Now it was, when Yitzhak had finished blessing Yaakov, yes it was—Yaakov had just gone out, out from the presence of Yitzhak his father—that Esau his brother came back from his hunting.
Tol’dot—Possibilities & Tests
Abraham was a nebbish, silently enduring all sorts of indignities and ultimately having to pay top dollar in order to bury his wife. Jacob was a pragmatic schemer. And Isaac was a cipher. The biblical narrative does not shy from depicting the weaknesses and foibles of its greatest heroes. We know that Abraham lied about his wife (twice!) and tossed his oldest child out into the wilderness, yet we also are told about his powerful sense of morality and integrity. We read of Jacob’s tricks perpetrated on his brother, father and father-in-law, yet we also learn about his moral growth.
And then there is Isaac. What do we know about him? That he passively lay on the altar as his father prepared to sacrifice him. That he accepted unquestioningly Rebecca to be his wife. That he preferred the loutish Esau to Jacob, and had to be tricked into extending his blessing to the more deserving younger son. What are the redeeming qualities of this man, such that our prayers to the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob?”
Perhaps we ought to consider a more basic question: Why Isaac at all? This might strike you as strange. We have Isaac recorded in the Bible because he is the son of Abraham, the father of Jacob. We can hardly jump from grandfather to grandson without mentioning the generation in between!
But, we can. The Torah narrative hardly tells us everything. With a line or two, the text could indicate an intervening generation and then go on with the story. Isaac, however, is worthy of attention. The account of his adult life is the shortest and most schematic of the three Patriarchs, and yet in its brevity it affords a richness of possible interpretations.
For one, the story of Isaac performs a classical role of the middle segment of a trilogy. It reaches back to the first part (Abraham) and sets up the themes for the third, concluding element (Jacob). Isaac is depicted as being very different from Abraham and Jacob. Abraham and Jacob wandered, traveling between Aram and Egypt; Isaac remained in Canaan. Abraham had children by three women, and Jacob by four; Isaac was strictly monogamous. Abraham and Jacob challenged and were challenged by God; except for the reaffirmation of the covenant, the deity is virtually absent from the Isaac story. On the other hand, Isaac-like Jacob-had a favorite child and had to suffer the consequences of his favorit¬ism, and Isaac-like Abraham-defended the viability of his land in a dispute over the digging of wells. Finally, the saga of the Patriarchs begins in Ur and ends in Egypt. Only Isaac, as expressed in Abraham’s oath, remains wedded to the Land, symbol of Israel’s destiny and promise.
A second vital component of the Isaac story is Rebecca. The Rebecca account connects into the total narrative in two ways. First, as Isaac’s only spouse, his tale is inextricably tied to hers. Second, she represents a parallel, continuation and deepening of the Matriarchal role first exhibited by Sarah. Both Sarah and Rebecca comply with their husband’s wishes to be identified as their sister. They both champion a younger son before his reluctant father as the rightful heir to God’s promise.
While Sarah always traveled with her husband, Rebecca left her family home in order to journey to meet her husband. And while Sarah confronted Abraham on behalf of her only son, Rebecca had to choose from among her two children. It is possible to suggest that the story of Isaac really is the story of Rebecca, for she is the one who guaranteed the continuation of the covenant.
But, finally there is Isaac himself. What role does he play that is not simply a bridge from one generation to another? I look for an answer in just how he handles the continuation of his father’s blessing. The text tells us that Isaac loved Esau, that he is prepared to extend his blessing to his elder son, that he is apparently deceived into extending that blessing on Jacob, and yet when made aware of the deception, he nonetheless sticks by his putatively wrong action. In brief, we learn that Isaac loved Esau, but denied him his blessing even though tricked.
Consider all the questions that can be raised by this brief tale: Why did Isaac love Esau, and what did that love mean? Was he really deceived by Rebecca and Jacob’s ruse? If he was, why did he not renounce the first blessing? If he was not, why did he take such care to play along? Or perhaps Isaac was initially deceived by Jacob’s ruse, but became aware that it was not Esau standing before him; then why did he continue with extending the blessing?
Where does one go to find answers? I believe a reasonable response is: Where do you think? The text lays out a narrative account that is clear in its outline and fuzzy in its details. It is like reading a box score of a baseball game in a newspaper. One can see clearly who played, who won, and some of the elements of the game-winning and losing pitchers, and how well certain batters did at the plate. What one cannot see from the box score is how the game unfolded: who got the game winning hit, how significant was a particular pitcher’s strike out or walk, or a particular fielder’s error. Assuming you have no access to videotape or a reporter’s account, you are free to imagine the play of the game. As long as your version comports with the information in the box score, while it might not be a true reflection of what actually happened, it will have its own integrity.
The Isaac tale is a box score, and we have neither a videotape or eyewitness report. Something happened (I am setting aside any contention that the narrative is simply pure fabrication). In the absence of ever knowing just what that something is, we may fill it in with our own story.
Many stories, of course, are possible. Which does one choose? The answer has to do with you. Play out a scenario. For example: Isaac loved Esau, because his older son’s sense of freedom and adventure represented the repressed desires of Isaac himself, as he felt constrained by his obedience to Abraham’s wish that he not wander outside of the land God had shown him. Isaac loved Esau and truly wished to give him his blessing. Rebecca, knowing from the revelation she received before the twins were born that the destiny of the people was to be in Jacob’s hands, pressed Jacob into engaging in the deception of his father. The deception, although shaky, somehow worked; Isaac was fooled. When Esau surprisingly shows up and asks for the blessing he felt he deserved and had a right to receive, he was rebuffed by his weak, blind, physically and morally exhausted father who nothing left to give.
This version has integrity. It comports with the information the text gives us. It proceeds however from a conviction that Isaac was indeed weak and passive; that without Rebecca’s determination the destiny of carrying on the covenant due to Jacob would never have happened. As I noted before, the story of Isaac really is the story of Rebecca!
I leave it to you to work through your own story, a Midrash if you will. Was Isaac weak, or was he pursuing a path of his own devising, or was it something in between? Needless to say, I have my own midrash, and it is not the scenario I laid out above. In a few moments, I will lay it out, but not now. Now, it is your turn to work through the possibilities. What do you find? What does it say about Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Esau? What does it say about yourself?
As for my own midrash: Isaac and Rebecca revealed their preferences between their twin sons, but their ‘love’ directed at each was not merely for who they were, but also for what they could be. Isaac therefore loved Esau for his adventurousness, but more than that, he cared for his wild son in hopes of having him grow out of his impetuousness and lack of caring. Rebecca, for her part, saw Jacob’s potential to be the recipient of the promise first given by God to Abraham, and also cared that his mild and passive son would begin to exhibit an ability to fend for himself in the larger world.
The notion of Isaac being old and blind is curious. The Torah states that Isaac lived to the age of 180, fully 120 years after the birth of his sons. Since Jacob and Esau are at most young adults at the time of the disputed blessings, Isaac has many decades left to live. (We need not concern ourselves with the outrageous life spans depicted in Genesis, but however we wish to understand the ages of the Patriarchs, the key point here is that Isaac is a long way off from dying.) Was Isaac truly near death-recovery from near fatal illness is hardly implausible-or perhaps Isaac’s condition should be viewed in a more symbolic fashion.
The text tells us that Isaac was old and, more significantly, blind. The blindness is an important strategic part of the story, necessary for effecting the misidentification of Jacob as his brother. Blindness (or weak eyes) will be used again in the elderly Jacob, when he apparently mixes up Joseph’s two children, Ephraim and Menashe. In that story, however, Jacob makes clear he knows exactly what he is doing. In the case of Isaac’s dim eyesight, however, we are not so certain.
Conventionally, Isaac’s blindness is associated with his loss of insight; that he not only cannot see, but moreover he cannot spiritually intuit what is transpiring. (In which case, why was that not also the elderly Jacob’s fate?) I prefer to believe that Isaac himself understood something about his own blindness. Part of what he understood was the time to pass on the blessing had come. His story was over, the next generation was to begin. The blindness also represented a test. All of us are substantially blind to the future. We expect, hope, pray that certain events will come to pass, but in the last analysis we do not know what actually will occur. Isaac must now send God’s blessing on to the whims and possibilities of the occluded future. To whom would that blessing go?
Clearly, Isaac preferred that his blessing go to Esau, yet he did not simply call in his older son in order to extend that blessing. Rather he asked him first to go out, make a meal and feed him. Most critics will relate this request to a condition of the blessing itself, but maybe it is not the food that is important in this request. Isaac is looking for something from Esau in the very way he performs this task. In the context of the test in which Isaac participates, he in turn tests Esau.
Eating food and receiving the blessing (b’rakhah) echoes the incident of eating food and selling the birthright (b’khorah). Previously Esau had spurned his status as first-born simply for some lentil soup. The small needs of the immediate present had overwhelmed a consideration for the ongoing future. Now, once again, Esau’s fate is connected to food. Isaac is looking for some indication that this time his son will pass the test.
When a son comes in with a prepared meal, Isaac feels that perhaps Esau has indeed fulfilled the hopes he had for him. He continues to test his son: How did you return so fast? The reply-God provided-is satisfactory. He notes an uncharacteristic softness in his son’s voice, and comments “the voice is Jacob’s, yet the arms are Esau’s.” Finally his child has developed the qualities of softness and compassion that are necessary for receiving the blessing. Isaac blesses his child.
Then, of course, he learns that it is not Esau that has become more like Jacob, but rather, as Rebecca had hoped, Jacob has become more like Esau! Esau on the other hand is the same loud insensitive person who spurned his birthright. Isaac is shocked, and even saddened by this turn of events. What can Isaac do when he realizes the truth? Is he not fully within his rights-perhaps it is even his obligation!-that he renounce his earlier blessing, and extend it appropriately upon Esau. Why does he deny his elder son, enduring Esau’s cry of anguish as he all but declares that the legacy of Abraham will be fulfilled in Jacob? Yet, in this very moment the test takes place!
The test is comprehensive and multi-level. Esau and Jacob have both been tested regarding their worthiness to carry on the covenant; Jacob passing and Esau failing. Rebecca was tested in her determination to carry out God’s will, even at the sacrifice of the enmity of her husband and her son. Isaac was tested to act in the right way, even without the benefit of insight or intuition that might help him in making that choice. And finally, God was tested.
This final trial was anticipated and mirrored by the encounter between God and Abraham over Isaac. Abraham, in the testimony of the text and through the teaching of the tradition, was the epitome of the quality of mercy. When God informed him of the divine plan to punish Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness, Abraham challenged God: The judgment was sure, but could God truly temper the stricture of law with compassion. The Eternal’s pledge that the evil rampant in the cities of the Plain would be spared for the sake of as few as ten righteous individuals, assured Abraham of the sureness of God’s mercy. Armed with that knowledge, the Patriarch could comply silently with the terrifying prospect of sacrificing Isaac. Abraham knew that mercy would prevail.
Isaac, the tradition informs us, was the epitome of the quality of justice. (Note that in the Western tradition, justice is depicted as being blind.) His own attitude toward his son Esau however was a mixture of justice-after all, Esau was the first-born-and compassion-he knew his son’s failings. And from his father’s and his own experiences (especially when bound to the altar), Isaac knew of God’s manifest compassion. Given God’s apparently boundless mercy, how deep was divine justice? When his son presented himself bearing the arms of Esau and the voice of Jacob, Isaac was assured of the strictness of God’s judgment. Thus, although it was presently revealed that it was not the elder but the younger son who had received the covenantal blessing, he nevertheless knew that justice had prevailed. No other blessing would, or could be given.
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Here is a depiction of the disputed blessing that Isaac extended to Jacob and withheld from Esau. Is it an explanation of the text? The clear answer is: yes and no. Yes, I believe the midrash I have developed is a sound examination of Isaac’s attitude and intent. It fits into the information that the narrative has given us. No, however, it is not an explanation of the text, but rather a revelation of my own attitude and reading of the text. Either Isaac, in his blindness and infirmity, was irrelevant to his own story, or in spite (perhaps because) of his blindness, his actions were worthy themselves of God’s blessing. The text leaves us the choice and I chose the latter.
The choice however was not capricious. In constructing the midrash, I did not do violence to the text. The possibility of this explanation accurately reflecting the intent of the original writer is always there. And yet, the choice was wholly mine. The point of the narrative could easily be something else. The truth inherent in the biblical narrative cannot be found either in my own personal biases and attitudes, nor entirely in the words of the text, but rather in the faithful relationship that is formed between us.