The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau. Was Isaac truly fooled by Jacob on his deathbed, or does this narrative from Genesis 27 convey a deeper meaning regarding the nature of the world? There are many lessons to be learned from the story of the rival sons of Isaac, but I wanted to focus in on this particular scene, where Isaac seemingly blesses Jacob by mistake, to investigate the possibility of a deeper meaning in the text. Of course, in order to get to the end, we must start at the beginning.
A Prophetic Rivalry
But the children inside her struggled with each other, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So Rebekah went to inquire of the LORD, and He declared to her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”Genesis 25:22-23
The story of our antagonistic siblings begins before they have even taken their first breath. Even in the womb Jacob and Esau seem to contend with each other. The prophecy that God provides Rebekah will only serve to enforce notions of favoritism towards Jacob (the eldest) within her. As we read through further portions of this narrative, perhaps we should be asking ourselves if the Lord’s prophecy comes true because He ensures it by violating our free will, or perhaps it comes true only because He has told the prophecy to Rebekah. Personally, I believe the latter idea to be true and, as a result, one more clear indication that God will not manipulate our ability to freely choose our actions.
When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man who stayed at home.Genesis 25:27
Genesis begins outlining the differences between the boys immediately, and things seem to naturally align with God’s prophecy. Esau is depicted as rough, violent, and generally careless, while Jacob is depicted as a more subtle, cunning, and caring person. If one son is to produce a strong nation, we can only assume that it would be Esau, and if one son is to make a servant of the other, would it not be the more cunning Jacob?
Selling The Birthright
The clarity of Jacob and Esau’s personalities is made even more clear when Esau relinquishes his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a simple bowl of stew. In this portion of the narrative, we are provided a lesson on shortsightedness. Esau is tremendously hungry, and so he traded his birthright to Jacob in exchange for the immediate gratification of quenching his hunger. This decision will carry negative ramifications for Esau for the remainder of his life. His birthright is the very thing that would provide him with authority over his brother, increase his inheritance, and potentially provide many other benefits. The moment Esau gave this up, the Lord’s prophecy had essentially been fulfilled. The blessing was not necessarily associated with the birthright, and Jacob would now become the head of the family when Isaac passed.
So what does Jacob need with the blessing? Why is Rebekah so keen on seeing Jacob be blessed? To answer that, let’s look more closely at the blessing given to Jacob.
May God give to you the dew of heaven and the richness of the earth—an abundance of grain and new wine. May peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. May you be the master of your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed, and those who bless you be blessed.”Genesis 27:28-29
Esau has always been Isaac’s favorite son and Rebekah very likely knew, or at least supposed, that Isaac’s blessing would nullify the birthright. In fact, when we look Isaac’s blessing we see that it would have. His blessing would have made Esau the master of his brothers, even though Jacob has already obtained that privilege through the birthright. Rebekah probably felt duty bound to ensure that God’s prophecy became truth. If Esau has been blessed, he would have had to die in order for Jacob to take over as the head of the family. While Genesis states that Jacob was her favorite son, it gives us no reason to think that she would allow any harm to come of Esau either. In this way, I believe she was acting out of best interests of both of her sons, knowing that God’s words to her would become a reality one way or another.
Was Isaac really deceived by Jacob? If we assume that Rebekah told Isaac about the revelation that God had given her regarding their sons, the we consider the possibility that Isaac saw this deception as the method by which God’s prophecy could be fulfilled. If we further assume that Isaac, while favoring Esau, cared deeply about both of his sons, then it is likely that he went along with this deception whether he was aware of the plan beforehand or not. It seems clear that Esau did not plan to give up his blessing based on how he reacts to the situation. Perhaps Isaac and Rebekah did not prepare Esau for this event, perhaps they worried about how Esau would handle God’s will for his life, or perhaps they had attempted to warn Esau that this would happen and he simply refused to believe it. At any rate, it seems unlikely that Isaac would be truly fooled by this charade. If you have ever felt an animal pelt, they really don’t feel like human flesh, not even an excessively hairy human. It is said that in some warmer climates, goat skins can feel very soft and that they do not have as much hair as in cooler climates and may well have been able to be used to fool an old man with very poor vision on his deathbed. Regardless of whether or not Isaac was fooled, the blessing he gave to Jacob cemented the Lord’s prophecy to Rebekah.
In the text, we also find a more subtle lesson. Isaac states that “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” When we look at this quote along with the blessings that Isaac gives to his boys, we begin to see that Isaac, either through wisdom or divine orchestration, paints a very valuable lesson for us. Jacob is blessed with the right of leadership. He is blessed by Isaac to use his voice, the voice of Jacob, to lead those that bless him into abundance. Esau is blessed with the sword. He is blessed by Isaac to use his hands, the hands of Esau, to defend his brother’s people with his sword.