On Isaac's Blessing of Esau in the Book of Genesis
G. Stolyarov II
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2005 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007, where it received over 1,000 page views. To preserve a record of my writings following the shutdown of Yahoo! Voices in 2014, I have given this article a permanent presence on this page.
After falling victim to his son Jacob's deception, Isaac is unable to confer his primary blessing upon his favored son Esau. While Esau cannot, as a result, obtain the legal privileges due to him as firstborn, Isaac tries his best to remedy the situation via his subsequent blessing of his elder son. The blessing of Esau is Isaac's attempt to eventually reconcile his sons and bring about Esau's good fortune despite the consequences of Jacob's deception. Isaac emphasizes Esau's ability to be successful and prosperous despite Jacob's newly privileged condition. Furthermore, he reassures Esau of the latter's ability to make his own way in life and eventually free himself from subservience to his brother. Finally, searching for a way to secure eventual peace between his sons, Isaac alludes to a symbol of power, the neck, using which Jacob's act of deception had been orchestrated, but which will play a similarly integral role in the two brothers' reconciliation.
By beginning his blessing in a manner resembling the initial words of the blessing of Jacob, Isaac seeks to convince Esau that success is possible not only for his brother, but for him as well. To Jacob, Isaac had said, "May God grant you/ from the dew of the heavens and the fat of the earth" (Gen. 27.28), and he repeats the same sentiment to Esau: "Look, from the fat of the earth be your dwelling/ and from the dew of the heavens above" (Gen. 27.39). While Jacob had gotten the privileges of the firstborn, and Esau must necessarily be consigned to a lower legal standing with regard to his inheritance, Isaac seeks to convince Esau that there is more to the earth and the heavens than being his foremost heir. The earth and the heavens are plentiful, and both brothers can draw a prosperous existence from them, no matter how Isaac's inheritance is distributed. Instead of coveting his brother's position and goods, Esau is advised to look to a plethora of other opportunities which will come his way. The earth and the heavens can sustain both brothers easily, without the need for strife between them over any single allotment of property. Once Esau and Jacob fully recognize their father's wisdom on this matter, they are able to peacefully part ways and independently create prosperous lives for themselves. Indeed, while Jacob becomes the progenitor of the tribes of Israel, Esau is able to rise to the position of "father of Edom" (Gen. 36.9). Becoming the ancestor of an entire nation is not a poor end for one who had been disinherited, and Esau is able to reach this standing only by coming to focus on his own well-being instead of needlessly warring with his brother.
After telling Esau that success and prosperity are possible for him, Isaac nevertheless informs his son that he will have to make his own way in life. He predicts to Esau, "By your sword shall you live" (Gen. 27.40), indicating that nothing will automatically be given to Esau, that Esau will need to earn his station by means of his sword. Ironically, the sword, a tool of killing, will play a significant role in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Esau and his brother. After Jacob returns from Laban's household, Esau takes initiative in maneuvering against his brother with an army of four hundred men (Gen. 32.5). While actual bloodshed is avoided, Esau's show of force sufficiently frightens Jacob to compel the latter to offer tribute to Esau and allow the two brothers to part respectfully and on equal terms. Isaac's blessing foreshadows this outcome, instructing Esau to firmly insist on taking his just due, rather than merely accepting whatever fate or circumstance might offer him. Isaac recognizes that Esau's fate, if he should abstain from action, is one of submission to his brother (Gen. 27.40). Knowing that Esau would greatly resent serving his brother and not desiring such a state of subservience for his favored son, Isaac directly and unapologetically suggests a course of action whereby Esau could secure his autonomy. He advises his son, "And when you rebel/ you shall break off [Jacob's] yoke from your neck" (Gen. 27.40). Esau's initiative in rebelling is a step toward his ultimate self-fulfillment, and, ironically, a means of rendering both brothers better off, for only after rebelling could Esau have achieved reconciliation with Jacob on equal terms. More generally, Isaac's words imply that independence and self-assertiveness are far more effective at bringing about conditions satisfactory to all parties involved than subservience and resignation to one's lot.
Finally, in the use of the word "neck," Isaac employs a vivid symbol encapsulating the nature of the conflict between his two sons and the means to quell their enmity. The neck represents both power and reconciliation. The very incident which reverses Esau's status as Isaac's foremost heir begins when Jacob uses his neck as an instrument of deception. To cause Isaac to mistake Jacob for Esau, Rebekah places "the skins of the kids... on the smooth part of [Jacob's] neck" (Gen. 27.16). By assuming Esau's neck in Isaac's eyes, Jacob is able to usurp the power which was due to Esau as Isaac's firstborn. The words in Isaac's subsequent blessing of Esau reinforce the centrality of neck imagery to the idea of power. By the neck Esau will experience Jacob's yoke, for Jacob has not only symbolically stolen Esau's neck, but has now bound it in servitude to him as well. How might Esau free his neck from bondage? Ironically, he can do so only by embracing the neck of his brother and nemesis. Upon his reconciliation with Jacob, Esau, once again, must take initiative: he "[runs] to meet [Jacob] and embrace[s] him and [falls] upon his neck..." (Gen. 33.5). Esau obtains his autonomy not by harming Jacob's neck, nor by usurping it as Jacob had done with the neck of Esau, but by approaching it with a gesture of affection. Jacob's own neck is a symbol of his power, and, in the reconciliation, Jacob's power is unaffected. He continues to be prosperous and retains a glorious future ahead of him. By embracing Jacob's neck, Esau affirms the power which Jacob has already amassed and symbolically promises not to seek to deprive it from him. Yet, by recognizing another's power, Esau is able to likewise secure his own, for Esau's neck is now liberated from Jacob's yoke, and he is free to go his own way. This mutually beneficial resolution entails both brothers' necks, and thus their respective spheres of influence, being bilaterally honored. No longer will one brother seek to control the neck of another, but rather both will abide by the maxim, "To each his own." Isaac's blessing, by employing the neck in the context of a symbol of power, hints at the manner whereby Esau might approach it in order to establish harmony between himself and Jacob.
Ultimately, Isaac's blessing of Esau achieves its purpose of securing for Esau a state of self-made success while reconciling him with his brother. Although he is partial toward Esau, Isaac wishes well for both of his sons and seeks to give Esau advice that, if followed, will result in Jacob's benefit as well. Thus, through Isaac's words, Esau comes to recognize that he will be able to succeed irrespective of who gets his father's inheritance. Furthermore, he is imbued with the spirit of self-reliance and self-determination, integral to his eventual self-fulfillment. Lastly, Esau is able to consider how he might use the neck, the means of his subordination to Jacob, to bring about his eventual liberation as well.
Alter, Robert. Genesis. New York: Norton, 1996.
Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II) is an actuary, science-fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress.
In December 2013, Mr. Stolyarov published Death is Wrong, an ambitious children’s book on life extension illustrated by his wife Wendy. Death is Wrong can be found on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.
Mr. Stolyarov has contributed articles to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), The Wave Chronicle, Le Quebecois Libre, Brighter Brains Institute, Immortal Life, Enter Stage Right, Rebirth of Reason, The Liberal Institute, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
In an effort to assist the spread of rational ideas,
Mr. Stolyarov published his articles on Associated Content (subsequently
the Yahoo! Contributor Network and Yahoo! Voices) from 2007 until
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selected writings from that era have been preserved on this page.
Mr. Stolyarov holds the professional insurance designations of Associate of the Society of Actuaries (ASA), Associate of the Casualty Actuarial Society (ACAS), Member of the American Academy of Actuaries (MAAA), Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU), Associate in Reinsurance (ARe), Associate in Regulation and Compliance (ARC), Associate in Personal Insurance (API), Associate in Insurance Services (AIS), Accredited Insurance Examiner (AIE), and Associate in Insurance Accounting and Finance (AIAF).
Mr. Stolyarov has written a science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, a philosophical treatise, A Rational Cosmology, a play, Implied Consent, and a free self-help treatise, The Best Self-Help is Free. You can watch his YouTube Videos.Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at email@example.com.Statement of Policy.
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