Question: During Lent we heard the reading in which Jacob tricked his father into conferring on him the birthright of his brother Esau [Genesis 27: 1-40]. Why could not Isaac make things right when he realized the fraud?
Answer: Jacob and Esau were fraternal twins who struggled with each other even in the womb. God revealed to their mother Rebecca that “two nations are in thy womb ... and the older shall serve the younger.” Jacob was born immediately after Esau, literally holding onto the latter’s foot as they were born, “and therefore he was called Jacob,” which means follower or supplanter. (Genesis 25: 23-25)
The Scriptures record that Esau was a skillful hunter—beloved by Isaac who enjoyed eating his catch. But Rebecca loved the more domestic Jacob. Esau was by far the more impetuous of the two, and one day, being hungry, sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentils and some bread. (25: 27-34) Later we learn that Esau married two Hethites; foreign women who were displeasing to Isaac and Rebecca. (26: 34-35)
The account we read at Mass had Rebecca convincing Jacob to kill two of their domestic so that she might prepare a feast for Isaac in place of the wild game Isaac was expecting Esau to bring to him. Isaac mistakenly believed that he was at the point of death, and this feast would be the occasion on which he would pass along the honor of primogeniture and the property rights of his family to his first born. Jacob went so far as to cover his hands with the fur of the slaughtered animals, in order to appear to his blind father as his more hairy brother. Although Isaac’s suspicions were aroused by the softer voice of Jacob, the hairy disguise convinced him that the son before him was Esau. It was, of course, upon Jacob that Isaac actually conferred the blessing of the firstborn: “Let the peoples serve thee and the tribes worship thee; be thou lord of thy brethren and let thy mother’s children bow down before thee.” (27: 1-29)
Esau was furious, and for some time there was the fear that Isaac and Rebecca would lose both sons; that Esau would kill Jacob, and then have to flee into exile to avoid being put to death for murder. After a great deal of tribulation, the two were eventually reconciled. (33: 1-15)
Biblical history goes on to record the importance Jacob in God’s plan of salvation, but the question remains: Why could not Isaac make things right when he realized Jacob’s fraud? Apparently, the birthright was a legal title to the family’s honor and riches. After the Exodus, it would become part of the Mosaic Law, with the father forbidden to transfer the right from the son of one wife to the son of another wife more pleasing to him. (Deuteronomy 21: 15-17)
The concept of making the eldest son the head of the family is by no means restricted to the Old Testament Jews. Nor is the idea that the head of the family inherits the noble title and most (or all) of the family’s property. Particularly in agrarian societies, primogeniture serves to keep the extended family together, instead of allowing it to fragment into a number of smaller families. Ideally, the younger children remain valuable members of the clan, both protecting and being protected by it from human and natural dangers.
Arguably, Esau lost his birthright by selling it to Jacob for the bowl of lentils—but, equally, one might argue that this rash bargain entered into by a hungry youngster was of no legal weight. Esau seemed to admit that he had indeed legally sold his birthright, and was expecting nothing more than a blessing (Genesis 27: 36). It seems likely that Isaac thought of the blessing in somewhat the same way we think of the Sacraments of indelibility (Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders)—once they are conferred they cannot be revoked. In any event, Isaac’s blessing for Esau was restricted to whatever God would grant him through nature: “the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven from above, so shall thy blessing be.” And, at least for a time he would “live by the sword and serve [his] brother.”