Toldot (Genesis 25, 19 – 28, 9) – was Isaac blind spiritually?

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Two things stand out regarding Isaac. First, the Bible tells us that Isaac is blind physically (Genesis 27, 1) – and, seemingly he is also blind from a spiritual point of view in seemingly insisting upon giving the blessing of Abraham (concerning who will continue the way of Abraham) to Esau and not to Jacob. However, I will suggest that this is not so. Isaac is not blind from a spiritual point of view – and, he understands that Jacob, and not Esau, is worthy to receive the blessing of Abraham continuing the way of Abraham.

 

Second, seemingly, there are virtually no stories in the Hebrew Bible in which Isaac is the central figure. The Bible tells us a series of stories about Abraham over the course of three Torah readings – Lech Lecha, Vayera and Chayei Sarah. Similarly, the Bible tells us a serious of stories about Jacob over the course of three Torah readings – Toldot, Vayetzei and Vayishlach. Seemingly, the subject matter of Toldot, which literally means generations, as reflected in the opening verse of Toldot “And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son”, is the relationship of Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob. Seemingly, the Bible skips over Isaac, and does not tell us any stories in which Isaac is the central figure with one exception – a story in the middle of Toldot (Genesis 26) of Isaac reopening the wells of Abraham. Yet, this story of Isaac is after the Bible has already begun telling us of Isaac’s sons, and seemingly is not related to the general subject matter of Toldot concerning the relations between Esau and Jacob. However, I want to suggest that this is not so. The seemingly unrelated story in the middle of Toldot (Genesis 26) of Isaac reopening the wells of Abraham is intimately connected to the subject matter of Toldot.

 

Prior to the story of Isaac reopening the wells of Abraham, the Bible tells us that God appeared to Isaac (Genesis 26, 2) and blessed Isaac as the one who is to carry on the way of Abraham (Genesis 26, 3) – and, it is God then who blesses Isaac with the blessing of Abraham. The story of Isaac reopening the wells of Abraham is, in my view, symbolizing metaphorically that Isaac is continuing the way of life of his father Abraham of doing righteousness and justice. Abraham, as the spiritual father of the Jewish people is singled out in the Bible by God as one who will “keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18, 19). Moreover, the central issue of Toldot, the story of the relations of Esau and Jacob, is who of Isaac’s son is worthy of the blessing of Abraham to continue the moral and spiritual way of life of Abraham. Thus the story of Isaac continuing the moral and spiritual way of life of Abraham, symbolized by Isaac’s reopening the wells of Abraham, is brought between the stories of the birthright and blessing – just before the story of the blessing.

 

At the beginning of Toldot is a story in which Esau gives his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a dish of stew as Esau had just returned from hunting and was very hungry. The birthright is a spiritual inheritance of the eldest child as the spiritual leader of the family. The picture that the Bible draws of Esau is of an impulsive and materialistic person to whom the spiritual rights of the birthright are not as important as a dish of stew – and, the Bible concludes the story by saying (Genesis 27, 34) ”so, Esau despised the birthright”. Following this story of Esau and Jacob concerning the birthright, the Bible then tells the story concerning Isaac (Genesis 26) reopening the wells of Abraham, which is seemingly unrelated to the general subject of Toldot (the relations between Esau and Jacob) but, is actually emphasizing that the central issue in the relations of Esau and Jacob is who will continue the way of Abraham. After the story of Isaac (Genesis 26), the Bible then tells the story of Esau and Jacob concerning the blessing of Abraham.

 

The question then is who of the sons of Isaac is worthy morally and spiritually to continue the way of Abraham, and thus receive the blessing of Abraham. The Bible had already told us that Isaac loved Esau, and Rebecca loved Jacob (Genesis 25, 28). Rebecca overhears that Isaac wants to bless Esau before he dies (Genesis 27, 5), and she evidently believes that Isaac is intent upon giving the blessing of Abraham to Esau, the eldest son who he loves. She therefore conceives the plan to deceive Isaac, who is blind, by having Jacob pretend to be Esau so that Jacob will receive the blessing intended for Esau – and, Jacob indeed receives the blessing intended for Esau (Genesis 27, 23).

 

However, there are two significant things indicating that Isaac is not blind from a spiritual point of view, and that he is aware that Esau is not worthy of continuing the way of Abraham. First, the Bible tells us that Isaac took Rebecca as a wife at the age of 40 (Genesis 25, 20). Just prior to the story of Esau and Jacob concerning the blessing, the Bible tells us that Esau at the age of 40 took two Hittite wives (Genesis 26, 34) – and, the Bible adds (Genesis 26, 35) “And they were a bitterness of spirit unto Isaac and to Rebekah”. This seemingly trivial piece of information is indicating that Esau is not continuing the way of his father, Isaac – and the way of Abraham. Second, the blessing that Jacob receives in deceiving Isaac, when Isaac believes that he is blessing Esau, is actually not the blessing of Abraham at all – to continue the way of Abraham. The blessing that Isaac gives in thinking that he is blessing Esau is a blessing not of Abraham but one of power and material abundance – qualities that are appropriate to Esau who is a hunter and evidently materialistic as a person (as reflected in his despising of his birthright in exchange for a dish of stew). In addition, when Esau cries out and protests that his blessing has been stolen from him by Jacob, Isaac does not blesses Esau by repeating the previous blessing of power and abundance (that he thought he was giving to Esau, but was in reality giving to Jacob) – yet, he does give a similar kind of blessing of power and abundance.

 

When Rebecca decides to send Jacob away to family in Mesopotamia because she is fearful that Esau will take revenge upon Jacob for stealing his blessing (Genesis 27, 42-45), Isaac then blesses Jacob before his leaving – and, knowing that this is Jacob, Isaac blesses him with the blessing of Abraham (Genesis 28, 4). So, by no means is Isaac spiritually blind – and, he is very aware that Jacob is deserving of the blessing of Abraham. Rebecca evidently misunderstands Isaac’s wanting to bless Esau as well, and mistakenly believes that Isaac intends to give Esau the blessing of Abraham. This mistake is reflected in the text. When Isaac tells Esau that he wants to give him a blessing before he dies, he simply says “so that I may give you my blessing before I die” (Genesis 27, 4) – while, Rebecca, who overhears this, and in reporting this to Jacob, says “so that I may give you my blessing in the presence of the Lord before I die” (Genesis 27, 7) significantly adding “in the presence of the Lord”. Rebecca then mistakenly believes that Isaac intends to give Esau the blessing of Abraham.

 

Thus, not only is there a story in the Bible of Isaac continuing the way of Abraham, by reopening the wells of Abraham (symbolizing the spiritual way of Abraham), in which Isaac is the central figure – but, Isaac is also a central figure in the story of the blessing concerning Esau and Jacob in which Isaac is very clearly depicted not as being spiritually blind (though physically blind). He is very aware that Jacob is worthy to continue the spiritual way of Abraham and to receive the blessing of Abraham.

 

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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