Q&A: Esau Got Cheated

Esau Got Cheated

Question

Rebekah told Jacob to deceive his father Isaac (Gen. 27), and Jacob followed her advice, lying to and deceiving Isaac. On that basis, Jacob was able to "steal" Esau's blessing. How is this okay, or a legitimate blessing? Esau got cheated. He asked for a blessing, but got a curse. Why did Isaac respond this way? Why didn't he withdraw the blessing?

Answer

On the subject of Jacob's deception, there are two main issues: inheritance blessings, and lies.

The issue of the blessing is somewhat easier. Basically, Isaac covenanted with Jacob even though he didn't know it was Jacob, making the blessing irrevocable. We don't see the language of "promise" or "covenant" in Genesis 27, but it does appear from both this passage and from Genesis 49 that these types of blessings issued shortly before death were equivalent to a last will and testament, and as such that they were binding and unconditional. The New Testament seems to affirm this insofar as it uses the Greek word diatheke to mean both "covenant" and "last will and testament." Hebrews 9:15ff. is the best place to see this dynamic in action. In that passage, the author moves between the two meanings without any indication that he thinks he is talking about two entirely different concepts. Even in American jurisprudence we have a parallel: a last will and testament is a legally binding contract. In short, Isaac wanted to take back the blessing but he could not. Evidently, it was binding despite the fraud that Isaac perceived to have been perpetrated by Jacob (but as I'll indicate in a moment, Jacob was not the one guilty of fraud here).

The issue of the lie(s) is somewhat more sticky, though I would defend it as righteous. I don't think we want to go the Augustine route: he said that Jacob told the truth in a metaphoric/prophetic way, such that his words were true, but not by their plain understanding.

Still, there are a couple things that justify Jacob. First, it is important to remember that we are not dealing so much with individual relationships as with national politics (cf. Gen. 25:23). Specifically, Genesis was written to the people of Israel, the descendants of Jacob, in a time when they were returning to the Promised Land that Jacob had gained by this "usurpation." They did not view Jacob's actions primarily in terms of individual morality so much as in terms of national politics. Jacob and Esau were the heads of powerful nations, and their actions were viewed as national struggles rather than as personal struggles. When Moses wrote that Jacob deceived Isaac and stole the blessing that Isaac had planned to give to Esau, the Israelites understood him to have acted as a great hero in securing the blessing that God had rightfully given to them, rescuing their inheritance from the wicked men who would have given it to the sons of Ishmael (Esau married into Ishmael's family and made his home with them). Perhaps a parallel for us would be George Washington: he is a great hero in American history, but at the time the British certainly thought him a vile criminal. But his military actions and deceptions are not to be viewed as those of an individual; they are to be viewed as those of a state acting through a representative. If deception is permissible in a just war (which it is, I believe), then Jacob was justified in his deception of Isaac.

Second, the fact of the matter is that Isaac was acting sinfully in desiring to bless Esau instead of Jacob. Esau did not deserve the blessing - he had despised his birthright and sold it to Jacob (Gen. 25:34; cf. Heb. 12:16). Jacob rightfully owned the birthright, and as such rightfully deserved the blessing (after all, what else is a birthright good for but inheriting a double portion?). But Isaac was refusing to give Jacob the blessing that rightfully belonged to him, so Jacob was compelled to use deception to rescue what Isaac and Esau were trying to steal from him. Moreover, God had already proclaimed that he had chosen Jacob to inherit the blessing, and that Esau would serve Jacob (Gen. 25:23; Rom. 9:10-13). But Isaac and Esau didn't care what God wanted; Isaac wanted to rebel against God and to give Jacob's blessing to Esau, and Esau wanted to steal Jacob's blessing. And Isaac wanted to make Jacob serve Esau despite the fact that God had already expressed his will that Esau serve Jacob (cf. Gen. 27:37). Moreover, only the would-be theives Isaac and Esau condemn Jacob's actions in the account - we can't take the word of "criminals" as an accurate assessment of the hero. Esau didn't get cheated; he was a wicked, godless man who got what he deserved (cf. Gen. 25:28-34; 26:34-35; 27:41; Mal. 1:2-3; Heb. 12:16). It was only by deception that Jacob was able to compel Isaac to do the good that God had commanded.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.