Now, let’s get back to Jacob’s story. Curiously, the next time we see him, he’s making a stew. Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary. And Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.” Therefore his name was called Edom. But Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright as of this day.” And Esau said, “Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?” Then Jacob said, “Swear to me as of this day.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:29-34)
This interaction is the first of two incidents that earns Jacob the reputation of being “a dirty, sneaky thief,” but is this characterization altogether accurate or fair? As is so often the case, when we dig deeper into the cultural context of scripture, things get a little more interesting and complex.
According to some sources, in ancient times, it was tradition that when a particular individual died, the eldest, second generation relative made a special red stew of mourning for the closest direct relative of the deceased. The direct relative could be a parent, sibling, or child, or spouse, with the second generation relative being a cousin, niece/nephew, or child. In this particular instance, it is thought that Abraham is the recently deceased. Therefore, it should have been Esau’s responsibility to make the stew for his father, Isaac. However, it appears that Esau could not be bothered with this task. He stayed away all day “in the field” and as soon as he had eaten, he left once again. The story says that he did not even pay his respects to his father at all. Jacob, who loved his father and was always trying to gain his approval, made the stew, but as he was not the firstborn, he could not bring it to him. So when Esau showed up wanting some of the stew, Jacob saw his opportunity to gain the ability to honor his father by serving him this special stew. That is why it is said that Esau “despised his birthright” because he could not be bothered to honor his father nor his grandfather, and he gave it up easily for a bowl of soup.
Of course the evidence supporting this scenario is merely circumstantial and, naturally there are “nay-sayers.” These skeptics claim that the Jewish Rabbis invented the tradition in order to paint Jacob in a better light. That certainly could be true, but let’s take a quick look at this circumstantial evidence and you can decide for yourself.
First, we need to determine if Abraham could have truly died around this time. The Scripture shows that Abraham was 175 years old when he died. He was 100 years old when his son, Isaac was born. Isaac was 60 years old when the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau were born. So with a little simple subtraction (175-100-60=15) we are left with the possibility that Esau and Jacob were 15 years old when Abraham died, making this story plausible where age is concerned.
But what about the subject of the stew itself? According to scripture, it was a lentil stew (Genesis 25:34), and it was red (Genesis 25:30). If you research the main staples in the diet of those living in Canaan during this time period, you will discover that lentils were common and readily available. However, some contend that the lentils used for this particular stew are unique to the stew of mourning, the detail of its distinct red color being the most compelling evidence. Of course, it’s not possible to prove whether this dish was intended to be “Jacob’s stew of mourning” based solely on the text and the specific color of dish, but it is a compelling possibility nevertheless.
Now, I would like to address one point from the second notable interaction between the brothers, which further contributes to the breakdown of their relationship.
Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to Esau his son. And Esau went to the field to hunt game and to bring it. So Rebekah spoke to Jacob her son, saying, “Indeed I heard your father speak to Esau your brother saying, ‘Bring me game and make a savory food for me, that I may eat it and bless you in the presence of the Lord before my death.’ “Now therefore, my son, obey my voice according to what I command you…”
Notice that it was not Jacob’s idea to carry out this plan. He (although approximately 40 years old by now) was only doing as his mother “commanded.” His ultimate guilt or innocence in this scheme is not the issue. However, the fact that he did not personally concoct the plan is worth considering. He even points out an obvious flaw in the plan his mother has devised.
And Jacob said to Rebekah his mother,”Look, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth-skinned man. Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be a deceiver to him; and I shall bring a curse on myself and not a blessing” Genesis 27:11-12.
Just an interesting side note:
Just as Adam was WITH Eve when the serpent “beguiled” her and she ate of the fruit, Jacob still bears the consequence of his role in this deception when Leah is secretly exchanged for Rachel. Finally, we will move onward to the most significant moment of Jacob’s life as it pertains to this study.
Then Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled him. He said to him, “Let me go, for the day breaks.” But he said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!” So He said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob.” And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked, saying, “Tell me Your name, I pray.” And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” And He blessed him there. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”
There is so much more to explore in the life of Jacob and I encourage you to do so, but how is this brief overview of Jacob’s life relevant to the broader subject of Judaism in general? To answer that, let’s summarize what we have covered so far up to this point in our research: The Hebrews in the man, Abram, “crossed over” the river to come to the place known as Canaan. They are then expanded into Israel in the person of Jacob who “wrestled with God and man and prevailed.”
The conclusion here is similar to what we determined previously regarding the Hebrews: All Jews, whether natural descendants or adopted in, are Israelites, but not all Israelites are Jews. As we continue this investigation, may God bless you all with peace in His truth.