I’ll just list a bit of the chicanery and unintended consequences that populates Genesis 25:19–28:9, a veritable scriptural soap opera. To begin Rebekah, who is married to Isaac, and has had great trouble getting pregnant finally succeeds and is carrying twins. She’s not young so it’s a difficult pregnancy. She asks God why she exists (a strange question to ask when you’re worried about your pregnancy and which has caused much speculation none of which will be considered here). He replies that each of her unborn sons will found a nation and that one will be mightier than the other. He also says that the older will serve the younger. Which one will be the mightier is not specified. Esau is born just seconds before Jacob. This is the start of a really lousy, but not unprecedented, relationship. Remember the first set of brothers in Genesis.
After being cheated twice by his brother Esau leaves home and marries one of Ishmael’s daughters, Mahalath. He already has at least two other wives – Judith and Basemath. The union with Ishmael’s daughter, according to a different tradition, results in the birth of the 12 princes who found the Arab nations. So which son did God have in mind when he said one would found a mightier nation than the other? I’m sure I know which one we’re supposed to think was the more powerful progenitor, but God is often inscrutable as is his scribe Moses who according to tradition wrote down the words of the Pentateuch. Some observers trace the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Holy Land back to the split between the two brothers.
Back to Isaac. When famine struck his land he went to Gerar. When asked who Rebekah was he said she was his sister. He was carrying on the family tradition of passing his wife off as his sister out of fear for his safety. It didn’t work for his father and it is equally unsuccessful for the son.
Esau grows up to be a mighty hunter, but is not particularly bright. He sells his birthright to Jacob for a serving of stew. Jacob is delicate, less hirsute, and more cunning than his brother. He’s also his mother’s favorite. When Rebekah hears the dying Isaac tell Esau that he wants him to bag some game so he can have a tasty dish and then bless him before returning to dust, she tells Jacob to kill and cook two kids and then offer them to Isaac while impersonating his brother who was out hunting. This took a lot of plotting for while Isaac was blind, his first and eighth cranial nerves were intact. The plot works, perhaps with Isaac’s complicity, and Jacob gets the blessing meant for his brother.
Esau’s reaction is typical for this family. He decides to kill Jacob. Rebekah tells her favorite son to run away and stay out of sight until Esau’s anger had cooled. Obviously this strategy worked.
When Sarah, Isaac’s mother, kicked Hagar and her son Ishmael out into the wilderness, she was venting her anger against another woman’s son. Rebekah has no excuse other than for whatever unspecified reason she prefers Jacob to Esau. Many of commentators think that this explicit preference for Jacob and perhaps the implicit agreement of Isaac is recognition of Jacob’s superior leadership skills. But given Esau’s latter history such an assessment, if true, seems unjustified. I prefer to interpret this story exactly as it appears – a slice of life with all its blemishes and weakness. Human beings are that way.