Isaac and Jacob

Succession Narratives, Birthrights, and Blessings

Aaron P. Schade

Aaron P. Schade, “Isaac and Jacob: Succession Narratives, Birthrights, and Blessings,” in From Creation to Sinai: The Old Testament through the Lens of the Restoration, ed. Daniel L. Belnap and Aaron P. Schade (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 335‒84.

While the patriarch Isaac and his son Jacob continued the spiritual foundation laid down by Abraham and are thus fundamental characters to understanding not only the Old Testament but also the entirety of the Latter-day Saint canon, the narratives concerning them attaining their covenantal status can be difficult to follow and interpret. It is understandable if the reader grapples with some of the perceived measures taken to achieve and obtain the desired outcomes dealing with blessings of succession and birthright. In this chapter, Aaron Schade examines some of the complexities of these narratives, demonstrating that often our preconceived notions can affect the outcome of our perception of behavior and portrayed activities within scriptural texts. —DB and AS

Some of the Old Testament passages and stories that are more difficult to interpret are contained in the succession narratives pertaining to the lives of Isaac and Jacob. Within these chapters in the book of Genesis, we find notoriously problematic issues revolving around Ishmael’s expulsion and Isaac’s subsequent obtaining of the birthright, Esau’s selling of his birthright to Jacob for a mess of pottage, and Jacob’s procurement of the birthright from the aged Isaac in a manner that some deem as deceitful and others see as fulfilling the will of God at all costs (or some see it as a combination of both). For many of us, the narratives just don’t make sense. We scratch our heads, wondering how deception runs so rampantly through these succession narratives, and puzzle over how we are supposed to reconcile them with our understanding of the nature of God and whom he chooses to bless, despite their dishonorable appearances and behaviors. The following statement illustrates this enigmatic topic:

The single greatest theological issue that arises from this study is undoubtedly how to hold together the Hebrew Bible’s descriptions of YHWH as deceptive and YHWH as trustworthy. The Hebrew Bible is adamant at several points that YWHW does not lie. Num 23:19 reads, “God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind,” and in 1 Sam 15:29[,] Samuel says, “the Glory of Israel will not deceive or change his mind, for he is not a mortal that he should change his mind.” Compounding the potential difficulty, the Hebrew Bible also attests that YHWH is a God of truth, as in Ps 31:6, and of faithfulness, as in Deut 32:4. . . . How is one to address this very obvious tension? Or should one address it at all? The Hebrew Bible presents not only YHWH’s subversive and sometimes ominous side but also YHWH’s reliability, constancy, justice, and trustworthiness. Claus Westermann rightly acknowledges that “it is the task of a theology of the Old Testament to describe and view together what the Old Testament as a whole, in all its sections, says about God.” How then are readers to address these seemingly incompatible witnesses?[1]

While we must look at the Bible as a whole to construct a portrait of God, at times we set aside or overlook well-defined characteristics of God in favor of qualities we assign based on our inability to interpret admittedly difficult and solitary episodes occurring in the Bible. I will examine issues pertaining to these narratives that we may not sufficiently understand and show how presuppositions can influence how one interprets these episodes of succession. The bibliography on these topics is enormous and comes with an equally large number of diverse interpretations and explanations since authors have attempted to cope with and explain the respective perplexing issues. While many great insights may be found within this literature, I will inevitably provide my own interpretation (and at times speculation) based on my examination of the text, as well as use Restoration and modern prophetic materials found within the texts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to elucidate these disparate narratives. With that said, in some places I will simply state alternative possibilities in interpreting the passages, allowing readers to formulate their own ideas and to contemplate the diversity of possibilities that remain. Although this latter approach may seem less definitive to some readers, it is simply more academically responsible than to float unfounded results based on opinions and state them as fact and as conclusive.[2]

The Selection of Isaac

The first of these narratives—one that can leave us with disturbing questions and unsettled feelings—can be found in Genesis 21. In the narrative, Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, are driven out from Abraham’s family and seemingly left to die in the wilderness. Following Sarah’s instruction to “cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac” (Genesis 21:10), we read,

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs.

And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept. (21:14–16)

The reader is left with the impression that Sarah is an embittered, spiteful soul who requests the expulsion of a young mother and her small infant child or toddler. Yet the text gives a few important temporal markers that may suggest otherwise. According to Genesis 21:5, “Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him.” Genesis 16:16 tells us that Ishmael was born when Abraham was eighty-six years old, making Ishmael around fourteen years old when Isaac was born. Thus, at the time Hagar and Ishmael wandered in the wilderness, Ishmael was not a helpless, unaccountable child, but a teenager. While this does not resolve all the potentially disturbing aspects of the narrative, it does at least expunge a reading of a mother and her helpless infant being driven into the wilderness to die. It also introduces an important concept inherent throughout the development of the narratives: accountability.

No doubt these events were difficult for everyone (“the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son” [Genesis 21:11]), including Sarah, but they must have been especially difficult for Hagar and Ishmael, who had to endure the wilderness.[3] What we need to remember is that it appears that Abraham put his complete trust in God in following through with sending off his firstborn son, taking at face value the words of the Lord, who promised to protect Ishmael: “And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed” (21:12–13). Thus, although they may not have completely understood it, in the face of this difficult decision, Abraham and Sarah responded with faith and trust that Ishmael would grow to be blessed with a great nation stemming from his posterity and would not die in the wilderness.[4]

Concerning the motivations for the expulsion, the text gives clues about the emotional nature of this episode that may help resolve some of the apparent difficulties existing in the story. Genesis paints a picture of the religiosity of this family and portrays them as covenant makers and keepers, beginning with circumcision. Genesis 21:4 tells us that Abraham circumcised Isaac at eight days of age, just as the Lord had commanded him. Circumcision was a sacred part of the worship of this family. Despite the fact that other cultures and peoples were practicing circumcision before Abraham was commanded to, the act represented a token of a specific covenant for Abraham and his family. [5] The following passage is taken from the Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis and is unique in its depiction of the ordinance of baptism in the patriarchal age and additionally highlights an apostasy that was prevalent in that day, setting the stage for the necessity of the ordinance:

And it came to pass, that Abram fell on his face, and called upon the name of the Lord.

And God talked with him, saying, My people have gone astray from my precepts, and have not kept mine ordinances, which I gave unto their fathers;

And they have not observed mine anointing, and the burial, or baptism wherewith I commanded them;

But have turned from the commandment, and taken unto themselves the washing of children, and the blood of sprinkling;

And have said that the blood of the righteous Abel was shed for sins; and have not known wherein they are accountable before me. (JST Genesis 17:3–7)

For Abraham, the head of this new dispensation, circumcision was implemented to reintroduce the teachings, ordinances, and covenants of the Lord. This revelation reestablished correct worship, which manifested itself in the form of circumcision at eight days, a reminder to them to continue taking upon them all the other ordinances of the gospel of the dispensation of Abraham, including baptism at eight years of age. This is highlighted in the revelations given to the Prophet Joseph Smith:

And I will establish a covenant of circumcision with thee, and it shall be my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee, in their generations; that thou mayest know forever that children are not accountable before me until they are eight years old.

And thou shalt observe to keep all my covenants wherein I covenanted with thy fathers; and thou shalt keep the commandments which I have given thee with mine own mouth, and I will be a God unto thee and thy seed after thee (JST Genesis 17:11–12; emphasis added).

Circumcision was thus a sacred form of worship and reflected the principle of other ancient Near Eastern contracts, which were accompanied by the cutting of a covenant and binding unto death.[6] This worship helps to paint a picture of the religiosity and covenant-keeping nature of this family, and Ishmael, when he was thirteen years old, had also been circumcised as part of this covenant (Genesis 17:25). We do not have record as to whether or not he was also baptized as prescribed in the token of circumcision; however, in Genesis 17 when Abraham is told that Sarah would bear Isaac and that the covenant would be established through him and his seed (verse 19) and not Ishmael’s, we get a foreshadowing that something is going to happen with Ishmael.[7] When the Lord tells Abraham that Sarah will be the mother of the covenant, Abraham declares his concern and hopeful aspirations for Ishmael: “And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!” (verse 18). The Lord acknowledged Abraham’s concerns and displayed his omniscience and foreknowledge that the covenant would be perpetuated through Isaac but also said that Ishmael would be blessed (verses 20–21). At this point in the story, we do not know why it will be such, but God does reassure Abraham that because of Ishmael, he has heard Abraham (“hearing” being a play on the meaning of Ishmael’s name—“God shall hear/hears”) and will bless him with posterity for Abraham’s sake, as well as bless the entire family according to the covenant.[8]

After these divine announcements (Genesis 17:22), an event took place years later that caused Sarah to request Ishmael’s sending away. This occurred when something happened when Isaac was a young boy and the family had gathered together at a feast: “And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking . Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac” (Genesis 21:8–10).

Although it is unclear how old Isaac is at his weaning, the event appears to be significant in that it is demarcated by a feast.[9] It is within this setting, when Ishmael is at least a teenager, that he comes “mocking.” What exactly is meant by “mocking” is unclear; however, the biblical account seems to carry negative connotations, and the “mocking” appears to pose some sort of a threat to the family and their beliefs.[10] As a result of this, the Bible portrays Sarah as being genuinely concerned over the incident, and this spills over into the relationship between Hagar and Ishmael, affecting the covenantal status of the family.

As a prelude to these events, Hagar had been bound to the family to raise up seed and perpetuate the covenant given to Abraham and Sarah. The marriage union with Hagar was a sacred one with covenantal responsibilities, one which would affect the children in the family.[11]

Hagar enjoyed many of the same aspects of the Abrahamic covenant that Sarah and Abraham did. Although the Lord in Genesis 17 states that he would establish his covenant with Isaac (v. 21), Hagar and her descendants occupy a position that denotes some sort of covenantal relationship with the Lord as well. Like Abraham and Sarah, Hagar obeyed the commandments of the Lord, was deemed righteous by Him, and shared in the same blessings of the Abrahamic covenant: a great posterity, a land of inheritance for her children, and the companionship of the Lord.[12]

The concept of marriage and covenant was no light matter to this family, and Hagar’s son Ishmael is now threateningly portrayed as “mocking” it. We don’t know all of the details of the present circumstance, nor what Hagar was thinking through all of this, but there is a history leading up to this event between Ishmael and Isaac that had also occurred between Hagar and Sarah, possibly reflecting the tension felt here in the narrative. Years earlier, upon entering into this sacred marriage at the consent of Sarah, Hagar had despised the childless Sarah when Ishmael was conceived: “And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom [see Doctrine and Covenants 132:65]; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the Lord judge between me and thee” (Genesis 16:4–5).[13]

This family had endured difficult times to maintain and claim the blessings of the covenant, particularly the described emotional trauma aroused by Hagar’s actions toward the childless Sarah, and now Ishmael’s “mocking” was more than Sarah could bear.[14] Yet the removal of Hagar and Ishmael would not have been easy for Sarah, as she had lived with and probably helped raise Ishmael through his youth and teenage years. In fact, Josephus stated that Sarah “loved Ishmael, who was born of her own handmaid Hagar, with an affection not inferior to that of her own Son.”[15] Genesis 16:2 states that Hagar made it possible for Sarah to “obtain children by her,” and she possibly assisted and had maternal responsibilities in raising him. Ishmael and Hagar were family, and this was a gut-wrenching, emotional experience. But it was a decision deemed necessary for the well-being of the covenant.

As for the expulsion itself, biblical scholar Nahum Sarna believed that Sarah was asking Abraham to grant Hagar, a slave, her freedom, thus forfeiting her rights in the marriage contract.[16] Gordon Wenham also wrote of the incident, “‘Send her off’ (piel שלח) is a softer term than ‘drive out’ (cf. 18:16; 19:22; 3:23). It is used of divorce (e.g., Deut 22:19; 24:1, 3) and the release of slaves with a generous provision (Exod 11:1–2; Deut 15:13). It may be that Abraham blessed his wife and sons before they left or gave them other gifts.”[17]

These events may have led to a separation of Ishmael and Hagar from the plural or eternal marriage covenant originally entered into, but Abraham continued to love Ishmael, and Ishmael continued to be blessed in numerous ways under the covenant given to his father.[18] Abraham consented to sending Ishmael away because the Lord promised him that he would preserve, protect, and bless Ishmael and his posterity (Genesis 21:12–13) according to the Lord’s omniscience within the framework of an eternal perspective. The episode is thus heartfelt, not heartless, and reflects obedience rather than malice.

This promised divine protection was revealed almost immediately after Hagar and Ishmael departed, when, after having finished the water provided them, Hagar had a personal encounter with God:

And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is.

Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.

And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.[19]

And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.

And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran: and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt. (Genesis 21:17–21)[20]

The text does not state that Ishmael was a bad person, nor that there was a long-lasting tension between Ishmael and Isaac in subsequent years. In fact, in the end, both Isaac and Ishmael would work together to bury their father and console the family at Abraham’s passing (Genesis 25:9). The Lord’s omniscience in the matter seems to have led to the greatest good for all parties involved, and we are not required to force conclusions that necessitate us to view these events in a negative light. The text itself suggests a loving God seeking to bless the entire family throughout the episode and to make the most of the situation at hand.[21]

Jacob: Enigmatic Stories of Succession and Blessings

Through the years, Isaac would prove valiant, and, in similitude of the Son of God, he would willingly allow himself to be offered as a sacrifice at the hand of his father (Genesis 22), marry (Genesis 24), and eventually be blessed with posterity, fulfilling the wish of the family ( 24:60). His son Jacob would become the presiding leader in the family; however, the portrayal of this succession story comes with no lack of perceived controversy. The story in Genesis 27 of Jacob dressing up as a hairy man to imitate his brother Esau, deceiving the aged Isaac, and tricking him into bestowing blessings upon Jacob instead of upon Esau, the firstborn son, has been one of the most diversely interpreted episodes in all the Bible.

At the heart of this narrative is the unexpected, seemingly devious behavior of Jacob, Rebekah, and even God himself. Many people grapple with the narrative by assuming the reading reflects a disconnected historical context between ancient participants and the contemporary audience, resulting in a disconnection that ancient hearers may not have experienced but that causes difficulties for us to understand today. The result may lead us to take matters into our own hands to place meaning that is not there or to suppose that bad should not be a part of the Bible. For instance, as one scholar suggested in his study:

Some of these methods may appear unpalatable to contemporary readers, yet the conclusions of this study raise an important issue: perhaps what Eric Seibert has called “disturbing divine behavior” is only disturbing to our contemporary sensibilities and has very little to do with the actual portrait of God gleaned from the Hebrew Bible. I have sought in this book to advance a descriptive theology of the book of Genesis, outlining not what I wish the text said—in conformity with my own ethical sensibilities and more—but, rather, what the text communicates and how it does so.[22]

While it is true that we should not wish for the text to say what we want it to say—and ignore it when it doesn’t—it is also possible that the text can be misinterpreted, leading to methodological problems where we base assumptions and interpretations on faulty premises.

We should freely admit that biblical portrayals of God have the capacity to both reveal and distort God’s character, recognizing that while some portrayals help us see God clearly, others do not. Old Testament portrayals that do not reflect the true character of God should be identified as such and handled carefully. When God is portrayed behaving in ways that do not correspond to the character of God Jesus reveals, we should not shrink from saying that these portrayals fundamentally misrepresent God’s true nature. We must do this if we hope to use the Bible to think rightly about God. . . . Some may feel compelled to defend God’s behavior simply because it is in the Bible. But doing so is dangerous. It not only inhibits our ability to think rightly about God but actively supports and perpetuates false views of God. If we wish to deal responsibly with disturbing divine behavior in the Old Testament, we must refuse to defend problematic portrayals that do not correspond to the true character of God.[23]

John Anderson writes of the challenges of reading such difficult stories:

Reading the Bible should not be an easy enterprise. Readers of the Bible are invited to participate in the conversation occurring across time within its pages. This conversation should be unsettling at points. It should raise questions. It should prompt self-reflection. It should press us to think “outside the box,” to reevaluate who we are and who God is. Eryl Davies offers a worthwhile caution on this point: “Besides, if we read the Hebrew Bible simply in order to take issue with its more unsavoury aspects, while appealing to its more positive, life-enhancing statements to confirm and corroborate values we already hold anyway, why bother reading the Bible at all?”[24]

As one can see, the scholarship is not settled as to how the text should be read, and, instead of avoiding the narrative, any confusion as to the exact meaning suggests that we should be engaging with it and attempting to find meaning. The recognition that God is a God of order rather than of mischievous confusion suggests that there is more to this narrative than costuming. Indeed, the narrative is not isolated but reflects a pattern of divine intention and personal agency that began with the birth of the twins and is reflected in their conflict over the mess of pottage. [25]

Rebekah’s Revelation

As an introduction to the events portrayed in Genesis 27, before the birth of Jacob and Esau, their mother Rebekah received personal revelation that she would give birth to twins; there was no ultrasound and no other way of finding this out save it be through divine communication. She learned something at variance from the norm in birthright inheritances: the older would serve the younger:[26]

And Isaac entreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren: and the Lord was entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived.

And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the Lord.

And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.

And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. (Genesis 25:21–24)

As is clear, Rebekah receives a revelation that something unique will happen with her two twin sons and that the younger was meant to have authority over the elder. Subsequently, many may see this revelation given to Rebekah as the source of the justification for encouraging Jacob to later deceive or trick his father into giving him the blessing apparently intended for Esau. Yet it is not altogether clear that the text refers only to the older serving the younger. The LXX portrays an ambiguous syntactic construction and could read as either (1) the greater/older shall serve the lesser/younger, or (2) the lesser shall serve the greater.[27] The birthright would ultimately be received based upon worthiness, not upon age.[28] While this does not explain Rebekah’s place in the narrative per se, it does begin to suggest that the brothers’ agency will play a major role in their respective experiences with the covenant.

Jacob and Esau: The Pottage and the Birthright

At the outset of the story, we learn an important detail that is imperative in evaluating this birthright narrative: “And the boys grew: and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27). At times in the scriptures, the “hunter” is portrayed in a negative light and here may foreshadow events and the indifferent character of Esau.[29] Furthermore, in the KJV, Jacob is described as “a plain man.” The Hebrew words ̕ š tm (אש תם) connote a “whole, complete, or perfect man.” This designation is attached to very few people in the Bible (for example, to Noah and Job). This puts Jacob in outstanding company, and his impeccable character should be kept in mind as we work through these stories, particularly since the Hebrew words imply that there is no deceptive intent on the part of Jacob.[30]

After describing the two sons, the narrative mentions their differing relationships with their parents, after which the incident of the pottage occurs.

And Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison : but Rebekah loved Jacob.[31]

And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint:

And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom .

And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright .

And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?

And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.

Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:28–34)

Although it may seem from our contemporary reading that Jacob unfairly wrests the birthright from Esau in a moment of extremity, the narrative ends placing the wrongdoing squarely on Esau: “thus Esau despised his birthright.”[32] The word despise is used in the scriptures and other Greek texts to describe slighting, abhorring, or holding sacred things cheap, and its presence here suggests that Esau, by his own volition or agency, treats lightly or doesn’t want the sacred covenant responsibilities that are supposed to be his.[33] Such a reading is strengthened by the wordplay between “red pottage” and “Esau/Edom.” The “red pottage” comes from the root אדם (ʾdm):

The narrative depends upon the contrast of pottage and birthright. “Pottage” here is an unusual word. Its only biblical use is in this story. It is part of a dexterous play on words. “Pottage” translates the Hebrew ʾādôm. It is modified by the adjective “red,” also ʾādôm. The latter is the same word used to describe the redness of Esau at birth (v. 27). Both words, “pottage” and “red,” consist in the Hebrew letters ’dm, the same letters in “Edom,” the same people embodied in Esau (cf. Gen. 36:16–43). Thus the word play of “Edom/red/pottage” cleverly asserts that Esau is a man (and the Edomites a people) peculiarly destined for pottage and not more.[34]

This wordplay continues on another level by virtue of the fact that the same letters אדם (ʾdm) can mean “people,” or “land,” as used later by Isaiah and other prophets to refer to the “world.”[35] Esau and his desire for “red pottage” versus Jacob and his concern for the birthright may represent two contrasting values: concern for worldly values and concern for the eternal covenant and all that it represented (a representation of the “lesser shall serve the greater”).[36] Regardless, what is clear is that Jacob did not trick Esau, but Esau willingly gave up the birthright because he despised it.[37] One may take issue with the text and claim that Esau was cheated in this endeavor; however, as will be seen below, the text just simply does not imply such an interpretation but does in fact state that Esau was an active, indifferent participant in these events.[38]


Although the birthright is often thought of in terms of the double portion of family holdings (see Deuteronomy 21:7), the birthright appears to have also included cultic and priesthood responsibilities, attendant to the son with the birthright being officially dedicated to God (Exodus 22:28–29). As one scholar noted, “This special sanctity attaching to the first-born son originally accorded him a privileged position in the cult, although at a later time the Levitical tribe displaced the first-born in Israel and appropriated his cultic prerogatives.”[39] Regarding Esau as firstborn, Sidney Sperry suggested, “According to ancient patriarchal customs, it appears that the eldest son in the family ordinarily fell heir to most of the material possessions of his father as well as to his spiritual calling. In the present instance, Esau would have been heir to his father’s estate [and] to his patriarchal priesthood, something toward which Esau did not show much interest.”[40] Jacob, on the other hand, as portrayed in the text, seems to recognize the significance and necessity of the birthright.

The priesthood component could of course, not be bought, but it could be forsaken, and the text seems to solidify the willing forsaking of the spiritual obligations of the birthright by Esau and the accepting and claiming of them by Jacob.[41] In fact, in the next chapter the Lord appears to Jacob, offers him instruction on how to preserve his family, and reiterates the blessings offered to Abraham that would now fall upon him. The chapter ends with a lament after Esau chooses to marry a Hittite and give up the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant his father and grandfather had sacrificed so dearly to preserve: “And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite: which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah” (Genesis 26:34–35).[42] No matter how hard one tries to cast blame on Jacob, the text emphasizes that this is really about Esau’s behavior. When it comes to receiving the blessings of the covenant, one must be willing to remain faithful to it. Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught,

The contrast between the spiritual and the temporal is also illustrated by the twins Esau and Jacob and their different attitudes toward their birthright. The firstborn, Esau, “despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:34 ). Jacob, the second twin, desired it. Jacob valued the spiritual, while Esau sought the things of this world. When he was hungry, Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. “Behold,” he explained, “I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?” (Gen. 25:32 ). Many Esaus have given up something of eternal value in order to satisfy a momentary hunger for the things of the world.[43]

Jacob Masquerades as Esau: What Really Happens in the Story?

With the history of Esau and Jacob in place we can now address, what is at times, perceived to be one of the most scandalous episodes in scripture: Jacob dressing up as Esau to get their father’s blessing. In Genesis 27 we encounter the perceived fiasco of Jacob’s deceit, where he and Rebekah blatantly attempt to deceive Isaac into bestowing the more significant priesthood blessing on Jacob instead of Esau (Genesis 27). To do so, Jacob must dress up like Esau to fool their aged and apparently dying father, offering him a meal while in disguise. The chapter is admittedly a difficult one to interpret, and in the following quotation one may hear the tones of question that arise from the story but also the removal of any scandal that many seem to hold over Jacob throughout the remainder of his life:

How could Jacob get a different patriarchal blessing through deceit and it be legitimate? . . . We wish we had a more complete account of what really happened. We do not get additional help from the Joseph Smith Translation in this instance. I’ll add a comment by President Joseph Fielding Smith on the subject of patriarchal blessings. Among other things, President Smith said: “I am here today to stand in the defense of Jacob. I don’t like these statements that are made so frequently about Jacob being a thief, a robber in stealing his brother’s blessing. He didn’t steal his brother’s blessing. . . . When he went to get his blessing, he got the blessing the Lord gave him and had for him, and he didn’t steal anything from Esau. The Lord would not have permitted it. Furthermore, the Lord gave him the same blessing, or much of the same blessing on another occasion.[44] . . . There is a difference between the words of a blessing and the actual realization and reception of the promises stated in the blessing. The Lord would not have been obligated to fulfill the words of Isaac if Jacob and Esau didn’t get the blessing they each deserved.[45] . . . So in answer to the question, How can Jacob get a legitimate, different patriarchal blessing through deceit? I would answer, he can’t, and he didn’t.”[46]

The subsequent portion of this chapter will explore some elements of the story that will hopefully cause us to pause and reconsider options of interpretation, rather than accept as authoritative certain lines of reasoning that simply at times fail to supply ample reason to accept them, although we usually do so in frustration as we digest such interpretations with a grain of salt.

Interpretations of the Chapter

As noted, there are several elements that make understanding and interpreting this chapter difficult, a difficulty that has led to a multifarious range of approaches in effort to supply a proper interpretation to the story. I will discuss a number of these below, attempting to formulate a plausible scenario from these perspectives, and then look at the chapter to see what it can tell us. One such approach sees this narrative as completely independent of the birthright scene: “All the action and the dialogue is directed toward the dominant, recurring theme of the entire episode: the father’s final blessing. The Hebrew noun berakhah occurs seven times and its verbal form exactly twenty-one times. The birthright is not an issue here, and its relationship to the blessing is unclear. Apparently, they were separate institutions. Nothing is said about the disposition of property, and it is striking that Esau expected to receive the blessing even though he admitted to having lost the birthright.”[47]

Under this interpretation, the blessing, and therefore the entire purpose of the deception, is not on the inherited property but concerns a “materialistic blessing”[48] associated with the future, regardless of worthiness. From the perspective of Isaac, this distinguishing between the two types of blessings makes sense, and he was not attempting to tamper with the birthright but seems to have had a fatherly blessing in mind. In fact, the two boys are given similar temporal blessings, “the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine” (Genesis 27:28) for Jacob, and “the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above” (27:39) for Esau—perhaps the exclusion of “corn and wine” in Esau’s blessing stems from the fact that he is a hunter. There is an affirmation that Esau would serve Jacob, but Esau is promised that, “when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck” (27:40)—a possible reference to the more temporal aspects of their existence in relatively close proximity, a proximity of which Esau is a beneficiary by the end of the story. While this does not address the deception per se, it does provide a context by which later historical contact between the descendants of Esau and Jacob is set out (both become prosperous). The confusion over the nature of the blessing also seems to be significant.

Others have attempted to situate this chapter within a ritual context, claiming that the scene is similar to other ancient Near Eastern appeals for blessings within the context of a feast, or meal.[49] This comparative approach does have value as there are some general similarities between these rituals and Genesis 27, although interpreters must sift through the data to figure out how this context may have bearing on the story, especially if we disassociate the birthright from the blessing found within the chapter. Esau does indeed distinguish between the two blessings in that Jacob “took away my [Esau’s] birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my [Esau’s] blessing” (27:36). Such ritual foci seem productive in attempting to understand the story, and despite potential roots in a ritual setting, I personally don’t think the current text is preoccupied with a ritual dinner in this scenario but that Isaac is probably attempting to give Esau a fatherly blessing before Isaac’s assumed imminent and ensuing death, something that may not have been contingent solely upon receiving a meal.[50]

Other interpretations are more subjective and based on opinions that may not offer solid foundations for understanding these stories. For example, the concept that while deception is generally bad, this particular deception is good because of the circumstances—that is, the inability of Jacob to receive the blessing in any other way justified the means—which is not a solid foundation upon which to base an interpretation. Similarly, the concept that the only problem with the text is our modern sensibilities compared to ancient ones is also not foundationally solid: “Jacob’s methods of obtaining the blessings would not be looked upon as sinful or unethical. From the point of view of the ancient writer, Jacob was justified in being shrewd in obtaining his blessings, since God had promised them to him.”[51] While it is true that we must find ancient layers and mentalities within the original framework and that through time our judgments tend to be shaped by our personal experiences, we can probably do better than dismissing the problematic texts with “They thought it was OK.” In fact, as will be seen below, Jacob strenuously objects to the behavior in which he will engage.

Two other perspectives suggest that the narrative’s difficulties reflect the nature of God: one suggests that the events highlight the principle that God can do whatever he wants under any circumstance, and he and it are right; while the other suggests that the depiction of God in this narrative is best understood as a trickster, similar to other divine tricksters in mythology. One such explanation that shows the latter’s perspective is as follows:

YHWH functions throughout the Jacob cycle as a trickster par excellence. Through participation in and with Jacob’s many deceptions, an underappreciated theological portrait of God emerges, one in which YHWH’s cunning matches and at times exceeds that of the patriarch. This divine unscrupulousness, while not entirely benign, is the mechanism by which YHWH tenaciously works toward the divine purpose. By means of deception, YHWH makes advances toward the “great nation” that will become Israel, toward blessing[s] for the entire cosmos through Israel, and toward a return to the promised land. In the Jacob cycle, therefore, one observes not an aberrant, devious God but a divine trickster who will go to any lengths for the sake of the ancestral promise. In the Jacob cycle, one may discern a true theology of deception.[52]

In my opinion, these explanations and justifications are unsatisfactory because they suggest that God himself is not bound by moral and ethical constraints so far as he is meeting his theological purposes. In our efforts to take the blame off the actual participants in the story, we somehow think the burden can be shifted to God, something not stated in the text, and that his divinity justifies any type of behavior. Below, I will offer some possible interpretations that are less focused on God as being the driving force behind some of the questionable decisions and that are more focused on the individuals who made those decisions, with a concentration on a few subtle nuances in the text that may help us view the story in a less “scandalous” light for all parties involved. This is not because I don’t want unethical behavior to be a part of this story, but because I am not sure the text is telling us that it is unethical—at least, not on the part of God.

Genesis 27 begins,

And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim , so that he could not see, he called Esau his eldest son, and said unto him, My son: and he said unto him, Behold, here am I.

And he said, Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death:

Now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison;

And make me savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die (Genesis 27:1–4; emphasis mine).

It is within this context that this deception occurs—when the patriarch Isaac, who is perceived as in danger of death (he was not sure when)—asks for meat.[53] If these chapters form a sequential chronological order, then we must conclude that Isaac was so seriously ill, or at least felt so old and stricken with poor eyesight, to have convinced himself and those around him that he was indeed in danger of dying—although he would live eight decades longer. In this condition, Isaac does call upon Esau to prepare a meal and offers the reason: “That my soul may bless thee before I die” (Genesis 27:4). Interpretations surrounding the events sometimes portray Isaac in shady tones, creating a polarization in the text that is not crystal clear:

“So that my soul may bless you before I die.” Isaac does not say simply, “So that I may bless you.” The use of “my soul” rather than “I” seems to express Isaac’s strong desire to bless Esau (cf. Deut 12:20; 14:26; Ps 84:3[2]; Cant 1:7; 3:1–4). He is quite deliberately prepared to overlook Esau’s misdemeanors and the God-given oracle. Isaac’s will is pitted against God’s and Rebekah’s.[54] Thus the stakes are high. Though [the fact that] “Esau” went out into the country to hunt game sounds very matter-of-fact, it is a dramatic exit to those who are aware of the issues at stake. Will Isaac and Esau triumph or Rebekah and Jacob, as the Lord had promised?[55]

While it does seem clear that Isaac genuinely loves Esau and wants to leave him a blessing before Isaac’s supposed death, the text gives no indication that Isaac is attempting to oppose God or intentionally disregard a divine injunction. Isaac simply asks Esau for a meal that Isaac loves so much and, in return, as a bearer of the priesthood and as a father who loves and is concerned for his son, wants to provide a blessing for Esau.[56] It is at this stage that something interesting happens at a juncture that leads us down questionable avenues of interpretation: “And Rebekah heard when Isaac spake to Esau his son. And Esau went to the field to hunt for venison, and to bring it. And Rebekah spake unto Jacob her son, saying, Behold, I heard thy father speak unto Esau thy brother, saying, Bring me venison, and make me savoury meat, that I may eat, and bless thee before the Lord before my death. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice according to that which I command thee” (Genesis 27:5–8).

Significantly, what Isaac says and what Rebekah hears and then repeats to Jacob are a bit different (at least as reported in the text). Some see her report to Jacob as intentionally altered in order to try and convince him to participate in her scheme (something the text never states):

Rebekah, perhaps surmising that Jacob will need a little persuading to undertake her potentially dangerous scheme, modifies Isaac’s words to Esau. Isaac said, “Take your weapons . . . so that my soul may bless you before I die” (vs 3–4). Rebekah omits all the remarks about hunting, which might have put Jacob off, then continues “that I may bless you in the Lord’s presence before I die.” By changing “my soul” to “I,” Rebekah seems to be playing down the strength of Isaac’s desire to bless Esau, while by adding “in the Lord’s presence,” she is emphasizing the importance of what Isaac proposes to do. Through this reporting of Isaac’s remarks, she seems to be insinuating the importance of Jacob acquiring the blessing while minimizing Isaac’s determination to bless Esau.[57]

The only thing that is certain about the interpretation of this incident is its uncertainty. We have no unequivocal statement in the text that Isaac is mentally incapacitated, that he is disregarding the edict of God, nor that Rebekah is more divinely inspired than Isaac, thus offering us a solution as to what is driving the incident: what seems clear is that Rebekah’s understanding of Isaac’s intentions is unclear. The language of the text does not argue in favor of associating the blessing with the birthright, and Rebekah’s actions may have been motivated by good intentions but were based on a misunderstanding of what she thought Isaac meant: some type of blessing “before the Lord” (verse 7), which she perceived belonged to Jacob and which he would now not receive (possibly confusing this blessing with the birthright)—intentions that Isaac may have never had but that would trigger the events that follow.[58]

With what ensues, both Rebekah and Jacob seem to know it is not the proper way to go about things:

My father peradventure will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a deceiver; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.[59]

And his mother said unto him, Upon me be thy curse, my son: only obey my voice, and go fetch me them.

And he went, and fetched, and brought them to his mother: and his mother made savoury meat, such as his father loved. (Genesis 27:12–14)

The text does not tell us that Rebekah was inspired in her actions, and rather than finding deception in God at this stage of things, perhaps it is here we best see his divine hand at work to overcome human foibles (both Rebekah’s and Jacob’s, who participate).[60] Although Isaac will later fear when he discovers he has laid his hands on Jacob rather than Esau, the blessing intended for Jacob proceeded forth from his mouth: true inspiration prevailed in the midst of human misguiding. Through divine guidance, Isaac blesses everyone according to the will of the Lord.[61] This line of thinking at least offers a possible alternative interpretation to the story based on what the language of the text says.

In an enigmatic turn of events, when we move to Genesis 28, we get an entirely different picture. Isaac is no longer on his death bed (or at least does not appear to be), and he is getting ready to live another eighty years. He is in complete control, and he blesses Jacob.[62] Following the lament in Genesis 27:46 over Esau marrying a Hittite and the hope that Jacob will not follow that path, Genesis 28:1 has Isaac blessing Jacob and charging him, “Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan,” highlighting the contrast between him and his brother Esau. Isaac further commands Jacob when attempting to help him to secure the blessings of the covenant:

Arise, go to Padan-aram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother’s father; and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother’s brother.

And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people;

And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham.

And Isaac sent away Jacob: and he went to Padan-aram unto Laban, son of Bethuel the Syrian, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother.

When Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob, and sent him away to Padan-aram, to take him a wife from thence; and that as he blessed him he gave him a charge, saying, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan;

And that Jacob obeyed his father and his mother, and was gone to Padan-aram;

And Esau seeing that the daughters of Canaan pleased not Isaac his father;

Then went Esau unto Ishmael, and took unto the wives which he had Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebajoth, to be his wife . (Genesis 28:2–9)

Jacob is to go to adherents of the covenant and find a wife to ensure the claiming of that covenant. He is offered “the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee,” foreshadowing being faithful, multiplying, and inheriting the land (Genesis 28:3–4). To summarize this event, the blessings associated with the covenant appear to have been intended for Jacob—not for Esau—and were not to be gained by deceit.

It is not at all clear even to the careful reader precisely what it is that Esau “lost” and Jacob “gained” as a result of the deception. Particularly when before Jacob leaves home we read: And Isaac blessed Jacob and said, “May God give you the blessing of Abraham” (28:4). This would indicate that the “blessing of Abraham” which designates who is to be the successor to the Abrahamic covenant, and was the only spiritually significant element possibly involved in either the bechora or the bracha, was never contemplated by Isaac as something to be given to Esau. Therefore, both events may well have been cases of “much ado about nothing.” [63]

This segment ends with another stark contrast between Jacob and Esau: “Jacob obeyed his father and his mother” (Genesis 28:7), and Esau fully recognized that marrying outside of the covenant “pleased not Isaac” (28:8). As a result of Jacob’s obedience, Genesis 28:10–22 highlights that during Jacob’s quest to obey his father and claim the blessings of the covenant, Jacob enjoys one of the most sacred experiences recorded in scripture: the Jacob’s ladder dream (a dream describing the covenants he would have to make in order to obtain the presence of God, a temple-like experience that would become a defining moment in his life).[64]

Yet the narrative doesn’t end there. We are also presented with Jacob and Esau’s reunion years later, where there appears to be no hard feelings or ill will on the part of either of them, despite Jacob’s recognition for the potential concerns:

And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids.

And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost.

And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.

And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept.

And he lifted up his eyes, and saw the women and the children; and said, Who are those with thee? And he said, The children which God hath graciously given thy servant.

Then the handmaidens came near, they and their children, and they bowed themselves.

And Leah also with her children came near, and bowed themselves: and after came Joseph near and Rachel, and they bowed themselves.

And he said, What meanest thou by all this drove which I met? And he said, These are to find grace in the sight of my lord.

And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself. (Genesis 33:1–9)

It appears that Isaac’s blessing upon Esau had come to pass and that he enjoyed an abundance of material possessions. Concerning the terms upon which they had departed, as presented in chapter 27 (again chapter 28 paints a much different picture), Jacob was obviously concerned with how Esau might react after so many years (approximately twenty years later). To mend any potentially injured feelings or perceptions of monetary loss and deprivation, when Jacob finally does meet Esau, he offers him what he could to alleviate any possible grudges: physical possessions (Genesis 33:9–11). It turns out there were not any permanent hard feelings. Perhaps the events described in chapter 27 do not tend to accurately portray the events, or the language is so confusing that it makes comprehension difficult. Perhaps this is precisely the point and thus highlights the confusion all the participants experienced within the story. It may be tempting to revert to claims that Esau was innocent and maligned through all these events, and his forgiving nature here suggests it. However, it is fruitless to attempt to depict Esau as the hero and the wronged of these stories. The biblical text just does not portray him that way, and we are left trying to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle that help make up the narrative. What is clear is that at the end of the story, these two brothers eventually joined together to bury their father upon his death, and that whatever had happened in the past, it was no longer a part of their present.

Jacob and Esau—A Comedy?

Sometimes the stories of Jacob and Esau are viewed in terms of a larger comedic narrative, and future episodes are interpreted in terms of irony and comedy in the Bible. Within this framework, the switching of Laban’s daughter at marriage and the changing of Jacob’s wages are interpreted as just recompense for Jacob as he goes from being the trickster (in the Esau story) to being tricked:

Disguise and deception are common characteristics of comedy; indeed, as Frye puts it, “craft or fraud is the animating spirit of comic form. Moreover, a classic comic triad of trickster, dupe, and innocent victim appears, with the two sons and their senile father playing roles and the shrewd, scheming mother performing backstage as a “co-trickster” in collusion with her favorite son. Apropos of the plot-line of comedy, the two brothers will become at least temporally reconciled by the end of the story, but all this is to anticipate the rest of this comic tale of twins and tricksters . . . [in relation to Genesis 29:26 where Laban switches Rachel for Leah at Jacob’s wedding, where we read that this is] . . . a painfully ironic rebuttal to Jacob who had once cheated his elder brother. But turn-about is fair play, and there is a kind of poetic justice in Jacob’s world, as the trickster is tricked.[65]

This line of reasoning seems to read Jacob’s experiences from back to front, and the later stories are used to formulate a negative opinion of Jacob that is used to influence the interpretation of the earlier episodes of his life. However, rather than including this portion of the text in the Bible so that we could all get a good laugh and marvel at the poetic justice behind the supposed deceptive events, perhaps we are to see Jacob, described from the beginning as a righteous man, as one who is subjected to trials and hardships but endures them nobly due to the sacred, spiritual experiences he has had in witnessing dreams and seeing God (Genesis 28:12ff).[66] God promised Jacob at the beginning of his journey that he would “keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of” (Genesis 28:15). Perhaps God is tenderly promising Jacob to help bring him the promises of the covenant now that things have become difficult. It takes twenty years for the Lord to send instruction to Jacob that he must finally return home (Genesis 31:3), a duration of time none could have foreseen, and it occurs only after Jacob has experienced great blessings of family but also great hardship and maltreatment. The text never states that such trials come as a result of divine retribution because of Jacob’s deceitful past. Rather than chuckle at Jacob through those trials, perhaps we are supposed to empathize with and marvel at him.[67] Jacob puts enduring his trials in perspective in his conversations with Rachel and Leah: “Your father hath deceived me, and changed my wages ten times; but God suffered him not to hurt me” (Genesis 31:7). Jacob seems to epitomize the phrase “come what may, and love it,” as through his trials, optimism, and love enable them to seem, “unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her” (Genesis 29:20, meaning Rachel and how his love for her helped him to endure the challenges he faced in his life).[68] Such characteristics do not appear to reflect a liar and a cheat.

Throughout the hardships and challenges faced by Jacob and his family during this long absence from home, when Jacob finally receives instruction to leave, he takes his family and flees without telling Laban. Laban accuses him of “foolishly” doing so (Genesis 31:28) and threatens him (verse 29). Jacob’s actions may not have been the best choice, a scenario that landed him in Laban’s grasp in the first place, but given past experiences, perhaps he feared Laban would take his family by force (verse 31). Jacob eventually cries out, “What is my trespass? what is my sin, that thou hast so hotly pursued after me?” (verse 36). In a fortunate turn of events, Laban receives a dream from God forbidding him to harm Jacob (verse 24), and Laban refrains and reconciles with Jacob. Rather than the trickster Jacob is so commonly portrayed to be, these verses can be read as depicting him as the epitome of endurance and longsuffering through situations that were not necessarily or entirely his fault. These stories may also constitute situations resulting from decisions that were made that may not have been God-given but that reflected imperfect people trying to do their best but not always succeeding. Perhaps we should see God’s deliverance of Jacob not through the lens of sustaining a trickster but of upholding a righteous sufferer. Jacob declared to Laban, “God hath seen mine affliction and the labour of my hands, and rebuked thee yesternight” (verse 42). Therefore, taking this as a comedy may not be the only way to interpret Jacob’s later life, and perhaps the theological perspective of endurance and trust in God are really at the heart of this message.

Concluding Observations

The result of this essay is, I hope, to forward an approach of caution, not skepticism, when dealing with these difficult passages in the Old Testament and to encourage a search for answers when they may not always be clearly available. The biblical text, when examined closely in relation to the Jacob and Esau stories, seems to expunge Jacob from the scandal commonly attached to him, placing more emphasis on Esau’s behavior and lack of regard for his birthright as an explanation as to how the succession passes on to Jacob. The interpretation of Jacob and Esau’s initial conflict over a mess of pottage, where Esau is portrayed in a worldly fashion, in contrast to Jacob’s spiritual mannerisms, appears to have been one accepted by Malachi almost fourteen hundred years after the event and used as a central thematic thread throughout the entire prophetic book. The book of Malachi begins with a direct allusion to Esau and Jacob as Malachi speaks to the Levitical priests in the postexilic community in Jerusalem: “I have loved you, saith the Lord. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the Lord: yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness” (Malachi 1:2–3).

As noted by Andrew Hill, this opening statement, following the trauma of the Babylonian exile, established that the Lord’s selection and continued support of the Israelites began with his initial selection of Jacob over Esau: “For this reason, Yahweh’s love for Israel constitutes the central argument of the opening disputation; the restoration community’s identity crisis could be overcome only by the affirmation and experience of [a] covenant relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”[69] The Israelites had thus been loved and blessed through the priesthood and the covenant. Yet Malachi’s intended audience does not appear to be the Israelites in general but to the priests and Levites. It is to their negligence or in those “that despise my name” (Malachi 1:6) that Malachi admonishes.[70] Despise is the same word we find in the Genesis account relating to Esau “despising” his birthright.

Bluntly, Malachi points out how the people fail time and again to live up to YHWH’s commandments (e.g. Mal. 1.6–8; 3.6–7a), while in the same breath, a call for repentance is uttered on behalf of YHWH (e.g. Mal. 1.9; 3.7a). Calling the people “Israel” (Mal. 1.1) and addressing them in the second person plural (v. 2a) before having them paralleled with Jacob (v. 2b), Malachi indicates the representative use of Jacob and Esau. It is this Jacob-Israel the book addresses in its opening statement (Mal. 1.2–5) which lays out the line of the argument to be pursued throughout the three chapters.[71]

The prophet goes on to chastise the priests for defiling their offerings (Malachi 1:6–7), as well as marrying foreign wives (2:11), two practices for which Esau was also guilty. Thus, it appears that Malachi appropriated the Jacob-Esau narrative to highlight the priestly wrongdoing of his day, suggesting that their indifference was parallel to Esau’s willing neglect.

Though less explicit than Malachi, Paul, almost five centuries later, also seems to have understood the Jacob-Esau narrative as one that was meant to highlight Esau’s covenantal disregard. In Romans 9:11–13, Paul—drawing upon the references in Malachi chapter 1: “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated”—used the narrative to define the difference between foreordination and predestination. “Here in particular it should be remembered that Paul’s aim is to prick the bubble of Israel’s presumptuousness as the elect, not to affirm Esau’s rejection. Paul’s argument, in fact, is an attack on the only dogma of predestination then current, and constitutes a standing warning against any attempt to define or rationalize a doctrine of election.”[72]

Elsewhere, Esau is portrayed as a secular, neglectful man, indifferent to things of eternal consequences; a seeker after the pleasures of the world.[73] Between the usage of these episodes of Malachi and Paul, it seems that the clearest interpretation of the story includes a focus rooted in priesthood responsibility and authority (which is also reflected in Rabbinic literature) and on righteously claiming the blessings one can obtain through the covenant (blessings that could be lost through negligence but that could not be purchased with a mess of pottage).

In the course of this essay, I have attempted to demonstrate the need to explore what the text says rather than what we assume it says (and that things are not always as they seem). Through the difficulties of interpretation, we do not need to fret or become frustrated with the lack of answers, but perhaps we need to ask more questions. Despite the fact that what we see in these succession stories may remain nebulous in relation to what God intends us to see, the words of President Wilford Woodruff ring true: “We should be men and women of faith, valiant for the truth as it has been revealed and committed into our hand. We should be men and women of integrity to God, and to his Holy Priesthood, true to him and true to one another.”[74] Our struggle in life really is reflected in the succession narratives of Isaac and Jacob, and our efforts to make decisions will enable us to qualify for the eternal rewards that God has offered to each of us as we endure whatever trials may come to us in our lives (and in whatever form they may appear). What we see in the lives of Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob (or even God from this perspective) remains our challenge as we read and attempt to interpret these stories.


[1] John E. Anderson, Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and YHWH’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 178.

[2] I wholeheartedly endorse the words of Elder D. Todd Christofferson, who taught, ‘We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God’ (Articles of Faith 1:9). This is to say that while there is much we do not yet know, the truths and doctrine we have received have come and will continue to come by divine revelation. In some faith traditions, theologians claim equal teaching authority with the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and doctrinal matters may become a contest of opinions between them. Some rely on the ecumenical councils of the Middle Ages and their creeds. Others place primary emphasis on the reasoning of post-apostolic theologians or on biblical hermeneutics and exegesis. We value scholarship that enhances understanding, but in the Church today, just as anciently, establishing the doctrine of Christ or correcting doctrinal deviations is a matter of divine revelation to those the Lord endows with apostolic authority.” D. Todd Christofferson, “The Doctrine of Christ,” Ensign, May 2012, 86. This statement could not be clearer to me than it is after having gone through the process of researching and writing this paper. I have sifted through scholarly debates and provided statements by General Authorities to make some sense of these notoriously problematic issues.

[3] Some see in the geography of the events a diminished distance in the journey which would have ensured the survival of Hagar and Ishmael. They are also sent off early in the morning with provisions, in a planned and calculated manner. The two would thus have been able to get to safety before death ensued: “It seems more reasonable to assume that following the incident with Abimelech it was prudent for Abraham to somewhat distance himself from Gerar and perhaps dwell outside the city (Genesis 20:15). This situation appears attractive because the distance that Hagar would have had to walk in this case would be quite reasonable, Abraham probably had accommodations there, and Gerar belonged to the Muzrim to whom Hagar was related. Such an arrangement would have allowed Abraham convenient access to Hagar and Ishmael, yet [would have] ke[pt] them out of Sarah’s sight and reach. When eventually Hagar and Ishmael decided to settle in the Desert of Paran they still were in the triangle Gerar-Beer-sheba-Paran where Abraham’s cattle apparently roamed. Abraham would have had plenty of opportunity to be in contact with them. Thus, when Abraham dies Isaac does not have to send anyone to Ishmael, and Ishmael arrives in time to properly bury his father, as any son would do.” Aron Pinker, “The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen 21:9–21),” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal 6, no. 1 (2009): 1–24.

[4] Some may conclude that Sarah is calling the shots here and that Abraham is sitting on the sidelines as an insignificant player in the game. The fact of the matter is that the Lord is in charge. He assures Abraham that the Lord will protect Hagar and Ishmael and that Sarah’s counsel is the proper route to take. Thus, the decision is reached by Sarah proposing a course of action, discussing the matter with Abraham, and the Lord confirming and approving it for both of them. Ellis T. Rasmussen, A Latter-day Saint Commentary on the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993), 50, states, “Abraham was naturally grieved by Sarah’s demand that Hagar and her son be sent away, and only after receiving a revelation concerning Ishmael’s destiny and Isaac’s calling and responsibility did he let her be sent away.” This was not an isolated decision; it was a decision made between Sarah, Abraham, and God. That all were involved in the process is important, and who received what first is less important to the conversation than the unanimous outcome. Subsequently, Abraham had already learned of Ishmael’s fate a few chapters earlier. Sarah’s counsel may have been the impetus for effectively pursing a path Abraham was already aware of but potentially hoped he would somehow be able to avoid it.

[5] A famous Egyptian tomb painting from the sixth dynasty (2350–2000 BC) in Saqqara depicts circumcision. However, the practice did not hold the same symbolism and token of the covenant for the Egyptians as it did for Abraham and his family. See J. M. Sasson, “Circumcision in the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966): 473–76; P. J. King, “Circumcision: Who Did it, Who Didn’t, and Why,” Biblical Archaeology Review 32, no. 4 (2006): 48–55; John H. Walton, Genesis, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2013), loc. 3464 of 10396, Kindle; John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downer’s Grove, IN: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 49 of 812, Kindle.

[6] The Hebrew reads “cut a covenant” (כּרת בּרית). The covenantal process included two parties or individuals coming together to form a contract and consisted of declared stipulations, responsibilities, blessings, and curses, as well as the killing of a sacrificial animal, representing that one would keep the contract unto death, or one’s life would be as the animal whose blood was shed. The covenant constituted obedience at all costs; even death was preferred to breaking it. This cutting of a covenant is reflected in Genesis 15:18, where the Lord cuts a covenant with Abraham and promises him the land, implying a contract of obligation on Abraham’s part to receive the promised blessing. In similar fashion, the cutting of the foreskin in circumcision “assumes the structure of a treaty covenant, with mutual rights and obligations rather than a grant covenant,” and it became a token for Abraham and his family that they would keep the Lord’s covenant. Barry L. Bandstra, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. (Belmont, WA: Wadsworth, 1999), 99–101. “Performed on infants, it is more a ritual scarring than something done for health reasons. The fact that blood is shed also signifies that this is a sacrificial *ritual. . . . Circumcision can be seen as one of many cases where God transforms a common practice to a new (though not necessarily unrelated) purpose in revealing himself and relating to his people.” Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVP Bible, 49–50.

[7] Mark E. Petersen, Abraham: Friend of God (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979), 117, seems to imply that Ishmael was not baptized and certainly highlights that Ishmael’s not receiving the covenant blessings had something to do with his attitude and behavior: “They would not have been refused baptism into the kingdom in those days any more than now, if they had but obeyed. They both were of Abraham’s house, one a wife, one a son. So it was attitude, revealed in their obedience or disobedience that actually drew the line between Isaac and Ishmael. God had no prejudice against Ishmael. The scripture says that he loved the lad (Gen. 21:20). He also had due regard for the boy’s mother.” The episodes that follow are thus not about prejudice; they appear to be about choice. The covenants made in the course of circumcision seemed to have been neglected, the result of which may be foreshadowed in these events. In relation to the circumcision given to Abraham and his descendants, “his responsibilities are also clear from the collocation using ‘keep’ (šmr) with ‘covenant’ (bĕrît) in v. 9, and again in v. 10 to urge faithfulness (cf. Exod 19:5) . . . . Accordingly, circumcision is now instituted as the sign of the covenant for all Abraham’s descendants, whether house-born or purchased slaves (vv. 12–13). . . . Indeed, ‘every male’ (v. 10) must be circumcised or he has forfeited his membership in Israel’s covenant community by neglect (v. 14). God’s covenant ‘in your flesh’ (v. 13) is both the sign of the covenant and the covenant itself.” Bill T. Arnold, Genesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 171. In relation to Ishmael, “Although tragic in the familial and the personal conflict surrounding Ishmael’s abandonment, the text is not disparaging of him or his descendants, rather there is only the promise of a bright future as a descendant of Abraham (vv. 13, 18).” Arnold, Genesis, 195–96.

[8] This does not imply that descendants of Ishmael could not embrace the covenant made with Abraham. Abraham himself did not receive blessings from his father and had to go to Melchizedek to get them. Those opportunities may have been extended to Ishmael’s posterity if they so desired.

[9] Estimates on weaning range from three years in Assyria and Second Temple Judaism to two to five years in rabbinic literature. Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 46. Weaning is also mentioned in Egyptian literature as lasting three years. Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol 2: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975), 141. Some estimates as to Ishmael’s age at the time of the incident range from fifteen to seventeen. The text seems to imply that some time had elapsed between Isaac’s circumcision (Genesis 21:4) and when “the child grew, and was weaned” (Genesis 21:8).

[10] E. A. Speiser believed the traditional interpretation of “mocking” here requires a (b) preposition, which is lacking in the text. E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible: Genesis (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 155. Joseph Agar Beet explains the episode of mocking with an interpretation based on New Testament passages, “And this idea was taken up by Jewish tradition. This ridicule from Ishmael [that] Paul describes, in order to place the Christians of his day in line with Isaac, by the word persecuted, which recalls the many persecutions aroused against Christians by Jews: cp. 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Acts 13:50; 14:5, 19.” Joseph Agar Beet, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1885), 137. Galatians 4:29 calls the incident persecuting, and Paul uses these events between Ishmael and Isaac as an “allegory” (Galatians 4:24; ἀλληγορέω [allēgoreō]) to highlight the differences between the bondage of the flesh and the liberating freedom of the gospel of Christ. Paul then invites his listeners to remain “born after the Spirit” (4:29) and “the children of the promise” (4:28) by enduring persecutions (mocking), as Isaac did of Ishmael. The piel (intensive) form of צחק used here in Genesis for “mocking” occurs elsewhere with negative overtones of mockery (Genesis 19:21; Exodus 32:6; Judges 16:25). Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 2: Genesis 16–50 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987), 82. Midrash Rabbah LIII 10 states that God was present on the occasion of weaning, and Midrash Rabbah LIII 11 accuses Ishmael of anything from sexual misconduct to idolatry. H. Freedman, trans., Rabbah: Genesis (New York: Soncino Press, 1983), 468. Islamic tradition views things in a different light. “Al-Tha’labi (d. 1036 CE) interprets the events of Genesis 21 on the authority of several sources, where Ishmael and Isaac compete in the presence of Abraham[,] and Ishmael wins. Abraham then suggests that Ishmael should be the primary inheritor. Sarah is furious at this turn of events, and when she sees the two boys fighting ‘with one another as young boys tend to do,’ . . . ‘Sarah got angry with Hagar and said, “You will not live with me in the same place!” She commanded Abraham to dismiss Hagar. God then gave Abraham a revelation that he bring Hagar and her son to Mecca.’ Firestone, p. 67.” David J. Zucker, “What Sarah Saw: Envisioning Genesis 21:9–10,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 36, no. 1 (2008): 62.

[11] “In ancient sources, it appears that the covenant referred to in Genesis and the [B]ook of Abraham was made between Abraham, Sarah, and the Lord, a covenant among three people. Likewise, Hagar becomes part of this covenant to some extent, although from the text that we have, her involvement is harder to ascertain.” Janet C. Hovorka, “Sarah and Hagar: Ancient Women of the Abrahamic Covenant,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 2006), 2. See Doctrine and Covenants 132:65 for some clarification on the matter, as well as for the covenantal nature of this marriage for all parties involved and for who were following the commandments of the Lord.

[12] Hovorka, “Sarah and Hagar,” 10.

[13] We witness a similar chiding between Peninnah and the childless Hannah (1 Samuel 1). Petersen, Abraham, 2, 115, saw a connection between the attitudes of Hagar and Ishmael: “Hagar had hated Sarah for fourteen years. Would not this motherly antagonism have rubbed off on Ishmael, leading to his mocking Isaac? . . . Her attitude was reflected in the behavior of Ishmael, who mocked Isaac.” The text does not explicitly state that this was the case for so many years, just that at some point Hagar did feel this way (and thus this offers a possible explanation for a tension to have existed for so long). “The Hebrew implies that Hagar now considered Sarai less significant or no longer needed (‘her mistress was lowered in her esteem’).” Arnold, Genesis, 163. Janzen translated Hagar’s behavior toward Sarah as “belittling” (qll also meaning “to curse” or “to look upon with contempt”), and he discusses the play on the word עָנָה that is used throughout the episode to describe both Sarah’s and Hagar’s behavior (the word carries a semantic domain that includes “dealing harshly,” “submitting,” and “affliction”) J. Gerald Janzen, Genesis 12–50: Abraham and All the Families of the Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 42–45. Subsequently, the verb עָנָה also carries the meaning of “to answer” and may foreshadow the need for Hagar to be accountable for the behavior that has resulted in “belittling, dealing harshly, affliction” and, now, the need to “submit” to Sarah. When Hagar fled, she was met by a messenger of God and told to return (a possible reference to repent, a play on the verb שׁוּב, meaning “to return back”) to her mistress and restore things in the form of submitting to her (שׁ֖וּבִי אֶל־גְּבִרְתֵּ֑ךְ וְהִתְעַנִּ֖י תַּ֥חַת יָדֶֽיהָ)—a recognition that Sarah was in charge and that it was she who had been wronged. Concerning Hagar, “Yahweh finds her alone in the desert, tenderly addresses her with rhetorical questions, leading her along and directing her to return to the safety of her mistress’s supervision, and even extends the ancestral promises to her and her son. This surprising turn of events confirms how deeply Yahweh is committed to the covenant promises to Abram’s offspring.” Arnold, Genesis, 164. Again, we do not have all the pieces of the puzzle provided for us in the text, and we struggle to make sense of these difficult episodes in the Bible. Nothing in this paper is intended to be ethnically insensitive; I am attempting to interpret these events in light of the biblical text’s portrayal of the occurrences while acknowledging that various religions and streams provide different interpretations.

[14] Ishmael’s behavior may not constitute a onetime event but, in the eyes of Sarah, a cumulative demonstration of spiritually troubling behavior. Petersen, Abraham, 115, stated and then asked, “Abraham knew that all faithful people will be received by the Lord. Had he suffered from some previous difficulties with Ishmael’s boyish attitude?” The text is not explicit, and we must try to piece things together. Petersen, Abraham, 114–15, continued, “Here the Lord makes a clear distinction between Isaac and Ishmael. Was he unjust? What was the nature of the covenant, and why did it distinguish between the two boys? What was the problem with Ishmael? We must acknowledge that the original choice of a covenant people related to [the] premortal existence. But Ishmael could have had the blessings of the gospel here on earth had he possessed a different attitude. . . . If he had caressed the child instead of mocking him, would not Abraham, the friend of God, have seen to his salvation?” Again, my intent is not to villainize Ishmael, and some writings have, but something has happened here that portrays Ishmael’s behavior in a negative light (whatever it was). Ishmael will later show disregard for the covenant, but perhaps the focus of the sending away of Ishmael is more a concentration of the dissolution of the sacred marriage with Hagar than it is on a portrayal of Ishmael as an “evil” person. Again, something (a “mocking”) appears to have happened. We are just unclear on what it was, but it was disconcerting enough for Sarah to suggest (and be sanctioned by the Lord and Abraham) the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael.

[15] Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 1.12.3, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 42.

[16] Sarna, Genesis, 147. See also Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVP Bible, 52.

[17] Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 84. Hovorka also discusses the variant usages of terms describing Hagar’s relationship to Abraham and Sarah throughout this incident and highlights that a more demeaning term is used for Hagar to separate her from Abraham at this juncture (i.e., her status had changed from “wife” to “maidservant”). Hovorka, “Sarah and Hagar,” 13. See also Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 294, who differentiate the terms applied to Hagar: “The former identifies Hagar as married to Abraham; the latter, as a possession and laborer for Sarah.”

[18] “The Lord covenanted through Isaac and not through Ishmael; but in fairness to him, Ishmael was promised nations, princes, and kings, even as was Isaac. God is fair to all [people]. He is just and no respecter of persons. To each he gives what is best suited for [the person], and he can judge this because he was well acquainted with us in our pre-earth life. . . . Although the Lord made covenants with Isaac, any child of Ishmael may have as many blessings in the Church or in eternity as any child of Isaac—if [the person] will but serve Almighty God and keep his commandments. Also, any child of Isaac, regardless of heritage, may lose those blessings if [the child] fails to keep the commandments of the Lord.” Petersen, Abraham, 108–9.

[19] In the Islamic literature called “Prophetic Tales,” the Zam-zam spring located in Mecca next to the Ka‘bah is where God brought Ishmael after his and Hagar’s expulsion and thus has become a holy site. Reuven Firestone, An Introduction to Islam for Jews (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2008), 20.

[20] Of the sacred encounters experienced by Hagar, and the protection she received at the hand of God due to the promises made to Abraham, as well as the love the Lord had toward her, we read, “Teubal writes that these theophanies were singular in the scriptures. She states, ‘Notwithstanding, the Hagar episodes record the only time in the bible that God is given a name, and the name is given by a woman. Hagar’s god is a god who knows her, who addresses her in familiar terms: “What troubles you Hagar?” he asks with the tender concern of a loving relative.’ McKenna also notes that the visions were affirmations of an impartial God. He is seen ‘taking note of her, just a maid, a pregnant slave, and an Egyptian, not even a Jew! God cares about everyone.’ In sum, Hagar, like Abraham and Sarah, enjoyed the threefold blessings of the Covenant—great posterity, a land for her descendants’ inheritance, and the companionship of the Lord.” Hovorka, “Sarah and Hagar,” 12–13. As the Lord had been with Hagar before being sent off (as this quote describes), he was also going to protect her and Ishmael during their time of need after they were sent away from the family. Though the covenant would not go directly through Ishmael, he was still an important part of the covenant. Some may suggest that as a result of the close contact, God continues to maintain his efforts to bless Hagar and Ishmael, which constitutes a reason to assume that Ishmael never did anything to merit being driven away and that he continued to be a covenant keeper. However, this view appears to ignore everything that the text seems to present to us. The biblical passages suggest a reason for all these events transpiring.

[21] Russell M. Nelson, “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” Ensign, November 2002, 39, declared, “Father Abraham was uniquely called a ‘Friend of God.’ Peace was one of Abraham’s highest priorities. He sought to be a ‘prince of peace.’ His influence could loom large in our present pursuit of peace. His sons, Ishmael and Isaac, though born of different mothers, overcame their differences when engaged in a common cause. After their father died, they worked together to bury the mortal remains of their exalted father. Their descendants could well follow that pattern.” We could all follow that pattern.

[22] Anderson, Jacob and the Divine Trickster, 175.

[23] Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 225, 227–28. Admittedly, this approach requires a subjective view to interpretation as we bring preconceived notions to the text as to how we believe God should or should not act. The point here is that most of those notions in Genesis 27 tend to cast a negative light on God or Jacob, while statistically larger portions of the scriptures do not. That is not to say that people can’t make mistakes and that Jacob was perfect, though the text says he was (Genesis 25:27), and God certainly is. I just think we need to be cautious in how and where we assign blame. Ascertaining what is, what might be, or what shouldn’t or couldn’t be, when it exists in the text, is all part of the juggling act performed by biblical exegetes in attempting to explain difficult passages in the Bible.

[24] Anderson, Jacob and the Divine Trickster, 175, in Eryl W. Davies, The Immoral Bible: Approaches to Biblical Ethics (London: T. & T. Clark, 2010), 132.

[25] It may be tempting to read the Jacob stories with a grin and think, “This is great irony and builds the story; Jacob goes from trickster to the tricked.” Such a view must also seemingly admit, in between laughs, that God is a trickster too. I, personally, am not convinced that these episodes are included in the Bible for us to get a good laugh or to revel in the irony as patriarchs and God are painted as incompetent and inconsistent and as swindlers, cheats, and tricksters. There must be some plausible purpose for their inclusion in the text beyond this! If they were included for this purpose, would they not already be theologically tainted?

[26] “The privilege of the firstborn in inheritance is referred to as primogeniture. Primogeniture was not universally practiced in the ancient world, but it was a sort of default position. Sufficient numbers of examples exist of either a younger son having the privileges or of the estate being equally divided to demonstrate that a variety of arrangements was possible.” Walton, Genesis, loc. 3928 of 10396, Kindle.

[27] See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Anchor Bible: Romans (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 563.

[28] See Genesis 49, where Reuben loses his birthright through transgression, and it is passed on to Joseph—the first son of the next wife. When discussing the events surrounding Jacob and Esau, there is something we should remember: “God did not say that Jacob should be saved in the kingdom of God, and Esau be doomed to eternal hell, without any regard to their deeds; but He simply said that two distinct nations, widely differing, should spring from them, and one should be stronger than the other, and the elder should serve the younger.” Parley P. Pratt, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 1:258. The text does not say that Esau becomes perdition (though he does become the personification of indifference to sacred things), nor does it say that all his ancestors are to be equated as such. There would be subsequent struggles between Israel and Edom, but we should be careful with applying blanket stereotypes.

[29] See Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 362.

[30] It is easy to slight this description of Jacob’s character when viewing what follows. Some may see the emphasis on Jacob’s character as an exaggeration, especially because of his actions that follow. However, and this is the point, perhaps we are supposed to read the story through the lens of a righteous Jacob and not diminish him by interpreting the story from back to front with the bias his subsequent behavior seems to produce. The contrast between the boys in the introduction of their lives in the text seems deliberate and intentional, and, rather than judge Jacob based on the perceived scandalous behavior that ensues, perhaps his description as a “perfect,” or “complete” individual should drive our perception of him in what follows (and not vice versa). Susan Niditch writes of the polarized interpretations of these events: “Not all scholars would recognize the scene in [Genesis] 25:29–34 as a trickster episode. The interpretation depends on the understanding of verses 31–33. Does this scene portray an honest deal—pottage for the birthright—or extortion by a clever con artist, Jacob?” Susan Niditch, Underdogs and Tricksters (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 101. I take the stance of an honest Jacob.

[31] This line seems a bit awkward in describing the parents and marks a transition from an old to a new paragraph. The text is about the birth of the boys, the pottage incident is about Jacob and Esau, and the parents don’t really factor into what takes place—though this description of them establishes a polarity between Isaac and Rebekah that we will again encounter in Genesis 27. Undoubtedly, both parents loved their boys (we just see Isaac’s motivation for the love of Esau revolving around a secular object that Esau had to offer him, while the unstated reason behind Rebekah’s love of Jacob seems to be implied in the spiritual manifestations she received while she was pregnant). The description of “venison” may thus highlight the worldly, or secular, nature behind what ensues with Esau and what he has been willing to offer his father, and the description may draw us to see Jacob in a “spiritual” light in seeking more “spiritual” things. Furthermore, Esau was just described as a hunter, and if anything, this line serves to tell us that Esau was perfectly capable of obtaining his own food for himself, as well as for others.

[32] Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narratives Ethically (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 94, 99, writes, “Esau’s ‘Let me eat some of that red pottage’ (25:30) could be taken as abruptly uncouth, but his use of na’ usually translated ‘please’ and a high-flown term for ‘eat’ could suggest that he is not quite at death’s door, and that he therefore had no excuse for selling his birthright. . . . As we already noted, it is not all that obvious that Esau was at death’s door, rather hunger made him exaggerate. Yet he says ‘Of what use is the birthright to me?’ So for some lentil stew Esau gave away his birthright, a move clearly disapproved of by the author who simply observes: ‘Thus Esau despised his birthright’ (25:32–34). These two stories suggest that though food is to be enjoyed, appetite must not overrule principle.”

[33] The way the word despised is used in the Hebrew text and in the Septuagint includes the following instances that have been related to slighting sacred things: Genesis 25:34 (despised birthright), Numbers 15:31 (in tabernacle, despised the word of the Lord), 2 Samuel 12:9 (despised commandment), Malachi 1:6 (priests despise sacrifices), 2 Chronicles 36:16 (despised God and prophets), Ezekiel 16:59; 17:16, 18, 19 (despise oath and covenant), Ezekiel 22:8 (despise holy things), 1 Samuel 2:30 (despise the Lord), Proverbs 19:16 (despise commandments). The word is defined in Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 102, as follows: בּזה (bā∙zā[h]): (compare بَزَا [bazā], raise the head loftily and disdainfully)—; despise, regard with contempt. In other Greek texts the word despised (φαυλίζω, f. Att. ιῶ, [φαῦλος]) means “to hold cheap, to depreciate, disparage.”

[34] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 218, הלעיטני. Esau’s plea to “let me taste/eat” is also a hapax legomenon (a word used only once in the Bible). See Joseph H. Prouser, “Seeing Red: On Translating Esau’s Request for Soup,” Conservative Judaism 56, no. 2 (2004): 14. The language of these verses is difficult and highly ambiguous, contributing to the difficulty in interpreting the story.

[35] Edom/Idumea is later associated with the things of the world (Doctrine and Covenants 1:36). Writing about Isaiah 34:6, Victor L. Ludlow states, “The term ‘Edom’ has a double meaning here. In addition to denoting the country located east of the Dead Sea, it means ‘the world’ and especially ‘the wicked world.’ This second definition can be supported by modern revelation (D&C 1:36) and a linguistic evaluation of the term. The Hebrew word Edom also means ‘red’ or ‘earth’ and is the root for the words Adam and man. Therefore, it often connotes human or worldly qualities. As one scholar defines it, ‘Edom is always figurative of the natural state of man in his antagonism against God’ (Vine, Isaiah, p. 84; see also Mosiah 3:19).” Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 308–9. The appellation of Edom as attached to Esau after this incident seems to be drawing us into the worldly nature of the story (in contrast to the spiritual pursuits of Jacob). It should also be noted that Esau does not receive the name “Edom” (reflecting red) at the time of his birth, where he is described as red, but only receives it after this incident with “red pottage.” The designation is thus not about a physical characteristic he possesses but a character feature (“pottage boy,” or “worldly boy”) that seems to label him in a secular fashion.

[36] There is some room to question whether there was a literal mess of pottage involved in the story, or whether it simply represented a concept of worldliness. Without definitively answering that question, it is used proverbially in Church conference addresses. The following are illustrative: “Oh, my brethren, don’t sell your birthright—your Priesthood birthright—for a mess of pottage (Gen. 25:29–34).” J. Reuben Clark Jr., in Conference Report, October 1951, 169–72. Or, “Because they loved worldliness more than they loved spirituality, they sold their birthright for a mess of pottage (Gen. 25:34).” Mark E. Petersen, in Conference Report, October 1948, 133. “Be honest with yourselves. Live up to the best that is in you. Do not sell your birthright for a mess of pottage (Gen. 25:34). Be true to the faith and God will be true to you no matter what the future may hold.” Mark E. Petersen, in Conference Report, October 1960, 78–83. Brueggeman, Genesis, 219–20, states, “In Hebrews 11:20–21, Jacob is named among those who believed in the promise. (Note that Esau is also mentioned as having a blessing.) In Heb. 12:12–17, Esau is used as an illustration of those who do not believe the promise. The primary call of the letter to the Hebrews is for disciplined obedience in the face of persecution. The urging throughout is that waiting for and believing in the sure promises of God will lead to blessings of ‘rest’ (Heb. 4:11) and inheritance (6:11–12). Those who do not believe promises and want more immediate satisfactions will no doubt compromise the faith for the sake of easier gains: pottage. Esau becomes a type for those who do not trust the promise and [who] accommodate themselves. The issue for the listening community is how to believe the promises seriously enough to withstand alternative forms of food, which are immediately available and within control. (Cf. Mark 8:15. Perhaps the ‘leaven of the Pharisees’ is another form of pottage.)” Perhaps the concept is that “man shall not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4).

[37] “While Esau did not sense nor appreciate his condition and birthright; he did not respect it as he should have done, neither did be hearken to the counsels of his father and mother. On the contrary, he went his own way with a stubborn will, and followed his own passions and inclinations and took to wife one of the daughters of the Canaanites whom the Lord had not blessed; and he therefore rendered himself unacceptable to God and to his father and mother. He gave himself to wild pursuits—to hunting, and to following the ways of the Canaanites, and displeased the Lord and his parents, and was not worthy of this right of seniority. The Lord therefore saw fit to take it from him . . . [since] none can hold these rights of the Priesthood except in connection with the powers of heaven, and cannot be exercised only on the principles of righteousness; and all who fail to exercise these rights on the principles of righteousness and in connection with the powers of heaven subject to its counsels and directions and laws, forfeit their birthright, and the right passes to another.” John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 21:371. It seems that Esau really did “despise” the birthright, and that is why it passed to Jacob. “We know the story of Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:34). The birthright didn’t seem to be so important to Esau, and so the birthright came to another.” John H. Taylor, in Conference Report, October 1943, 53–55. Midrash Rabbah LXIII 11 implies Esau had lost his vision of eternity, declaring, “There is neither reward nor resurrection.” H. Freedman, trans., Rabbah: Genesis, vol. 2 (London: Soncino Press, 1983), 566.

[38] “The story of Esau’s rejection of his birthright is purposefully attached to the end of the narrative that introduces the motif of the older brother’s serving [of] the younger. It is a narrative example that God’s choice of Jacob over Esau does not run contrary to the wishes of either brother. It is made clear from the narrative that Esau ‘despises’ his birthright. Jacob, however, is portrayed as one who will go to great lengths to gain it. . . . Esau, though he has the right of the firstborn, does not value it over a small bowl of soup. Thus when in God’s plan Esau loses his birthright and consequently his blessing, there is no injustice dealt him. The narrative has shown that he did not care about the birthright.” John H. Sailhamer, Genesis, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2008), locs. 7564–72 of 10676, Kindle.

[39] Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 184. See also Numbers 3:5–13; 8:5–19. A Midrash stated that the right of the firstborn included the sacrificial service provided by priests. H. Freedman, Rabbah: Genesis, 569.

[40] Sidney B. Sperry, The Spirit of the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: LDS Department of Education, 1940), 38. See also Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 178.

[41] When one reads the story, there is an inclination to lean heavily toward the physical exchange of a legal document transferring the birthright from Esau to Jacob. Other ancient Near Eastern texts demonstrate that heirs were able to sell off some of their future inheritances. See Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 181. “The inheritance was divided into the number of sons plus one. The eldest son then received a double share. This was a customary practice throughout the ancient Near East. The stew buys from Esau that additional share (probably not his entire inheritance). There are no examples in the known literature from the ancient Near East of such a deal being made. The closest is in the legal materials from *Nuzi, where one brother sells some already inherited property to one of his brothers.” Walton, IVP Bible, 58. These instances entailed transfers of physical property, not priesthood authority or leadership. So the comparisons are similar but not the same. Despite bearing some resemblances to such a formal exchange, the encounter here differs significantly from such legal contracts. For example, there is no previously arranged agreement leading up to the would-be covenantal meal. In this connection, the meal is already made before Esau arrives, and he simply asks for it. Jacob subsequently does not partake of the meal with him. Furthermore, there is no “swearing” of the oath between them. The text simply states that Esau swore, not Jacob, and then forsook his birthright. These differences may indicate the incident is symbolic, but they at least seem to demonstrate that this is not a “legal” type of exchange in a sacrificial setting, which would have been necessary for such a literal transfer of the birthright (see Genesis 26:28–31 for the swearing of an oath between two parties). Others see differences in the account as well: “Our sympathy with Esau is somewhat dissipated when the Narrator describes his inner feelings. Having finished the broth, Esau does not quarrel with Jacob but goes indifferently about his business, with no apparent regard for the sacred institution of the first-born. On the other hand, it is highly significant that the text only mentions Esau’s sale of the birthright but does not state that Jacob bought it. This is contrary to the usual biblical legal style as, for instance, in the case of Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, Jacob’s acquisition of a field, and David’s buying the threshing floor from Araunah. The omission in the present story is another way of dissociating Jacob’s eventual ascendancy from the means he adopted.” Sarna, Genesis, 182. Perhaps the exclusion of Jacob’s “purchase” is intentional, as this is about Esau giving up the blessing, not Jacob’s seizing of it in a scandalous manner. It should be stated that many rabbinic and Islamic interpretations view the story as based on a legal exchange, and thus the incident is based on real events—though the lens through which we see them in the story may not be crystal clear: “Abraham passed the garments to his son Isaac and he to his eldest son Esau. . . . Having obtained the garment, Esau either buried it or sold it to Jacob along with his birthright. Numbers Rabbah relates that Jacob desired to offer sacrifice but could not because he was not the firstborn and did not have the birthright, part of which consisted of Adam’s garment. It was for this reason that Jacob bought the birthright from Esau, who said, ‘There is no afterlife, death ends everything, and the inheritance will do me no good,’ and willingly let Jacob have the garment, along with his birthright. Immediately Jacob built an altar and offered sacrifice. Here, again, Muslim and Jewish traditions overlap. In the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa, Esau’s sale of the birthright to Jacob was symbolized by the transfer of the sacred garment. Again, according to bin Gorion, ‘Esau’s garment in which Rebekah clothed him, namely those made by God for Adam and Eve, had now rightfully become Jacob’s, and Isaac recognized their paradisiacal fragrance’ [this last reference is to the events in Genesis 27].” Donald W. Parry, “Ritual and Symbolism,” in Temples of the Ancient World, ed. Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 713.

[42] Jon D. Levenson, “Genesis,” in The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 55, attributes Esau’s intermarriage as an explicit sign of his forsaking of the covenant, “Esau’s intermarriages are in jarring contrast to Abraham’s strenuous effort to find a wife for Isaac from within the clan (chap. 24) and demonstrate Esau’s unworthiness to serve as the next figure in the patriarchal line.”

[43] Dallin H. Oaks, “Spirituality,” Ensign, November 1985, 61.

[44] As will be discussed below, if the blessing in Genesis 27 can be distinguished from the birthright blessing, then the chapter is not about possessions associated with the birthright, rights to which Esau had already forfeited as described in the pottage incident. In Genesis 27:36, Esau distinguished between the birthright (presumably the mess of pottage) and now, here, “my blessing.”

[45] In some scholarly studies on this subject, Isaac is portrayed in an unfavorable light. The following is representative of this: “We have already been told that ‘Isaac loved Esau for his hunting,’ so when he says ‘Make me a tasty stew that I love,’ we realize that Isaac’s sensuality is more powerful than his theology. Outside this chapter (vv 7, 9, 14, 17, 31) ‘tasty stew’ only occurs in Prov 23:3, 6. Note the qualifying phrase, ‘that I love,’ suggesting the old man’s bondage to his appetite.” Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 206.

[46] Robert J. Matthews, Selected Writings of Robert J. Matthews, Gospel Scholars Series (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999), 155–56.

[47] Sarna, Genesis, 189.

[48] See Joseph Rackman, “Was Isaac Deceived?,” Judaism (1997): 38. “The blessing that Isaac bestows on Jacob (whom he mistakes for Esau) grants him fertility of the ground, dominion over other nations, including those descended from siblings, and a boomerang effect for curses and blessings. These are typical elements for the patriarchal blessing and have no relationship to either material inheritance or to the *covenant, though some of these features are also present in the covenant benefits that the Lord promises to Israel. They constitute the foundational elements of survival and prosperity.” Walton, IVP Bible, 59.

[49] See David E. Bokovoy, “From the Hand of Jacob: A Ritual Analysis of Genesis 27,” Studies in the Bible and Antiquity (2009): 35–50, and the bibliography found there. Such studies are generally not focused on attempting to offer an in-depth explanation concerning the motivations, behavior, and resultant actions of Jacob and Rebekah.

[50] Dean Andrew Nicholas, The Trickster Revisited: Deception as a Motif in the Pentateuch (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 54, states, “Folklorists have long commented on the apparent cultic basis for this act. In the present narrative, however, it only functions as a disguise for the trickster; its original cultic context is now subverted by the surface structure of the text.” This statement seems to imply that there is an undergirding of the story based on ritual but also that the text in its current form has been changed to craft a tale of trickery. Although I am not going to spend significant time on the theory, it should be stated that it is possible that Genesis 27 constitutes some redaction activity. If we look at Genesis 26 and 28, it is as if Genesis 27 has been picked up and dropped into an otherwise smoothly flowing narrative. Source critics have long recognized variations in the text at this juncture and that Genesis 27 can be attributed to another author or later redactor. In sum, it would not surprise me if we did not have all the details in the story as they really unfolded. Below I will attempt to explain what we do have and focus on what the text says and how it says it. Concerning the distinguishing between types of blessings, Elder Dallin H. Oaks cites Genesis 27:28–29, 39–40 as examples of priesthood blessings. As far as I can tell, he is not equating these verses with the “birthright” blessing: “Worthy Melchizedek Priesthood holders can give blessings to their posterity. The scriptures record many such blessings, including Adam’s (see D&C 107:53–57), Isaac’s (see Genesis 27:28–29, 39–40; 28:3–4; Hebrews 11:20), Jacob’s (see Genesis 48:9–22; 49; Hebrews 11:21), and Lehi’s (see 2 Nephi 1:28–32; 2 Nephi 4).” Dallin H. Oaks, “Priesthood Blessings,” Ensign, May 1987, 37.

[51] Sperry, Spirit of the Old Testament, 31.

[52] Anderson, Jacob and the Divine Trickster, 188.

[53] Isaac is portrayed here as old and having dim eyes, and one gets the impression that he is on his deathbed. Genesis 25:26 states that Isaac is sixty years old when Jacob and Esau are born. Genesis 26:34 informs us that Esau is forty when he marries a Hittite wife. This would make Isaac one hundred years old when he is depicted as old and concerned about dying in the first few verses of Genesis 27. Isaac subsequently goes on to live another eighty years before he dies at the age of 180 (Genesis 35:28–29). I do find it interesting that at the end of the “deception,” out of nowhere we again find the real accusation against Esau as to why he forfeited his birthright: he chose to marry a Hittite wife, “And Rebekah said to Isaac, I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth: if Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these which are of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life do me?” (Genesis 27:46). This is conspicuously similar to the last verses, just prior to the beginning of the deception of chapter 27: “And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite: Which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah” (Genesis 26:34–35). Chapter 28 begins with Isaac completely and clearly in control, instructing Jacob to go to Padan-aram, not to flee Esau but to find a daughter of Laban so Jacob could marry in the covenant. Perhaps the text is coherent, and this is just a coincidence within a chronological difficulty and idiosyncrasy, but it is interesting nonetheless.

[54] This conception of a God-given oracle is a huge question mark for me. What is the oracle, and where is it given? This common element of the story seems self-imposed by us as readers as we attempt to interpret the story with preconceived notions as we suppose Isaac is pitted against God and Rebekah.

[55] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 206.

[56] Second Nephi 4:5–12 describes Lehi leaving such patriarchal blessings upon his posterity before his death.

[57] Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 206–7.

[58] I understand that in the end, my speculations about this incident continue to be speculations. What I am hoping they will accomplish is that they will open new ways of interpreting this difficult story in the Bible. In relation to this particular story, it seems that the norm of interpretation has become so conditioned on negatively portraying either God, Isaac, or Jacob—an interpretation that is not clearly depicted in the text—that we accept as authoritative stances that are not particularly well grounded nor that are explicitly stated in the biblical account.

[59] Here, Jacob is worrying about losing a blessing because of his behavior rather than worrying about what he can gain from his actions. This concern may further accentuate and highlight the earlier episode where Esau sold his birthright in the form of behavior constituting its loss.

[60] There have been others who have absolutely seen Rebekah as the inspired one in this episode. See, for example, Robert L. Millet, Selected Writings of Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 283; John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 21:370–71. However, nowhere in the text is this expressly stated. Rebekah’s inspiration is something we just tend to assume, and she herself declares the effects of the deception and wishes any curse resulting in such a course to come upon her. In the process of such assumptions, Isaac, Jacob, and God are all portrayed as tricksters and deceivers and as dishonest or incompetent, while somehow Rebekah remains inspired and is expunged from the guilt now to be borne by Jacob. My intentions are not to convict and defame Rebekah—her desperate actions may have been based upon an honest misunderstanding. At the end of this episode, she sends away Jacob and laments, “Why should I be deprived also of you both in one day?” (Genesis 27:45). She seems fully aware that what she has done will lose the trust of Esau and, potentially, his desire to be her son. An interesting occurrence may arise when interpreting Rebekah’s actions as inspired. This equates the blessing here with the birthright—a potential irony that may highlight Rebekah’s misunderstanding and the foundation on which her decision is based.

[61] Ultimately, some have questioned Isaac’s intentions and capacity in this story; however, a fundamental principle seems to prevail, “It is a very sacred responsibility for a Melchizedek Priesthood holder to speak for the Lord in giving a priesthood blessing. As the Lord has told us in modern revelation, ‘My word . . . shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same’ (D&C 1:38). If a servant of the Lord speaks as he is moved upon by the Holy Ghost, his words are ‘the will of the Lord . . . the mind of the Lord . . . the word of the Lord . . . [and] the voice of the Lord’ (D&C 68:4). But if the words of a blessing only represent the priesthood holder’s own desires and opinions, uninspired by the Holy Ghost, then the blessing is conditioned on whether it represents the will of the Lord. Worthy Melchizedek Priesthood holders can give blessings to their posterity. The scriptures record many such blessings, including Adam’s (see D&C 107:53–57), Isaac’s (see Genesis 27:28–29, 39–40; 28:3–4; Hebrew 11:20), Jacob’s (see Genesis 48:9–22; 49; Hebrews 11:21), and Lehi’s (see 2 Nephi 1:28–32; 4).” Oaks, “Priesthood Blessings,” 37.

[62] Subsequently, there is no direct mention of the motivations for Isaac sending Jacob off to marry as a result of what happened in the previous chapter (contrast Rebekah’s motivations as expressed in Genesis 27:43–46) and thus they may be unrelated chronologically. Again, if the chapters are sequentially connected, the dust seems to have settled, and Isaac had given Jacob clear instructions, along with the blessing of Abraham, a blessing not associated with those mentioned in Genesis 27. In this connection Rackman, “Deceived?,” 38, writes, “It is the third blessing which reveals that Isaac truly understood the difference between his two sons, and intended that Jacob be his spiritual heir. The scene opens after Esau has received his blessing, but is furious that Jacob had sneaked in ahead of him to steal the blessing (Genesis 27:41). Thereafter, in Chapter 28, for the first time, Jacob appears before Isaac with Isaac knowing that it is Jacob before him, and Isaac’s blessing is for him to ‘become an assembly of peoples. He [God] will grant Abraham’s blessing to you and your descendants, so that you will take over the land which God gave to Abraham’ (Genesis 28:3–4). Here, what is transmitted for the first time, is Isaac’s spiritual legacy from Abraham, now clearly intended for Jacob.” It is this type of awkwardness in the text that causes source critics to look for clues of redaction in the story and leaves us wondering how chapter 27 fits into the grand scheme of things.

[63] Shubert Spero, “Jacob and Esau: The Relationship Reconsidered,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 32, no. 4 (2004): 247. Spero further states, “The text does not make it clear as to precisely what privileges or benefits the ‘birthright’ confers, or in what sense it could be ‘sold.’ Nor does it describe the nature of the coveted ‘blessing’ that Isaac confers on the disguised Jacob or what value a ‘blessing’ could have [had] when given under false pretenses” (247). All these items must be considered together to formulate a big picture of what happened in these interconnected events, rather than just viewing them as separate or in isolation.

[64] See Marion G. Romney, “Temples—The Gates to Heaven,” Ensign, March 1971, 16; Andrew C. Skinner, “Jacob: Keeper of Covenants,” Ensign, March 1998, 51. “The ladder or stairway that Jacob sees in his dream is the passageway between heaven and earth. The comparable word in *Akkadian is used in Mesopotamian mythology to describe what the messenger of the gods uses when he wants to pass from one realm to another. It is this mythological stairway that the *Babylonians sought to represent in the architecture of the ziggurats. These had been built to provide a way for the deity to descend to the temple and the town. Jacob’s background would have given him familiarity with this concept, and thus he would conclude that he was in a sacred spot where there was a portal opened between worlds.” Walton, IVP Bible, 60.

[65] J. William Whedbee, The Bible and the Comic Vision (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 97, 99, 102. See also Richard Elliot Friedman, “The Cycle of Deception in the Jacob Tradition,” in Approaches to the Bible: The Best of Bible Review, vol 2., A Multitude of Perspectives, ed. Harvey Minkoff (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1995), 227–36.

[66] If these chapters in the Bible were written for comedy, then we are dealing with a genre that already exhibits a tainted theology, reflecting the intent to amuse—although a theology based on some actual event or moral issue. The account we read in the text then may have skewed actual events or painted characters in a different light than may be entirely true to form. If this is the case, then the result of a final shaping of the text can leave some theological black holes, and we do our best to make sense of things.

[67] Several studies have attempted to demonstrate that many of Jacob’s interactions with Laban constituted trickery, but there are just too many other ways to interpret those passages to categorically label Jacob in this manner. For a recent example, see Anderson, Jacob and the Divine Trickster.

[68] Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Come What May, and Love It,” Ensign, November 2008, 26–28.

[69] Andrew E. Hill, The Anchor Bible: Malachi (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 163. “Indeed it is the individual characters of Jacob and Esau that infuse the symbols of Israel and Edom with explicit theological content” (164).

[70] Subsequently, when Malachi has the Lord stating that he has “hated” Esau, this seems to have reference to the breaking of the covenant, not a whimsical desire of passion. “Yahweh admits his ‘hate’ for Esau and vows never to ‘love’ them again on account of all their evil (Hos 9:15; cf. Andersen and Freedman [1980:545] on ‘hate’ describing the hostility of a broken covenant relationship).” Hill, Malachi, 167. “Wallis suggests that the book of Deuteronomy was especially intended to educate Israel in ‘her duty to reciprocate God’s love, not in the original sense of emotion, but in the form of genuine obedience and pure devotion.’” G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 1:115. “The prophet Malachi sought to perpetuate that pedagogical legacy by calling postexilic Yehud to ‘take seriously’ her relationship with Yahweh (2:2; especially the priests who had perverted religious instruction) by offering ‘righteous worship’ (3:3) and obeying God’s commandments (3:14).” Hill, Malachi, 165.

[71] Joachim J. Krause, “Tradition, History, and Our Story: Some Observations on Jacob and Esau in the Books of Obadiah and Malachi,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 32 (2008): 482. “Malachi’s message served as a much-needed corrective to wrong thinking about covenant relationship with Yahweh (so Fischer [1972: 318–19]; Mallone [1981: 26–27]).” Hill, Malachi, 162. The crafting of the story with the selling of the birthright in Genesis may reflect what we see and read about in the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament: “Yea, for thus saith the Lord: Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever? For thus saith the Lord: Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement? To whom have I put thee away, or to which of my creditors have I sold you? Yea, to whom have I sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away” (2 Nephi 7:1/Isaiah 50:1).

[72] James D. G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 9–16, vol. 38b (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 545. This statement should be clarified with Paul’s warning against rationalizing foreordination as inherent and not earned. The Prophet Joseph Smith, speaking of Romans chapter 9, taught, “The whole of the chapter had reference to the Priesthood and the house of Israel; and unconditional election of individuals to eternal life was not taught by the Apostles. God did elect or predestinate, that all those who would be saved, should be saved in Christ Jesus, and through obedience to the Gospel; but He passes over no man’s sins, but visits them with correction, and if His children will not repent of their sins He will discard them.” “Discourse, 16 May 1841, as Reported by Times and Seasons,” p. 430, The Joseph Smith Papers. D. Kelly Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner, Verse by Verse Acts through Revelation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998), 180–181, state in relation to Romans 9:13, “‘Hated’ is used here to translate a Greek verb that also means ‘displeased with’ or ‘rejected.’ Jacob and Esau are used here as a hyperbolic contrast, for, of course, the Lord did not hate Esau. Rather, the Lord’s preferential regard for one over the other is based on their righteousness in premortal life (see McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 2:277).” Premortal foreordinations can certainly explain Jacob’s inheriting of the birthright, but it is also apparent that actions taken during mortality afford the mechanism to bring such foreordinations to fruition. In “At Times, Blessing Goes to Younger, Faithful Son,” Church News, January 22, 1994, we read, “In The Way to Perfection, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith wrote: ‘We may not know all the circumstances concerning the call of Jacob over Esau, and just why the Lord chose the younger to inherit the rights of priesthood and appointed the older to serve the younger. We may say in truth, that Jacob was more faithful and gave better heed to the commandments of the Lord. This would entitle him to the blessings, for let it be remembered that all blessings are predicated on faithfulness, and this according to a law “irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of the world, . . . and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” On this ground, then, Jacob was entitled to supplant Esau, if there was any such thing as a supplanting. Our history of those events informs us that Jacob was called before he was born to inherit these blessings.’”

[73] Some commentators on the book of Hebrews describe the New Testament view that Esau was an “apostate,” who became a secular person over a godly person and thus rejected the covenant. William L. Lane, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 47b: Hebrews 9–13 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 451, 457. “It describes the persons who are prepared to turn their backs on that which is holy in order to focus their attention on that which is immediately present. Esau thus typifies the godless person who relinquishes the rights conferred upon [the person] by the covenant for the sake of momentary relief. He is ‘the prototype of all who throw away the heavenly reality for the sake of the earthly one’ (Thompson, Beginning of Christian Philosophy, 43). . . . Esau’s willingness to give up all that was his as the firstborn son reflected a contempt for the covenant by which his rights were warranted. By descriptive analogy, he is representative of apostate persons who are ready to turn their backs on God and the divine promises, in reckless disregard of the covenant blessings secured by the sacrificial death of Jesus.” Lane, Hebrews 9–13, 455. Most Jewish and Christian literature view Esau as representing an individual who rejected God. See David Noel Freedman, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 575.

[74] Wilford Woodruff, in Journal of Discourses, 22:233.