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In Defense of Isaac: Toldot Reconstructed

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 63, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 96-100 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0044

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

It is not uncommon to belittle Isaac. A pawn at the Akeidah, the passive recipient of a wife, his adult life is spent following in the footsteps of Abraham. He ends his life blind, literally lacking sense, choosing the wrong son and being hoodwinked by the right son in order to assure that God’s will be fulfilled. Gerhard von Rad, the nineteenth-century German scholar, went so far as to suggest that Abraham was a figure representing the historical sagas of the Southern tribes (therefore his homes in Beersheva and Hebron) and Jacob represented the tales of the Northern tribes (therefore his homes in Shechem and Beth El) but that Isaac was a manufactured figure, fictitious glue to connect one set of tales to another.

This notion has its seat in the story of the theft of the birthright blessing in chapter 27 of Genesis: a birthright purchased freely by Jacob, the blessing consequently destined for him. Isaac, we are led to believe, plans to give that blessing to his favorite son Esau. The Torah depicts Isaac as old and blind and focused on his earthly desires. Rebecca immediately assumes him to be a doddering old fool, ready to trade away his most precious asset— his blessing, the rightful inheritance of Jacob—for a good meal, just as Esau had sold it in his youth for his own momentary satisfaction. How ironic, if Jacob, her favorite son, who had used the instrument of Esau’s hunger to gain the inheritance, should now lose it through the same earthy nature by which he had gained it. If God’s will that the inheritance of Israel proceed through Jacob is to be realized, of which she was certain, she must act with dispatch. She cooks up, literally, the ruse by which Jacob could be first to receive the blessing.

All this assumes that Isaac was unaware of, or uncaring about, God’s will to transmit the blessing of Abraham through Jacob. That is the upshot of the way we have all been taught this story. And in so doing, I think we have all missed the intended message of this story. For I doubt that Isaac could have been at once one of our patriarchs, associated with the transmission of God’s covenant, and altogether unaware of the intended march of that blessing across the generations. And I believe that the Torah’s text tells us that clearly, though we may have missed it all these years.

The key is in the blessings, of which we are presented with three in the short space of two chapters. When Isaac prepares for Esau’s return from hunting, the blessing he intends to give Esau, and gives Jacob by mistake, is reported thus:

May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth,
  abundance of new grain and wine.
Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you.
Be master over your brothers and let your mother’s sons bow
  to you.
Cursed be they who curse you, blessed they who bless you.

—Genesis 27:28–29

A worthy blessing to be sure, of plenty and temporal power. But missing is any reference to God’s covenant, to inheriting the land of Israel, to continuing of the generations of the Jewish people. In all of God’s many iterations of the blessing given Abraham, these were its salient features. An example—there are many—might be the blessing given to Abraham when his name is changed from Abram:

I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you
  and kings shall come forth from you.
I will maintain My covenant between Me and you
  and your offspring to come as an everlasting covenant
  throughout the ages—to be God to you and to your
  offspring to come.
I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to
  come, all the land of Canaan as an everlasting holding.
  I will be their God.

—Genesis 17:6–8

Not only does Isaac’s blessing of Esau not hint at being the Abrahamic blessing, but it is in fact precisely the blessing one might have...

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