question of what God is doing. Will every generation of the promised line have a barren wife? Of course, we may remind ourselves of other women unable at first to have children in redemptive-history (Rachel, the wife of Manoah, Hannah, and Elizabeth in Luke 1). The miracle of life stands out more clearly in the lives of these women when we see how God comes at the right time and in the right way to make the barren woman the joyful mother of children (see Psalm 113:9).
Isaac intercedes for his wife by praying to the Lord for a child. As so many psalms recount that the Lord hears the cries of the needy and those in distress, so the Lord hears Isaac’s prayers. Isaac and Rebekah had to wait 20 years before she bears her children (see verses 20 and 26). Our God gives more than enough in that Rebekah becomes pregnant with twins! And this was not a “quiet” pregnancy! The two children in her womb jostle each other. The word in the original suggests “smashing” or “crushing.” Are the twins engaged in a kind of pre-natal wrestling match? Certainly the readers know that the younger one will wrestle, years later, in the dark of night with a “mysterious stranger”… and will prevail.
Some Jewish rabbis later would interpret this jostling not as sibling rivalry, but rather as Esau trying to kill his twin brother Jacob. Thus the rabbis would say that a person could commit sin before one was born. This apparently lies behind the disciples’ question in John 9 about the man who was blind from his birth (see John 9:2ff.). But that rabbinical interpretation suggests that God was opposed to Esau because he attacked Jacob in the womb, and God loved Jacob. In other words, God was right to reject Esau because Esau had attempted murder. We might well ask the question: how do we know that it was Esau that attacked Jacob? Could it have been Jacob who attacked Esau? After all, when the boys are born, Jacob has grabbed hold of his brother Esau’s heel (verse 26). But perhaps we should not even talk of “attack” here, lest our imagination go too far afield. In any case, God richly blesses the loving couple, Isaac and Rebekah, with twins who vigorously interact with each other already in the womb.
Prayer answered by prophecy (25:23, 24)
Rebekah goes to the Lord for answers about her very active pregnancy. “Why is this happening to me?” This has likely been an emotional roller-coaster: barrenness, followed by prayer; then pregnancy involving two fetuses struggling together, followed (again) by prayer. “Why barren?” is followed by “why this battle?” In fact, Rebekah’s question literally reads, “If so, why am I…?” It is an incomplete sentence. Perhaps the thought here is, “We’ve prayed for pregnancy, but have I received more than I expected?”
The Lord’s answer is very specific in terms of making a clear distinction between the children and the destiny of their descendants. Although these are now only two boys in the womb, they will become the fathers of two nations. The younger will come to prominence as the older will serve him. The younger will in fact be the stronger and will prevail. In saying this, the LORD is setting aside the normal practice of giving the oldest (or older) son the firstborn privileges. The firstborn son is the sign of the father’s “strength,” and that son would normally inherit the double portion of his father’s possessions. That was his birthright. Additionally, he would have both privileges and responsibilities to carry on the family’s standing, its faith and commitments, and its position in the surrounding society. The firstborn had to be aware of his past (where he came from) and the future of the family (where his descendants, by God’s grace, should be).
In this particular family, the firstborn had an even greater calling since this was no ordinary ancient Near Eastern household. This was a family created by the covenant of God’s grace in Jesus Christ! The twin boys are not the sons of a concubine or slave girl (cf. Ishmael, born of Hagar). Both boys are born of the legal and rightful wife, Rebekah. And the father Isaac is the son of the free woman, Sarah, born miraculously when she was barren and her body was “as good as dead.” But the Word of the LORD sets that aside in this case, and we are not told why this is so. God’s plan is carried on out of His inscrutable wisdom and good pleasure.
Election revealed in history
Read Romans 9:1–13, especially verses 10–12. The Apostle Paul makes reference to two important verses from the Old Testament, both dealing with Jacob and Esau. He is in the midst of a line of thought that reveals God’s good pleasure in election. Paul first draws attention to Abraham’s children, and there it is clear that Isaac is the child of the gracious promise, while Ishmael is the child “by nature.” But the argument must be sharpened with Isaac’s children: both Esau and Jacob are children born after barrenness is removed following prayer. Both boys have the same father and the same mother (cf. Rom. 9:10), and Rebekah is a free woman, not a handmaiden or slave woman. Yet the truth of election is already heard as Paul recalls Genesis 25:23, “The older will serve the younger.” The second verse is from Malachi 1:2, 3: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Not the child by nature and not the eldest son, who by social custom was entitled to the privileges of the firstborn son.
The point that the inspired Apostle is driving home here is that nothing we do can merit God’s electing choice. The works of the law cannot earn credit with God for our salvation. But this is truly an abiding comfort for believers. Since the law of God is a constant reminder of just how far we have fallen short of the glory of God, yet salvation is rooted in God’s love for us, not our performance of love for God. We love because He first loved us. When Paul writes in Romans 9:11 that God’s purpose in election was announced “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad,” the force of that statement is that God’s choice is not because of foreseen goodness later on in Jacob’s life. If God chooses Jacob because He saw later goodness in Jacob, then human performance and our merit do lie in the foundation of our salvation. But such an idea is thoroughly repugnant to the believing Christian. When all of humanity deserves condemnation, it is to the praise of God’s love and grace that He has elected us to salvation in Christ, through Him alone who died to take away our sins and rose again for our justification.
What is in a name? (25:24–26)
The time arrives for the birth, and just as the Lord had revealed, there are twins. Two boys are born to Isaac and Rebekah, but they are not identical twins, given the fact that their descriptions different. The firstborn is ruddy in his complexion and covered with hair (the technical term is hypertrichosis, if you want a big word!). Later on David will also be described as ruddy (1 Sam. 16:12; 17:42). The firstborn receives the name Esau, but how that name is related to “hairy” is very unsure. The word for ruddy (red), on the other hand, is closely connected with Esau’s other name, which is Edom. This draws our attention to the reason why parents pick particular names for their children: is it to honor a particular relative (grandfather or grandmother?)? Is it because of some trait noticed already at birth? Or, is a name chosen for a child because it is currently popular and sounds “nice?” What are some reasons in Biblical history why particular individuals receive their names (think of Samuel, Isaiah’s sons, and our Lord Jesus [Matt. 1:21]).
We cannot be completely sure what Isaac and Rebekah are thinking as they pick the name Esau for the oldest son. But the second son “makes a name for himself” by his actions during his own birth. He emerges from the womb grasping the heel of his older brother. This interesting incident almost suggests that the struggle in the womb during Rebekah’s pregnancy is not over, and the second boy is ready to chase his slightly older brother down. Of course, Jacob as a baby would not be conscious of such a conflict as he grabs his brother’s heel. The word for “heel” in the Hebrew language lies at the root of the name the younger twin receives, Jacob. Furthermore, just as his older brother will get another name (Edom, “red”) later, so the younger will also receive a second name (Israel) later on. But that story is ahead of us.
The name “Jacob” requires some comment. As a personal name, it is known from extra-biblical sources as “Jacob-el,” which likely means, “May God be at (my) heel,” that is, “May God protect me.” Such a name in fact has quite a positive meaning. So Kidner (Genesis, p. 130) sees the name as a kind of prayer: “May God be your rearguard.” But the name is also given to irony or a second, almost hostile, meaning. To be at someone’s heel implies that one is dogging another’s footsteps, trying to trip, to trick, or to deceive someone else. It may very well be that the parents intend a positive spin on the name that they give to Jacob. Yet we should note that the ironical sense of Jacob’s name will certainly emerge later on in the lives of the two boys. Protection (from God) as well as deception (by Jacob) will be often seen in Jacob’s life.
Read Hosea 11:12–12:4. In this covenant indictment of God’s people the prophet Hosea draws attention to the sins of the south (Judah) and the north (called Jacob in verse 2). Israel (i.e., Ephraim) is Jacob, full of lies and deception. He has been a struggling nation, even as he emerged from the womb.
Clearly, God’s election is not based upon the goodness of Jacob and his descendants, the people of Israel. God’s election is rooted in His own loving purposes in Christ. The Bible’s teaching about original sin (we are both guilty and polluted from the womb) humbles us, only to make us see the amazing nature of God’s grace to save us apart from any merit of our own.
Lesson 1: Points to ponder and discuss
1. In several places we read that God describes Himself as the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then why does the patriarch Isaac get much less textual attention in the book of Genesis? What role does Isaac play in redemptive-history?
2. Redemptive-history in the Bible has a number of barren women who play a very important part in the story. Why are there (apparently) so many of them in redemptive-history? What point is God making with us?
3. Psalm 113 is noted in the lesson above. Read through this entire psalm. What several things does it say about God? How are these truths about God shown to us in the story of the birth of the twins, Esau and Jacob? How are these same truths revealed to us in the stories of Abraham and Isaac earlier?
4. Isaac prays for his barren wife, and Rebekah goes to seek out an answer from the Lord during her rather turbulent pregnancy. Prayer plays an important part in the parents’ lives here. God answers these petitions with pregnancy and then with prophecy. How does God answer prayers today? Does He ever not answer our prayers? What does the Bible teach us about prayers that appear to us to go unanswered?
5. God reveals the future to Rebekah concerning her sons. Can we believe that she then told this prophecy to her husband Isaac? To her sons Esau and Jacob as they were growing? Why or why not? What difference might it have made whether she told or did not tell the prophecy to her husband and/or her sons?
6. Verse 23 says that “one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” Does this word from the LORD mean that conflict was inevitable between the two nations? Why or why not? From where do conflicts and fighting come?