In Pursuit of a Purpose
This event in the lives of Jacob, Esau, Isaac, and Rebekah continues the narrative of Moses on the historical outworkings of the covenant of redemption. The reader of Genesis should bear in mind that God is bringing about the manifestation of his eternal wisdom as displayed in an eternal covenant, consummated in the Son of God and his substitutionary death. The covenant of redemption displays God’s wisdom in the mystery of the incarnation, the revelation of perfect righteousness in the greatest criminal act of history (Acts 2:23), the seamless confluence of mercy and justice, of peace and punishment, of forgiveness and vengeance, of grace and Law in Christ’s death. These covenantal excellencies are at work even in these early developments as we see how God’s promises, his “I will” certainties, are carried on from generation to generation through a person and his posterity in the context of their sinfulness and his sovereignty. The Psalmist of Psalm 111 finds God’s faithfulness to his covenant a reason for worship and praise. Note these verses, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of splendor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever…. the Lord is gracious and merciful … he remembers his covenant forever…. The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy; they are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name!” In this week’s text we see how God, in spite of and in the midst of human weakness, pettiness, and sin, works to establish his covenantal precepts forever and ever.
I. The Covenantal Context of this narrative.
A. Chapter 24 gives an extended narrative of the providence of God in Abraham’s getting a wife for Isaac from his own family. Abraham knew that God’s provision would be given for he said, “The Lord God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and who swore to me, saying ‘To your descendants I will give this land,’ He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there” (Genesis 24:7).
B. Chapter 25 highlights the death of Abraham and his isolation of Isaac as the heir of the promise.
- In addition to his son Ishmael by Hagar, Abraham had five children by his second wife, Keturah (25:1) including Midian, whose descendents became enemies of the Israelites.
- Abraham secured to Isaac all his property after giving gifts to his other sons (5) and “God blessed his son Isaac” (11).
- Ishmael lived to be 137 and had twelve sons. They formed the Ishmaelites, settled near Egypt “in defiance of all his relatives” (25:18).
C. Chapter 25 ends with setting up the conflict in Isaac’s family between Jacob and Esau.
- God answered Isaac’s prayer for Rebekah to conceive.
- She bore twins, Esau and Jacob.
- God told her that her children would be the fathers of two nation and that the older would serve the younger.
- Rebekah favored Jacob and Isaac favored Esau (25:28).
- Esau sold his right of firstborn to Jacob in exchange for a savory meal (29-34).
D. Chapter 26 shows the leadership and blessing of God in the life of Isaac in spite of Isaac’s fear and the opposition of Abimelech.
- God gave to Isaac assurance that he was heir of the covenant made with Abraham (16:3-5) including, “By your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”
- Isaac feared Abimelech, who had established a treaty with Abraham (21:27-32), and lied to him about Rebekah being his sister, not his wife (26:7).
- God protected Rebekah and prospered Isaac so that he became rich and powerful. Abimelech was threatened by this rapid advance in power and asked Isaac to move away.
- Abimelech’s servants had stopped the flow of wells dug by Abraham, and, when Isaac redug them, Abimilech claimed them as his own. Isaac eventually was able to find a peaceful spot, dug a well that remained his own (Rehoboth) and was given assurance from the Lord, “I will bless you, and multiply your descendants, for the sake of my servant Abraham” (26:24).
- Abimelech recognized that Isaac received special favor from God and sought him out to make a treaty.
- Esau married two Hittite women and “they brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah” 26:35).
E. Chapter 27 gives an extended narrative of the deceit in which Esau’s blessing was usurped by Jacob.
- Isaac determined to give his blessing to Esau at a meal to be provided by the hunting prowess of Esau.
- Rebekah learned of this intent and set up Jacob to receive the blessing instead. This was accomplished through a series of lies and deceitful actions (27:8-29).
- When Esau arrived, he found that Isaac’s blessing had been usurped by his supplanting brother. He asked for a blessing anyway and Isaac told him, in accord with the Lord’s announcement to Rebekah, “Your brother you shall serve” (27:40; cf 25:23).
- Esau nursed a specific hatred for Jacob and planned to kill him after his father’s death and the time for mourning was over.
F. Chapter 28:1-9 – To escape the murderous intent of Esau and to find a wife, Jacob traveled to Padan-Aram.
II. The contours of sin and deceit are obvious in the narrative.
A. Favoritism – (25:27, 28) Each parent placed favor on one of the children according to their respective dispositions. Isaac preferred the rugged, outdoor, sportsman style of Esau. Rebekah preferred the more gentle and domestic disposition of Jacob. Their favoritism revealed their selfishness and drove a wedge between the brothers; This became a catalyst for a revelation of intrinsic sinfulness by fostering a growing enmity between the brothers. Paul’s description of sinfulness in Titus 3: 3 marked this relationship: “passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.”
B. Deceit – The main characters recognize that this is deceit from start to finish (27:12, 35). The willingness to deceive is quite remarkable throughout the story.
- Isaac deceived Abimelech (26:9); Rebekah revealed her extended plan to deceive Isaac (27:6-10); Jacob knew that such deceit was worthy of a curse (27:12), but Rebekah went boldly forth (27:13); Rebekah contrived a plan to fool Isaac about the smell and feel of Jacob (27: 15, 16); Not only did Jacob carry through with his mother’s plan of deceit, he lied and invoked the Lord’s name to seal the veracity of the ruse (27:19, 20, 24.)
- Paul saw deceit as a manifestation of total perversity of heart: “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive” (Romans 3:13).
- The root perversity of the false prophets was the deceit of their own hearts: “They prophesy to you a false vision, divination, a worthless thing, and the deceit of their heart. . . . They are prophets of the deceit of their own hearts” (Jeremiah 14:14; 23:26).
C. Hate – The NASB uses the phrase, “Esau bore a grudge,” while the NKJV says “Esau hated Jacob” (27:41). One might think, “There was good reason!” This was not a holy hatred, however, based on resistance to the moral contortions of sin, but of selfish hostility toward another person for his having interrupted the pursuit of personal pleasure, possessions, and prestige. In fact, Esau already had shown disdain for his birthright, his privileged position of being the first of the twins to emerge from the womb. Now, like Cain, he allows his brother’s acceptance and his rejection to fester into a murderous intent. “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” Jesus gave the anatomy of the relation between anger and murder in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; . . . but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21, 22). Again, Jesus said, “You have heard it that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43). “Whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness” (1 John 2:11). This hatred led to centuries of conflict, Edomite cruelty toward the sons of Jacob, and the eventual destruction of Edom (Obadiah 10-21). Israelites were commanded not to abhor an Edomite “for he is your brother” (Deuteronomy 23:7).
D. Spite – Upon seeing that Jacob’s obedience to go to the land of Rebekah’s family in order to find a wife, Esau married two Ishmaelite women because “Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan [that included the descendants of Ishmael] displeased his father Isaac” (28:8). Esau made no attempt to honor his father and mother but saw them as an impediment to his own pleasures and therefore sought revenge by doing all he could that would displease them.
E. Complaining – Though she was the human factor most responsible for her own misery in domestic relations, Rebekah manipulated Isaac by complaining of her plight in life over the wives of Esau. “I am tired of living,” she said, “because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob takes a wife from the daughters of Heth like these, from the daughters of the land, what good will my life be to me?” (27:46). Accordingly, Isaac sent Jacob away.
F. In this entire episode one reads in vain to find human kindness, trust, gratitude, sense of blessedness, or attitudes of repentance. How far below the level of holiness, righteousness, love, and godly resignation we live our lives seldom occurs to us for we have normalized our consistent sin and both our spiritual taste and spiritual sight are still dimmed by indwelling sin. This was even more the case for this generation for they lived prior to any written word of God, prior to the developing revelation of the Psalms and the prophets, prior to the coming and teaching of Christ, prior to the death of Christ as a judgment for sin, prior to the resurrection, and prior to the increased intensity of the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying God’s people by his truth.
III. The Contours of covenantal blessing override the entire narrative.
A. Providence – Overriding the narrative of human sin, pettiness, and failure, we sense the providence of God maintaining the certainty of his covenantal promise beginning in Genesis 3:15 and gaining specificity in the promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:1-8) that was renewed to Isaac (26:2, 3, 4). Even in the midst of the grand deceit and the apparent unwillingness of Isaac to recognize God’s word that the “older shall serve the younger,” Isaac issued a blessing to Jacob in line with God’s promised covenant blessings to the nation (27:28, 29). He renewed it with conscious commitment in 28:4: “May he give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your descendants with you, that you may possess the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham.” These events serve as illustrations of the tightly stated theological proposition of Paul in Ephesians 1:11-14: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” Here Paul relates the promise to Abraham, renewed to Isaac and Jacob, to its culmination in the Christ as the bringer-in of the gospel. The Jews (“we who were the first”) and the Gentiles (“you also”) will possess the inheritance for eternity.
B. Promise – Since all of these covenantal arrangements arise from the promise of God, given first in the eternal covenant of redemption, and then revealed by degrees to the people of his choosing, we find that in spite of human weakness, jealousy, envy, and fickleness, God has promised and will not fail to deliver. “I am God Almighty; … I will establish my covenant … I will multiply you exceedingly . . . I will make you exceedingly fruitful … I will make nations of you … I will establish my covenant between me and you … I will give to you and our descendants after you” (Genesis 17:1-8) Then, even before Isaac was born, God promised, “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac” (17:21). All of these promissory “I will” statements came from a pre-mundane promise made to the eternal Son of God: “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior” (Titus 1:1-3). All of history operates in pursuit of the fulfillment of this promise, and this event shows how divine providence continually operates effectually to deliver the promise. Included in that promise are the children given to the Son by the Father: “It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Romans 9:8).
C. Prayer – The means God uses in the pursuit of his purposes are many and include the involvement of human agents. Prayer God is pleased to answer that we might know our dependence on him and that if we pray according to his will he hears us and we will have those things we ask of him (1 John 5:13; Colossians 4:2-4, 12; Philippians 1:19; 2 Corinthians 1:10, 11). “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived” (25:21).
D. Election – The birth of Esau and Jacob provides an example par excellence of the divine prerogative of election. God told Rebekah before they were born, “The older shall serve the younger.” Paul used this to illustrate election when he recounted this event and argued, “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.” Paul then cited a passage from Malachi in which the prophets argues for the special love of God for Israel by saying, “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? Says the Lord. Yet Jacob I have loved; but Esau I have hated” (Malachi 1:2, 3). In his perfect righteousness and wisdom, God has the right to hate us all; in the display of his perfect mercy and wisdom, God elects some to everlasting life so that he might show the riches of his mercy on the vessels of mercy “prepared beforehand for glory” (Romans 9:23).