The Birthright – Esau’s or Jacob’s

I.  The Intended Division

The Brothers

Verse 21:12 tells us only that not all of Isaac’s sons would be of equal status as their heirs of Abraham. But that verse leaves open the question of whether the heir would be Jacob or Esau. Had Esau been awarded the right to succeed Isaac, then Jacob would have been excluded despite his moral excellence. The final decision that Jacob would be the chosen part of Isaac was not proclaimed until Isaac summoned Jacob to instruct him to go to Padden Aram to find his mate from among Abraham’s kindred. At that time Isaac specifically told him that the blessing of Abraham, was his ~ and therefore he was obligated to not marry a Canaanite woman.

Therefore, too, Malachi began his prophecy with God’s word that Esau was Jacob’s equal in every way ~ except that he was unworthy and, because he was, God hated him. Jacob earned Divine love and it was that ~ not his purchase of the birthright or the deception that brought him the first set of blessings ~ which earned him and his offspring the title ‘the offspring of Abraham.’

Isaac’s original decision to bless Esau now assumes awesome proportions. Although there are widely different opinions among the commentators concerning exactly what it was that Isaac wanted to bestow upon Esau and what blessings, if any, he would have left for Jacob, the simplest understanding of the Torah’s narrative makes unmistakably clear that Isaac’s choice was crucial to the future development of the Abrahamitic nation.

This section of the Overview will deal with the following questions:

  • How had Isaac intended to divide the blessings between Esau and Jacob?
  • If the birthright was Esau’s, how did Jacob justify his right to take it away?

As you will see from the study of the commentary, many opinions have been expressed by the commentators. The following is not meant to be definitive; it is an attempt to offer insights that follow generally accepted basic trends.

Complementary Roles

The distinction of being the son who was to carry on the Abrahamitic tradition would in all likelihood have gone to Jacob in recognition of his infinitely superior righteousness. This is indicated by the very text of the Torah for the blessings (27:28-29) granted by Isaac upon the disguised Jacob ~ the son who Isaac took to be Esau ~ makes no mention of ‘the blessing of Abraham’. Only later when Isaac knew he was addressing Jacob (28:3-4) did he specifically bestow the Abrahamitic blessings.

Isaac had planned to bestow upon Esau blessings which were essential to Jacob and which Providence decreed were indeed to go to Jacob, but those blessings were entirely apart from the right to carry on the Patriarchal tradition. Instead, Isaac planned to give Abraham’s blessings to Jacob, but to give Esau a significant degree of superiority over Jacob, for as he said in 27:29 when he thought he was addressing Esau, ‘be a lord to your brother and the children of your mother will prostrate themselves to you.’

Isaac intended to divide the material and spiritual worlds. Esau was to have material wealth, power, and dominance. Jacob was to have spiritual authority. This is implied by the Torah’s description of the youthful Jacob and Esau: one was a man of the tent of Torah study and the other was a man of the field.

Had Esau been worthy, he, too, would have been master of a material world and made it a sounding board for the voice of Jacob’s Torah and prayer. Though not sharing the title of Abraham’s offspring, Esau would have been an essential and exalted complement to the fulfillment of Jacob’s mission.

Voice and Hands

The concept of material dominance is described by the word ‘hands’ for sustenance must be wrung from the material world by the labor of hands. Spirituality is expressed by ‘voice’ for the voice is man’s means of articulating the wisdom of the Torah and the words of prayer. Thus, Isaac described the attributes of his sons as ‘the voice is Jacob’s voice but the hands are Esau’s hands’ (27:23).

The two ~ hands and voice, hard labor, and sacred words ~ would seem to be far apart, but they are not. How does one gain material results with spiritual tools?

Psalms 149:6 ~ Exaltation of God is in their throats and a double-edged sword is in their hands.

When one has in his mouth the praises of God ~ when his throat vibrates with the voice of Torah and prayer ~ then, his hands are armed with a double-edged sword that can overcome the powerful hands that hold the world in their authority. When the voice is Jacob’s voice, the hands of Esau become impotent. There is no other way for Jacob to control the course of material events. The normal way is Esau’s, but Jacob can overpower him by going to the source. So as long as Jacob neglects the exaltation of God which is the ultimate level of power, he is subservient to his might brother, but if he recognizes that his strength is at the source of earth’s existence, he truly becomes invincible.

Isaac’s intention was to forge a harmony between his sons that would place Esau’s world at the service of Jacob’s world. Had Esau been worthy of his calling, such would have happened without cause for alarm or deception. But it could not be because Esau would not allow it to be. Therefore, Rebecca had to find a way for Jacob to gain the blessing that would permit him to turn the material world to the service of his mission.

II. Unending Struggle

Opposites from Conception

A human being lives in two worlds. He lives first in the material world but his ultimate reward will come in the second one – The World To Come. Jacob begged Esau that he sell him his status of first-born, his birthright. (25:31) Esau made it clear by his request of Jacob which world mattered to him. Jacob spoke of going on to a meaningful life and Esau saw only death. If Esau gave up eternity for a stomach full of lentils, he received more than full value, because to him the birthright had no worth at all. The Torah testifies that Esau was not defrauded of his other world while his life hung in the balance, for when he turned and left with his stomach full, there was not a murmur of protest. “Esau despised his birthright” (25:34)

It would seem that Jacob held an independent claim to the birthright, entirely apart from his agreement with Esau. As Rashi comments based on the Midrash, the newborn Jacob held on to Esau’s heel (25:26) as if to insist that the right to be born first belonged to him. As Rashi explains, Jacob was conceived first even though Esau was born first and therefore, he considered himself entitled to the status of first-born. The difficulty of this claim is obvious. The Torah states clearly that the birthright belongs not to the one who is conceived first but to the one who is born first (Exodus 13:2)

In the existence of the Patriarchs, however, there was a further element. Each of them had a particular mission. Abraham represented Chessed-Kindness. Isaac’s mission flowed from Abraham’s; he was to refine and perfect Abraham’s Chessed through his own Gevurah-Strength. His was a continuation of his father’s mission as we have seen. The successor to Isaac, whether it would be Jacob or Esau, would also continue his father’s mission. He would complete the work of Abraham and Isaac by fusing their unique contributions into Tiferes-Splendor, Emes-Truth. Again, he had to be an outgrowth of their missions, not a contradiction or an unrelated one.

Embodiment of Potential

There is a further concept of first-born. Perhaps we may find in this concept the reason for Jacob’s great importance in having been conceived first ~ the capacity or potential of the father. At the instant of conception, when the father’s seed merges with the mother’s egg, he has completed his role in the birth process. The further development of the embryo and its ultimate birth will take place within and from the mother’s body, but conception represents the fulfillment of the father’s role for it is then that he contributes his own potential to the future human being. In the case of the Patriarchs, however, conception had a special meaning. Isaac’s mission grew out of Abraham’s and Jacob’s grew out of Isaac’s. They become Patriarchs of Israel precisely because they embodied the potential of their fathers, a potential which each in turn nurtured and brought to full realization according to his own particular mission.

The conflict between Jacob and Esau was over which would be the successor to Abraham and Isaac. Everything else was secondary. How significant therefore, that Jacob could say that he was conceived first. He was the first of Isaac’s potential, the best representation of his father’s seed, the embodiment of the concluding stage in the growth of the Patriarchal mission.

In this regard, it is instructive that we look at Esau’s progression. As we have seen, Esau had the strength of Isaac, but he was the corruption of Gevurah: instead of using his inherited attribute to purge himself of his lack of moral principals, he used it to subdue the world for the gratification of his lust, to acquire, and dominate for selfish ends. Ishmael, too, was heir to Abraham’s attribute of Chessed-Kindness, but he corrupted the gift ~ instead of using it to benefit others, he became the epitome of self-indulgence. When Esau realized that he had forfeited his birthright and blessings to Jacob, he tried to impress his parents with a new resolve to live up to their standards of behavior. He had failed them by marrying Canaanite women, now he would please them by marrying someone from the family of Abraham. He took Ishmael’s daughter in marriage (28:9).

How striking the contrast between the two brothers! Jacob combined the attributes of kindness and strength ~ of Abraham and Isaac at their best ~ into the splendor of truth. But Esau? He combined his own perversion of Isaac with Ishmael’s perversion of Abraham to produce a lineage that continues to represent unforgiving opposition to good until the End of Days when God will judge the Mountain of Esau and take unto Himself the universally acknowledged reign over a world that will bow to the offspring of Jacob.

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