This is part of the series of letters I’m writing to people listed in Hebrews 11 as the “cloud of witnesses” who went before us. This one is to Isaac.
A bit of background
Last week I wrote to Abraham about the time he nearly sacrificed Isaac, as recorded in Genesis 22. As I mentioned in that post, we don’t know how old Isaac was at the time; only that Sarah’s death is recorded in Genesis 23 and then he was forty when he married Rebekah—and that’s the subject of Genesis 24.
Isaac’s story is reminiscent of Abraham’s in several respects. Rebekah is barren and though he prays for her it’s a twenty year wait until she gives birth to Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:9-26). God also calls him to relocate and promises to be with him. Isaac also does the thoroughly uncool thing of trying to pass off Rebekah as his sister (Genesis 26).
But the book of Hebrews doesn’t really comment on that. It comments on how, in faith, Isaac blessed his sons. And this is a challenging statement on several levels. Isaac and Rebekah had favourites: Isaac favoured Esau but Rebekah favoured Jacob. Not only that but Esau sold his firstborn rights to Jacob in exchange for a meal (Genesis 25:27-34).
And that makes the events of Genesis 27 all the more loaded.
Isaac wanted to give Esau his blessing, so asked him to go and hunt and bring him a meal. But while Esau is out, Rebekah cooks two goats and dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothing. Jacob then goes to Isaac, whose sight has gone, and receives Esau’s blessing. Jacob then gets all the good stuff and Esau cries bitterly about it.
Like… well anyway, this letter is largely about that part of Isaac’s story.
In case you wonder, I chose today’s image because rapeseed is a smell I knew growing up. It probably wasn’t a crop in the Ancient Near East, but it’s what comes to mind when I read Isaac’s words, when he blesses Jacob in Genesis 27:27:
‘Ah, the smell of my son
is like the smell of a field
that the Lord has blessed.’ (NIVUK)
By faith also Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning the future.Hebrews 11:20 (NET)
When I think about how God works in our lives, I’ve always thought the story of you and Rebekah was a textbook example. I mean, your father’s servant had a sign that was so coincidental it was miraculous, you fell in love with her, and you were consoled regarding your mother’s death. If there was ever a “match made in heaven” yours was it.
So it feels strange that the author of Hebrews spotlights the end of your life—an episode beset by favouritism and deceit—to write about your faith.
And seriously, what was with the whole thing about only being able to give one blessing? Like… why should it have been impossible for you to bless Esau after you had blessed Jacob? Love isn’t something that runs out when you give it, and neither does God’s goodness, so why should a blessing be limited? And why should a blessing be binding when it was given under false pretences?
It feels like the whole thing was very deterministic. As if your words were irrevocable; like you no longer had power even though the blessing came from your mouth. And maybe that was how people in your culture viewed the world. To me, if I’m blunt, it feels like superstition. I don’t believe blessing can be inherited through a lie. And I don’t believe those who bless can be held to ransom by words spoken in good faith. Yet that’s what your story seems to be.
(Or are you going to tell me it didn’t happen quite like that?)
At the same time, I can’t help but feel for you. The thought of being deceived by our bodily senses is one of the most frightening. You knew something wasn’t right when Jacob posed as Esau; you only let go of your scepticism when you smelled Esau’s clothes. Ironically, smell is the most honest of our sense. It can conjure deeply buried memories, alert us to danger, and give us much joy in both the kitchen and the garden.
When I get to that part of our story, I feel that moment where you let go; it’s like you knew the smell was a sensation that couldn’t be faked. And it wasn’t faked, just stolen. Like the inheritance I suppose.
It’s because of that particular moment, when you smell Esau’s scent, that I find it very hard to blame you. I don’t think of you as doddery or gullible. I think of you as human. Like it could have been me. Like I’d have done the same if I’d been in your shoes.
Again, why does the author of Hebrews call this a moment of faith?
I know the textbook answer: you believed God would be with your sons and bless them greatly. You believed your words had meaning because God would give them fulfilment. Wait, is that why you believed the blessing was irrevocable?
It’s no small thing that you knew your blessing would be more than just words. That’s why it mattered. It’s so easy to say (and people often do these days) “You’re gonna make it,” or “Everything will be fine,” or “Some day your ship will come in,” or “Oh, but the good we sow often ripens after our time.” It’s so easy to give words.
To be honest, when I dream about my future and what God will do with it, sometimes I wonder if I’m just giving myself those easy, self-comforting words. Because I’ll tell you for free, I don’t want it to be just words. You challenge me to wonder whether there’s more power in what I speak, what I pray, than I realise. Or rather, that God can and will do more with my words than I currently dare to believe.
I don’t know why things turned out with Jacob and Esau the way they did. I don’t believe God has favourites and yet centuries of significance have been loaded onto the fact that Jacob walked away with the greater blessing. I’m gonna guess that you had a lot to think about in your final hours. For what it’s worth, I hope you were reminded of the prophecy Rebekah had received when they were born; I hope you were able to trust that God had the future in hand.
At the end of the day, we can never be sure to make the best decisions. We can only make the best decisions with the information we have at the time. I guess the good news is that we have a God who does honestly and earnestly look out for us. And because of that, we are able to find rest.
I write to you in the peace and hope of the one who neither slumbers nor sleeps,
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