Genesis 25:19-34 - link to the NRSV text
Why is it that the God of Israel is often referred to as, “the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob”?
Reading through Genesis, I would have been more inclined to refer to God as “the God of Abraham, of Jacob, and of Joseph.” The reality is that Isaac gets a little short-changed by the Genesis accounts; while Isaac would go on to feature a little more prominently in Hellenistic and rabbinic era writings, his story as found in Genesis is incredibly condensed when put alongside his father Abraham, his son Jacob, and his grandson Joseph. In truth, a good bit of Isaac’s story overlaps with the beginning of Jacob’s, and Isaac becomes more or less a background figure as Rebekah, Isaac, and Esau come to the forefront.
As he is depicted, Isaac is a passive figure in the biblical narratives. In the binding of Isaac story (Genesis 22:1-14), he is not really an actor in the story, instead just goes along with the events with no signs of struggle or questioned beyond his initial inquiry about where the sacrifice was (Gen 22:7). He is even a fairly passive figure in the story of his marriage to Rebekah; Abraham, the servant, Rebekah are the actors, not Isaac.
So are we really surprised, when the text describes Esau as Isaac’s favorite and Jacob as Rebekah’s, that we find Esau almost as passive as Isaac has been up to this point? Yes, Esau is impulsive, but his impulsiveness is one full of apathy. Esau is a figure with little ambition or foresight; that is what the text really means when it says he “despised his birthright” (Gen 25:34) for a bowl of soup. He gave up his future (his birthright as the first born) for his present desire (hunger).
Conversely, Rebekah’s favored son Jacob is anything but passive. In fact, Jacob is active from the moment of birth seemingly grasping after Esau’s place within the family. Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s impulsiveness to forge his own way forward; thus it is no wonder that Jacob agrees when Rebekah, another very active and ambitious character, plots to a way for Jacob to become the primary heir and to receive the blessing of the first born from Isaac. But Jacob’s ambition and drive would backfire on him, forcing him to flee his father’s land and ultimately be suckered by his uncle Laban, though he gets Laban back in return.
All of this being said, this story is ultimately an etiological story, or a story that explains the origin of something namely Jacob’s (Israel’s) preference by God over Esau (Edom). This preference is underscored later in the text when they vocation of Esau and Jacob are given; Esau is a hunter, while Jacob was not. Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson note:
Given the biblical editors’ aversion to killing (Gen. 1:26-28; 9:3-4), this is an implicit theological comment not only on the twins but on the communities descended from them. The Edomites and those like them are descended from a people with an inclination to violence, whereas Israel comes from stock that, at its best, lives in covenant with other elements of creation (Preaching the Old Testament: A Lectionary Commentary, 61).
Allen and Williamson, however, are not willing to leave the text as simply a story of “Israel good, Edom bad,” and I think they’re right in pushing onward. They later ask two questions that they say are “haunting” (62) for modern interpreters:
How are we, like Esau, willing to sell our birthrights to satisfy immediate hungers? How do we, like Jacob, exploit others, even taking from them means of blessing (such as the birthright)? (62).
And I want to add a third question: How are we like Isaac and Rebekah, allowing our favored “child” preference over another, almost encouraging conflict and rivalry between groups, ministries, individuals, instead of seeking the best for all?