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Parashat Toldot - Isaac's Troubled Family

Isaac's Troubled Family

Further thoughts on Parashat Toldot

by John J. Parsons

Like Abraham's wife Sarah, Isaac's wife Rebekah (רִבְקָה) had trouble getting pregnant, though Isaac determined never to resort to the use of a concubine as did his father. Indeed, the story of Hagar and Ishmael apparently haunted Isaac throughout his life. Therefore the Torah records that Isaac "entreated" (יֶעְתַּר) the LORD on behalf of his wife. The sages note that this verb (עתר) means to slaughter, alluding to sacrifice, and the midrash explains that Isaac ascended Mount Moriah, pitched a tent, and there offered a lamb during his prayers. This must have been terribly difficult for Isaac, since the trauma of the Akedah never left him. Nevertheless, Isaac's intercession for his wife proved fruitful, and Rebekah later conceived twins (Gen. 25:21).

Rebekah's pregnancy was not an easy one, however, and the children "struggled within her" (the Hebrew verb used here (רָצַץ) comes from a root that means "to run," suggesting that the children were "running in different directions" within the womb; see Rom. 9:11-12). According to Jewish tradition, Rebekah feared she might miscarry and decided to go to the School of Shem (i.e., Malki-Tzedek) to inquire of the LORD. There she was told that "two nations" were in her womb, and "two peoples from within you shall be divided"; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23; cp. Rom. 9:11-12). When the children were born, the first came out hairy and was named Esau (perhaps from the Hebrew word esev (עֵשֶׂב), "grass"), whereas the second came out with his hand on his brother's heel, and was named Ya'akov (יַעֲקב, "grappler," from the word עָקֵב, "heel"). When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, an outdoorsman, while Jacob was a quiet man, studying Torah in the tents of Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 25:27). In later Jewish tradition, Esau represented the nation of Rome (and especially Roman Christianity), whereas Ya'akov represented the nation of Israel.

Perhaps opposites attract. The Torah states that Isaac loved Esau whereas Rebekah loved Jacob (Gen. 25:28). Isaac grew up as the quiet, disciplined, and dutiful son of Abraham, and he perhaps saw something in his son Esau which he himself lacked.  Rebekah, on the other hand, grew up adventuresome, strong, and outgoing, and she perhaps saw something in her son Jacob which she lacked.  At any rate, the sibling rivalry was deep and abiding in the family, and perhaps reflected the problematic differences between the parents themselves. As we will see, Isaac and Rebekah were opposites, just as were their twin sons.

The Torah gives an episode in the lives of the two boys to indicate something of their respective characters. Once when Jacob was cooking lentil stew, Esau came in from the field quite exhausted. Esau said to Jacob, "Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!" (Gen. 25:29-30). Some scholars note that Esau's words should be rendered, "Let me swallow from that red-red," suggesting that he was in such a hurry to meet his needs that he didn't even bother calling it "stew" (the Torah parenthetically notes here that this was the reason Esau was later known as "Edom" (אֱדוֹם, "red")). Jacob, however, decided to take advantage of his brother's weakness by manipulating Esau into "selling" him his birthright.  The Torah gives a realistic view of this exchange: while Esau "despised" his status as the firstborn son, Jacob was cunningly manipulative and exploited his brother's weakness.

Some time later, when Isaac "was old and his eyes were dimmed from seeing," he sought to bless Esau as the family heir before he died (Gen. 27:1-4). The midrash states that Isaac's eyes were dimmed on account of the ordeal of the Akedah. When he was bound to the altar, Isaac looked up and saw the Throne of Glory with the angels of God circling about. Some of the angels' tears fell on Isaac's eyes, and from that time his eyes had begun to darken.  Perhaps Isaac "saw" God as Elohim (אֱלהִים) - the Judge and Ruler of the Universe - but became blind to God as YHVH (יהוה), the Source of Compassion and mercy. The "afterimage" of the Akedah never left him - despite the divinely supplied substitute of the ram - and haunted him later as a form of blindness.  Isaac revealed that he was "blind" to the character of Esau, "blind" to his wife's vision regarding Jacob, and so on. 

When Rebekah overheard Isaac's plans, she decided to trick her husband into conferring the blessing upon Jacob instead of Esau. For his part, Jacob was left with a serious dilemma: Either he had to defy his mother or else deceive his father.  And of course Rebekah knew that Isaac would discover the deception after the fact. Rebekah's deception of her husband was intended to show him that he was gullible and thereby easily deceived by Esau's hypocrisy. It was an object lesson, if you will, rather than a outright case of lying.  After all, Esau was soon to arrive - venison in hand - and the charade would be exposed for all to see... Apparently Rebekah's plan was to "open the eyes" of her myopic husband, revealing to him that he had been guilty of sacrificing the righteous son Jacob for the sake of deceptive Esau (for more on this, see the "Deception of Esau").

The trickery proved to be tragic, however, for everyone involved.  Jacob desperately wanted the love and approval of his father, but he sought to get it through false pretenses. "Come close and kiss me my son..." (Gen. 27:26). This was Jacob's deep desire, and yet after "grappling" the blessing from his father he ironically lost his father's embrace. Indeed, Jacob lost not only his father's embrace, but his mother's as well (after fleeing to Haran, Jacob never saw his mother again). Moreover, Jacob's pathetic attempt to "be Esau" severed any hope of a relationship with his twin brother, who afterwards became his sworn enemy. Away from home and on the run, Jacob's life was also marked with painful irony. He was later deceived by his father (in-law) Laban, his wife Leah, his firstborn son Reuben, and even by his own children (regarding the death of Joseph, his firstborn son from Rachel). And Rebekah's subterfuge cost her dearly, too: after the charade was exposed, Esau turned against her (Gen. 27:45), Jacob was lost to her forever, and her marriage undoubtedly suffered as a result of the duplicity....

When Esau returned from his hunting expedition to receive the blessing, the truth came out, but Isaac tremblingly acknowledged to his son: גַּם־בָּרוּךְ יִהְיֶה / "... he (Jacob, not Esau) shall be blessed" (Gen. 27:33). Isaac "trembled exceedingly" because he realized that he had been laboring under an illusion all these years. He now finally understood the truth about his sons and ratified heaven's decision. It is ironic that when Isaac had his sight, he favored Esau, but when he lost his (physical) vision he was enabled to give Jacob the blessing as the patriarch of Israel.

After Esau realized the implications, he used wordplay used to vent his anger: When he learned that Jacob had taken away his blessing, he exclaimed, "Is he not rightly named "heel holder" (i.e., יַעֲקב, "Jacob," from the word עָקֵב, "heel")? For he has taken me by the heel (יַּעְקְבֵנִי) these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing" (Gen. 27:36). Then he cried out, "Have you only one blessing, my Father?  Bless me too, my Father!" And Esau wept aloud." This is a terribly poignant moment.  Esau didn't accuse his father of being gullible or foolish, but simply implored him for his blessing all the more. Tragically, Esau learned the value of the blessing too late. Despite his many tears, he could not reverse the decree from heaven (see Heb. 12:16-17).

The sages talk about the "voice of Jacob" and the "hands of Esau" (Gen. 27:22). Both sons were counterparts of one another, though each needed the qualities of the other to be complete. Esau needed to learn the ways of Jacob - to love Torah, to respect the call of the family to be God's agents in the world, to value the things of heaven, and so on, whereas Jacob needed to learn the ways of Esau - to be a man of action, to work with his hands, to deal with the rough-and-tumble world at large. After Jacob fled to Charan to escape the clutches of his aggrieved brother, he learned to be a shepherd, a husband, and a father. In this way Jacob also learned the value of the blessing given to Esau, although this too was discovered needlessly late in his life.

In Jewish tradition, Abraham is known primarily for the quality of chesed (חֶסֶד), "kindness," "openness," "expansiveness," hospitality, and generosity.  His tent flaps were always open to all who happened to come his way. He was outgoing, welcoming, and solicitous for the welfare of others. His son Isaac, on the other hand, is known primarily for his quality of gevurah (גְּבוּרָה), "strength," "focus," concentration, and discipline. Isaac meditated alone in the fields, stayed close to his tent, and never ventured outside the Promised Land.  The sages note that chesed unrestrained by gevurah is unbalanced (leading to indiscriminate leniency and gullibility), whereas gevurah unrestrained by chesed is also unbalanced (leading to stern judgmentalism or cruelty). Whereas Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son at Moriah (chesed), Isaac was willing to be sacrificed (gevurah). The ideal is to have both chesed and gevurah function together to create an inner balance. This ideal is sometimes called tiferet (תִּפְאֶרֶת) and is thought to have been the characteristic later evidenced by Jacob (i.e., after he was renamed "Israel" at Peniel).  The enmity of Esau (the extreme of gevurah) haunted Jacob for years, even to the point of wrestling with the Angel of LORD over the issue (Gen. 32:24-29). From such wrestling (i.e., between the ideal of justice and the ideal of chesed) came an inner resolution -- the true blessing from God that resulted in a "limp" -- and the new name of "Israel."

Some have speculated what it would have been like for the twins if Isaac and Rebekah had a better relationship. Was their marriage mirrored in the lives of their sons? Why didn't Rebekah tell Isaac about the prophecy about the "elder serving the younger" -- or if she had told him, why didn't Isaac listen to her?  And why didn't Isaac tell Rebekah about his plan to bless Esau as the heir of the family? Was Rebekah justified deceiving her husband? Was Jacob justified for believing the promise God had made to his mother that he would be the heir of the family?  And why did each parent favor a different child, thereby creating a ferocious sibling rivalry? Rebekah perhaps encouraged Jacob's duplicity because she felt ignored or disrespected by her husband. She therefore found an ally in her son, - a "tool" she could use to find leverage and a voice in the family. But Isaac perhaps encouraged Esau's profanity because he never resolved his inner turmoil regarding the Akedah. Perhaps he inwardly chafed at the ideal of strict justice and wanted to be set free.... After all, Isaac was wounded and left nearly blind from the encounter of God as Judge, but somehow he could not embrace God's sacrificial love for himself...

It's clear that the families of the patriarchs had serious struggles and were often quite dysfunctional. When we idealize these people, however, we tend to forget their humanity, and they may appear disconnected from us - on a higher spiritual level. For example, Isaac is often characterized as the obedient son who was willing to be sacrificed at Moriah at the hands of his loving father, whereas Abraham is characterized as being so "sold out" to God that he was willing to sacrifice the son he so dearly loved. Now while it is gloriously true that the sacrifice of Isaac presents a clear foreshadowing of the greater "Akedah message" of the Gospel (John 3:16), there is a human side to this story that is sometimes overlooked. Jewish tradition states that Sarah died from the shock of the Akedah, leaving both Abraham and Isaac bereaved.  Isaac's "personal holocaust" at the hands of his father caused him to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder that profoundly affected him for the rest of his life: He struggled as a son (he fled from his father Abraham after the Akedah), as a husband (he seemed unable to communicate with his wife), and as a father (his preference of Esau over Jacob caused a terrible rift in the family). Most of all Isaac struggled to understand God's love, despite God's justice...

The story of Isaac's family is ultimately one of hope for us all.  Isaac was deeply wounded but ultimately found healing, just as his son Jacob later wrestled through his family issues to become "Israel." Take heart, chaverim: God can use us for His kingdom purposes despite whatever dysfunctionality might be in our family backgrounds.

For an audio discussion on this subject see:


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