How Could Rebecca Trick Her Husband Isaac?
Isaac And Rebecca: Would You Steal A Birthright From Your Blind Husband?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
When reading about Jacob and Esau in the Bible, we understand how Jacob became the third of our three patriarchs. Isaac wanted to give his elder son Esau the blessings, he wanted him to inherit the mantle and take the rightful birthright. But, as the story of Rebecca goes, she preferred Jacob, and wanted him to get the blessings. So Rebecca hatched a plan, enlisted Jacob, and together they tricked Isaac.
It was devious and sneaky – they took advantage of an old man with poor eyesight, and lied that Jacob was the eldest son. Jacob went on to become one of the three Jewish patriarchs – so the deceit had a significant outcome. Did the end justify the means? What is the meaning of the story of Isaac and Rebecca? Jacob stole Esau’s birthright – and his mother helped him. What does this summary tell us about Isaac, Rebecca and their family relationship?
In this series, Rabbi Fohrman questions the meaning of the story of Isaac, Rebecca and Esau’s stolen birthright. Through a close reading of the text, Rabbi Fohrman shows that actually, this whole thing spiraled out of control. That was not what Rebecca and Jacob intended to do at all – instead, Rebecca intended to empower Jacob, to stand up for himself, to make a case that he, too, deserved blessings from his father.
For more, see The Binding of Isaac... Where You Least Expect It
For even more, see Jacob: Man of Truth?
How Could Rebecca Trick Her Husband Isaac?Hello everybody. This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Aleph Beta. Today I want to look with you at the very difficult story of Yaakov's deception of both his brother Esau and his father Isaac. Isaac seeks to bless one of his children. He loves Esav. Rebecca, mother of both Esav and Yaakov, kind of swoops in and seems to impose her will upon the story. Dresses up Yaakov in clothes, borrowed so to speak from Esav. Before you know it, Yaakov has a blessing, Esav doesn't, and for the rest of Genesis we and the characters are left to deal with the aftermath. How do we understand the story?
Isaac and Rebecca's Story: Why Steal Esav's Birthright for Jacob?OK, before we dive into the story I do want to say a little bit of a word to you about perspective. We have touched the story before in Aleph Beta, in previous videos and you can find them at the links below. We have talked about the story, but we have talked about it primarily from the perspective of Jacob. What was he thinking? How could he have done what he did? What was the story like from his perspective?
Today I want to adopt a different perspective with you. I want to look at Rebecca's perspective, the mother of both Yaakov and Esav, because she really seems to be the architect of this deception; it seems to come from her. What was she thinking? Did she think that was okay? I mean, if she had an argument with Isaac, her husband, if she felt that you're blessing the wrong kid, bless Yaakov instead, then make the case to him, talk to him. Why resort to the sort of backhanded deception?
It ends up so terrible. Look at what happens. Esav is infuriated. He pledges that he's going to kill Yaakov and there's this anger, this burning anger that doesn't even seem to subside. Generations later the anger of Amalek itself, the grandson of Esav, seems to be just a carryover from this deception. So this is the beginning of this terrible family feud. What was she thinking? Why did she do this? If you were Rebecca's lawyer what would you say in her defense? Is there any possible way of defending her position in the story? And that's what I want to talk to you about today.
Was Rebecca's Deceit of Isaac Justified?All right. So if we are donning our Rebecca's lawyer's hat, as it were, one line of defense that we might sort of take is, Rebecca had a prophecy. She was really, when you think about it, doing nothing more than helping a God-given prophecy come into fruition because if you go all the way back to two chapters ago when Rebecca was pregnant with these two children, with Yaakov and Esav, she was troubled at that time because she felt a struggle in her womb. God came to her and explained, "Shnei le'umim me'ayich yipareidu," there's going to be two nations and they're going to diverge from your womb. These two children are going to be independent and establish these two different nations and there'll be a struggle between them and the older will serve the younger. "V'rav ya'vod tza'ir," in Hebrew.
There it is. The older is going to serve the younger. The older is Esav, the younger is Yaakov. She knows that it's the child she loves, it's Yaakov, who is going to be the one that ultimately is going to carry the mantle of the Abrahamic promise forward. Maybe that justifies everything. She kind of waits around, waiting for this prophecy to sort of come to fruition. But here's this moment, close to the end of Isaac's life, when Isaac decides it's time to pass on the mantle of the heritage to one child and he's choosing the wrong child. He motions to Esav and he says, "Come here, I'm going to give you this blessing."
Rebecca's thinking this is wrong. Every bone in her body is screaming, this is wrong. I have to do something to make this prophecy come to fruition. Therefore, all bets are off. Whatever she does, deception, underhanded, it just doesn't make a difference. She is causing this prophecy to come to fruition.
OK, so here is the critique, though, that I would level against that line of defense. First of all, why not just talk to your husband? I mean, you've just got to come back to that point. Just talk to him. If you had a prophecy, share it with Isaac. Why resort to deception? And even if you can come up with some reason why she had to resort to deception, still, does the mere fact that she had a prophecy from God, does that really mean that you can do anything to make that prophecy happen? I'm not sure we'd accept that line of argument. I'm not sure that intuitively that argument really makes sense.
What Would You Do in Rebecca's Situation?Let me try to illustrate why with an analogy for you. Let's put you in a version of Rebecca's position. Let's say you go to sleep one night and you have this dream. It's a prophetic dream. The Lord himself comes to you and says, "Dear AlephBeta viewer, I have a mission for you. You are going to be the next congressman or congresswoman from the 25th district of Wisconsin. It's going to be you. I, God, am behind you and just to prove it I'm going to give you a little something to begin your campaign. A check for $182,000 and it's for you," and lo and behold you wake up.
Under normal circumstances you just discount this. You think it's not really real, but there it is, underneath your pillow. You look and there's a check for $182,000 and it's drawn on the Bank of God and it's signed, love God. You deposit it in CitiBank and the check clears and it's real. What do you do now? Well, I mean, the one thing you don't do is just stand back and wait for it to happen. You know, you've got to put in some effort.
You open the back account and you begin to establish the campaign. You go out and you make some speeches and lo and behold it starts working. Your name recognition is going up in polling. You're neck and neck with your opponent. It looks like it's really going to happen. Until one night, five days before the election, your chief of staff calls you. He says to you, "Sir, I have bad news. Our internal polling says you're going to lose by five points. It'll be close, but you're going to lose." And just as the chagrin sets in he says to you, "But, I know somebody in central election headquarters who works with the computer systems. His name is Phil and I think if we slip Phil a little something, maybe about, I don't know, 180, let's say about 182,000 should be enough. I think we could probably make that five-point deficit go away."
Then he leaves you with your thoughts. It hits you. $182,000. That was the amount of that check. You had a prophecy. What do you do now? Do you slip the money to Phil? I think the answer is, you don't slip the money to Phil. I think what you've got to say here is that if it's wrong to commit fraud, if it's wrong to bribe an official in the central election's agency, then it's simply wrong.
This prophecy from God doesn't really justify it because you sort of have to say to yourself, "Look, on the one hand I had to establish the campaign. I had to do everything within my power, ethically, to make this prophecy happen, but ethically is the key word. I don't have to do anything to make it happen because, ultimately, there's a partnership here. I mean, God, You know, You have some power too. At some point I've got to say, look, there's five days left to the election. It's close. It looks like I'm down, but God, You know, You're the one who gave me the prophecy, You're the one who told me to run. I gave it the old college try. I did my best. It's up to You now."
If that's true, then seemingly our justification for Rebecca on the grounds that if you've had a prophecy you've got to make it happen no matter what, has just run out of gas. We have failed, really, to give a justification to Rebecca. What was she thinking?
Join me in our next video and let's try to figure that out.