The Cunning Woman and the Righteous Serpent – 40 Days of Exoduses (9)

The Birth of Esau and Jacob

At this point we move into one of the most developed exodus patterns in the Old Testament: Jacob’s exodus from the house of Laban in Haran. As I will be devoting a few studies to this account, the full nature of the Jacob narrative as an exodus pattern may only gradually become apparent. This initial study will be devoted to setting the scene.

Much as the other patriarchs in many of the passages that have been studied so far in this series, Jacob receives a rather bad press in many circles. Presented as a deceiver and a trickster, we are led to believe that it was only as YHWH dealt with him later in his life that he was changed. However, a careful reading of the text of Genesis punctures such claims.

Going back to the passage before the one examined in our previous study, we see the birth of Esau and Jacob and the selling of Esau’s birthright recorded in Genesis 25:19- 34. Like Sarah, Rebekah is barren. The barrenness of the patriarchs’ wives is an important theme throughout Genesis. The patriarchs and their wives do not produce the nation out of some great virility and fertility, but through the divine gift of life where the natural powers are absent or lacking. The opening of wombs is clearly presented as something that YHWH accomplishes and prayer is a recurring theme in the context of the birth accounts.

A further thing to recognize is that the childbirth of the patriarch’s wives is regarded as frontline covenant work, something involving struggle, prayer, and victory over the serpent. After the Fall, YHWH established enmity between the woman and the serpent and between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. While our focus is commonly on the enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, we need to appreciate the importance of the enmity between the woman and the serpent. The chief hostility is not between Adam and the serpent, but between Eve and the serpent. Eve is the mother of all living (3:20) and the one through whom the promised seed will come, so she is the one who is in the centre of the serpent’s sights. Adam just stands in the way.

As we look through the book of Genesis, we see various serpent figures seeking to attack and capture the women at every turn. We see the women using deception to outwit these serpents: Eve overcomes the serpent who first deceived her by outwitting him in his cunning. This theme is one that will develop throughout the Scriptures. While many of the stories, especially the earlier ones, involve the Adam figure guarding the Eve figure from the attack of the serpent, as we move through Scripture, we increasingly see situations where there is no Adam figure and the conflict between the woman and her seed and the serpent and his seed is thrown into the sharpest of relief.

In the account of the birth of Esau and Jacob we see the struggle of two nations in the womb of Rebekah. The struggle between these two children is the struggle between Cain and Abel, the struggle between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Rebekah knows that there is something strange going on her womb. While the unborn John the Baptist will leap in Elizabeth’s womb with joy at the arrival of Mary and the child that she is bearing (Luke 1:44), in Rebekah’s womb there is a vicious battle taking place.

After inquiring of YHWH, Rebekah is told that two people groups are struggling in her body and that the older shall serve the younger. Once again, we should recall the fact that Genesis is a story of archetypical figures, not just of individual historical characters: Jacob and Esau represent nations and peoples and their later history. The theme of the younger child taking the place of the older should also be familiar to us from Cain and Abel/Seth, Ishmael and Isaac, Joseph and his brothers, Perez and Zerah (38:28-30), and Ephraim and Manasseh (48:12-20). This declaration of YHWH’s is important as he identifies which of the two sons will bear the covenant destiny. Recognizing this fact helps us to make sense of much of the narrative that follows. By favouring the older over the younger, Isaac will be seen to be going against YHWH’s purpose.

The womb is a place of great significance in Scripture. New periods of history are preceded by an emphasis upon the ‘womb’. The Garden of Eden is a womb, a source from which life flows out. The deep of the Flood is the watery womb of a new world and the opening of the door of the ark a new birth. The vineyard of Noah is a period of childhood protection before entering into the wider world. Symbolically Egypt is a womb: the struggle in Rebekah’s womb is, like the struggle between Israel and Pharaoh in the ‘womb’ of Egypt, something that heralds a great development in history – the birth of a new nation. Jacob’s time with Laban is another such ‘womb-time’, a period during which Jacob matures and is multiplied in size, before he comes out at the other side and is given a new name. The baptism of John is the birth of the original form of the kingdom, leading to the ministry of Jesus in which newborns are raised to maturity. Christ’s resurrection is his birth from the tomb, as the firstborn of the dead. Pentecost is the birth of the Church from the womb of Israel. It is for this reason that themes of childbirth and the figures of pregnant women cluster around these epoch-changing moment in history.

When the two children are born, Esau has a lot of positive signs going for him. He is ruddy and covered with hair, something remarkable and a sign of glory in Scripture. Judging by the outward appearance, Esau is well-favoured. Jacob comes out of the womb grasping the heel of his brother, like the serpent bruises the heel of the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15 and is named ‘the one who takes the heel’ or ‘supplanter’.

Esau and his Birthright

The description of the two children as they grow identifies Esau as a hunter and man of the field (25:27). I suspect that we are supposed to be reminded of Nimrod and Cain here. Nimrod, the founder of the great and wicked empires, is the other great hunter in the book of Genesis (10:8-12). Cain is the man associated with the field, where he slew his righteous brother Abel (4:8). Jacob is described as a perfect man (25:27; cf. Job 8:20), a man of integrity, dwelling in tents and running the affairs of the household. I wonder whether the association of Jacob with tents is supposed to remind us of Shem, underlining the prophecy given prior to the birth of the twins, which should recall the relationship between Canaan and Shem (9:26-27), suggesting that Jacob is the true Shemite.

Isaac loved Esau. The reason for this is given to us: Isaac’s appreciation for Esau’s game, hardly a good reason to favour one son over the other. Like Esau, as we shall see, Isaac has become a man who compromises for the sake of his stomach. Rebekah, however, loves Jacob, the son that YHWH marked out as the true bearer of the covenant destiny. Later on in Scripture, we will see that YHWH concurs with Rebekah’s preference rather than Isaac’s (Malachi 1:2-3).

In 25:29-34 Esau returns from hunting and, bearing very weary, asks Jacob for some of the ‘red red stuff’ that he is cooking. The fact that the colour is so emphasized should suggest that it is being given significance: Esau seems to think that Jacob is cooking blood, something that was forbidden for consumption (9:4), and demands it. Jacob says that he will give Esau the food in exchange for Esau’s birthright. Here we see an interesting play on the roles in Genesis 3. Esau is immediately given the name ‘Edom’ (v.30), which is formed of the same letters as Adam in Hebrew. The association between the characters should not escape us. Edom wants the forbidden food. He makes the questionable claim that he is about to die, so the covenant birthright means nothing to him anyway. The connection of the forbidden food with death is another connection with Genesis 3. The fact that Edom wasn’t really on the point of death is suggested by the fact that he eats, drinks, and immediately goes on his way (v.34).

The role that Jacob plays is particularly fascinating here. Jacob plays the role of the serpent, the one who is shrewd, who uses trickery, and offers the forbidden food to the unfaithful Adam figure. He plays along with his character as the serpent-like heel-bruiser of his brother. However, and this is a crucial point, the serpent-like Jacob is not seen as an evil serpent, but as one who has the shrewdness and cunning of the serpent yet uses it for good, outwitting the wicked seed of the serpent as the true seed of the woman. He is the one who is as wise as a serpent, but as innocent as a dove (Matthew 10:16). We see that the tribe of Dan is also spoken of as akin to a serpent who bites heels in Genesis 49:17.

The judgment of YHWH in the passage fails clearly upon Esau. He is the one who despised his birthright (25:34). Jacob was cunning, wise, and, most importantly, righteous in tricking his wicked brother out of the birthright. He was fulfilling the will of God as declared to Rebekah. He was also guarding the legacy of the Abrahamic covenant, preventing it from falling into the hands of a godless man who valued it so cheaply. Jacob’s serpent-like traits are noteworthy, because they are the traits that will enable him to struggle with and overcome the various serpents that he wrestles with in his life. In each case, Jacob gains the upper hand by using righteous cunning and deception, out-serpenting the serpents.

The exodus pattern is one that involves wrestling with and overcoming serpents and dragons. The serpentine Jacob wrestles with unrighteous covenant men (Adam/Edom figures and, later, his father Isaac) and later will wrestle with viperous men outside of the covenant people. All of this is preparation for what is to come.

Jacob’s name also means ‘supplanter’ or ‘replacement’. Using serpentine cunning, he will replace the unfaithful. He will take the place of Esau with his cunning, take the covenant legacy of his father Isaac, and the property of his wicked uncle Laban. The youngest brother will take the place of his elders.

Esau’s Loss of His Blessing

In Genesis 27 we see Isaac thinking that he is nearing death (he doesn’t actually die until about forty years later – 35:27-29) and wanting to bless Esau. The whole story is framed by the wilful unfaithfulness of Esau in taking wives from the Canaanites (26:34-35; 27:46; 28:6-9). Yet Isaac is seemingly prepared to give the Abraham covenant blessing to this son who clearly despises it (his dulled senses are supposed to alert us to his dulled spiritual vision – v.1). He is prepared to give a blessing that declares ‘be master over your brethren, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you’ (v.29) to a son whom YHWH had declared should serve his younger brother (25:23). An appreciation of Isaac’s unfaithfulness, once again seen in terms of his willingness to put the covenant in second place to his love for Esau and his game, is essential if we are going to make sense of the meaning of this passage. The man who was a faithful son (Genesis 22) and a faithful husband (Genesis 26) is not a faithful father.

Rebekah overhears Isaac arranging for Esau to hunt some game and prepare him some food in preparation for his blessing and hatches a plot. Since her husband is disregarding the covenant, she must take matters into her own hands. Rebekah, the new righteous Eve figure, wise to the unfaithfulness of her husband, talks to her son Jacob, the seed of the woman, seeking to trick Esau, the seed of the serpent, and Isaac, the unfaithful Adam figure, who is favouring him. Using deception she will outsmart both of these men and achieve YHWH’s purpose through her cunning. Once again, we should see the poetic justice of the woman deceiving the serpent figures, Eve getting her own back for her deception in Genesis 3.

Two goats play an important part in this story. These two goats represent the two sons. The hairiness of the goats is connected to the hairiness of Esau and Jacob wears the skins of the goats in order to appear like his brother (vv.11, 16, 23). Out of the two goats food is made for Jacob (v.14). One goat would be more than enough for a full meal for one man. However, the fact that two goats are used suggests that there is a symbolic combination occurring here, a joining together of the two sons in one figure, Jacob, whose food and clothing is made to smell like Esau’s. In Jacob and his meal, both of the sons are represented and he receives the full blessing and inheritance. The other son, Esau, is replaced and suffers loss. He bears the judgment of the covenant, while Jacob is raised up to God’s presence as an approved and pleasing offering, yielding blessing. Once again, we see a possible allusion to this in the two goats of the Day of Atonement.

James Jordan’s treatment of this passage is very helpful. He makes the following observations about the sacrificial themes:

1. Isaac needs to be propitiated by the offering of food before giving blessing. Smelling the son is also mentioned (v.27), just as the sacrifices of the covenant are spoken of as a sweet aroma to YHWH, leading to his favour (Leviticus 1:9).

2. There is the threat of death or curse associated with drawing near falsely to Isaac (v.12), who is in the place of YHWH. Rebekah, however, is prepared to take the curse upon herself (v.13).

3. The sacrifice represents Rebekah as the Mother of the Seed. She prepares the food and prepares Jacob and sends him to Isaac.

4. The Day of Atonement/Covering is the day when the father figure – Aaron – offers up Israel to YHWH and receives YHWH’s blessing and covering. Isaac should have offered his children in a righteous manner, but on account of his failure, Rebekah had to take over.

5. The Day of Atonement/Coverings parallels are important. Two goats are offered. One is sent into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:21; Esau is sent away from the fat of the land and dew of heaven into a dry and barren country – 27:39) and the flesh of the other is offered to YHWH (Leviticus 16:25). Aaron has to cover himself with new woollen garments in order to do this (Leviticus 16:23-24). The fact that the covering with new garments comes after the sending away of the goat into the wilderness (vv.22-24) and before the offering up of the food to YHWH (v.25) suggests that there is a replacement theme here. Likewise, Jacob’s hairy garments give him a new status on the basis of the hairy kid Esau being sent into the wilderness.

6. There is a development here, from the ram of the Passover, which represented Isaac in Genesis 22 (perhaps seen as Ishmael’s righteous substitution for him as Ishmael beneath the bush in 21:15 parallels the ram caught in the bush in 22:13), to the goats of the Day of Coverings, where the two sons are offered up to YHWH by the father figure (although the mother figure has stepped in here), one being sent out into the wilderness and the other offered as food (there may also be Day of Covering themes in the Ishmael/Isaac account, as I have suggested, although Ishmael isn’t seen as a negative figure to the degree that Esau is).

Jacob’s Flight

All of this sets the stage for Jacob’s flight from his brother, who seeks his life (27:41—28:5). The theme of fleeing from a threat to life (whether violence or famine) into a foreign land should be familiar to us as the beginning of a new exodus cycle. We should remember that Haran is associated with the intermediate realm in Genesis 11:31, away from Ur, but not yet in Canaan – it might symbolically be seen as a sort of wilderness location. Within our next study we will begin to see how Jacob’s preparation as the serpentine seed of the woman enables him to wrestle with the new viper – his uncle and father-in-law Laban.

Summary

We have strayed a little from our primary theme here. However, what we have seen is the emergence of key motifs that will be prominent in the various exodus accounts that follow. In particular, we have seen the importance of the theme of the struggle between the woman and her seed and the serpent and his seed. The role of the woman at the forefront of the struggle against the serpent will only become more crucial as we forge ahead. We have once again seen the prominence of the imagery of the womb and giving birth, the importance of deception and trickery as a means of overcoming serpents. With all of this background narrative, the scene is set for the great exodus of Jacob that follows.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Exodus, Genesis, Lent, OT, OT Theology, Theological, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Cunning Woman and the Righteous Serpent – 40 Days of Exoduses (9)

  1. Pingback: The Faithless Father-in-Law and the Wrestling Wives – 40 Days of Exoduses (10) | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. Pingback: Second Sunday of Lent: 40 Days of Exoduses Summary | Alastair's Adversaria

  3. Pingback: False Phalluses and Despoiled Tyrants – 40 Days of Exoduses (11) | Alastair's Adversaria

  4. Pingback: The Crusade of the Lost Ark – 40 Days of Exoduses (22) | Alastair's Adversaria

  5. Pingback: #Luke2Acts – Some Notes on Luke 1 and 2 | Alastair's Adversaria

  6. Pingback: Jesus, the Goat for Azazel | Alastair's Adversaria

  7. Pingback: Why We Should Jettison the “Strong Female Character” – CHRIST THE MORNING STAR

  8. Pingback: Why We Should Jettison the "Strong Female Character"

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s