'Studies in the Old Testament'

The Abrahamic Covenant - 8

February 2009

(Continued from page 484)

Esau, Jacob and Laban

The remainder of Chapter 25 details the differing characters of the twin boys;  Esau was very much the outdoor-type, skilled as a hunter, and we read, almost with astonishment, that Isaac's love of game food caused him to love him best. By contrast, Jacob was more domesticated and a home-loving sort.  Thus the scene is set for one of the most unusual seductions in human history.  Jacob used his skills "in the kitchen," but he was also a wily deceiver and enticed the weary and hungry hunter, Esau, into accepting a "mess of pottage" (a bowl of soup or stew!) in exchange for the birthright promised to him as head of the family.  Even the account of their birth has a fore-shadowing of the struggle for supremacy to come, for we read of Jacob's grasping Esau's heel as they came forth from the womb indicating that, even as babies, it was evident that Jacob would get the better of his hapless brother.

In chapter 27, old Isaac is failing in vision and many would think that what occurs next is just about the deceit that man can stoop to for gain - to even take advantage of the old and infirm and, indeed, his own parents.  But this is also tempered by the fact that the Biblical record tells us that the Lord told Rebekah that this reversal of the natural order of the day was to occur (Genesis 25:23

And the LORD said to her, "Two nations are in your womb; And two peoples shall be separated from your body; And one people shall be stronger than the other; And the older shall serve the younger."
Isaac believed that he would soon die, although we have no record that God intimated this to him in any way, so he took what he presumed to be his final opportunity to extend the formal blessing to Esau, as the oldest son, and to Jacob as the youngest, so that they might claim their respective positions in the family. Before doing this, he asked Esau to prepare a savoury dish for him (Genesis 27:1-4).  But we learn that Rebekah was listening and set about securing the patriarchal blessing for her favourite, Jacob. Thus we read that Jacob stealthily prepared a savoury dish and then covered the exposed parts of his body with animal skins so that when near-sighted old Isaac reached out to touch him, he thought he was feeling the hairy body of Esau.  Thus Jacob deceives Isaac into giving him the blessing which should have been  Esau's and, as a result, Jacob is placed above Esau in respect to his relationship with the rest of the family. Through this blessing, Jacob became the head of the family by decree of his father Isaac.  When Esau arrived home, he was in despair because not only had Jacob purchased his birthright earlier for the bowl of stew, but he had now obtained his patriarchal blessing as well through this deception. Esau was so downcast, knowing that he could only receive the blessing ordinarily reserved for the next in lineage, that he bemoans the name of Jacob (which means "one who takes by the heel," or "supplants"):

Genesis 27:36
1  Then he said, "Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted me these two times? He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing." And he said, "Have you not reserved a blessing for me?"   

We learn from the Nuzi tablets
13 that the courts would uphold a son's right to those things bestowed by such an oral blessing, and thus we can understand why Esau was so angry that he planned to murder his brother Jacob when the "days of mourning" were over (Genesis 27:41). Rebekah heard of the plan and, because Jacob's life was in danger, she encouraged him (in 27:43) to go and stay with her brother Laban until Esau's anger subsided.

Ordinarily, we might think that all this happened when
Esau and Jacob were fairly young men.  Careful study of the Old Testament chronology, using various Scripture verses and our dating procedures, shows us the age of these brothers when this occurred.  We know that Jacob was 130 years old when he went into Egypt (see Genesis 47:91):

So Jacob said to Pharaoh, "The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, nor have they attained the years that my fathers lived during the days of their sojourning."
Genesis 45 informs us that Jacob went to Egypt at the request of Joseph, his eleventh son whom God had sent ahead of the family to preserve the lineage in Egypt, so we read Genesis to determine how old Joseph was when his father Jacob stood before Pharaoh. Genesis 41:46 informs us that  Joseph was thirty years old when he first stood before Pharaoh and was made second in command (41:40-44) of the whole kingdom.  Reading from Genesis 45:6 reveals to us that, just before Joseph sent for his father Jacob, he addressed his brothers and explained that the famine had been in the land for two years and that five years of famine still remained. Seven good years preceded (Genesis 41) the two bad years which had gone by at the time of this statement. Since those years began when he was thirty, he was at that time, thirty-nine years old. Since he was thirty-nine when Jacob was 130, then he was born when Jacob was ninety-one years old.

By examining the biblical record concerning Jacob's flight to visit Laban we discover the history which brought about the birth of Joseph.  Jacob had avoided the dangerous situation with Esau, by fleeing at the urging of his mother Rebekah, and he had then experienced his "Jacob's Ladder" dream at Bethel ("the House of the Lord") recorded in Genesis 28, when God reconfirmed to Jacob the covenant He made with Abraham and Isaac.

Jacob travelled on to visit Laban and stayed with him (Gen.29). When he arrived in the land where Laban lived, his eyes fell on Rachel, Laban's daughter (his distant cousin) and we read that "Jacob loved Rachel.". He immediately wanted to marry her, so he and Laban struck a bargain (vs. 18). Their agreement was that Jacob would serve Laban seven years to marry Rachel. The Bible says that even though he served seven years (vs.20), they seemed like just a few days "because of his love for her." When the seven years were completed he asked Laban for his daughter Rachel and so the wedding feast was prepared.  But on the wedding night the woman ushered into Jacob's tent in full gowns and veil turned out to be the elder daughter, Leah.  Jacob only discovered this in the morning, when it was too late!  Thus, Jacob the deceiver was out-manoeuvred by the master deceiver. Laban had given him Leah instead of Rachel and  Jacob had to agree to serve another seven years to also receive Rachel as his wife. But at least Jacob didn't have to wait another seven more years for his beloved, for Laban gave him Rachel almost immediately following the celebration week that was part of Leah's wedding. After seven years of working for Laban we learn that Jacob had at least added hard-work to the attributes we learned of earlier, for he finishes up with two wives, Laban's daughters, Leah and Rachel, and also the handmaiden of each and, as a result, he also gained many sons and prospered.  We see in Laban a man of similar cunning and ambition to Jacob and, as a result, he also gained from this co-operative in a comparable way.  Later (in Genesis 31) we see, despite Rachel stealing her father Laban's household gods (the Nuzi texts
13 indicate that these would substantiate Jacob's legal claim to the flocks and family he was taking), the men show almost mutual respect as Laban acknowledges the God of Abraham who has spoken to him in a dream and the two men make the Covenant of Mizpah and, despite Jacob's earlier deceptive departure, they part amicably as Laban kisses his sons and daughters good-bye:

Genesis 31:44
1  "So now come, let us make a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me."  45  Then Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. 46  And Jacob said to his kinsmen, "Gather stones." So they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap.  47  Now Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed.  48  And Laban said, "This heap is a witness between you and me this day." Therefore it was named Galeed;  49  and Mizpah, for he said, "May the LORD watch between you and me when we are absent one from the other.  50  "If you mistreat my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no man is with us, see, God is witness between you and me."

  1. And early in the morning Laban arose, and kissed his sons and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned to his place.

(Continued on page 486)

'The Abrahamic Covenant'

Genesis 3:15 and its importance to Old Testament history and Christianity

Theories of the origin of the world and mankind

Abram's brothers

Promises and validation of the Abrahamic covenant

Isaac's prayer for his barren wife related to twentieth century Christianity

Jacob and Esau

Jacob's eleven sons

Esau, Jacob and Laban

Joseph in Egypt

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