Torah Portion Toldot
Genesis 25:19 - 28:9
Malachi 1:1 - 2:7
This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.
In Toldot, Esau sells his birthright for a bowl of stew, but Jacob was no saint either. Jacob takes advantage of a hungry brother and then tricks his disabled father. Join us as we analyze the implications here.
This is the sixth portion in the Haftarah cycle where we will be discussing Malachi's admonition to the priesthood for dishonoring God through bringing stolen and imperfect sacrifices.
In Toldot we are first introduced to struggles between brothers over the firstborn status. Why is this so important? Why is Israel called God's firstborn? Why is Ephraim called God's firstborn in the verses just before the prophecy of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31? How was Israel sown into the nations and is that a good thing?
Deception and Protection
Genesis 25:19 - 28:9
This week's Torah portion relates the story about the birth of Jacob and Esau and the struggle for the primary position within the household. Yet right in the middle of this narrative is inserted a chapter that does not focus at all on these two sons but instead tells of a famine in the land which causes Isaac to move to Gerar where trouble ensues. Why? What purpose is served by telling this story? How is it related? Chapter 26 begins with YHWH reaffirming His covenant promises to Abraham and then immediately tells us that when Isaac is confronted with a situation where men are asking about his beautiful wife, Isaac responds with the same lie that his father Abraham used twice. Rather than trusting in the protection of YHWH, both Abraham and Isaac concoct the same falsehood that their wife is actually their sister in order to attempt to save their own life. Some scholars have noted that in a few of the surrounding ancient cultures, ‘sister-wife’ was terminology for a very highly respected wife, yet our Biblical text very clearly tells us that Abraham and Isaac were saying that their respective wives were not a wife, but instead a sister so that the powerful men of the land would not kill them. Clearly, both Abraham and Isaac intentionally lied, put their wives in danger of adultery, and failed to trust in the covenant protection of YHWH; they acted deceptively.
Surrounding this account of Isaac’s deception is the account of how Jacob also acts deceptively and unjustly. First, his brother Esau comes in from the field completely famished and, rather than feeding the hungry in order to fulfill the mandate of Genesis 18:19 to do righteousness and justice, Jacob takes advantage of the situation and uses his leverage in order to shrewdly acquire the birthright from his older brother. The birthright was a very important privilege and responsibility given to the firstborn son in the ancient Near Eastern culture where he would receive a double portion of the inheritance because it would be his responsibility to take care of his parents once they became elderly and unable to take care of themselves. The birthright is different from the fatherly blessing that occurs in chapter 27, though both were the right of the firstborn. Interestingly, due to Jacob’s deception with the blessing and his resulting flight to Laban’s household in Haran, Jacob never actually receives any of the inheritance from his father Isaac. Middle Assyrian Law B §3 and other ancient law codes attest to the fact that if a son runs away, he forfeits his right to the inheritance. Instead of inheriting the wealth of Isaac, Jacob must work for his uncle Laban for many years in order to build up his own wealth. Certainly God was with Jacob and stood up for him, but things did not go as smoothly for Jacob as they could have gone.
The story which follows the account of Isaac’s deception in Chapter 27 is one where Jacob must take advantage of Isaac’s blindness in order to steal the fatherly blessing which belonged by order of birth to Esau. Was such a blessing necessary for Jacob to become the vehicle of YHWH’s covenant promise to Abraham? No. Certainly God chooses whom He chooses according to His own design. Hot off the heels of taking advantage of his hungry brother, Jacob now lays a stumbling block before his blind father! Often stories have been told from pulpits of how this was actually God’s plan that Rebekah caused Jacob to fulfill, yet the Biblical text does not state that nor even try to hint at it. Contrary to most national literature, the stories that Israel preserved are not about faultless brave heroes, but are about flawed humans who make poor decision and cause pain and suffering in others. The true story behind these Biblical heroes is that our God takes people who are flawed and He works on reshaping them into His own image! This is our hope; not in entering covenant through perfection, but in being perfected through our covenant relationship.
The power of the covenant relationship is the connection between the story of Jacob and Esau and the stories of Abraham and Isaac almost causing Sarah and Rebekah to commit adultery. Abraham and Isaac thought that the Egyptians and the inhabitants of Gerar were barbarians who would be willing to commit murder in order to add another beautiful woman to their harem. They lied in order to save their own lives. Jacob also failed to provide hospitality for a hungry brother and then lied to his own father in order to receive a blessing that by order of birth belonged to his brother. All of them were clearly in the wrong and yet the amazing fact is that even in their wrongness and deception, YHWH stood up for His covenant partners! Certainly there were consequences which had to be faced, but the power of a covenant is that when an external threat occurs to one party of the covenant, the other party must stand up and protect their partner. The only exception to this is when YHWH Himself uses these external forces as a tool of punishment against Israel for bringing shame upon YHWH through their oppressive ways. Today we live in a world that often does not recognize the importance of covenant relations, but if we are trying to return to our roots and serve our King in the way that He deserves, we must return to living according to covenant relationships. This means that we must live according to the constitution of the Kingdom, the Torah because we are in covenant with YHWH. But if we are each in covenant with YHWH, it also means that we are in a parity covenant with each other and are covenant brothers. This means that while we can have internal debates in order to better ourselves, whenever there is an outside threat to a member of the group, it is each one of our responsibility to defend our covenantal brother from that threat, whether it be physical or verbal attacks from others, poverty, hunger, sickness, or anything else which threatens the order in their life. We are our brother’s keeper! This is even more important within a marriage relationship. You and your spouse are in a covenant relationship and regardless of who is right and who is wrong, it is your duty to defend your spouse, even if it is defending her/him against your parents! YHWH protected our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when they made mistakes, are you willing to defend your brothers and your spouse even when they mess up?
 Middle Assyrian Law B §1: [If brothers divide the estate of their father … the orchards and wells on] the land, [the oldest son] shall choose (and) take two portions [as his share] and then his brothers one after the other shall choose (and) take (theirs). The youngest son shall divide up any cultivated land along with all the (produce of their) labors; the oldest son shall choose (and) take one portion and then cast lots with his brothers for his second portion. (Pritchard, ANET, 185)
 Middle Assyrian Law B §3: If one among brothers who have not divided (the inheritance) uttered treason or ran away, the king (shall deal) with his share as he thinks fit. (Pritchard, ANET, 185)
Further Reading James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament , 3rd ed. with Supplement. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969)