Translating the Jacob Cycle: Gen 25:19-34
Esau sells his birth-right for a pottage of lentiles. Engraving. 1728. Gerald Hoet and Gillem van der Gouwen. The Hague.
As I continue to write and think through my dissertation, I thought it may be interesting to work through and translate the Jacob cycle (Gen 25-36) here, to provide others a sense of how I view the text and to engage others in dialogue on a topic I have thought very much about. And while I don’t want to give every nuance of my interpretation away (who will buy it when it’s published then?!), I will offer after the translation some notes on key aspects of the text and my interpretation.
We will begin at the beginning, with the birth of Jacob and Esau and the extortion (note the word choice) of the right of the firstborn from Esau. I read this section of text as two episodes that are still intimately related to one another. In fact, I contend one cannot (indeed, should not) interpret any text in the Jacob cycle apart from this introductory section, especially the divine oracle in Gen 25:23. So, I offer to you here my translation of Gen 25:19-34.
(A clarifier: I am a very literal translator–hyper-literal. That may explain the nature of some of my translation. I am also here foregoing any detailed or complex analysis of the Hebrew or the narrative itself. As JW notes, such is for publications . . . . and I don’t want to give everything away).
(19) And these are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac. (20) And Isaac was forty when he took Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan-Aram, sister of Laban, to him as a wife. (21) And Isaac made supplication to YHWH on behalf of his wife for she was barren, and YHWH was supplicated to him, and Rebekah his wife conceived. (22) And the sons struggled with one another in her womb and she said, “If thus, why in the world [am] I?” And she went to seek YHWH. (23) And YHWH said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from your belly will be separated, and a people will be stronger than the other people, and the greater will serve the lesser.” (24) And her days for bearing were full and behold, twins in her womb! (25) And the first came out red, all of him like a cloak of hair; and they called his name “Esau.” (26) And afterwards his brother came out and his hand grasping the heel of Esau; and he called his name “Jacob.” And Isaac was sixty when she bore them. (27) And the young men grew up, and Esau was a man knowing game, a man of the field, and Jacob was a complete/sound man, dwelling in tents. (28) And Isaac loved Esau, for he had game in his mouth, but Rebekah was loving Jacob. (29) And Jacob was cooking a boiled thing and Esau came in from the field, and he was faint. (30) And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me gobble down, please, from the red–this red!–for I am faint.” Therefore his name was called Edom. (31) And Jacob said, “Sell today your right of the firstborn to me.” (32) And Esau said, “Behold, I am going to die, and what in the world to me is a right of the firstborn?” (33) And Jacob said, “Swear to me today.” And he swore to him and he sold his right of the firstborn to Jacob. (34) And Jacob gave to Esau bread and boiled lentils, and he ate and he drank and he rose and he went, and Esau despised the right of the firstborn.
Vv. 19-21: Commentators have regularly noted that the Isaac toledot contains very little about Isaac save for chapter 26, which seems to provide a ‘backward glance.’ I agree; Isaac is hardly the active figure (even in chapter 26 he is far less active than any other of the patriarchs or matriarchs). In v. 19 he is wholly subordinated to his relation to Abraham . . . . note it is Abraham who begot Isaac, as well as the consecutive mention of Abraham’s name in the Hebrew of v. 19. Some recent attempts to assign a more active role to Isaac are not wholly convincing to me, seeing him as knowing of Jacob and Rebekah’s deception yet choosing to play along with the deception, thus himself deceiving, to bring about his desire to bless Jacob (Mignon Jacobs) or as intentionally not passing on the full ancestral promise to Jacob in chapter 27 and thus attempting to thwart YHWH’s purposes. I do think, however, in ch. 27 where Isaac calls only Esau while Rebekah does not appear to be a party to this discussion evinces the possibility that he sought to bless Esau without Jacob and Rebekah’s knowledge.
V. 22: I have rendered Rebekah’s words literally, finding meaning itself in the MT and thus seeing the obvious attempts cited in the BHS critical apparatus to tidy up her words as less original by text-critical standards. Her near incomprehensible words also echo those of Esau, I believe, later.
V. 23: The oracle is central to the entire Jacob cycle, as myself, Brueggemann, and others argue. You may not have caught it in reading through the translation, but how I render the final line of the oracle is unique; only Chris Heard notes the possibility of such a translation and Laurence Turner opts for this translation in one of his volumes and against it in another. Turner’s exegesis also does not jibe with his rendering of this line as I have within the overall context of the Jacob cycle. If you want to know more about how I arrive at this reading, and my argument for its impact on the rest of the Jacob cycle, you’ll have to come hear my paper at SBL in New Orleans!
Vv. 25-28: The descriptions of the two brothers are seminal for understanding not only the subsequent deceptions (note Esau’s hairiness and the deception of Isaac in Gen 27, Esau’s redness and the extortion of the right of the firstborn; Esau and Isaac’s love of food; and Jacob as ish tam, a saying that has provided fodder for much scholarly debate, yet which I think cannot be interpreted apart from Jacob’s deceptive activity) but also the narrator’s evaluation of the characters. To be sure, there is ambiguity, but I think it is quite clear the narrative seeks to communicate that Esau is a verbose, overly dramatic, bumbling fool and Jacob is a shrewd and sagacious figure.
Vv. 29-30: This is the first scene that clearly characterizes Esau as I describe him above. He comes in from a simple hunting expedition exhausted, claiming he is near death. Esau is here overly dramatic, as is evident by the fact such a hunting endeavor should not exhaust him so, especially against the backdrop of v. 27, describing him as an adept hunter (which I have argued elsewhere). His use of the hiphil form of laat, a hapax, belies the narrator’s intent; the word is used in postbiblical texts to describe the eating habits of animals (contra Chris Heard, who claims that this word is ambiguous and its postbiblical usage need not define its usage here; I disagree . . . . if the narrator wanted simply to communicate that Esau ate, he could [should?] have used the very common word achal). In the hiphil, in fact, it may even carry the sense that Esau is requesting Jacob feed him! The double calling of “red, red” also reveals Esau’s negative characterization.
Vv. 31-33: Jacob is shrewd and businesslike, as Alter describes him, saying only a few words. The Hebrew is very intentional as well; Jacob holds out the li (to me) until the very end, which I have preserved in my translation.
V. 34: A rapid influx of verbs with Esau as the subject. Note that the right of the firstborn no longer carries a pronominal suffix showing Esau’s ownership; it is now simply the ‘other’ and definite “right of the firstborn.”