A Study of the Blessings of Isaac

R. Gustason, 11 Mar 2016

We will begin this study of the blessing pronounced upon Esau and Jacob by their father Isaac with the blessings bestowed upon Jacob. He was the favorite of his mother Rachael, but his father preferred Esau1. At his deathbed, it appears that Isaac dealt harshly with Esau, and blessed Jacob. The reason for this, as we will see, is the nature of a blessing in biblical times.
Jacob’s Blessing
“And he came near, and kissed him: and he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, and said, See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the LORD hath blessed: Therefore God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine: Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother’s sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee.” (Genesis 27:27–29 KJV)2 This blessing was meant, by Isaac, for Esau. God had other plans though. A traditional blessing was to be bestowed upon his sons with all sons present. This is the way it was done by his father as well as his son Jacob. Because Isaac did not call Esau and Jacob together to pronounce the blessing, he was going against established tradition. Additionally the blessing was considered to be the voice of God, a prophetic utterance, and could therefore not be recanted once spoken over an individual.3 This is one reason why Esau cried and Isaac trembled. Once pronounced over someone, it had the effect of being straight from the voice of God. It was a prophecy from the Lord Himself.
The precedent of the blessing
Noah started the precedent by pronouncing a “blessing” upon his three sons. “So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. Then he said: ‘Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brethren.’ And he said: ‘Blessed be the LORD, The God of Shem, And may Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, And may he dwell in the tents of Shem; And may Canaan be his servant.’”.(Genesis 9:24–27 NKJV) This was a prophecy spoken through Noah by God and was made to come to pass. Next, Abraham blessed his sons but gave all that he had to Isaac. The sons of his concubines he gave gifts to and sent them away into the eastern nations. Lastly, as read in Genesis 49, Jacob gathered all his sons, carrying on a precedent established by Abraham. He gathered his sons together to establish his testament, his will, or his blessing upon his sons. Again, some were cursing’s based upon what the son had done in their lifetimes, and some were blessings for remaining faithful to their father, as well as God. We read in Genesis 49 about Jacob calling his sons together: “And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days. Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father.”
Esau’s Blessing
Esau’s blessing was not really a blessing at all. The Hebrew word translated as blessed is the work barak. It means both to bless or, alternatively to curse4, and can only be distinguished by the context it is used in. For the evil he had committed, a curse was issued to Esau. Even though, as we will see, Esau was the favorite of his father, there were several sins committed by Esau for which he would pay by receiving the “blessing” of his father. Esau’s blessing is related in Genesis 27. “And Isaac his father answered and said unto him, Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; And by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.” It appeared that at least a partial blessing was bestowed upon Esau. He was promised the fatness of the Earth, which was obtained by his descendants, the Edomites, even though the land was semi-arid and conducive to nomadic living only. The New Bible Commentary relates this notion in the entry discussing the blessing as read in the following pericope: Nevertheless, despite the underhand way in which Jacob obtained the blessing, it was still valid. Isaac’s last words predicted the future relationship between Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom). The nation of Israel would usually dominate Edom. Israel would enjoy a settled agricultural existence, whereas Edom would be more of a nomadic people in the dry wilderness areas (28-29,39-40). Furthermore, the promises made first to Abraham and repeated to Isaac, would now be fulfilled through Jacob (28:3-4).5
The Fate of Esau
The Edomites were dominated by Israel for many generations. This was a curse that was brought upon Esau because he did not respect his birthright or God. As a favorite son, Isaac wished to pour his blessings out on the oldest. Yet Isaac again disobeyed God by not taking heed to what was ordained by the Lord over his twin son’s births.6 The Lord said the older would be ruled by the younger. Isaac favored the oldest yet God still brought about His word. Despite Isaac’s best attempts, he was not able to overcome God’s prophecy. In the end Isaac’s failures resulted in a long standing schism in his family.
Esau’s disrespect
Esau disregarded his father. Not only did he trade his birthright for a bowl of lentils, he also went against his father and grandfather’s wishes by marrying two Hittite women (he would later marry a third, Canaanite woman). “And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite: Which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah.” (Genesis 26:34–35 KJV) Notice that Esau took two wives from the tribe of the Hittites, who his grandfather Abraham had specifically ensured his son Isaac not have a wife of the daughters of the Cannanites, a people they were surrounded by. Abraham had his servant go back to his lands of his birth and take a wife for Isaac from amongst his people. The reason this was so important is God commanded that this was not to be done in order to protect His people from idolatry. “And I will make thee swear by the LORD, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell:” (Genesis 24:3 KJV) Esau had no regard for this, as seen in the following verses. “And Esau seeing that the daughters of Canaan pleased not Isaac his father; Then went Esau unto Ishmael, and took unto the wives which he had Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebajoth, to be his wife.” (Genesis 28:8–9 KJV)
History of the Edomites
Esau, also known as Edom, was subject to Jacob, through Jacob’s descendant: David the King. “And he put garrisons in Edom; throughout all Edom put he garrisons, and all they of Edom became David’s servants. And the LORD preserved David whithersoever he went.” (2 Samuel 8:14 KJV) The Edomites went on to be worshippers of idols, and cursed by God. In fact, God speaks to the prophet Ezekiel about the idolatry happening in his day. “And say, Thus saith the Lord GOD unto Jerusalem; Thy birth and thy nativity is of the land of Canaan; thy father was an Amorite, and thy mother an Hittite.” (Ezekiel 16:3 KJV) A rebellious and idolatrous Jerusalem was said to be the product of two heathen nations, the Amorites and the Hittites. This was a result of inter-marriage amongst the heathen that surrounded them. Additionally, the Jews in the time of Jesus despised the half Jewish people called the Samaritans because they were the product of intermarriage between Jews and heathens when Babylon, Assyria, and other nations overran them and dispersed the nation of Israel. This led to idolatry amongst the people, a direct violation of one of the commandments of God. In Second Kings, we see the breaking away of the Edomites (descendants of Esau) from the Kingdom of Judah. This was prophesied in the blessing Isaac pronounced as well, trying to give hope to his favorite son. God, however, was not pleased and eventually a curse was pronounced upon the Edomites who lived in the southern regions below Israel proper. “In his days Edom revolted from under the hand of Judah, and made a king over themselves.” (2 Kings 8:20 KJV) Edom will never again be rebuilt. The indignation of the Lord is against it, and to this day, the lands of Edom are desolate and barren. “Whereas Edom saith, We are impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places; thus saith the LORD of hosts, They shall build, but I will throw down; and they shall call them, The border of wickedness, and, The people against whom the LORD hath indignation for ever.” (Malachi 1:4 KJV)
Modern Edom
Image Credit: Wikipedia7
Edom is now known as the Tafilah Governorate, a prefect in Jordan. The Tafilah Governorate has been inhabited by the Edomites since the 11th century B.C. The entire land covered by Tafilah Governorate was the stronghold of the Edomites with the town of Busaira as the capital of Edom. The valley known as Wadi Al-Hasa formed the boundary between Edom and the neighboring kingdom of Moab in the present-day Karak Governorate. Currently Wadi Al-Hasa forms the boundary between Tafilah and Karak Governorates, and itself belongs administratively to Karak Governorate.7 The climate of Jordan is semi-dry mostly hot and arid. The winter brings some rain.
Abraham’s Only Son
It is important to understand the reason why Esau was not to marry a Cannanite or Hittite woman. Both nationalities were descendants of Ham through Canaan. Canaan was cursed for his father’s unholy actions. To see why this was so troubling, let’s examine Abraham, and the birth of his son, Isaac. Isaac was Abraham’s only son according to the scriptures. “Then He said, ‘Take now your son, your only son Isaac, …’” (Gen. 22:2). It is interesting to note that God declared Isaac Abraham’s only son. Apparently God did not recognize Sarai and Abram’s attempt to fulfill God’s promise as legitimate, not recognizing Ishmael as a son of Abraham. Additionally, after Ishmael’s birth, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and declares Abraham shall be a father of many nations. “As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.” (Genesis 17:4–6 KJV) Thus, the Lord is right in that Abraham has only one son, and that son is Isaac, whom the promised nations would come from, and upon whom the blessing would be bestowed. This was because Ishmael turned toward other gods to worship, turning to the gods of the Canaanite peoples, who were cursed by Ham’s actions. The “blessing” of Isaac upon Esau may have also been because Esau took a wife from among the daughters of Ishmael. According to the table of nations in Genesis chapter ten, the Hittites and Hivites were descendants of the Canaanites. “Canaan begot Sidon his firstborn, and Heth; the Jebusite, the Amorite, and the Girgashite; the Hivite, the Arkite, and the Sinite; the Arvadite, the Zemarite, and the Hamathite. Afterward the families of the Canaanites were dispersed. And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon as you go toward Gerar, as far as Gaza; then as you go toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. These were the sons of Ham, according to their families, according to their languages, in their lands and in their nations.” (Genesis 10:15–20 NKJV)
Ishmael’s Sons
As a side note, Ishmael had twelve sons, princes of nations: “Now this is the genealogy of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s maidservant, bore to Abraham. And these were the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, according to their generations: The firstborn of Ishmael, Nebajoth; then Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadar, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These were the sons of Ishmael and these were their names, by their towns and their settlements, twelve princes according to their nations.” (Genesis 25:12–16 NKJV) Kedar’s descendants, according to tradition, [are the] ancestor[s] of the Quraysh tribe, and thus of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.8 Ishmael’s sons rebelled against God, and have now become one of the largest false religions in the world, the religion of Islam. Ishmael scoffed at the promised nation, the gift of God, namely Isaac. “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing.” (Genesis 21:9 NKJV) But even with the jealousy of Ishmael, God was faithful to Abraham and kept his promise. He did not let Hagar and her son die in the desert, but provided a well. From their, Ishmael became a nation of twelve princes of Arabia. Thus we have the fate of Esau, whom the author of Hebrews wrote: “lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright.” (Hebrews 12:16 NKJV)
Legal Implications of the Blessing
The legal implications of the blessing are described in the following commentary taken from the Jewish Virtual Library. In it we see that a double portion was to be conferred upon the oldest. According to Deuteronomy 21:15–17, a father was obliged to acknowledge his firstborn son as his principal heir, and to grant him a double portion of his estate as inheritance. (Pishenayim means "two-thirds" [see Zech. 13:8], but the intention of the text is that the firstborn shall get whatever fraction a double portion may come to; in the case posited in the text, where there are only two sons, it is two-thirds, but where there are three sons, it is one-half, and so on; cf. the correct inference drawn in BB 123a from I Chron. 5:1ff., which expressly terms Joseph's status as "firstborn" – Joseph received twice the portion of any of his brothers [Gen. 48:5, 22; ef. Rashbam to BB 123a].) This obligation was to apply irrespective of the status of the son's mother in a polygamous family. This inheritance right is termed mishpat ha-bekhorah, "the rule of the birthright" (Deut. 21:17), and the legal process by which the first-born son was so designated is expressed by the verb yakkir "he shall acknowledge." Undoubtedly the acknowledgment involved certain formal, legal acts which are not indicated in biblical literature. In a different context, God acknowledged Israel as his firstborn (Ex. 4:22; ef. Jer. 31:8). A son, addressing his father, might also refer to his own status as firstborn son (Gen. 27:19, 32).9
Jewish Birthrights
According to Jewish custom, which had the force of law, the pronounced blessing was in effect the rights to the estate of the Father. As previously stated, the birthright was to be a double portion and the rest was divided into equal installments amongst the remaining male children. The terminology employed in Genesis, when compared to that of Deuteronomy 21:17, is problematic, and allowance for a degree of inconsistency in technical usage must be made. In Genesis, Jacob contends with Esau over two matters: first, the bekhor-ah, which Jacob secured from Esau, who despised it, in exchange for a cooked meal (Gen. 25:29–34); and second, the berak-hah ("blessing") which Jacob secured by deceiving his elderly father into thinking that he was blessing Esau (Gen. 27). Of the two terms, the berak-hah counted for more, probably because pronouncing the blessing was considered to be the act formally acknowledging the firstborn as the principal heir. Berak-hah connotes both the blessing which is to be pronounced and the effects of the blessing, i.e., the wealth transmitted as inheritance. In Deuteronomy 21:17 the term bekhor-ah refers specifically to the estate rights.10 Esau was blessed temporarily as we see in the later encounter with Jacob. Yet his arrogance, encouraged no doubt by his father, was his downfall. “And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?” (Genesis 25:32 KJV). Again, he was contemptible. Not only did he disregard his birthright as inconsequential, but he also was disobedient by marrying a Canaanite and Hittite women as his wives, despite the displeasure of his father Isaac. His blessing, was indeed a curse, but it was well deserved. Yet, he was not without a total blessing. We see that Esau was able to establish his kingdom and met Jacob with 400 men. Despite his rebellion towards God, Esau was blessed by his father with what his father could, for Isaac loved Esau. “And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and also he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him.” (Genesis 32:6 KJV)
Although at first glance it seems harsh of Isaac in his dealings with Esau, it was not without merit. It apparently vexed Isaac, for he physically trembled when he had learned he had been deceived by Jacob. This may have been because he had not bestowed the greatest portion on his favorite son, or it may have been in recognition of the completion and fulfillment of the prophecy announced on his son’s births. Hebrews states “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.” Again reaffirming the statement that this was a prophetic utterance from God. Regardless of the way Jacob dealt with his brother (for it was deceitful) Esau certainly earned his “blessing” through his disobedience. It is a warning to all of us, that we should respect what God has decreed, seek after God’s blessings, and follow in righteousness before the Lord.
  1. “And Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:28 NKJV)
  2. All biblical quotations are in the King James Version, in the public domain, unless otherwise cited.
  3. Ridges, David J., Entry for Genesis 49, The Old Testament Made Easier, Part 1
  4. The lᵉ in the expression lᵉyhwh is often interpreted as a lamed auctoris and bārûk is understood passively as a wish (“may X be blessed by Yahweh”). In Aram. burial and memorial inscriptions, however, bryk l and bryk qdm (“blessed is/may be X to”) alternate without significant difference in meaning (cf. RES 1788 with KAI nos. 267, 269; RES 608, 960–62, 1366 with RES 1364, 1368, 1370, 1376, etc.; cf. also the expression brk l “to bless someone to a deity” = “to recommend someone to a particular deity with the request that the deity bless the individual,” Phoen. KAI no. 50.2; Eg. Aram. RHR 130:17:2f.; Hermop. nos. 1–6, with the addition in each case of “that she [the deity] may let me see your face again”; perhaps also in Ug. KTU 1.17.I.23; cf. UT no. 517; C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Literature [1949], 86; also Hebr. brk pi. lipń yhwh, Gen 27:7). This construction may correspond to the OT usage, so that the lᵉ should also be understood here in the sense of a lamed relation is: “complete blessing with Yahweh” (cf. J. Scharbert, Bib 39 [1958]: 21f.: “may X be one for Yahweh to bless”). The fact that syntactically analogous curse formulae are formed with lipń supports this interpretation (Josh 6:26; 1 Sam 26:19 pl.; cf. Num 5:16; 1 Kgs 8:13). – Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament Ernst Jenni & Claus Westermann
  5. New Bible Commentary (IVP-NB Commentary)- University and Colleges Christian Fellowship, Electronic version 1.9 provided by Oaktree via Accordance.
  6. Genesis 25:23
  7. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tafilah_Governorate Entry for Tafilah Goverorate accessed 22 January, 2016
  8. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael Entry for Ishmael accessed 23 January, 2016
  9. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ Article on the firstborn
  10. ibid

Filed under: hamartiology, old testament