And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriath-Arba—the same is Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke unto the children of Heth, saying: “I am a stranger and sojourner with you; give me a possession of a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” (Genesis 23:1-4)
This is a Council of Elders. The children of Heth—Hittites—are seated; Abraham, an old man, probably as white-bearded as most of us think of him, stands and bows. They all know him, “a mighty prince among us”; he can have his choice of their burying places, no one will deny him. But Abraham doesn’t want their burying places; he wants one of his own, and he has just the place in mind: the cave of Machpelah, at the end of a field belonging to Ephron, son of Zoar. He’ll pay “the full price.” Ephron speaks up. What’s this about price? He’ll gladly give Abraham the field, and the cave with it: “In the presence of the sons of my people give I it thee.” Again Abraham bows down. He’ll pay the price; let Ephron take it. Reluctantly, since Abraham insists, Ephron gives in. “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels, what is that betwixt me and thee?”
Good. Now that’s over. The protocols observed, the courtesies exchanged, the formalities out of the way. We are witnessing a ceremony of bargaining. The Children of Heth know that Abraham will turn down their offers; he’s come to buy, that’s why they’re all here. This can’t be a private transaction. Abraham has lived among them a long time, and done very well for himself; but prince or no, he’s still a stranger and sojourner, and as a resident alien he can’t own land without the Council’s witness and consent. Ephron has named a price—a pretty stiff price; a shekel was a measure of weight, 11.5 grams; four hundred shekels would amount to 10.6 pounds of silver. The hard bargaining can begin. And we know Abraham can drive a hard bargain; we’ve seen him haggling with the Lord Himself.
But Abraham doesn’t haggle with Ephron. He weighs out the silver, the full price, and closes the deal on the spot. The field of Machpelah, the cave therein, and all the trees within its borders, are “made sure unto Abraham for a possession.”
Abraham is in no position to argue; Sarah is dead, he needs to bury her. Still, no one is trying to take advantage of him in his grief. Ephron speaks before all his kin, pronouncing “I give it thee” three times, the legal formula; and the refrain, “bury my dead/bury thy dead,” sounded throughout the scene, emphasizes its somber dignity. Abraham doesn’t want to lay Sarah to rest in the burying places of the Hittites for the same reason he doesn’t want his son Isaac to take a wife from among them. The separateness required by the Promise; the separateness of Abraham’s God.
And Abraham has to pay the full price, he has to make sure—make it legal; there must be no question of his possession. No one can say that the land was given away, or that he got it for a song. This is not a field for grazing; this is a grave. Abraham will be buried here too; and Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. Burying rites mark the beginnings of all sacred rites, as burying places mark special rights to the land: the civilizing influence of the dead. From now on this is sacred ground, a claim staked historically and forever.
The field of Machpelah lies across from the terebinths of Mamre. When Abraham, then Abram, came up from Egypt, he settled near Bethel, where he had first built an altar, with his nephew Lot. The land was too meager to bear them both—a note that will be struck again—and strife broke out between their camps. To keep peace between brethren Abram proposed a parting of the ways; whichever way Lot took, he would take the other. “Is not the whole land before thee?” Lot looked toward the plain of the Jordan, well-watered “like the garden of the Lord,” and headed east, as far as Sodom. We know men have ways of despoiling God’s gardens. So Abram got second choice”the Lord’s choice. This was the land of the Promise.
“Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art, northward and southward and eastward and westward; all the land that thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed forever . . . .”(13:14-15)
That was when Abram moved his tent to the terebinths of Mamre and built an altar; and this is where the Lord appears to Abraham as he sits napping at his tent door in the heat of the day.
The visit, Chapter 18, falls into two parts, the announcement of the birth of Isaac and of the doom of Sodom; in other words, blessing and cursing. The first is a version of a well-known tale. The old couple living in simple harmony; the strangers with whom they share their humble fare; divinity revealed; hospitality rewarded and blessed. This, though, is the desert, famed for hospitality—the land itself being inhospitable—and Abraham goes overboard welcoming his visitors, “a little water” and “a morsel of bread” becoming a feast so lavish we suspect he’s guessed Who they must be. And Who else would show up at such a time in such a place? The blessing is even more extravagant—excessive—in fact, laughable—and the Guest of Honor has words with the wife of the host.
“Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
Sarah is also laughing at herself; but what would the Lord Most High know about that?
Sarah has longed all her life for a son, an heir, though not for the sake of the Promise. As a woman her desires are more personal, like Rachel imploring Jacob, “Give me children or else I die.” The Lord’s first blessing is His first commandment: “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.” The heir is life and the renewal of life, generation and regeneration. The Covenant with Abraham raises the stakes: the heir is the survival of the Promise.
“Oh Lord God, what wilt Thou give me seeing I go hence childless . . . ?” What good will the Lord’s blessings do Abraham, what good is the Covenant, if he’s to die—go hence—without an heir? If the Lord withholds this of all blessings, the one that counts? But that’s what happens. Abraham’s prolonged anguish and testing—and it’s not over yet; Isaac’s entreaties with the Lord for Rebekah, who is barren; Jacob’s outburst at Rachel in anger and frustration: “Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?”
Blessing and cursing is the work of the Lord. Nothing is too hard for Him. “When the season cometh round,” Sarah will give birth to the necessary heir. This scene of desert hospitality—the feast Abraham spreads before his Guests—signifies the sacramental Covenant meal.
Abraham sees the Lord and His angels on their way, and the chapter continues in the form of a folk tale: the Little Guy who gets the better of a bargain with a Higher Up. As in a children’s story or a spell, the charm of the telling relies on repetition. Abraham’s insistent humility—“I have taken upon me to speak to the Lord . . . who am but dust and ashes”; and flattery—“That be far from Thee, to do after this manner . . . . Oh, that be far from Thee . . . ”; and the inevitable litanies of bargaining, a pattern of recitation and response: “Perchance there will be forty found there.” “I will not do it for the forty’s sake.” The relationship here, however, is not that of buyer and seller. This is a faithful steward and a Landlord Who sometimes mismanages His estates.
On the sixth day the Lord made man and woman in loco parentis—“in His own image”—to be overseer of all living creatures, “and, behold, it was very good.” We know the rest. By the Flood things have come to such a pass that the Lord sets the rainbow in the sky to remind Himself not to forget Himself. He cursed the ground for Adam’s sake; His covenant with Noah is a pledge never to curse the earth for man’s sake again.
And so it goes—until Abraham. It’s as if the Lord suddenly remembers. The Covenant with Abraham is a Covenant of Blessing. Abraham will teach his children “to keep the way of the Lord, and do righteousness and justice,” and “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.” From now on there is a choice, and the choice will reverberate throughout the Five Books of Moses:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live . . . .” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Abraham has chosen blessing.
“Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”
A sore spot with God, ever since the Flood. Maybe the Lord hasn’t considered how His ways might appear, what His justice might mean, from the point of view of mortal man, creature of but dust and ashes. Maybe He dwells too much on evil, “the imagination of man’s heart,” and too little on the righteous and innocent, over whom He has more influence and might set an example:
“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?”
The question asked in every generation ever since.
It could be that God gets more than He bargained for in Abraham, who stands before Him in His own image to plead the case for mercy and justice. Abraham knows he’s stuck his neck out. In the last words of the chapter the Lord goes on His way, “and Abraham returned unto his place.”
Does God have a reserve price? Does He know He won’t find ten righteous souls in Sodom?
Wickedness at the time of the Flood is characterized in the most general terms: “And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.” The wickedness of Sodom is dramatized—swiftly, and with a vengeance. This too is a scene of hospitality, though Lot greets the strangers at the gate with almost desperate solicitousness, falling “down on his face to the earth,” prostrating himself, and when they demur, “he urged them greatly.” The strangers may be angels, but this is no fairy tale. Word spreads through the town, and by nightfall the men of Sodom—all of them, every last one—besiege Lot’s house, demanding his guests for themselves. Lot tries to bargain, offering his own daughters instead of the strangers, who “are come under the shadow of my roof.” Once a stranger here himself, he’s holding up to the men of Sodom their desert code of hospitality—a point not lost on them, though the irony is. “This fellow came in to sojourn, and he must needs play the judge.” They are indeed being judged. In the morning Abraham will look toward the plain of the Jordan and see the smoke of Sodom.
Abraham can look at burning Sodom; Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt. Punishment for looking back on the nether world is a common motif, and Sodom, consumed in fire and brimstone, is a model of that world. But why a pillar? Memorial stones, or witness pillars, testified to pacts between man and man and oaths before God. But other, wooden, pillars stood for strange gods and goddesses abhorrent to the Lord Most High. “Neither shalt thou set thee up a pillar, which the Lord hateth” (Deuteronomy 16:21). Could Lot’s wife have been a worshiper of pillars? Her punishment, then, would fit the crime. In any case this is a cautionary tale, and she bears witness to the sins of Sodom.
The aftermath of the destruction parallels, even parodies, the aftermath of the Flood. Holed up in a cave in the mountains with their father, Lot’s daughters—the same he offered to the mob—conclude that they are alone on all the earth, and for all intents and purposes, he is the last man. They take matters into their own hands. They get him drunk, like Noah; like Noah’s son Ham, they shame him. And they obey the Lord’s commandment, repeated after the Flood: “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.”
This is not the first time Lot’s choice of God’s garden proves luckless. Soon after parting from Abram, he’s kidnapped in a war of “four kings against the five,” Mesopotamian warlords and their vassal states, the cities of the Plains. Learning of his nephew’s plight, Abram gathers his forces, 318 “trained men, born in his house,” routs the invaders, and rescues the captives with their goods and stores. The Patriarch as Warrior: an unfamiliar picture, though it might help to explain how Abram manages to hold his own here. Still, the customs of the country are not his; he scorns the King of Sodom’s offer to take only “the persons” and let Abram keep “the goods.” As if he’s gone to battle for the spoils! He’s sworn to his God, the Lord Most High, “that I will not take a thread or a shoe-latchet nor aught that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich.” This sounds more like the Abraham we know, the Abraham who must pay the full price.
Abraham’s bargaining with the children of Heth occurs in a setting of utmost civility—dignity, courtesy, mutual respect. These tales of Sodom, of corruption and violence, demonstrate the need for such civility. The desert is a stark and hostile place. What is not granted by favor may be taken by force. The fabled hospitality, the elaborate gift giving, the obeisances and honorifics—“my lord,” “to find favor in thy sight,” “bowing down to the ground”—are rituals of propitiation. Between strangers, outside the bond of blood, there is no Law; only pacts, oaths, covenants, codes—negotiation and renegotiation; the parties circling around, feeling each other out, gauging intentions, estimating costs. The shekel is the measure of money; bargaining is the prototype of all other exchange. The civility of the desert is a truce.
The Lord Most High is the Creator of life; fruitfulness is His blessing, barrenness His curse. Yet He casts Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, with its trees of every kind, and the Tree of Life; He sends Abraham away from Haran in the fertile crescent, watered by rivers that flow from Eden; He destroys the cities of the plain of the Jordan, once a vision of God’s gardens. He could have chosen any place He wanted—was not all the land before Him?—and He chose this. A land cursed by barrenness and blessed by the Promise.
The Promise belongs to the future, which means that it’s always in danger, always at stake. By the third generation, it’s come to this: a hairy man and a smooth man. Brothers, twins, and diametrical.
And the first came forth ruddy, all over like a hairy mantle; and they called his name Esau. And after that came forth his brother and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob . . . . And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. (Genesis 25-27)
Esau’s hairy mantle is the sign of his nature: “See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field that the Lord hath blessed . . . . ” Isaac is sniffing Esau’s “choicest garments”—worn by Jacob. Smoothness has its own connotations.
The brothers speak face to face only twice, and these two meetings, twenty years apart, reveal the changes in their relations and the growth in their characters. Both are scenes of bargaining. The first is brief: each gets what he wants; Jacob gets the birthright, and Esau gets the stew. How many times has Esau come home from the hunt in just such a mood, dog-tired—“faint”—demanding food? Picture him pointing: “some of that red, red pottage.” This time Jacob is ready for him, and he means to make sure. “Swear to me first.” Esau swears. Why not? What’s he got to lose? He’s dying of hunger. It seems that Isaac’s boys have not grown up.
When Esau learns that Isaac has given Jacob his blessing—“yea, and he shall be blessed”—he utters “an exceeding great and bitter cry” and begins to weep.
“Bless me, even me also, O my father . . . .
Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me? . . .
Hast thou but one blessing, my father . . . .
Bless me, even me also, O my father . . . . ”
Bless/blessed/blessing. Our sympathies here have to be with Esau, presenting himself so proudly, so hopefully for the reward which by rights is his. Yet the very repetition of the word suggests that, like birthright, blessing has little meaning for Esau; it’s only a word. What we are hearing is the plaintive cry of a child pleading for lost favor—as if Jacob has stolen Isaac’s love.
Isaac’s fondness for venison seems to trivialize him, yet the Lord Himself favors the “sweet savor” of flesh and “the fat thereof.” Food is not trivial in Genesis. It sets the scene for both birthright and blessing, and the storyteller lets us know that Jacob gives Esau bread with his stew, as Rebecca bakes bread for Isaac, invoking the symbolism of the Covenant meal.
Standing between Abraham and Jacob, Isaac cuts a lackluster figure, and considering his history his passive nature is no wonder. He’s obedient to his father: “But where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”; he’s strongly attached to his mother. He exists for the sake of the Promise, and both parents see to it that he has no rivals—Sarah sending Ishmael away with Hagar; Abraham banishing the sons of his second alliance “away from Isaac, eastward.” Isaac never leaves the land. Orthodox Jews call the son the Pray-er, the one who will say Kaddish for his parents after their deaths. In this sense, Isaac is the Promise; and if parts of his story seem recycled from his father’s, what’s a tale of generations but a tale of recycling?
And Isaac digged again the wells of water, which they had digged in the days of Abraham his father. (26:18)
This is an act of homage and reclamation. Philistines stopped up the wells and filled them with earth when Abraham died.
In the episode at the heart of his story Isaac is not present. Rebekah is the one who appears in answer to the servant’s prayer; Rebekah, running up and down with her jar on her shoulder, watering his ten thirsty camels; Rebekah, like Abraham, setting forth at once and without hesitation for an unknown destiny; Rebekah, recognizing Isaac at first sight as she alights from her camel and lowers her veil: “What man is this that walketh in the field to meet us?” Rebekah, who is always in action, and who always knows when she must act. Rebekah is the keeper of the Promise.
And what is Rebekah to do? The Lord tells her which brother is which, “and the elder shall serve the younger.” The blessing is meant for Jacob. When he questions her scheme—what if this deception should backfire?—Rebekah is busy as usual, too busy to think about it. “Upon me be thy curse, my son.” Spoken like a true Jewish mother.
But the Promise is still in danger.
“The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob.”
This begins to sound like Cain and Abel. Rivalry between brothers is a central theme of Genesis, fueled always by favoritism and preference for the second-born. Why does God respect Abel’s offering and not Cain’s? Why does Isaac prophesy that a brother will lord it over his brothers? Why must blessing include cursing? Such contention is said to reflect political and geographical dispositions among tribes vying for ascendancy in the ancient land. But Genesis is a narrative, and its historical and spiritual truths are authenticated in the actions and characters of men and women of flesh and blood, dust and ashes. Over the centuries, over the millennia, few readers can have found much to puzzle over in a father’s preference for a heedless, rough and ready son, or a mother’s for a smooth and quiet one.
Rebekah warns Jacob to make himself scarce—“flee” to her brother Laban’s house “and tarry with him a few days”—until Esau cools off and forgets the whole thing.
“Why should I be bereaved of you both in one day?” (27:22)
Both? Who does she mean? Isaac, supposedly on his deathbed? Esau intends to kill Jacob when Isaac dies. Or Esau? Both brothers? There’s no reason to believe that Esau knows of his mother’s part in the theft of his blessing; the trouble is, Rebekah knows. The wrong she has done her son must forever estrange them. And Rebekah does lose both: Jacob will “tarry” with Laban twenty years. She has taken upon herself the curse of the blessing.
Well, which would you choose for a long-term proposition like the Promise? Esau, who takes no thought for the morrow? Or Jacob, who seems to think of nothing but? Esau has already disqualified himself for the family business. Not only has he “despised his birthright,” he’s married two Canaanite women—“a bitterness of spirit unto Isaac and to Rebekah.” At Rebekah’s instigation, Isaac again blesses Jacob, this time in his own right, and sends him off to Paddan-Aram to seek a wife from among his own kin: “Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan.” Esau begins to catch on. His parents don’t like his wives! To regain lost favor, to make amends, he decides that he too will take a wife from among kin. He marries a daughter of Ishmael.
God has blessed Ishmael, as He promised Abraham He would; but this is not the Promise of which we speak. The God of Abraham and Isaac is not just another god among many gods, little toy idols of clay, wood, or stone; gods made in the image of man. He is the One God, the Living and Law-Giving God, Who made man in His image, to keep His way. The Promise comes with a price.
The birthright is the prerogative of the eldest son. Under Mosaic Law it would confer a double portion of the father’s inheritance. “The right of the first-born is his” (Deuteronomy 21:17). Someone is sticking up at last for the oft-slighted first-born. In the days of the Patriarchs it meant less and more, the father’s position as head of the lineage; in the house/clan/tribe ordering of desert society, bonds based on kinship and blood, a power at least as decisive as property.
The birthright, it seems, could be bought and sold. The words of the Blessing, once spoken, could never be taken back. Blessing derives from God. It includes promise, it includes prophecy, but above all the blessing is a blessing on life.
“God give thee of the dew of heaven
And of the fat places of the earth
And plenty of corn and wine . . . .”(Genesis 27:28)
However he may have acquired them—deviously and also by default—Jacob has come into possession of both. Now it will be up to him to earn them.
It’s quite a hike from Hebron to Paddan-Aram, in the tableland south of Haran, where Abraham started out with his wife and nephew and all the souls and substance in his possession. Jacob sets out alone, with no more than the staff he holds in his hand. And yet not alone: no sooner does his journey begin than he too hears the Call. God speaks to Abraham—on the most intimate terms; God speaks to Isaac; when God speaks to Jacob He speaks through a dream, and His voice seems to come from within. He repeats the words of the Promise, the stump speech He’s delivered so often before. For Jacob the message is immediate. “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.” This is an experience of awe.
The ladder of Jacob’s dream does not represent a moral summit, to be climbed rung by rung to the top. The angels are ascending and descending, and God stands right beside him. As the stones at the site indicate, this is a sacred place, a place of communion between heaven and earth, and through his dream Jacob recognizes its powers. Like his son Joseph, Jacob is a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams. Joseph’s dreams are riddles or allegories, keys to the future. Jacob’s dreams—this night in Bethel, in the dream-like sequel at Peniel—are symbolic and sacred, ever-expanding in meaning. In their darkness and mystery his encounters with God reveal the aspirations and struggles of his inner life”shadowed always by his relations with Esau.
Jacob meets the Promise characteristically. “If God will be with me,” if the Lord will see him through this and bring him home to his father’s house in peace, “then shall the Lord be my God.” This is a vow with a contingency clause, an If-Then proposition. Jacob is putting in a good word for himself; already he’s negotiating his return. That will take a while. His journey is an errand, a quest, a bildungsroman, and—let’s not forget—a flight. He’s fleeing the face of his brother, and he’ll have to see it first. Like Abraham, he leaves his country and his father’s house; like Abraham, he becomes a stranger and sojourner. We should bear in mind that he’s reversing Abraham’s steps.
This is a tale told in reversals, the tables turned again and again. The rivalry between Esau and Jacob becomes rivalry between Leah and Rachel; a brother disguised as a brother becomes a sister passed off as a sister; the son who deceives his father becomes a son-in-law deceived; bargaining over the birthright becomes bargaining over the marriage bed; the theft of a father’s blessing becomes the theft of his household idols. And Jacob, who bests his kin, his own twin, twice over with guile, will be outmaneuvered and outdone ten times over by his wilier double-dealing uncle.
Surely the Lord is in this place—whether we know it or not.
The pattern begins at the beginning. Rebekah—who will become the boss—waters the camels of Abraham’s servant; Jacob—who will become a servant—waters the master’s flocks. The servant arrives with fanfare, bearing glad tidings and precious gifts of silver and gold; Jacob turns up at his uncle’s door empty-handed, without gifts, without prospects, without a shekel to his name, and on top of all mooning over Rachel. Laban knows a mark when he sees one.
Laban is a folk figure, the Trickster, who lives by his wits and by outwitting, and he always gets the better of a bargain. Under pretext of fairness—why should Jacob serve him for nothing, just because they’re brothers?—Laban asks Jacob to name his wages. It doesn’t matter, he’s not planning to pay, not the full price, and Jacob plays straight into his hands. He’ll pledge to serve Laban seven years for the promise of Rachel. Almost with a shrug—better a relation, if a poor one, than an outsider—Laban agrees. Jacob’s education is about to begin, and he’ll need all his wits about him. What could be trickier than a promise?
Jacob is Laban’s nephew and will become his son-in-law—twice; but in contrast to Abraham’s exemplary conduct with his nephew, the feckless Lot, Laban is not taking Jacob under his wing. They are on the footing of master and servant, and Jacob enters Laban’s household as a mere hired hand. In breaking the bond of blood, where blood is the one bond of trust, Laban is committing a serious offense. What’s more, he’s making a mistake. In his eagerness, greenness, the ardor of his youth, Jacob brings Laban the news from home; how likely is it he ever makes mention of savory game or lentil stew? Laban doesn’t know he’s taking on an apprentice, and one who will at last outwit his master. Not that Jacob is shrewder or craftier than Laban—Laban, crafty to the core, a horse trader dealing in sheep and goats and daughters. Laban is on his own, serving himself. He won’t find out until the end of their story, when the Lord warns him not to meddle with Jacob, that Jacob has Connections. His apprenticeship has not been served only for Laban.
In his years with Laban, Jacob will learn all about false promises and bad bargains. He’ll learn all about husbandry and breeding—in more than one sense. He’ll make Laban rich, increasing his stock in herds and flocks, and, in obedience to the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, he’ll increase his own stock in sons. And he will learn patience, an absolute requirement for the Promise.
And Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had for her. (29:20)
As Laban’s servant, Jacob can’t leave without his master’s permission, but that’s not what he’s waiting for. At last he gets his marching orders, his Lekh Lekha!—Get going!
“Return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred . . . . Get thee out of this land, and return unto the land of thy nativity.” (31:3, 13)
The reversal is complete. Abraham’s was a journey of departure; Jacob’s is a journey of return.
He pours forth his grievances to his two wives. If not for his resourcefulness, under God’s guidance, in the matter of the streaked, speckled, and spotted goats, he’d be leaving as empty-handed as he came. “Your father hath mocked me and changed my wages ten times.” An unfortunate reference to the switched sister-brides, still smarting from grievances of their own. “Are we not accounted by him strangers? For he hath sold us, and hath also quite devoured our price.” Poor Laban! He will pursue Jacob and his household into the desert, and there they will set up a witness pillar to the treaty and boundaries forevermore between them.
Echoing as it does so much of the family history—rivalry between brothers, preference for the younger, the curse of barren wives—the enmity between Rachel and Leah becomes a competition to produce sons and heirs, and both enlist their handmaids in the contest. Whereas, for all their pleas and prayers, Abraham and Isaac barely manage each to eke out an heir, Jacob—thanks to his warring wives—succeeds in fathering at last a number of sons sufficient to ensure the survival of his people; the survival of the Promise. Laban’s double-dealing creates the situation, but, like “the secret things,” the irony belongs to the Lord.
The years with Laban have been so eventful, so diverting—the story has taken so many twists and turns; there have been so many tricks, so many sub-plots, so many parallels and reversals; Laban himself has been such an entertaining character, of a novelistic vitality and authority—we might almost have forgotten. Jacob hasn’t. He knows he has unfinished business.
Jacob sends messengers to Esau “that I may find favor in thy sight.” They bring back word that Esau is on his way, “and with him four hundred men”; a welcome more enthusiastic than Jacob might have wished. There isn’t much he can do but he does what he can; he divides his camp in case of attack; he sends gifts on ahead to Esau, literally in droves”goats, sheep, camels, cattle, asses, male and female, a veritable ark”“that I may appease him.” And he asks for help:
“Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau.”
An uncanny reminder: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (27:22).
The night before their meeting Jacob sees his family and his goods across the ford of the Jabbok, a tributary of the Jordan. He himself stays behind. Rivers are natural boundary-lines, especially in a land like this; maybe he’s not ready to cross it yet. Maybe he’s not allowed. Again the storyteller delays the climax, stretching out the suspense through one more long night. “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (32:25).
The man doesn’t go into explanations, and Jacob doesn’t ask. They struggle in darkness and silence until, seeing that the match is a draw and the sky is beginning to grow light, the man wounds Jacob, by some sleight-of-hand or magic, to make him let go. Jacob holds on, he was born holding on, and he knows Who it is he’s got hold of now: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”
This is no dream; the wound is real. The “man” identifies himself by not identifying Himself. At Bethel God was the protector and provider; here He shows a primordial face. The river is the sign of the primal world, and many elements of Jacob’s story recall Shamanic ritual. Those hairy skins on his hands and “the smooth of his neck” in his animal disguise as his brother; his trick of sympathetic magic with the grizzled goats; his dreams, his journey, his vision-quest. In this final trial, waged in darkness and danger, he wrests at last Shamanic transformation.
In Genesis, the ritual of transformation is itself transformed.
The God of Abraham and Isaac is the God of the Covenant, and His blessing now takes that form. Like Abram/Abraham in the covenant of circumcision, Jacob/Israel wins a new name, a spiritual sign; and like Abraham he receives, “as a token,” a sign in the flesh. He will limp upon his thigh. Jacob has bargained for his blessing. He has striven “with God and with men” and has prevailed. Has Jacob striven with Jacob? If so, who has prevailed?
Jacob sees them coming from a long way off, Esau and his four hundred men. He arranges his family behind him with his usual priorities; the handmaids with their children first; Leah and hers after them; Rachel and Joseph “hindermost.” And he goes out to meet his brother, “bowing himself to the ground seven times.” Probably, like Lot, he’s prostrating himself, falling on his face to the earth.
And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept. (33:4)
And who wouldn’t weep? Though surely Jacob’s tears spring in part from relief.
The reunion begins like any other. Esau asks to meet the family: “Who are these with thee?” and we get a pretty picture of the handmaids and wives, each with her children, coming forward to take a bow. Next Esau asks about the gifts: “What meanest thou by all this camp which I met?” Jacob replies, all deference: “to find favor in the sight of my lord.” In words of forgiveness, repleteness, disarming simplicity, Esau declines these offerings. “I have enough.”
Jacob won’t take no for an answer. Always the most talkative of the clan, in his agitation and excitement and heady relief, he insists, he all but gushes; pressing Esau to accept his gifts, his gratitude, “forasmuch as I have seen thy face, as one seeth the face of God.” And, he adds, “because I have enough.”
Jacob has indeed seen the face of God, only the night before, and he’s glad—and more than a little surprised—that he’s still alive. And his repetition of Esau’s words, “I have enough,” should alert us: this is no more than a stock phrase, a formulaic courtesy, the coin of the realm. Once again we are witnessing a ritual of negotiation in the desert. Esau takes the gifts.
Esau has to take the gifts; he knows very well what they mean. Refusal would signify hostility—which is why Jacob is being so persistent. By accepting the gifts, Esau accepts Jacob’s repentance and supplication. He is appeased. And he wastes no time signaling that the parley is over.
“Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before thee.”
Now what? What does this mean? Is it a threat or a promise?
Jacob doesn’t ask Esau what he means by marching to meet him with four hundred men. All this time, Jacob is standing in front of a small band of women and children, their sole protector; Esau is standing at the head of an army. Jacob isn’t home yet. Who knows what might happen out there in the wilderness of desert? Is he to return to the land of his nativity in the wake of Esau’s dust? At best, this offer will mean a forced march. Esau with all his hosts can travel faster than Jacob with all his domestic encumbrances; “his two wives and his two handmaids and his eleven children,” his goats, sheep, camels, cattle, and asses. Esau has wives, three of them at least that we know of; why hasn’t he brought them along with him to this family reunion?
Jacob pleads his own slow pace. “The children are tender, and the flocks and herds giving suck . . . . ” For their sake, he must “journey on gently,” and meet up with his brother later in Seir.
Esau tries again. How about leaving only “some of his folk”? Again Jacob begs off, with all due obsequies: “Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.”
Esau has made his point; he heads home to Seir. Jacob takes a detour toward Shechem instead. The reunion between brothers ends in a truce, the wary peace of the desert.
Esau has come to assess the situation, ready for whatever it might bring. He sees that his brother is no threat to him. He sees the gifts, the flocks and herds; he sees the family, women and children; he sees Jacob’s anxiety and fear. Though his brother is no coward. Jacob steps forth to meet him halfway, alone, before an army, halting and limping and bowing down to the ground. Isaac’s blessing prophesied that Esau would bow down before Jacob; but no, here is Jacob, bowing down before Esau. It is enough.
Because it’s true: they have enough. Both brothers have been blessed. Isaac’s boys have grown up, fulfilling the promise of their natures. And each has needed this meeting, to forgive and be forgiven, for that completeness. They are brothers. If their reunion is not all love and kisses, if Esau’s greeting is not as open-armed and all-embracing as at first appears, he gains in other ways. He’s not one to get the worst of a bargain now; nobody will boast the advantage over him again. We’ve seen him cry once before, like a child hurt and pleading; now he’s a leader, a cunning hunter, a man of the field; strong enough to show strong emotion, not ashamed, before all his followers, to weep and to forgive. He too has had an education; he’s learned the ways of the desert, and of men.
Together Esau and Jacob will bury Isaac, as Ishmael and Isaac buried their father before them. In time—“their substance was too great for them to dwell together”—Esau will move to the mountains; Jacob will stay with the land. Jacob has seen the face of God, he’s seen his brother’s face, and it’s possible now to see his face. There have been so many Jacobs. He’s a quiet man, a dweller in tents; a man of many anxieties and worries for all the lives and creatures dependent on him, entrusted to his care. A steward. By his abundance he has ensured the future of the Promise. And yet, in the years ahead, as his sons grow older, as his tribe increases, his worries can only increase. The rape of Dinah. The slaughter of the sons of Shechem. Rachel dying in childbirth “in the way to Ephrath.” Reuben, his first-born, lying in defiance with his father’s concubine. His favorite son, Joseph, like a lamb stolen from the fold, torn by wild beasts. His old age brought down in sorrow. And in spite of the happy ending, he knows better; there will be more to this long story, and sorrows enough to come. “Swear to me first,” Jacob demands of Esau. “Swear unto me,” he pledges Joseph: “Bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt.” Two oaths, two Jacobs, and all the tale between. Abraham is the Patriarch from the beginning, always the honorable, upright, white-bearded old man; Isaac inherits the role; Jacob becomes the Patriarch. The Jacob cycle is a life cycle, from birth to death, from exile to return.
“I am to be gathered unto my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite for a possession of a burying place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave that is therein, which was purchased from the children of Heth.” (49:29-32)
Stories are meant to be told and retold.
Bette Howland a writer and critic, is a MacArthur Fellow. She is at work on a monograph, Jacob: A Life and a new short novel, A Time for Kennedys .