Toledot: Rebecca Gets It Wrong

Rebecca tries so hard to set up her son Jacob for a good life—and everything she does turns out to be a mistake.

Birth of Esau and Jacob, by Francois Maitre, ca. 1480

In this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Histories”), Rebecca and Isaac have twins who are opposites. Esau, the firstborn, is big and hairy, emotional and impulsive, fixated on food and sex.1 Jacob, born holding onto Esau’s heel, is smooth-skinned and smooth-tongued, clever and scheming, fixated on becoming a patriarch someday. He makes his first move when Esau comes home hungry after a long day of hunting, and Jacob trades a bowl of  stew for his his brother’s birthright as the firstborn.2

Esau expresses his love for his 100-year-old blind father, Isaac, by feeding him meat from his hunts. Esau’s needs are as simple as his intellect, and he takes care of himself. Rebecca does not worry about her firstborn son.

Isaac loved Esau because of the hunted-meat in his mouth, but Rebecca was loving Jacob. (Genesis/Bereishit 25:28)

Rebecca does worry about her son Jacob. Although he has the intelligence and desire to carry on the legacy of his grandfather Abraham, he sticks close to the family’s tents, and at age 40 he remains unmarried. He will never be able to serve Abraham’s god unless he gets out into the world, and he will never continue the line of Abraham’s descent unless he marries a suitable woman.

What Rebecca wants for Jacob is a good wife and Abraham’s blessing from God. But only her husband Isaac can make these things happen. They live in Canaan, where marriages are arranged by men. And although God did answer Rebecca’s question once, when she was pregnant, Isaac has a stronger connection with the divine. After all, when he prayed to God to let her bear children, God responded.

Also God gave Isaac the blessing of Abraham. Rebecca knows that he has the power to pass it on to  Jacob before he dies. And Isaac’s health is failing. When the twins were born, Isaac was 60. Now he is over 100. He is blind and finds it hard to stand up. One day, Rebecca overhears Isaac tell Esau:

“… go out in the field and hunt meat for me. Then make for me some tasty food that I love, and bring it to me, and I will eat it, so that my nefesh will bless you before I die.” (Genesis 27:3-4)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = soul, self, animating spirit, appetite.

Rebecca jumps to the conclusion that Isaac is about to give Esau the blessing of Abraham. But God’s blessing would be wasted on Esau; it has to go to Jacob!

Isaac Blessing Jacob,
by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout,
1642 (detail)

Rebecca orders Jacob to bring Isaac the tasty food and secure the blessing before Esau gets back from the field. When Esau and Isaac find out what happened, she will take care of the consequences somehow. The charade spins out from there. Rebecca fastens goat-skins around Jacob’s hands and neck to imitate Esau’s hairiness. Isaac, after some uncertainty, gives Jacob the blessing he intended for Esau: a prayer for a life of material abundance and power, with no reference to God or Abraham.

I can imagine Rebecca listening in and discovering her mistake. Isaac merely wanted to bond with Esau the only way he could, through food, and  then leave him with a father’s blessing–the blessing of his personal self, or even the blessing of his appetite. Isaac was saving the blessing of Abraham for Jacob after all. Now what can she do?

Of course the subterfuge is discovered as soon as Esau returns from his hunt. Esau weeps and begs his father for another blessing, and Isaac does the best he can. But Rebecca finds out that Esau is so enraged, he wants to kill Jacob as soon as their father dies.

Rebecca does not try to talk him down. Instead, she sees another opportunity to promote Yaakov’s welfare. She tells Yaakov he must flee to her brother in Charan in order to escape Esau’s murderous rage. Then she reminds Isaac of how much they dislike Esau’s Hittite wives, and hints that he must send Yaakov away to get a wife.

Rebecca said to Isaac: “I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from the Hittite women like these, why should I go on living?” (Genesis 27.46)

So Isaac summoned Jacob and he blessed him and  commanded him, and he said to him: “You must not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Get up, go to Padan of Aram, to the house of Betu-el, your mother’s father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother.” (Genesis 28:1-2)

Then Isaac, who never loses his temper, gives Jacob the blessing of Abraham.

“May God give you the blessing of Abraham for yourself, and for your offspring as well, so as to possess the land from your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham.” (Genesis 28:4)

Most commentary says that Rebecca’s motivation is to save Yaakov’s life, and her marriage scheme is an excuse. I think it is the other way around. As modern commentator Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes, Jacob would be just as safe if Isaac sent him to his ally, King Avimlelkh, or to his half-brother Ishmael, both of whom live nearby. Rivkah is smart enough to think of a pretext for sending Jacob to either man. Instead, she deliberately brings up the subject of Jacob’s marriage, knowing that Isaac’s first thought will be to get Jacob a wife from the relatives in Aram, just as Abraham did for him.

Why does Rebecca want Jacob to marry one of her brother Lavan’s daughters? The Torah does not say, but her desire is similar to Abraham’s; both want to keep the intermarriage among the descendants of Terach going.  At least Lavan worships the same god as Abraham, even if he is not exclusive about it.

Rebecca also knows that her brother thinks in terms of material wealth. In last week’s Torah portion, we read that Lavan was willing to marry off his sister once he saw the jewelry Abraham’s steward had given her, and the ten camels carrying packs. Lavan would not accept a husband for any of the women in his household without receiving a hefty bride-price.

Yet in next week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (And he went), Jacob leaves home on foot, carrying nothing but a staff (and a few personal supplies, such as the oil he pours on the stone where he has his famous dream of the ladder of angels). Surely neither Isaac nor Rebecca would send their son off to Lavan to take a wife without giving him a mount, some servants, and a generous bride-price!

In my blog post Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience, I speculated that Jacob’s guilt  drives him to leave home before his parents have time to give him anything, and then to sentence himself to seven years of servitude to Lavan as the price for a wife. Now I think Jacob’s hasty departure might be due to fear as well as guilt. And Rebecca is to blame for this fear, since she tells Jacob Esau is determined to kill him, and urges him to flee.

Poor Rebecca. What she wants for Jacob is God’s blessing and the right wife. But everything she does to help Jacob has the opposite effect. Isaac planned all along to give God’s blessing to Jacob. By making Jacob masquerade as Esau, Rebecca only makes Jacob guilty and Esau enraged. Then Rebecca tries to get Jacob the right wife by telling him to flee to his uncle Lavan before Esau tries to murder him. The combination of fear and guilt make Jacob leave too soon, without a bride-price, and stay with Lavan for 20 years.

Jacob does, eventually, get what his mother wants for him: God’s blessing, both from Isaac’s lips and from God in a vision; and both of Lavan’s daughters as his wives. Yet Rebecca dies without ever seeing her favorite son again, or his children.

Could she do better? What if, as soon as she overheard her husband promising to give Esau the blessing of his nefesh, she went straight to Isaac and asked him what he intended? Or what if she spoke to Jacob directly about why he should marry one of Lavan’s daughters? Could Rebecca achieve her goals by being honest?

I know from my own experience that being honest and direct works well with someone who can listen to me, and ask for clarification when necessary. It does not work well with someone who becomes emotionally overwhelmed because a childhood complex is triggered, or with someone who simply cannot focus on what I am saying.

Isaac is passive and traumatized because his father nearly sacrificed him as a burnt offering, lifting the knife off his throat only at the last moment. Everything relating to fathers and sons might be emotionally overwhelming for him. And he is 100 years old, infirm, and blind. When the Torah says his eyes have dimmed, it may mean his mind has also dimmed, and he cannot focus long enough to hear Rebecca out.

And Jacob?  He would be shocked by the consequences of obeying his mother and stealing Esau’s blessing, and expect a rejection from his father or an attack by his brother at any moment. In the middle of this crisis, how could he listen to someone talk about marriage?

Perhaps there are times when we are all like Rebecca, longing for the best outcome, but knowing there is no use in going for it directly and honestly. Yet if we try to manipulate the situation, we may discover that we have misread another person’s heart, and done everything wrong. We are only human. Yet sometimes, even if it comes too late for us, the best outcome arrives after all.

  1. Esau is hairy from birth (Genesis 24:25), becomes a hunter (Genesis 25:27), is more interested in eating than in preserving his future (Genesis 25:29-34), and violates custom by bringing home two local Hittite women as wives without his parents’ permission (Genesis 26:34-35).
  2. Genesis 25:29-34.

4 thoughts on “Toledot: Rebecca Gets It Wrong

  1. Dear Melissa, I am a Christian, but discovered your blog in my search to understand the Old Testament better. I liked your insight about Isaac. I always wondered how he could possibly work through the experience of nearly being killed by his father. The Bible is silent on that point. The idea that he was not a person with whom one could be direct is helpful in understanding Rebecca’s seemingly deceitful behavior.

    1. Dear Barbara, I’m glad my insight meant something to you! Of course, I can only guess–like anyone else trying to fill in the blank spaces. And I bet that people who lived thousands of years ago would have both some psychological traits we could understand today, and some that we could never grasp intuitively. But I think thew reason many of us read the Bible today is to draw insights from it that we can relate to…

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