Biblical Portraits: Rebecca And Her Sons

The Disturbing Story

A dear friend of mine used to often say (quoting her Rabbi’s words): always look for the “Menorah pattern”. I recalled these words when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to squeeze the whole story of Genesis 27 into one post as I had hoped. That means we will have to finish this series next time, with Rebecca (7) – not today with Rebecca (6) – and the “menorah pattern” certainly presents a good explanation of number 7. Besides, we really need to thoroughly understand what is going on in this fascinating story—being undoubtedly one of the masterpieces of biblical narrative, Genesis 27 also presents one of the most difficult stories of this book.

We all know the story, many refer to it as the story of the stolen blessing. There is no doubt that this narrative raises a lot of disturbing moral questions and that each person is presented in a somewhat negative light here. First of all, of course, Jacob doesn’t come off very well: not only does he act behind his brother’s back, but worse yet, he actively deceives his innocent and unsuspecting father. The father, Isaac, on the other hand, is often called blind not only physically, but also spiritually, not able to recognize the will of God. As for Rebecca—our primary object here—at this point, almost everybody remembers that she is a sister of Laban, who is a cunning and greedy deceiver and liar: like brother like sister, say some, or ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’. We all also understand that God’s way can never be paved by the human cunning and devices.

 But having said all  that,  let us enter this story remembering that, after all, God is still calling himself the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob; that after all, Rebecca is one of the Matriarchs of Israel; and if God saw their hearts – and we know He did, of course,- and  even with all their weaknesses and mistakes, and even sins, He has still found them worthy to be called by their names—so let us try to see it as a story of people who meant well, who tried to do God’s will in their lives. Let us try to see the best in each one of them, beginning with Rebecca – as God always sees the best in each one of us.

 

How Old Were the Brothers?   

When we think of this story, we always imagine young men contending for the father’s blessing. Scripture doesn’t provide their age at the time of blessing, nor does it say how old Isaac was when he felt he was about to die (by the way, he lived for many years afterwards). However, we do have a way to calculate the brothers’ age, and even though it is Rebecca we are concerned with here, it’s still important for us to understand how long she had been holding this promise in her heart, waiting for it to be fulfilled. We need to know that in order to understand what was going on within Rebecca when she was making her quick and crucial decision.

Let’s get engaged in some calculations based on the Scripture. We are told that Jacob was 130 years old when he came to Egypt.[1] How old was Joseph at this time? The Torah says that Joseph was 30 years old “when he stood before Pharaoh”[2] and that there were 5 years of famine left (7 years of abundance had passed) when Joseph called Jacob into Egypt[3] . So, Joseph was about 30+7+(7-5) = 39 years old when Jacob came to Egypt at 130. That means Jacob was about 91 years old when Joseph was born—a “son of his old age”[4] indeed.

In Padan Aram, after Joseph was born, Jacob asked Laban to allow him to leave.[5] However, Laban did not let him go, and Jacob ended up spending 20 years with Laban: 14 years for his wives and 6 for his sheep and cattle.[6] The time  when Jacob asked Laban to let him go, had to be after the first 14 years. This would imply that Jacob came to Padan Aram when he was 91-14 = 77 years old. This means that “the boys” were 77 years old at the time of this story, and even though their 77 years probably felt very differently from how it feels now, still, they were not exactly young men. It also means that Isaac was 137 at that time and that he would live 43 more years – he died when he was 180[7] (at some point, when we have a series about Isaac, I’ll share with you why he thought about death at that particular time). This also means that for a very long time—for 77 years—Rebecca had been faithfully waiting for the fulfillment of the prophecy that she received during her pregnancy.

 

Rebecca’s Predicament

We read that Rebecca overheard the conversation between her husband and her son Esau. In English translations, it’s usually translated as “Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to Esau his son.[8] However, in Hebrew it’s clear that she was not a part of this conversation and just happened to hear it – she overheard it.

We don’t know whether Rebecca shared God’s message with her husband – but even if she did, it was probably a long time ago, maybe 77 years ago. On the other hand, she is the one who knows for sure that Jacob is destined to be the spiritual heir of Isaac, and it looks like their relationship with Isaac, and their communication are not at their best at this point—something has definitely changed in their relationship over these long years. We spoke previously about Isaac and Rebecca being a very loving and tender couple, and indeed they were. But it seems to be very different now: this one small detail about Rebecca overhearing their conversation, speaks volumes. Isaac was planning to bless their firstborn son and he “forgot” to tell Rebecca about it! She just “happened to hear it”— or did she overhear it on purpose? It’s a very big deal, this blessing, and it should be a family event; the fact that he didn’t tell her, unfortunately, means a lot. This couple, who used to have such a tender and close relationship, now seem to barely communicate at all. Is it because of their parental favoritism, because each one of them prefers a different son? Or because of chapter 26 – another sister/wife story? We are not told, but the fact is, they don’t seem to talk anymore and Rebecca is on her own in her decision-making. She had probably long been apprehensive of some such event, maybe even on the lookout for it. And here it comes: in a few hours, the blessing might be lost for Jacob forever—or so she thought.  What will she decide?

 

 

[1] Gen.47:9

[2] Gen.41:46

[3] Gen.45:6,11

[4] Gen.37:3

[5] Gen.30:25

[6] Gen. 31:38,41

[7] Gen.35:28,29

[8] Gen.27:5

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Angelika Walter

    Thank you, Julia, for this article. I´m amazed how much you see in this story I would never have noticed – that there might be a change in the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca and I like your way how you feel with the different characters. I´m also surprised about the age of Jacob and Esau, I always imagined them being young men.
    But I have a question: Gay Ford already brought up the potter /clay image – do you have an explanation what Paul means in Rom 9, 10-23? (if it does not lead too far, I know it´s complicated).This is for me one of the most troubling passages in the whole bible. I am absolutely no Calvinist concerning double predestination and I do not read this in the story itself, “the older shall serve the younger ” is a huge difference than predestination to heaven or hell . I see how God in mysterious ways directs the life of these men to teach following generations about God and his ways. I think Jacob and Esau represent character traits that God loves or hates with a prophetic element about Israel (or the faithful remnant within Israel) and the nations of this world. What strikes me is that both sons have received love, best conditions: loving God-fearing parents, no outward troubles. Esau is not in any way disadvantaged from the beginning, on the contrary he is favored by Isaac. Esau is not depicted as evil or condemned, but loved – he seems completely unaware that something is not pleasing to God, like perhaps most of the secular people in our time – perhaps this is what God hates, that he does not seek and not ask God like his parents did. Jacob is the one who, even through his human faults and sins, really longs for God.

    Jackie McClure, I like your poem very much!

    1. Julia Blum

      Dear Angelika, it is of course a very big and serious question, probably that’s the reason that it took me so long to reply: I’ve been thinking a lot about your question and my answer. There are many different layers and perspectives here, but as I reread your comment, I was struck by the words: “he seems completely unaware”. I think this are the key words for understanding Esau’s character – and a big part of responsibility is definitely on his parents. Compare these two Scriptures, for instance:” When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, as well as Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite.They caused Isaac and Rebekah great anxiety” (Gen.26:34,35) and “So Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan displeased [a]his father Isaac ” (Gen.28:8). There is a gap of 37 years between these two verses – and it seems that in all these years, not even once Isaac and Rebecca told Esau that they were not happy with his wives. And probably, this was not the only thing they didn’t face him with … Of course, it doesn’t mean that he is not responsible for his life – and yet, something about this “being completely unaware” seems to be very important in this story.

  2. george walker

    I wonder if anyone, has considered the reason for the way that Jacob, Esau, and Isaac appear here in this Story, as a form of prophecy.

    I can tell you that I firmly believe, although I have no credibility as a Prophet now and in the future, but I am A Christian, and from what I know about the Man Jesus, and Jacob, and Absolom, and even Adonijah, the two Sons of David, as well as Solomon, seem to be Prophetic Personages of the man Jesus.

    For Jacob and Esau, Pharez and Zareph, and Joseph and Solomon, all seem to be appearances of two Messiah’s, one that Appears First and the OtherLast, but at the Same time one is Higher in Favor with their Family, and in favor with man. And God, while the other is lesser in favor in the same three groups of Peers.

    Joseph and Jacob with their family and with the Rulersin Egypt.

    Solomon and Absalom and Adonijah with David and the People of Israel.

    Absalom was even pierced through while hanging from his Hair by I think Joab.

    This was How Jesus finally died quickly.

    Jesus was allegedly said to have fitted the Nazarite conditions, long hair.

    Now the picture of Absalom with long hair may not have qualified him for that prospect, I do not know.

    Adonijah was executed I believe at Solomon’s Order, because he also like Absalom attempted to take the throne of Israel.

    Solomon eventually received the Throne by Davids Promise.

    Joseph seems to have a Higher Throne then All, and it seems to be one similar in symbol to that of Jesus, as Joseph may have been physically cut off.

    These are a few of my thoughts on this, that I have noticed as potentially Prophetic appearances.

    But I am not confident in these things as I have little knowlege of Hebrew Knowlege.

    Just that they are very interesting to me in that regard.

    1. Julia Blum

      Very interesting thoughts George. Maybe you can join one of our classes, it would be really great to discuss them with you.

  3. Jackie McClure

    Here is a poem I wrote in 2015 about Rebecca:

    Rebekah’s Desire
    In Genesis 24, Abraham sends His servant to find a bride for Isaac. The poem is better understood if you look at Abraham and Isaac and the Servant as representing a small vignette within the overall story, of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and Rebekah as the Bride of Christ. I call the poem “I Will Go” or “Rebekah’s Desire”. Rebekah was asked if she would go with the servant and her response was, “I will go”.

    I will go to my Master, my Husband, my Kin.
    He is waiting for me, my Lover, My Friend.
    He will provide for me a place to abide.
    He will protect me there close by His side.
    The Servant will lead me every day,
    And teach me of my Loved One along the way,
    My Master growing dearer the closer we come
    To seeing His face and my wonderful new home.
    How could I stay, I must surely go.
    I will heed His call. I will go, I will go.
    Gen. 24:67 … And Rebekah became His wife and He loved her.

    Jackie McClure, 11/28/2015

    1. Rosemary

      Beautiful…your poem truly depicts the Trinity. Abraham (God the Father), Isaac (Jesus Christ) and the Servant (The Holy Spirit) and of course Rebecca (the bride of Christ). Everything is so beautifully said. I’m really touched. Thank you.

    2. Julia Blum

      Beautiful poem, Jackie, thank you so much for sharing!

  4. Jackie McClure

    I often wonder, when I read of man’s intervention in the stories in the bible, how God would have handled the events, otherwise. He has already made it known that Jacob will be the one to receive the blessing. Perhaps God would have stopped Isaac in a dream or via some other communication. I think of the old saying, “what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” We know that He means what He says, and He says what He means. And we can trust Him to bring HIs word to pass.

  5. Anne Rubin

    Just love your commentary on Rebecca. You bring up things that I have never heard before. Amazing.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Anne, for your kind words!

  6. Henrietta Wisbey (@HenriettaWisbey)

    Dear Julia
    Once more incredibly interesting and thought provoking.
    I would like to make two comments the first regarding the comment I wrote last week I said Rebekah inquired from the God of Jacob. A little later it occurred to me that of course Jacob was not yet born, however I found that quite intriguing and caused me to consider how prophetic are these words?
    Maybe our mistakes are not so after all!
    The other thing I find of note in this story is the fact that Isaac had asked Esau to make him a savoury meal which he loved.
    I love to cook and especially for those whom I love and care about and I do believe it is not just the ingredients or the recipe
    we use but that extra special unseen element which is the tender loving care that is somehow stirred in and comes through in the eating. Had Rebekah lost that first love? There is something incredibly precious and connecting when we share a meal with this invisible yet tangible spice.
    Be Blessed
    Henrietta

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your comment Henrietta- once again, so wonderful and deep!
      Rebecca inquiring from the God of Jacob when Jacob is still in her womb – amazingly profound! Doesn’t it remind us the well known scene from the Gospel of Luke when Miriam meets Elizabeth and then praises God – when Jesus is in her womb?
      Re the cooking – it’s also very interesting. Maybe Rebecca did lose that first love for her husband? In the next (and last for this series ) post we will also discuss Rebecca cooking that meal for Isaac.

      1. Gay Ford

        Well do we all need to come to the nderstand that GOD is the otter and we are just the clay! HE is Sovereign and working in All our details! Who are we the clay to say to our POTTER, ” why have YOU Made me thus? Has Not the Potter power over us little clay ppts or jars??? “. Gay Ford

        1. Julia Blum

          You are right Gay, of course the bottom line is that God is the Potter and we are the clay; however, I do think there are many things to be said before we reach this bottom line. It is a very, very serious issue indeed, and I don’t think I will be able to reply and discuss it fully in this format. Maybe, it is a good topic for one of my next posts. Blessings!

    2. Sam Esaw

      Well said. Lots to ponder here.