The Brother and the Blessing

God made a good world. A very good world. He placed Man in it in order to fill it, guard it, keep it, and rule over it. Adam and Eve, seduced by the serpent, rejected God’s wisdom and goodness and turned to their own way. They rebelled against their Maker, plunging the world into depravity and destruction, as the holy God began a total war against human rebellion, corruption, and pride. God judges the sin of his creatures; the wages of sin is death. But in the midst of the God’s judgment, there is also mercy and hope. God promises that a male child will one day crush the serpent’s head and put the world to rights. From there, we see sin spreading out over the world, infecting every area of human life, until, in Genesis 6, we see God’s total war against human rebellion as he cuts off all flesh in the flood, preserving a small remnant in the ark. And then, we see that remnant—Noah and his sons—fall into their own sin, and the corruption and depravity continues until God scatters the nations at Babel. And then, beginning in Genesis 12, God selects Abraham and makes very great promises to him. Abraham and his family are the bearers of God’s blessing, carrying the hope of the world. God promises land and offspring, protection and provision, and that all the families of the earth will one day be blessed in Abraham’s seed.

We follow Abraham as he grows in maturity, from a priest who hears and obeys God’s word, to a king who rescues others from war, to a prophet who stands in God’s councils and intercedes for the nations. We see him and his wife struggle with barrenness, and then the amazing laughter when they conceive and bear Isaac. And then we watch in dismay as God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering, and then marvel when God substitutes a ram because he has seen Abraham’s resurrection faith through Abraham’s costly obedience. We see Isaac grow from the son on the altar to the husband who receives Rebekah as his pride, to finally being a father in his own right. He and Rebekah have twin boys—Jacob and Esau—and we see the struggle and strife in this family, even as God continues to bless Abraham and his family. 

And running throughout these stories is a recurring theme that puzzles and perplexes: the use of deceit on behalf of the patriarchs. Abraham deceives Pharaoh and Abimelech, calling Sarah his sister so that the wicked kings don’t kill him and take his wife. Isaac follows in his steps, passing off Rebekah as his sister. And when we preached through the passages describing the sister-wife deception, we noted two alternative ways of understanding the passage: either the patriarchs are failing to trust God in their attempted deception, and God was faithful despite their unbelief, or the patriarchs are wisely and shrewdly dealing with wicked kings, and God blesses and preserves them in the face of the tyrants. And if you want to understand those two alternatives, you can listen to the sermon on the Sister-Wife Trick at the Cities website. 

I highlight the challenge of Abraham and Isaac’s deception because in the present passage we’re faced with more deception, this time from Rebekah and Jacob. And like the sister-wife trick, part of what we want to determine (if we can) is whether Rebekah and Jacob are acting faithfully or sinfully in this deception. 

Summary

Isaac is old and can’t see well. He calls Esau and tells him to hunt game and prepare a meal so that Isaac can bless Esau before he dies. Rebekah overhears and comes up with her own plan. She tells Jacob to pretend to be Esau so that Jacob will receive the blessing instead. Jacob is at first reluctant because he fears he’ll get caught, but goes through with the plan. Isaac seems a little suspicious at first, but after smelling and feeling the animal skins on Jacob, he eats the meal and blesses him, asking God to give him prosperity, fruitfulness, protection, and (significantly) rule over his brothers. Jacob goes out, Esau comes back, and when Isaac realizes that he’s been tricked, he trembles violently. Esau begs for a blessing with tears, “Bless me, father!” and Isaac blesses him saying, that he’ll dwell away from fruitfulness, that he’ll live by the sword, that he’ll serve Jacob, but one day he will throw of his yoke. Esau grows in his hatred for Jacob and plots to kill him, so Rebekah encourages him to flee to her brother Laban until Esau’s anger subsides.

REBEKAH AND JACOB: IMMORAL, OR ACTING IN ACCORDANCE WITH GOD'S PURPOSES?

At one level, this seems straightforward. Surely it’s wrong for a wife and son to deceive a husband and a brother. Surely this is an example of God using sinful means to accomplish his good purposes. Rebekah and Jacob are sinning in their deceit, but God brings good from their evil. That’s possible. However, a number of elements point in a different direction.

First, we must recognize the importance of God’s promise to Rebekah in chapter 25. As the twins struggle in her womb, God tells her, 

            “Two nations are in your womb,

                        and two peoples from within you shall be divided;

            the one shall be stronger than the other,

                        the older shall serve the younger.” (25:23)

So before the twins are born, God overturns the standard expectations and insists that the younger son will rule over his elder brother. That promise, given to Rebekah, shapes everything else in the story. 

Second, there is Isaac’s persistent preference for Esau. In Genesis 25:28, we’re told that Esau is a skillful hunter and that Isaac loved Esau “because he ate of his game.” In other words, Isaac’s appetite is governing and guiding his decisions. His love of Esau’s food is front and center in this passage, as he asks Esau to hunt, kill, and cook an animal before he blesses him. Isaac’s belly exercises a significant influence on his decision-making.

Third, we must keep in mind Esau’s immorality. In the previous sermon on Genesis 25, I noted that the descriptions of Esau echo a number of other ungodly figures in Genesis: Cain (the man of the field who hates his brother), Lamech (the boastful man with multiple wives), and Nimrod (the skillful hunter who builds wicked cities). At the end of Genesis 26, we’re told that Esau married multiple foreign wives, Hittites who presumably did not worship Yahweh. These wives were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah. What’s more, Esau despises his birthright, selling it to Jacob for a pot of stew. Like his father, Esau’s appetite exerts an inordinate influence on him. 

Fourth, we must remember that Jacob is introduced as a blameless man, dwelling in tents. As we noted last fall, the word in Genesis 25:27 translated “quiet” is almost always translated as “blameless” in the Bible (Job 1:1; Genesis 6:9; Genesis 17:1). 

RIGHTEOUS ACTIONS

These four factors (God’s promise; Jacob’s blamelessness; Esau’s immorality; Isaac’s preference) in the larger story help us to more clearly understand what is happening in this deception. Isaac’s desire to bless Esau is not a simple matter of a father wanting to bless his son, especially in light of how he actually blesses him. God had promised that the older will serve the younger. And yet, at the end of his life, Isaac attempts to bless the older by saying, “Be lord over your brothers” (27:29). In other words, Isaac attempts to overturn God’s promised plan. This is high-handed, direct defiance of God. Even more than that, he says, “Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you.” This is an echo of the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. Isaac is attempting to make Esau the carrier of the blessing, the hope of the nations. God chose Jacob to be the heir of the promise, but Isaac attempts to choose Esau instead.

And he does this in the face of Esau’s evident and obvious ungodliness and immorality. The taking of many wives from the ungodly nations, the fact that Esau despised his father’s birthright—none of these dissuades Isaac’s preference. So we’re meant to hear Isaac’s intention to bless Esau as an act of rebellion against God. 

Which, I believe, is exactly how Rebekah hears it. She recognizes that Isaac is attempting to overthrow God’s promise, and she acts shrewdly and deceptively to prevent her husband from making a grave mistake. In deceiving her husband, she is maintaining her faithfulness to God and his promise that Jacob will carry the blessing and rule over Esau. And we see her virtue in her willingness to face the consequences if their attempted deception fails. When Jacob worries that Isaac will curse him if he is discovered, Rebekah says that she will take the curse upon herself (27:13).

In other words, this story is similar to stories of other righteous women in the Scriptures, such as Abigail. In 1 Samuel 25, we’re told that Abigail is married to a harsh and foolish man named Nabal. David is living in the wilderness, on the run from King Saul, but he also protects the flocks of Nabal. He then sends and asks Nabal to supply some of his needs. Nabal responds by railing at David’s messengers and insulting him. When it’s reported to David, he gathers 400 men and sets off to teach Nabal a lesson. A servant tells Abigail what her foolish husband has done, and she sets out with food and gifts to meet David. She falls on her face, asks that the guilt fall on her head, and pleads that David be merciful to her husband and her house. David, seeing her virtue and wisdom, blesses and praises her and grants her request. When Abigail tells Nabal what she spared him from, he basically has a stroke and ten days later dies. Both Abigail and Rebekah, at great risk to themselves, act without their husband’s knowledge to keep them from making grave errors and committing great folly and evil.

CONVICTION AND REPENTANCE

One final note before we turn to apply the passage. One evidence that we’re correct to see Rebekah and Jacob as righteous in their deception is what happens in the next chapter. When Isaac discovers that he has been deceived, he trembles violently. What kind of trembling is this? I take it to be a trembling of conviction, that eventually leads him to repentance. And I believe we see that Isaac turns from his disobedience and submits to God’s plan. Note the connection between 27:46 and 28:1-5. Rebekah wants to send Jacob away to protect him from Esau’s rage. She tells Isaac, “I loathe my life because of these Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of these Hittite women, what good will my life be to me?” Then Isaac calls Jacob and blesses him (this time intentionally and with no deceit), and tells him not to take a Canaanite wife, but to go to Laban and marry one of his daughters. And notice what he says.  “God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!” (28:3-4)

In other words, Isaac has come around. He now freely and gladly offers to Jacob the blessing of Abraham, as God had promised. The repetition of the blessing, and the explicit reference to Abraham, is meant to tell us that Isaac has realized his error and repented. 

Application

SUBMISSION AND HEADSHIP IS NOT ABSOLUTE

First, at this church, we believe that God has created the world in such a way that men will be the head of their homes. Paul tells us that the husband is the head of his wife, and calls wives to submit to their own husbands, as unto the Lord. We believe that faithful headship on the part of husbands and fathers, and godly submission on the part of wives and mothers leads to life, joy, and fruitfulness in the family, and from the family into the world. The burden of his family’s spiritual well-being, provision, and protection falls ultimately on the husband, and he must rely upon God’s grace and bear the burden well. In normal circumstances, that means listening to the counsel of his wife, seeking her wisdom as they seek the Lord together. It means showing honor to her as the weaker vessel and recognizing her as a coheir of God’s grace. And in those cases where unity of mind doesn’t happen, it means that he is called to faithfully lead and she is called to gladly submit. 

But the present passage shows the limits of a wife’s submission to her husband. She is to submit to him as to the Lord. But her submission is not absolute. If her husband attempts to lead her into sin, or if her husband is sinning gravely against her or against others, she must use her wisdom and discernment to honor God and seek the good of her husband and her family by not going along with it. Normally her submission to God means she submits to her husband. But if her husband is gravely sinning against God, submission to God means refusing to join him in his rebellion. And I stress the word “gravely,” since every husband is a sinner and will make errors of judgment, and a wife is still called to gladly submit to him. But she may not follow him into high-handed rebellion that clearly dishonors God or harms people.

Similarly, a husband may not demand absolute submission from his wife. He cannot ask for her to render to him what she may only render to God. He is under authority, just as she is, and he must exercise his authority in submission to God’s authority. And when he doesn’t, when he abuses his authority and attempts to defy God, he ought to be grateful if those under him refuse to follow him in disobedience and instead put roadblocks in his way. 

DESPISE THE BIRTHRIGHT, REJECT THE BLESSING

Second, the passage underscores Esau as a cautionary tale. In this passage, his godlessness and immorality catches up with him, as the blessing flows to Jacob. This is one of the fundamental lessons that the book of Hebrews draws from this story. 

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. [15] See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; [16] that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. [17] For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Heb. 12:14-17)

Note the connections between the story of Esau and the exhortation to us. We are to strive for holiness so that we may see the Lord. We are to strive to obtain the grace of God, the mercy that will triumph over judgment on the last day. We are to beware “the root of bitterness,” which is likely a reference to idolatry, but also echoes the present passage since Esau’s marriage to pagan women is a root of bitterness for his family. His ungodly marriages contaminate and affect many people. 

And then, notice the distinction and connection between the two stories about Esau: when he despised his birthright, and when he lost the blessing. The author to the Hebrews makes a distinction between them. He sold his birthright, and then afterward, he wanted to inherit the blessing, but was rejected. He found no opportunity to repent though he sought it with tears. Now, I take the “it” to refer to the blessing. That’s what Esau is seeking with tears in the passage. “O bless me even also, my father!” Here’s how I think that the author to Hebrews is connecting these events and applying them to us.

Esau had the birthright by birth, but he was waiting for the blessing (on Isaac’s deathbed). He despised the birthright and sold it for the temporary pleasure of stew, and then, when it came time to receive the blessing, he was rejected. So also, we have the opportunity to gain the right to eternal life because of what Jesus has done. You’re here, in this church, sitting under the preaching of God’s word as his grace is offered to you in the gospel. If you despise that grace, if you reject it and sell it for the fleeting pleasures of sin, then, when it comes time to receive the blessing, you’ll be rejected. 

In other words, it’s not that Esau wants to repent but can’t. It’s that he wants the blessing without treasuring the path to that blessing. He doesn’t want holiness. He doesn’t want godliness. He doesn’t want the grace of God. He just wants the reward at the end. And there are thousands of people like Esau. They don’t want to go to hell. They don’t want to be judged by the living God. They want the reward of eternal happiness. But they don’t want God. They don’t love the cross. They don’t treasure the grace of God in the gospel. They treat it lightly. They sell it for a few moments, or few years, or few decades of cheap, fleeting thrills. They presume upon the grace of God, telling themselves that they can live in sin now and repent later. And Hebrews wants us to know that a day is coming when it will be time to inherit the blessing of Abraham, the blessing of Jesus, the blessing of eternal life and joy and reward in fellowship with the living God, and those people will bitterly cry and weep, but will find no place to repent, because it will be too late. Those who do not seek holiness will not see the Lord. 

And so I want to plead with you. Don’t be like Esau. Don’t treat precious things lightly. Don’t presume upon God’s kindness. Like Hebrews, I want you to have the image of Esau in your head, the moment that he realizes it’s too late, that he has not only sold his birthright, but that he has lost the blessing of God and his father. See Esau, with his great and bitter cry, blaming his blameless brother for his own folly and godlessness; see him lift up his voice with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Consider Esau, and be warned.

And then I want to encourage you. Because Isaac too was governed by his appetites, even in his old age. In his final days, he was engaged in high-handed rebellion against God’s plan and promise. But, thanks to a discerning wife and a blameless son, he was spared from ruining himself and his family. There were still consequences; his sinful preferences led to strife in his family. But when he realized what he’d done, he trembled violently, and he turned back to God. There will be a day when it will be too late to repent. But it is not this day. Now is the appointed time. Now is the day of salvation. Wherever you are and whatever you’ve done, turn to Jesus in humble faith and he will receive you.

The Table

Which brings us to the Table. This Table is a sign and symbol of our birthright. The bread and wine at this Table testify to you that you have the right to be called children of God. You are heirs of God, co-heirs with Christ, co-heirs with each other as men and women, husband and wives. Don’t despise this simple meal. Receive it, treasure it and what it represents, in humble faith, as we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.