GENESIS 25:19 – 26:5
As the story of Jacob and Esau begins to unfold, a masterful story told by the J source of the Torah, we find a note about Abraham too tantalizing to pass over. God will bless Isaac because שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי shema’ ‘Avraham beqōli, “Abraham listened to my voice.” Even more than that, the J author, says Abraham “kept” God’s charges, commandments, statutes, and teachings (the plural word for torah is used).
What are we to make of this, since God did not literally give Abraham a set of commandments and statutes and torahs?
To be sure, these are the terms used later to describe the teachings that make up the stipulations of the Torah. Leviticus 26:46, for example, uses “statutes” and “torahs” among its descriptions of the covenant requirements. Deuteronomy uses “charges,” “statutes,” and “commandments” to delineate types of stipulations. The use of different terms for things commanded in the Torah tradition has been a matter of interest to interpreters for a long time. Are these terms specific, technical terms categorizing the laws and teachings?
Rashi explains one viewpoint on the question. The “charges” are boundary issues, negative commands about things we should keep our distance from. The “commandments” are matters we should know about even if we do not have Torah, such as robbery and violence. The “statutes” are matters which cannot be known to reason, such as the prohibition against eating pork or wearing garments with mixed materials. Finally, the “torahs” are both the teachings found in the written Torah and the opinions of the rabbis collected in the tradition and known as “oral torah.” Rashi has chosen to import rabbinic theology into the terminology of this ancient text, which is a good preaching method but is not a sound interpretive method.
There is no evidence from an actual word study of these terms that they represent specific, technical terms. They appear to be used loosely, and by the different source documents of Torah, without any systematic definitions and categories. So all the more we should ask, “Why does the author use multiple terms for commandments to describe Abraham’s obedience to God?” Sarna comments, “The combination of different terms for God’s precepts connotes comprehensiveness” (JPS Commentary). In other words, God regarded Abraham’s righteousness as remarkably complete. And yet, he did not know a single word of the Torah and had not even one Bible verse to read or recite.
There is an important realization here about the way the Torah authors thought about right and wrong, revelation and the human conscience. Human responsibility to justice and goodness does not depend on a special revelation from God. God does not have to send a prophet or produce a law code for people to be answerable to him concerning good and evil.
This has major implications for reading the Bible. Some people are convinced that, “It’s wrong because the Bible says so.” Here in Genesis 26 we see evidence that this was not the thought of at least some biblical authors. Rather, it’s wrong because it’s wrong, and the Bible is human beings whose wisdom and teaching God sent to us to help us see truth. The Bible does not create truth. The prophets comment on truth. Therefore, we need not come up with arcane rules derived from Biblical exegesis to know what is right and wrong. Nor should we believe extravagant claims about the wrongness of certain attitudes and behaviors simply because an interpreter has a Bible text to back up his or her opinion.
Abraham did not know the Torah. He never read Leviticus or Deuteronomy. But he kept God’s charges and statutes in that he cared about justice and sought to follow the path of goodness with God through the days of his life. This note in the Bible should also cure us of another strange religious notion: that God demands perfection and anything less than absolute righteousness does not count in God’s estimation. Genesis 26:5 is one of many verses demolishing such a theology. To be clear, some believe that God demands perfection, which we cannot achieve, and so we need to have God’s righteousness imputed to us through Christ. All attempts by human beings to follow good are considered to be attempts to make ourselves righteous and earn “salvation.”
By contrast, the biblical authors expected us to pursue good things like love, faithfulness, and justice because they are beautiful and worthy of human pursuit. And they describe God as loving good deeds and faithfulness when he sees them in us.
Isaac’s story and Rebekah’s barrenness (19-21), Rebekah receives a word from the Lord (22-23), Esau and the grasping Jacob are born (24-26), Esau the hunter sells his birthright to Jacob the pastoralist (25:27-34), a famine and the promise reaffirmed to Isaac (26:1-5).
Rebekah was barren twenty years (compare vs. 20 and 26). The theme of the barren patriarchal wife suggests that God deliberately delayed fulfillment of covenant promises. The Lord of blessings makes his people wait.
Isaac gets the least amount of independent narrative and less is known of him than other patriarchs, his story being swallowed up by his father and his son. Sarna suggests a few hints that more was known about Isaac in ancient Israel: the phrase “fear of Isaac” (31:42) suggests that there may have been a story behind it and Amos 7:9 and 16 speaks of shrines of Isaac. Isaac lived most of his life in one place, Beersheba, and moved to the Hebron region late in life.
Esau is the progenitor of Edom, the people who will be rivals to Israel and who figure largely in prophecy and rabbinic literature. Deuteronomy 23:8 commands Israel not to abhor Edomites. The prophet Obadiah denounces Edom since they apparently helped the Babylonians in the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem in the late 7th century and early 6th century BCE. Jacob, as a pastoral nomad interested in the business of flocks, is more like Abraham, but Isaac admires his wilder son, Esau, for his prowess. The rivalry between brothers not only prefigures Israel and Edom, but is one of two primary conflicts in Jacob’s life (the other being Laban).
26:5 has been taken by some of the sages as indicating that Abraham knew the whole Torah. Alternatively, the narrator’s purpose in including this statement is simple: as Abraham obeyed all that he knew concerning righteousness, so Israel, now receiving the whole Torah, must keep all of the additional revelation God has shown. What did Abraham know? If God had revealed a lawcode to Abraham, it is certain the Torah would report this. Therefore, the Torah assumes that human beings know what is right by nature and are responsible for this knowledge.
Abraham was a nomad, but his son Isaac settled down in Beersheba and remained there most of his life. But this part of the story concerns Isaac’s wanderings before he settled in Beersheba. Isaac is a man looking for God’s blessing and his place in the world. When he meets with conflict, he tends to move on, seeking an escape. Yet even in the places he temporarily inhabits on this quest for peace and quiet, Isaac is blessed.
In Gerar he is not threatened by Abimelech, but he feels a threat is possible and acts preemptively to head off danger. He tells the locals that Rebekah is his sister, a bizarre replay of his father’s habit of doing the same with Sarah. Unlike Abraham’s situation, however, Isaac’s wife is never taken into the king’s harem. God seems to give Isaac the peace and quiet he seeks, unlike his father whose life had more tension.
Even though Isaac has not yet found his place, we read וַיִּמְצָא בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִוא מֵאָה שְׁעָרִים וַיְבָרֲכֵהוּ יְהוָה vayimtza’ bashanah hahi’ mei’ah she’arim vayevaracheihu Adonai, “He reaped in that same year a hundred fold and God blessed him.”
Perhaps we can say that from the trauma of his childhood — his father bound him to an altar and was going to kill him for God — Isaac sought rest and did not want strife or the struggle to find blessing. But God blessed him without the need for him to strive for it or live in the face of danger as his father had before him. But Isaac’s son, Jacob, will be even more of a striver than Abraham. The grandfather traveled and risked his life to seek God’s blessing. The father ran from strife and sought peace. The grandson, Jacob, will doubt that there is any blessing for him and think he must make his own. All three end up living in the blessings of the covenant. The larger message seems to be that it depends on God, not us.
Isaac is afraid and tells people Rebekah is his sister (6-7), Abimelech sees who Rebekah is and forbids anyone to touch her (8-11), the Lord blesses Isaac’s crops (12).
What should stand out to the reader is how different Isaac’s situation is from his father’s. No real conflict occurs this time. The king recognizes that Rebekah is Isaac’s wife before any harm is done. And immediately after we read that Isaac’s crop produced a hundredfold. The blessing has increased. While Jacob will find much conflict, this is not due to a lessening of the covenant blessings, but Jacob’s own striving.
Isaac is a settled man (living most of his life in Beersheba) and is thoroughly blessed. This incident likely occurred before the twins were born and is one of many examples of chronological rearrangement in Torah. This Abimelech is the same as the king of Gerar in chs. 20-21. The name Abimelech, which means “my father is king,” shows up again in Judges. It is a common sort of name a king might take.
What are we to make of the text calling Abimelech a Philistine when we know that Philistines (among the sea peoples) arrived in the land during the period of the Judges (much later than the patriarchal era)? The text of Genesis was written in times much later than these events being narrated. It might call him a Philistine because his territory was in what would later be known as Philistia.
Even blessing can bring on persecution. It seems little in this life will be unmixed with sorrow. Isaac has blessing overflowing his life, but this causes his neighbors to fear him and exclude him. The local tribes refuse him access to wells and watering spots. He seems a threat to their fragile economy which is based on animal herding in the desert. And as human beings we often act out of economic self-interest, believing that if someone else ascends we will be forced to descend to make room for them.
Most of us are oblivious to God’s economy, which is based on mutual blessing, not competition for blessing. As long as we have the mindset of competition for blessing, we will be tempted to push others down in our scramble to raise ourselves up. We have yet to learn as a human race that blessing is as abundant as air and sunlight. There is more than enough for all.
Mutual blessing is God’s plan (see The God of Israel and Christian Theology, by R. Kendall Soulen). It is the plan announced to Abraham and those who encounter Isaac could benefit from it. But they choose competition instead, barring him from access to community wells and watering spots. They seek to keep all the blessing for themselves as if the formula is “I will bless you when you bless yourself.” But God’s mutual blessing formula actually goes like this: “I will bless those who bless you.” It is further reflected in the words of Jesus (“bless those who curse you,” Luke 6:28) and Paul (“bless and do not curse,” Romans 12:14).
The world never runs out of beauty, though clouds and other dark passings obscure that beauty sometimes temporarily. Just as we need not fear an oxygen shortage because all of our neighbor’s are breathing it, we never need to fear blessing will run out. It is in blessing others that we find blessing for ourselves. The very act of blessing others changes us, changes what we consider to be a blessing, and the cycle of mutual blessing grows and grows. Success looks like competition to some people, but it looks like giving and enjoying life to others.
God’s plan to redeem the world is based on the promise to Abraham. He will bless those who bless the children of Abraham. And life tends to work so that blessing comes to anyone who blesses others, so that the principle is not merely in the realm of the world’s relationship to the Jewish people. If we all practiced mutual blessing so much more good would exist in the world. As for Isaac, he won’t find peace until he settles in Beersheba. He is wandering and looking for his place of quiet and rest. He does eventually find it. May we as well.
Isaac’s prosperity and alienation (13-16), more hostility in Gerar (17-22).
Ironically, it is the blessing of God that causes Isaac conflict. The local people do not bless Isaac (thus missing out on the mutual blessing aspect of God’s covenant: “I will bless those who bless you”). Pastoralists tend to have conflicts over wells. Since Isaac is not related to any of them, and because of envy, the local clans try to deny him access to water rights for his flocks.
The story of Abraham’s descendants will not be one without conflict. Even blessing can bring on persecution. Isaac does not respond to conflict with violence or any kind of force. He moves on peacefully. God can bless him anywhere. Eventually he finds a temporary place to recover from the conflict at Rehoboth (meaning “wide place”). In the next narrative, God will reaffirm the promise in light of the difficulties Isaac is experiencing.
Abimelech realizes what others could not. Isaac has moved away from Gerar to Beersheba because his neighbors feared his wealth and the obvious greatness that surrounded him. Abimelech sees that friendship with Isaac will bring blessing and not harm. So he offers a covenant of peace.
As for Isaac, at last he has found his place of rest. He digs his own well. His wanderings are over. אַל־תִּירָא ‘al-tirah, “Fear not,” says God. Isaac had been fearful and restless. But it is God’s intention to bring him to a place of quiet and peace. כִּי־אִתְּךָ אָנֹכִי ki-itcha ‘anochi, “For I am with you,” meaning “You will be able to see that I am influencing the outcome of your life.” וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ uveirachticha, “And I will bless you.” The abundant reality of blessing will cover Isaac’s life.
What can we say about the peace and quiet that Isaac found, while many of us are looking for it too? Are we destined to find it as he did? Eventually, yes. But in the short term, there is no guarantee. Time and chance, it seems, happen to us all. There is blessing and curse all around us. Now is not the time when God’s economy takes over. This present world — the Olam Hazzeh — is not yet the place of peace and perfection that we seek. But Olam Haba — the world to come — is our destiny.
Meanwhile, the lesson from the patriarchs for living in Olam Hazzeh is still that blessing others brings us blessing. Isaac had a special outcome from God, as someone God used to show what blessing looks like. He enjoyed many happy years in Beersheba. Whatever may be the outcome of the rest of the years we spend in Olam Hazzeh, it will be better if we learn to see the blessing all around us and spread it to others.
Isaac moves to Beersheba (23), the Lord appears and reaffirms the Abrahamic promise (24-25), Abimelech affirms Isaac’s blessedness and makes a covenant (26-29).
Isaac had lived at Beersheba before with his father, right after the near sacrifice of his life in Moriah (22:19). Returning here now placed him further outside of Abimelech’s territory. At this stressful point in his life, the Lord reaffirms the promise of the covenant in a dream vision (as was the usual method with Abraham). God had said “fear not” once before, to Hagar, also at Beersheba, in response to Ishmael’s crying out. Now Isaac hears the comforting words of God in the same place as his brother (Sarna).
The Abrahamic covenant is reaffirmed and immediately afterwards its power is made evident. Abimelech, in kingly wisdom, recognizes that Isaac is no ordinary pastoralist. The blessing of God is evident to Abimelech in Isaac’s clan and he wishes to make a covenant of equals with this raiser of flocks. A king and a sheep-herder make a covenant as equals, a picture of the mutual blessing God had promised in the covenant (“I will bless those who bless you”).
GENESIS 26:30 – 27:27
Why are there two versions of the Beersheba story? In the northern kingdom they told it one way (Genesis 21:22-34). Abraham kept the peace with a local king, and when there was a conflict over rights to a well, Abraham gave an offering of a feast. His act of generosity was a way to show his integrity. Some of Abimelech’s people had acted badly. Abimelech swore they were not acting under orders. Abraham cut through the confusion and mistrust with a generous gift. He made a covenant and attested under the oath of that covenant that he and his servants had dug the well. And this happened in Beersheba, a town whose name means “well of the oath,” but could also mean “well of the seven.” And Abraham’s covenant gift was seven lambs.
Beyond that, Abraham also planted a tamarisk tree to mark a place in Beersheba as a sacred spot for worshipping the God of the covenant.
In the southern kingdom they told it another way (Genesis 26:27-33). Some years after Abraham, his son Isaac, had moved away from Abimelech, trying to put some distance between himself and the people of Abimelech who quarreled with him about water rights. But Abimelech came to Isaac, in a move that could signal war. It was not war, however, that motivated Abimelech, but a recognition that God was with Isaac. He came to offer Isaac a covenant, a bilateral treaty. They feasted and exchanged oaths and there was peace.
On the morning Abimelech was leaving, Isaac’s servants came to him to report that they had succeeded in digging a well. Isaac named the well “Shibah” (which means “oath”), because he had just made an oath of peace with Abimelech. This, according to the southern kingdom’s version of the story, is how Beersheba got its name.
These stories about the ancestors were passed down orally and over time different versions arose. The Torah, edited and collated by some later editor, perhaps Ezra the scribe, contains both versions of the Beersheba story. The greatness of the ancestors was the stuff of legend and meaningful place names (Beersheba, well of the oath) were fertile ground for stories. It would be impossible now to say if both stories were true, one or the other, or neither.
But both stories concern two things of value to ancient Israel: a connection to the patriarchs and peace with the nations surrounding Israel. As Second Isaiah said to a generation more than a thousand years after the patriarchs, “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you” (Isa 51:2). The old promises are connected to the future ones. When we feel like all is meaningless and our hope is lost, we should remember a covenant promise continues to move through history and all of us, Jew and non-Jew, are connected to it.
A feast celebrating the covenant (27-31), a well called Shibah (32-33), Esau marries a Canaanite and embitters Isaac and Rebekah (26:34-35), Isaac near death asks Esau for some game (27:1-4) Rebekah plots and has Jacob masquerade (5-25), Isaac gives Jacob the blessing for the eldest (26-27).
Given his desire to find a place of quiet and rest, it seems Isaac has arrived. A king has come to him bringing a covenant of peace and the celebration of that treaty marks the beginning of a long time of blessing for Isaac in Beersheba.
There are two versions of the story behind the name of the place, Beersheba, one in Genesis 21:22-34 and one here in 26:27-33. The former is the E source’s version of the story (E wrote from Shiloh sometime before Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom in 722 BCE) and places the naming account of Beersheba in Abraham’s lifetime. Here in 26:27-33 we have the J version, written in Jerusalem also before the northern kingdom was destroyed. The J source locates the naming of Beersheba in Isaac’s lifetime. The stories are actually somewhat incompatible: did Isaac or his father swear an oath concerning a well, thus giving the town its name? Both stories are also artfully written. Beersheba means “well of the oath,” and both stories prominently feature a well and an oath. Furthermore, “sheba” (sheva) also means seven, and the names of Abraham and Abimelech occur exactly seven times in the E as well as the J version of the story. We see here a window into the story-telling traditions of Israel and the final version of the Torah includes both well-known accounts, even with their discrepancies, about the origin of Beersheba’s name.
Meanwhile, the saga of Jacob and Esau begins to develop. Esau chooses a path of assimilation into Canaanite society, causing his parents grief. After all, Esau’s grandfather had gone to great expense sending a servant up into Syria to find Rebekah so Esau’s father would not marry into the local population. Esau’s passionate and impetuous nature endangers the ongoing distinctiveness of the Abrahamic clan. This story line sets up the grief of Isaac and Rebekah over their son and the eventual plotting of Rebekah to supplant him with Jacob in the family inheritance.
Again, J is artful in the telling of the story about Jacob stealing the blessing. The word blessing occurs seven times and the verb form twenty-one times (Sarna). The father’s blessing was expected to prefigure the future. If Jacob is to be the one who will carry on the family name and the covenant with God, then it seems to Rebekah her son must have the father’s blessing. The story of Jacob’s life is a tension between his ambition and ignorance of divine providence and God’s lovingkindness to him in spite of these flaws. The wrestling with God story will bring these tensions to a climax. Jacob steals what God is going to give him anyway (see 25:23).
GENESIS 27:28 – 28:4
“Dew of heaven” (טַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם tal hashamayim). “Fatness of the earth” (שְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ shemanei ha’aretz). These are the ordinary blessings of life and Isaac’s blessing very much fits the viewpoint of a desert dweller, a man who has made his living in harsh places. May you never lack water and may you eat abundant food, is what the blessing amounts to. We might imagine a blessing beginning with something more extravagant. We might hope for a future good fortune filled with some more elevated promise: perhaps wealth or unrestrained joy. Sensible Isaac wishes food and water on his son.
But Isaac’s blessing does move on to some weightier promises for the future of the Jewish people. יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ לְאֻמִּים ya’avducha ‘ammim veyishtachavu lecha le’umim, “May peoples serve you and nations bow down before you.” This sounds very much like the divine promises recorded in the later parts of the book of Isaiah, which were written during and after Judah’s exile in Babylon (586 BCE and later). It is a very nationalistic promise and it sounds as if it could be based merely on the desire of a people to dominate over others.
Yet the meaning of the covenant with Abraham, the promises that all the families of the earth will find blessing in and through his offspring, is not about domination per se. It is about a torah of peace (a teaching that makes peace) spreading to the nations who come to the people of Abraham to receive it.
Isaac’s blessing undeniably has a sense of wishing dominance upon the son who receives it (“be lord over your brothers”). And so the wish that nations will serve Israel may also be taken to some degree in that light. Perhaps here we see the mix of human desires (dominance) with a larger meaning that Isaac himself may not have fully comprehended (God’s plan of mutual blessing for Israel and the nations of the earth). Scripture is both human and divine.
“Blessed be everyone who blesses you.” True blessing will come to the people of the world through the children of Jacob, the offspring of Israel. At least part of the meaning of this theme in the Hebrew Bible is that the God of Israel will be revealed to the nations through the children of Israel. Scripture and Messiah come to the world through the Jewish people. More than that, blessing comes to those who bless and do not curse. It comes to those who humbly and gratefully recognize and receive the greater dew of heaven and fatness of the earth. Human beings do not live on bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God.
Isaac’s blessing over Jacob (28-29), Esau’s return and anguish (30-38), Isaac’s leftover blessing for Esau (39-40), Rebekah’s plan to save Jacob (27:41-46), Isaac blesses and sends Jacob after a wife (28:1-4).
When you live in a semi-arid region, dew is an important source of moisture, opening up grasses in the morning for your animals to eat and even providing them some water (Sarna). Therefore the dew-blessing Isaac pronounces over his son is most appropriate for their lifestyle. The meaning is that his son will always have a life-giving supply. Jewish tradition carries this blessing on, since in the Jewish prayerbook dew is mentioned alongside rain as a vital request.
The blessing over Jacob is clear and unambiguous, that God would give him plentiful dew and rain. But the same cannot be said about the blessing over Esau. Its wording is vague, uncertain (Sarna). English translations of vss. 39-40 may miss the subtlety of this ambiguity. מִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ יִהְיֶה מוֹשָׁבֶךָ mishemanei ha’aretz yihyeh mōshavecha, “From the fatness of the earth will be your dwelling.” Does this mean “away from,” as in Esau will live in harsher lands, or “from” meaning he will dwell in the place of feasting? Sarna (JPS Commentary) argues that the blessing is deliberately ambiguous, so that Esau himself may decide if it is a blessing or not.
But there is no denying that Esau’s blessing has a negative side. It lacks the key words “may God give you.” Furthermore, the blessing predicts a yoke and a sword for Esau.
Isaac has given the best already to Jacob and no love for Esau can change the fact that he has nothing more to give. Still, the hopeful aspect of Esau’s blessing is that he will someday throw off the yoke of Jacob. Historically, David and Solomon subjugated Edom, but in the days of Jehoram and Amaziah Edom revolted and freed itself from the Judea yoke. By the time of Ahaz, Judah even lost the port of Elath (Eilat, see 2 Sam 8:13-14; 1 Kgs 11:14-22; 22:48; 2 Kgs 8:20-22; 14:7; 16:6).
The story does not end there. Rebekah wants more for Jacob still. When she complains about Esau’s Canaanite wives, Isaac calls Jacob to him and blesses him again. This time, with full intention of extending blessing to Jacob, the aging patriarch expresses clearly that what had come through Abraham will now go through Jacob.
His is the tragedy of the unchosen. Once the favorite son of his father, a manly man, Esau has fallen into disfavor and lost everything he once held dear. The tragic chapters in his story are a combination of his poor choices and treacherous acts committed against him through the collusion of his mother and brother.
In his youth Esau had sold his birthright, trading his future right to a greater share of the inheritance, based on his immediate need for food. This pattern seems to fit with his later actions as well. He has earned a reputation in writings about the Bible as an impetuous man, short-sighted, weakened by his drives for immediate satisfaction.
Also in his youth, Esau took two wives from the local population. There is no story given to the reader about how Esau came to make this choice. The note, like Esau’s faculty for decision making, is short. Rebekah was grieved by these wives, perhaps for more than one reason. It was her wish to see her sons marry into the Abrahamic clan in Syria, where Isaac had come to find her. Perhaps there was also more to it, either a foreignness to these wives that made them incompatible with Isaac’s clan or something more. Maybe Esau had chosen badly and the wives were of poor character.
Then Esau was the victim of inter-family plotting. He had done enough to alienate his mother, but perhaps even so he did not deserve the cruel conspiracy that deprived him of his father’s deathbed blessing. When he discovered that Rebekah and Jacob has deceived his father into giving the blessing to Jacob, Esau’s cry of grief was palpable: “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?”
How will Genesis answer this question? Will the rejected son wither and die a miserable example of God’s terrible justice? Is the moral of the story that if we fail in our youth to recognize the importance of an inheritance in God’s plan we are doomed to live meaningless lives?
Not at all. We will see shortly in the narratives, after Jacob’s struggle to find his own identity and to discover God’s ways, that Esau has been every bit as richly blessed with the fatness of the earth and the dew of heaven as Jacob. In fact, it is Jacob who will fear for his life and carry a soul-killing anxiety. Esau, like Ishmael, may have been rejected in some sense, not the chosen scion of the line that will continue the Abrahamic blessing. But both he and Ishmael were exceedingly blessed, perhaps as a sign to us thousands of years later that God has many places in his plan.
Jacob goes to Paddan-Aram (5), Esau sees and takes an Ishmaelite wife (6-9).
To the north, in Syria, there is a valley that was once called Aram-Naharaim (“Syria of the two rivers”) and within that region was Paddan-Aram (“the garden of Syria”). This was the home of Laban, near Haran, where the clan of Terah (Abraham’s father) settled. This is where Abraham’s servant came to find a wife for Isaac and it is where Jacob now travels, urged on by his mother. Rather than marry into the Canaanites, which is to be avoided not because the Canaanites were “bad” or “evil,” but because of the danger of the Abrahamic clan assimilating and disappearing onto the local populace, Jacob will marry among his cousins.
Just as the narrative of the stolen blessing was preceded by a side note concerning Esau’s wives (26:34-35), so the story of Jacob’s time with Laban is preceded by a digression into Esau’s story and his wives (Sarna). The effect of these short summaries is to make Esau a real character and not simply a foil for Jacob. Esau’s tragedy is felt by the reader. He has received a bitter lot and tries to make amends for his impulsive ways by taking yet another wife. This time he chooses a wife from the Ishmaelite clan. This, of course, does nothing to change the fact that Esau is now the scion of the rejected line of the family. His is the tragedy of the unchosen.