Read Genesis 27:1–29
We were introduced to the twins Esau and Jacob in Genesis 25. The story told there shows that the two boys are in conflict. But the conflict has not yet broken out into the open. Prophetic word (Gen. 25:23) has assigned Jacob over Esau the firstborn. Jacob purchases the birthright from Esau, and Scripture tells us that Esau has despised his birthright (Gen. 25:34).
Genesis 26 is something of a “detour” in the story of Jacob, such that Isaac comes across as a kind of valley or lower plateau between the “taller mountain peaks” of Abraham and Jacob. Yet even in that chapter we may read with gratitude to God that He keeps His covenant words to the godly patriarchs. Isaac clearly hears an echo of Genesis 12:1–3 as he too is promised God’s presence, His blessing, the land, and many descendants, through whom blessing will go to other nations (see Gen. 26:2–5).
Genesis 26:34–35 brings Esau back into the story, and the topic here is his marriage to two Hittite women. It is interesting to note that he will marry a third wife, Mahalath (an Ishmaelite), in Genesis 28:8-9. In this way, brief notices about his wives serve as a kind of “bookend” that surrounds the story of Jacob receiving the blessing from his father Isaac in Genesis 27.
“I think I’m going to die soon”
Genesis 27 has been called “a chapter saturated with intrigue, suspense, and agony” (J.J. Davis, Paradise to Prison, p. 236). The subjects of food and death, death and food, are fascinating ones, subjects that come together in these stories. Esau had come back from hunting, exhausted, and he talks as if he is going to die. So he sells his birthright to get some good soup (Gen. 25:29ff.).
Isaac now is old, and he senses that death cannot be too far away. But he would love to eat Esau’s food before he pronounces his blessing. Both men exaggerate the prospects of their deaths. Esau eats the stew and walks away. And Isaac does not die until Genesis 35:29! “Reports of their deaths have been greatly exaggerated!”
In any case, Isaac tells his son Esau to hunt for some wild game. With success in the hunt, Esau can cook up some really tasty food. This will be the occasion for patriarch Isaac to give his blessing to the firstborn son, a kind of reading of his “last will and testament” before he dies. It may very well be that the game caught in the hunt would provide the food for a kind of private feast that would enhance the blessing presentation.
But there is something wrong in all this. The granting of a blessing was not a secret affair between a father and his son. If anything, it was a public event, a cause for community acknowledgment and celebration. What is more, would it not be expected that Isaac should include the whole family—his wife Rebekah and his other son Jacob— in this granting of the blessing? Is the momentous occasion of pronouncing a blessing, a private matter?
Furthermore, the normal practice of giving a double portion to the oldest son means that there is some blessing left for the remaining son(s). But what portion does Isaac give to the son in front of him? Read verses 27–29 and 38–40. It sounds like Isaac gave virtually the entire blessing away, with little left for the other son. In other words, Isaac was not intending to give a double portion to Esau with another portion to Jacob (let’s say, two-thirds for Esau, with one-third to Jacob, so that Esau gets “double”). It appears that Isaac planned to give Esau the near entirety of blessing to Esau; Jacob perhaps could get the scraps.
Whose god is their belly
On one level, we are not completely surprised by this. In Genesis 25:28 we read that Isaac loved the taste of the wild game that Esau hunted. By now his twin sons are in their late 70s (perhaps 77 years of age, when figured according to all the verses that give us ages). Yet Isaac is still motivated by his taste buds and stomach. Has Isaac learned nothing? But much more significant: can he not bring his actions in line with God’s revealed Word? It is very difficult to believe that Rebekah had not told Isaac what God had said in Genesis 25:23, perhaps almost immediately after the LORD had revealed the future. “The older will serve the younger.” It is quite likely that the text would have read, “Rebekah kept the matter in her heart,” or something similar, if she in fact had kept the prophecy all to herself. Thus it is reasonable to believe that Isaac knew that God’s covenantal election rested with Jacob, not Esau. But Isaac’s love for Esau and his tasty venison outweighs what God has said. Is this one reason why Rebekah is not invited to the blessing ceremony? Does Isaac think that his wife would have protested vigorously the proceedings?
Another factor to be taken into account has already been mentioned in Genesis 26:34–35. Esau had married Hittite wives, and “they were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.” Isaac is not happy with his daughters-in-law! When Esau marries at age 40, he has shown no godly wisdom in the choice of his wives. Does this reality not say anything to father Isaac as to what really lives in the heart of his son Esau? Will Isaac, in effect, continue to enable Esau to prosper in this direction of covenant rebellion by giving him the blessing?
It could be argued that Isaac’s decision to bless Esau puts Isaac at enmity with God. God’s will is that younger Jacob have dominion over the older Esau. Through this arrangement the Christ would come to save all God’s people. Isaac’s fatherly choice is not God’s choice in election. In this way, Isaac’s plan for a private party to give the blessing to Esau is an action that is opposed to the Christ. This does not mean that Isaac has become an unbeliever or that he would not be saved by God’s grace. We think here of Peter boldly saying that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16). But a few verses later he is rebuked (“Get behind me, Satan!”) when he speaks against what Christ says would happen to Him in Jerusalem (Matt. 16:21-23). How easily we can blind ourselves to God’s will in certain areas of life. Isaac, like Esau before him, is here thinking with his stomach and acting out of his fondness toward his firstborn. Isaac loves the son whom God does not love in His covenant. Isaac thus plans to strengthen God’s “enemy” at the expense of God’s chosen son, Jacob.
Rebekah’s reaction (27:5–17)
Ancient Near Eastern tents did not have sound-proof curtain walls, and it is easy to imagine the conversation between Isaac and Esau being overheard. Rebekah (and you the readers, of course!) knows what is going on, and she now moves into action. She does not have a confrontation with her husband about this plan to bless Esau in private. Would a discussion (or even an argument) at this point have made Isaac change his mind?
Rebekah takes charge. She tells Jacob what to do, saying, “Listen to my voice” (or, “Do what I say;” see verses 8, 13, 43). Jacob should kill two choice goats so that Rebekah can cook up some delicious meal for Isaac. The goal in this plot is to get Isaac’s blessing before his death (verse 10).
Jacob’s response in verses 11–12 is interesting. He does not question the morality of this plan, but rather its feasibility. “Can we get away with this?” Physically, the boys are different: Esau is hairy, while Jacob is smooth-skinned). Their voices differ (verse 22). If Isaac uncovers this trick, he will curse Jacob, and then all will be lost.
But Rebekah is resourceful: Esau has some clothes still in his parents’ tent, they fit Jacob suitably, and some hairy goatskins on the exposed parts of Jacob’s body will give Isaac the impression that he is touching Esau. Without further question, Jacob gets the goats, and Rebekah cooks up a great meal.
Whom can you trust?
It was one thing for Jacob to buy the birthright from Esau. Ancient practices allowed that possibility. But the blessing was another matter. Only Isaac could give it, and it was not for sale. Jacob must acquire it by deception. To use a modern idiom: Jacob was a “smoothie.” And we wonder what Esau is thinking: having sold his birthright earlier to Jacob, does he think that he still retains the right to receive the covenantal blessing? Doesn’t Esau realize that the earlier sale means he has now forfeited his right to this blessing?
Without doubt Rebekah and Jacob engage in deception here against Isaac. Commentators have generally condemned Rebekah and Jacob for this deception of Isaac, and the language used to condemn the mother and her son range from strong denunciation, as if it were the greatest evil, to language that rebukes them somewhat more mildly. Calvin also says that their actions were not right, describing this as a lie, “not a legitimate method of acting.” But he also says that they acted from a strong faith. Both believe, says Calvin. Rebekah’s faith was “mixed with an unjust and immoderate zeal,” he writes. In other words, she had a proper goal in mind, but her means were not right. After all, does God need human help to achieve His purposes? Do believers have to take matters into their own hands to “help God along?”
At the same time, we might consider this as well: Rebekah knew God’s selection of Jacob. Esau had forfeited all claim to the blessing. Isaac was acting improperly in this regard. To argue with Isaac would be fruitless, at this point. Time is wasting, and so she, as a mother with some authority, comes up with this clever strategy. She is working here not against a man whose actions where holy and blameless, but a man who is acting against God’s revealed Word. In any case, what a sad situation now unfolds before us!
Questions and answers (27:18–26)
The story now becomes something of a nail-biter, as Jacob brings the food before his blind father. Yet Isaac is not unobservant, although his eyes do not recognize who is before him. “You’re back awfully soon, my son.” Jacob uses the LORD’s Name to say that God gave him game quickly. “You sound like Jacob, but you feel like Esau.” Isaac wants to be sure. “Are you really my son Esau?” he asks in verse 24. Why is he so concerned about it being the son he intends to bless? Because once he pronounces the blessing (verbal oaths were legally binding), then the deed is done. Once Isaac has blessed, the “ink is dry,” and there is no recall of his words. So Isaac needs proof of identity, for he is determined to bless Esau, but he must be sure it is Esau. On that point, he has no second thoughts.
“By faith Isaac blessed…”
The occasion is momentous, and father Isaac seeks a kiss from his son. Jacob is misleading a blind man (his father), and he seals the deal with a kiss. Although he has little or no sight, Isaac relies on his other senses: hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. His doubts are set aside as he proceeds to pronounce the blessing.
The blessing contains important features, and we do well to consider them:
1. “… the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed.” These opening words remind us that the blessings we experience around us are from the Creator God and from Him alone.
2. “May God give you of heaven’s dew… grain and new wine.”
Here are blessings that come from creation itself. Dew is singled out in Isaac’s statement. Dew, especially heavy dew, is very important in parts of the world that have dry, rainless seasons. As the temperature plummets at night, moisture can form on plants and soil to provide just enough sustenance for vegetation that might otherwise dry out and die. See Deuteronomy 33:13 (blessing for Joseph). This is why Elijah’s prayers held back both dew and rain during the time of Ahab’s apostasy (1 Kings 17:1). God even compares Himself to dew in Hosea 14:5a (cf. Zech. 8:12; Prov. 19:12; Job 29:19). Isaac also speaks of abundant grain and new wine. Food and drink are needed to sustain a people; famine was a curse from God.
3. “May nations serve you … bow down to you.”
This part of the blessing takes us to the realm of social relationships, specifically the dominion that God’s people will be given. This blessing, in fact, recalls what the LORD had said to Rebekah in Genesis 25:23, “One people will be stronger than the other.” It recalls those words but only in part. Isaac believes that he is blessing Esau in such a way that Jacob and all his descendants will serve Esau. As such, as far as his intentions are concerned, Isaac is speaking in direct contradiction to God’s Word. Yet his words are being spoken to God’s chosen covenant son Jacob.
We cannot neglect noting that these words will ultimately be fulfilled in a later chosen covenant Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will experience shame and a hellish death, but then He will be highly exalted, given a Name above every name. He will be given all authority in heaven and on earth, and through the preaching of the gospel, He will draw all people to Himself. At the Name of Jesus Christ, every knee shall bow in all created reality (see Phil. 2:5–11).
4. “May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.”
These words repeat the similar covenant promises spoken many years before to father Abram in Genesis 12:3. So we note God’s faithfulness from generation to generation. The content of His promises are not diminished over time, but rather He underscores them as valid when Isaac blesses his son. Hebrews 11:20 says, “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.” Although Isaac has unrighteously favored Esau, at least it can be said that Isaac believed God’s promise was true and that its content was substantial. Everyone who curses the favored son will experience God’s curse, but blessing will come to anyone who blesses that son.
We also must not fail to observe that Isaac ascribes all blessing as coming from God (see verse 28, literally, “the God”): “May God give you…” There are no blessings apart from the true Lord of heaven and earth. “This is my Father’s world,” and from His Fatherly hand alone come the blessings that truly enrich the gifts of His creation. From our Almighty God we receive all the vast benefits of creation and re-creation.
Lesson 3: Points to ponder and discuss
1. Isaac is blind; he has great difficulty seeing physical things around him. How is he “blind” in other ways in this story? How do Christians have “blind spots” in their own lives?
2. Isaac says he does not know the day of his death (27:2). None of us really do. What does the Scripture say about our life spans (see Ps. 49 and Ps. 90:9–12, for example)? Why do younger people typically think and live as if they are invincible? Is it morbid to think about your own death? How should we think about it?
3. Paul says some people make their belly (appetite) a god (see Phil. 3:19). Various kinds of pleasures can be addicting to some people, although not to others. Some things become idols, false gods. How can we spot such idols in our own hearts and lives? How can such idols be broken and our lives be delivered?
4. Read Colossians 3:9–10; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 43 (Q/A 112); Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 143–145; and Shorter Catechism, Q/A 76-78. The 9th commandment forbids bearing false witness against our neighbor. Yet there are instances in the Bible of people who engage in deception against God’s enemies (e.g., the Hebrew midwives in Egypt, Rahab in Jericho, and Jael in Judges 4). Are there times when deception may be legitimate (e.g., spying in time of war, battle strategies)? How do we resist “situational ethics” in this area?
5. Where is God in all these events of this story? What is His particular purpose in these events? Read Romans 8:28. What perspective can this verse (or other verses) give to what has happened here?