Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

The Deceiver Deceived: Rereading Genesis 27

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

The Deceiver Deceived: Rereading Genesis 27

Article excerpt

Though much of the biblical narrative focuses on men, women often are powerful figures behind the scenes. Each of the four matriarchs, for example, influences the direction of the Abrahamic family and their descendants. The second matriarch, Rebekah plays a pivotal role in guaranteeing that Jacob will inherit his father's blessing. Readers of Genesis 27 often credit--or condemn--Rebekah with maneuvering events in such a way that Isaac is disadvantaged, an innocent victim duped by his wife and son Jacob.

Taken at face value it appears as if Rebekah and Jacob collude to swindle, to take shameless advantage of the limited sight of the patriarch Isaac. Scholars have characterized the episode in disparaging terms. "Rebekah's Hoax" is the title of a recent article in Jewish Bible Quarterly. There the author writes that Rebekah "devises a plan to deceive her blind husband." (1) This description of Rebekah's action is in line with other contemporary critics. In notes to the recently published The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Rebekah is portrayed as working without Isaac's "knowledge or consent," that she "creates a way to usurp his authority" by using "subterfuge." (2) In Etz Hayim, the American Conservative movement's commentary on the Torah, one reads "Rebekah resorts to duplicity" (3) against Isaac.

To accuse Rebekah of duplicity and deceit against Isaac misreads the text. To suggest, "Rebekah thoroughly controls the action in Genesis 27" is too narrow a focus. Likewise, to term Rebekah as the "trickster who formulates the plan and succeeds, moving the men around her like chess pieces" (4) ignores Isaac's crucial role in this plot. Without Isaac's major contribution to the scheme, his playacting as the innocent barely-sighted giver of blessings, the deception of Jacob would not have succeeded.

A closer reading of the text suggests that while there was a hoax, a deception, it was Jacob, the deceiver, who was in fact deceived, not Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah together have planned this event. Isaac knows who is before him, as his dialogue with faux Esau makes quite clear. It is not Isaac who is "in the dark," it is Jacob. Both of Jacob's parents work in concert to mislead him so that he thinks he is "stealing" the blessing.

In Genesis 27, and in the chapters leading up to it, there are clues, both clear and coded messages that indicate Jacob is to be the designated heir, and further, that both Rebekah and Isaac understand this. While this thesis is hypothetical, and perhaps is a form of modern midrash, there is nothing in the biblical text to suggest that there ever is tension between Isaac and Rebekah. It is significant that when "the ruse is discovered, neither Jacob nor Rebekah is cursed" (emphasis added). (5) Further, when Rebekah suggests to Isaac that he needs to send Jacob to Uncle Laban, he does so with alacrity, and blesses Jacob in the bargain. These are not the actions of a man who feels duped and dishonored by his wife and son.


Isaac, no less than Rebekah, is aware that in their society primogeniture is the norm. In the preceding generation, in principle Ishmael should have received the patriarchal blessing for he was Abraham's first-born son. It was to protect her son Isaac (Abraham's second born son, though the first born through Sarah), that Sarah acted as she did. She was intent that Isaac, and not Ishmael would be the primary inheritor. Sarah says as much to Abraham: Exile Ishmael! 'Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac'(Gen. 21:10).

Rebekah and Isaac are in a more delicate position. They have no desire to exile Esau, nor do they plan to do so. All they require is that he be gone for a while so that they can put their plan into effect. Consequently, when they decide the time is ripe, Isaac puts the ruse into play by sending Esau away on an errand, to hunt game off in the wilderness. …

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