Dear friend ~
I appreciate your patience. You asked this question during alumni week and are only now getting an answer. I apologize. Alumni week was far busier than I anticipated, and it took all my time just to attempt to keep up. I did go down to BYU where I spent several hours reading and copying commentaries (and also helped a cute senior lady do her family history work. You're welcome, random Swedish family, for no longer having a bunch of duplicates!)
Then alumni week was over and the editors graciously said I could finish the answer and just email it to them. So I caught up on all the things I neglected during alumni week, and then I got very sick. 3.5 days I was completely out for the count, then I was very weak and it took awhile to get back to speed on life again. And then I spent a couple of days desperately trying to prep for vacation.
So for you, dear reader, I am typing this answer on my phone while on vacation in the middle of the forest. I hope that is sufficient penance.
I asked the other writers what story they wanted me to talk about. Together we decided on Genesis 27, when Jacob and Rebekah tricks Esau and Isaac into giving Jacob the birthright and blessing.
Let's summarize the story in lay man's terms here, shall we?
Rebekah got pregnant and the baby was moving so much that she complained, “Oh my goodness! I'm gonna die! Why would I want to live with Tigger in my belly?!” I think every woman who has ever been pregnant can commiserate.
What? You don't think Rebekah complained about Tigger? Fine. The Hebrew literally translates as “Wherefore, then, am I?” It could be argued that she wasn't actually wishing to die, but was worried about a miscarriage and was asking God, “If this pregnancy is just going to end in a miscarriage, why did you even let me get pregnant in answer to Isaac's prayer?” This seems like a much less whiny interpretation, and makes more sense as to why it's put in the Bible. Rebekah seems to have a strong testimony of revelation, so when Isaac is promised children, Rebekah's testimony is shaken when reality seems to contradict the revelation. Ever had that happen to you? Makes Rebekah feel a bit more like a real person, huh? Instead of just whining, or walking away from her testimony, she clung to it and asked for more revelation. She turned to God and asked why. She asked for clarifying revelation.
The Lord gave her the revelation she sought, not only confirming that the pregnancy was viable and her child would live, but also that she was having twins! By telling her both of their futures, he was also giving her peace that her pregnancy would end well. It also gave her revelation for the future: that the eldest would serve the younger.
This is important. In Old Testament times, the eldest, by tradition, received the birthright, but it could be passed on to the younger brother instead. This happened with Isaac, when he was born after Ishmael, and it would happen again with Jacob's sons, when Joseph ended up with the birthright, despite having 10 older brothers. Both are interesting stories, but perhaps stories for another question another day. Handing down the birthright to a younger son, while not common, was also not unheard of.
I would hope, though we don't know (even biblical commentators disagree, some saying he knew and some saying he didn't), that Rebekah would have told Isaac about this revelation she was given. She trusted his revelation that she would have a child, so why wouldn't she tell him about her revelation?
Ok, feminists, here is your moment to get riled up. It is possible that she didn't tell him. Why? Because the patriarchy was very strong and women weren't always listened to. Perhaps she feared she would be laughed at or scorned. If she didn't tell him, or if she did and he didn't believe her, it could explain why Isaac tried so hard later to give Esau the blessing, despite revelation to the contrary.
But, I like to believe the best in people, and I like to believe that our ancient fathers had good relationships with their wives, different as those relationships may be from our own ideals. So I choose to believe that she did tell him and he did believe her.
So the babies are born, Esau first, and then Jacob, holding on to his brother's heel.
The boys grow up and turn out to be very different. Esau disregards traditions and does whatever brings him pleasure now, with no regard to the future. We see this a couple of times.
First, when he sells his birthright to Jacob for a mess of pottage. Which, honestly, sounds really gross. A mess of pottage? Really? Don't worry, though, it is better translated as a stew.
So Esau is a wild man. He prefers to be out hunting wild game. It's pleasurable, but exhausting work. He came home from one trip, famished. All he really wanted was some food. When he walked in the door, the smell of stew was strong and delicious, and probably wiped all reason from his mind. The boy was hangry.
Whether he plotted it, or if it was chance, Jacob saw his chance and seized upon it. He offered a trade: warm scrumptious, delicious stew for Esau's birthright.
Esau, who cared little for spiritual things, almost flippantly gave it away. “Psh. What good is the stupid birthright gonna do if I die of hunger? Give me the stinkin' stew!” Jacob, wanting to make sure Esau is serious, made him promise. “Yes, fine, I swear it! Can I have the bowl now?”
And thus the deal was struck.
The next time we see Esau disregarding the wishes of others and the future for his own immediate pleasure, Esau took two pagan women as wives, much to the dismay of his parents. “They made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.” Please note the scripture lists both parents here, not just Rebekah. Isaac wasn't pleased here either.
Now we're at the meat of the story. The part writers were like, “Dude, DL, how does this make any sense? Rebekah and Jacob, the literal head of the house of Israel, lied to and tricked his father into giving him the blessing instead of Esau! Is Isaac a prophet or what? How does Jacob become the prophet with a resume like this?”
Those are very good questions. Glad you asked them.
But before you get all excited, I don't know the answer. But it has led me to some interesting ideas, so I'll tell you about those. Give you some food for thought, too.
Isaac has a favorite son. Esau. He's his oldest. His pride and joy. He makes the best venison. Oh man. Sooooo good. Something about him just tugs at Isaac's heartstrings and makes him beam with pride. Sure, he's a little rebellious and has made some really bad decisions that have broken daddy's heart, but he's just a boy. He'll grow out of it eventually. Besides, love is blind. Besides, the eldest son should get the blessing. That's just the way it should be done. Rebekah is fine of reminding him that he was a younger son, too, but that was different. He was the eldest son of the first wife. His older brother, Ishmael, was the son of a concubine. Completely different circumstance. And yes, there is the revelation Rebekah had back when she was pregnant, but that was over 40 years ago. Time and distance have made that seem less relevant.
Rebekah also has a favorite. From the time God told her that the youngest would rule, she's harbored tender feelings towards her baby. She knew full well that all tradition and peer pressure would lead Isaac to prefer Esau for the blessing, though he should know better, being the younger usurper himself. Knowing she would likely need to rise to his aid to make sure her revelation was fulfilled, she took her little darling under her wing.
They both loved both of their sons, obviously. Parents do. But, especially as adults, it's common for a child to have more of a bond with one parent than another. I think the reverse can be true as well. These aren't teenagers we're talking about here. Esau was 40 when he got married. These are middle aged men. They've had plenty of time to bond with their preferred parent and to really think through what they want in life.
Spoiler: I'm going to tell you my conclusion before I recount the story.
People are stupid and imperfect and selfish. We all are trying to overcome the natural man, and thank goodness for repentance, because we all fail miserably often. Even leaders in the Church. A visible calling does not a perfect person make.
The beautiful thing? God still loves us and can work through imperfect people to bring about His perfect purposes. There is no “one path” to perfection. There are many. As many as there are people on the earth. More even. We can come to a fork in the road, pick the wrong path, and still make it back to the right path.
God is similar. There is no predestination. He won't force us to do the right thing. But an imperfect mortal is not going to stop His eternal purposes. Instead, He allows us to make mistakes and do stupid things with good intentions, and while many things will go wrong and we'll still suffer the consequences of our actions, God's purposes will still shine through. There is probably an ideal way that God would prefer, and that will be happiest for everyone, but He won't force us into it. He also won't let us thwart His plan.
Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob fit this perfectly. They are very, very human. They make selfish choices and suffer the consequences. That doesn't make any of them bad people, any more than you are a bad person because you make stupid mistakes and suffer the consequences.
Sometimes we make the mistake of putting visible spiritual people on a pedestal—one we would never want to be on ourselves.
We forget that Jacob was a real person. Yes, he became the head of the house of Israel. Yes, he became a great prophet. But he wasn't either at this point. And even if he had been, prophets aren't perfect either. That didn't excuse him from his actions—he still paid the price of his mistakes—but it also doesn't make him evil or unworthy of becoming a prophet.
Enough pontificating. Let's tell the story.
Isaac was very old. Old enough he thought he would die soon. Old enough that he felt it was time to pass on the blessing he had received from his father, Abraham, to his son before he died.
Maybe Isaac knew about Rebekah's revelation. Maybe he forgot over the years. Maybe he didn't put any stock into a woman's revelation. Maybe his fondness for Esau overshadowed his judgment. Maybe Rebekah never told him. Maybe he hoped that giving such a spiritual blessing to his wayward son would be a catalyst for change. Whatever the reason, Isaac willingly chose to give his blessing to his first-born son, Esau.
So Isaac asked Esau to go hunting and to cook some venison the way Isaac loved.
Everyone in this story makes immediate mistakes. Everyone except Esau. Looking just at this story, it's easy to feel bad for Esau. It's easy to see him as the victim. But if you look at the entire story, you can see how he has always treated his spiritual heritage lightly. His mistakes have been throughout his life.
Esau obeyed immediately. He went out to hunt venison.
Meanwhile, Rebekah had heard what Isaac planned. She saw her husband planning to give his blessing to the wrong son. She trusted her revelation, but didn't trust God to make it happen. Who knows what would have happened if she had instead gone to her room and prayed or to her husband and talked to him. I'm inclined to believe that God would have still found a way to give the blessing to Jacob. She didn't. (Or perhaps she felt like she was following the Spirit by doing what she did. It's harder to believe the Spirit would lead someone in deceit, but then again, Nephi and Laban anyone? Who am I to judge.)
So Rebekah takes matters into her own hands and has Jacob go kill two goat kids so she can cook it the way Isaac likes. The plan is that Jacob will serve Isaac the goats, pretending it's venison and that he's Esau so that he'll get the blessing.
Jacob's mistake is that he runs with the plan. He doesn't question the ethicality of it at all. Only the execution. “But mom, this won't work. Dad might be blind, but he sees with his hands now. Esau is super hairy and I'm not! I can't just will my arm hair to grow. Dad will know I'm trying to deceive him, and he'll curse me instead of blessing me!”
Rebekah has so much faith in the prophecy and her plan that she willingly takes the curse upon herself, reassuring Jacob.
Rebekah must have been a very talented lady. She not only cooked goat to taste like deer (I'm guessing it was spicy, because you can't taste anything else when your tongue is on fire), but she also sewed together the goat fur into sleeves and a collar in a natural way that made Jacob feel hairy and smell like wild game. Gotta give her credit for that!
So Jacob took the meat into his dad. Please note that Isaac was not easily fooled. First he questioned Jacob's voice as not Esau's. Then he questioned how quickly the meat was made. Then he insisted on feeling Jacob for hair. Mostly, but not entirely convinced, he asked with sincerity, “Art thou my very son Esau?” You'd better believe Jacob is sweating by that point. As he should.
Apparently convinced, Isaac says, “Let's eat!” They do, but Isaac is using it for another test. Does it taste right? Then under the pretext of giving him a kiss, he smelled Jacob's clothes.
Finally, Isaac gave Jacob his blessing.
I think that deep down, Isaac knew. He was obviously very suspicious. He put Jacob through all sorts of tests. He even said that the voice was Jacob's. He had to have a small inkling that maybe, just maybe, it was really Jacob. He could have called in a servant and asked. He could have called for Jacob to come in. There were plenty of opportunity for him to have outside verification. He could have postponed the blessing until he was sure. But he didn't. He gave the blessing knowing there was a chance he was giving it to Jacob instead. Perhaps he deceived himself into believing it was Esau. Maybe he feared death so much that he rushed into it, not taking thought for the consequences.
Isaac's consequence was that in his blindness towards his son, he suffered a loss of his personal preference when God had other plans. He later also lost proximity to his son Jacob for the end of life.
Esau's consequences for a lifetime of poor choices was the loss of the birthright and the blessing. He was so used to getting his immediate desire, that the loss of the blessing hit him hard and he begged and begged until his dad gave him another, and inferior, blessing. He also opened himself up to Satan and let anger consume him, to the point that he plotted his brother's murder, knowing that with Jacob's death, before he had children, the birthright and blessing would come back to him.
When Rebekah heard Esau plotting, she once again jumped to Jacob's aid. Knowing that fleeing would make him look bad to everyone, she provided a feasible excuse for him to leave. Esau wasn't going to kill Jacob until after Isaac's death, lest it anger Isaac to revoke the blessing completely, so Rebekah had a little time.
Rebekah went to Isaac and bemoaned Esau's wives to him. “If Jacob takes a wife like Esau did, I would have no reason to live.” Isaac agreed, so he called Jacob in to give him another blessing and to charge him to go take a wife from his cousins.
Clearly Isaac is not angry with either Jacob or Rebekah here. If he were, why would he listen to Rebekah? Why would he give Jacob another blessing? He had accepted what had happened. We are missing so many details of this story. I really want to know why Isaac is so chill about the whole thing. But apparently that is not pertinent to my eternal salvation, so it's not in the scriptures. It's enough to know that Isaac had accepted it.
Jacob's consequence was that he had to fear for his life and flee. He never saw either of his parents again. He lived over 14 years having the promise of a blessing, but knowing that his brother had the physical manifestation of the blessing and birthright.
Rebekah's consequence was that she had to send Jacob, her favorite son that she fought so hard for, away. She never got to see him again. Instead she watched Esau take charge of everything she believed Jacob should have. At that point, there was nothing she could do. She just had to have faith that God would really make His promises happen.
Everyone in this story was human and flawed. Everyone made mistakes and did stupid things. Everyone put their own desires over their faith in God. Everyone suffered the consequences of their actions. Yet through all the middle of human choice, God passed the Abrahmic covenant through the line He had chosen. Could it have turned out differently? Could Jacob have been a better role model for a Mormonad? Absolutely. But he didn't.
Stories don't have to be idyllic to teach a lesson. This story is applicable to you.
Have you ever known anyone to leave the church because of a mistake a leader made, whether it be their bishop, the current prophet, or Joseph Smith?
Has your testimony ever been shaken because something you knew to be true seemed to be falling apart at the seams?
Have you ever thought what you knew or what you wanted was more important than what God wanted?
Have you ever made a stupid mistake and worried that you had lost everything? That God didn't love you anymore and had abandoned you?
There is follow up. When Esau opened his eyes and looked outside himself enough to see how important a proper marriage was, he went and took a wife from the daughters of Ishmael. Later, when he had time to let his anger cool and realize what he had lost in scaring off his brother, he was able to welcome him back with open arms.
After many years and much suffering, Jacob was able to return home and claim his birthright and blessing. He was also able to fully love his brother for who he was, instead of spending his life trying to win something he felt rightfully belonged to him.
Both Isaac and Rebekah got their wishes of seeing both of their sons well married. Their legacy lives on in their posterity, who ended up living peacefully, and in prosperity. (Though neither lived to see it.)
At the end, they all won. Just like we will if we keep repenting of our dumb mistakes. But along the journey, we are going to make messes of things. We are going to alienate people with our choices. We are going to be selfish and not look past ourselves. We are going to suffer the consequences of our actions. But it's comforting to know through it all that we're not alone. That even our spiritual heroes were imperfect. That while we mess up our own lives, we will never mess up the eternal plan of our Heavenly Father.
And with that, my thumbs are exhausted and people are playing games without me.
I hope you learned something from this story! I know I sure did.
~ Dragon Lady