By engineering Isaac’s blessing on Jacob, does Rebecca become the heroine of the story, or simply a schemer? And what of Esau, her passed-over son? Bill Moyers discusses these questions with biochemist Leon R. Kass, writer Stephen Mitchell, theologians Elaine H. Pagels, Jean-Pierre M. Ruiz, Marianne Meye Thompson and Robin Darling Young, and psychotherapist Naomi H. Rosenblatt.
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BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. A willful mother plots with her favorite son to cheat his twin brother out of his inheritance by deceiving their blind father. Could be a Greek tragedy or a prime-time soap opera. But this story is from a text sacred to great religions. And the deceit means that one son instead of the other becomes the founder of a great nation.
The mother justifies the trickery because she has learned from a prophecy that her favorite son is the favorite of God, too. And she’s determined to be the instrument by which the divine plan unfolds, no matter what it means to her husband, her other son, or their family values. The further we go into Genesis in this series of conversations, the closer we get to home. Here now, a blessed deception.
STORYTELLER ALFRE WOODARD: This is the story of the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Isaac was 40 years old when he took Rebecca to be his wife. But Rebecca was barren. So Isaac prayed to the Lord. And Rebecca conceived twin sons.
The children struggled and wrestled within her womb. And Rebecca cried to the Lord, if this is the way it is to be, why do I exist? And the Lord answered her, two nations are in your womb. One shall be stronger than the other, the older one serving the younger.
So Rebecca gave birth to the twins. And the first to come out was named Esau because he was ruddy and hairy all over.
Then the brother emerged, holding on to Esau’s heel. And they named him Jacob , the heel-holder.
Esau grew up to be a skillful hunter and a man of the fields, while Jacob was a quiet man who stayed near the tents. Isaac loved Esau because he brought him savory game to eat. But Rebecca loved Jacob.
One day Esau came home famished and faint from working in the fields. And Jacob convinced Esau to sell him his birthright for a bowl of stew. What good is a birthright, Esau said, if I’m at the point of dying?
As time passed, Isaac grew very old and his eyes too dim to see. He thought he was going to die.
He beckoned Esau and said, go out to the field and bring me a meal of savory game that I love so that I may bless you before I die. Rebecca overheard Isaac’s words and repeated them to Jacob. Go fetch me two goats from the flock, she told her son, and I will prepare the savory meal your father loves. When you take it to him, he will give you his blessing.
But Esau is a hairy man, Jacob said, and I am smooth. Father will know I’m deceiving him and bring a curse on me, not a blessing. But Rebecca said, your curse will be on me. Just do as I say.
Now Rebecca dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothes and put the skins of goats on his hands and neck. Jacob went to his father. And Isaac said, which son are you? And Jacob said, I am Esau, your firstborn.
Let me touch you, Isaac said. The voice is the voice of Jacob. But the hands are the hands of Esau. And he blessed him.
Jacob had scarcely gone out when Esau brought his meat to Isaac. Isaac begin to tremble. Who then was the man who brought me my meal before you? I ate it before you came, and blessed him.
And when Esau found out how Jacob had tricked them, he let out a bitter cry. Oh, my father, he said. My brother Jacob has conspired against me twice. First he took my birthright, and now my blessing. Don’t you have one blessing left? Just one? Bless me too, oh, my father.
Isaac answered, you will dwell on the fatness of the Earth, but Jacob will be the master. From that day on, Esau hated his brother Jacob and vowed to kill him.
Rebecca told Jacob to go. Flee from your brother’s fury, she said. Run for your life.
BILL MOYERS: Does this story make you queasy?
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: Yes. It has a certain questionable element to it that we know that God had promised — or had told Rebecca that the younger son would become the heir instead of the elder son. And yet that it should happen through deceiving an old and somewhat infirm man and cheating his brother — it’s puzzling.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: There is a kind of act of thievery going on here. But on the other hand, I think the story, it poses the question, who really is the worthy heir here? And who is the person who is able to be the founder of a nation? And it clearly is not Esau. We know it’s not Esau because Esau has already famously sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.
BILL MOYERS: This is a story about the founding of a people, the people of Israel. These are the founding fathers. When I was growing up, all the stories about George Washington in our mythology stressed his confessing that he had cut down the cherry tree and never mentioned that he owned slaves. I mean, if Jacob and Esau had been in American folklore, they would have been six feet tall, with wonderful, muscular virtues, and with an aura around their —
STEPHEN MITCHELL:Blond hair, too.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, blond. The writer of this story, writer of this story makes no effort to clean up their act. Why?
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: I think the writer of the story is asking a very hard question. How can this fit into the plan of God for a people? How is this part of our past? And how did these human beings take into their own hands the divine destiny that was before them?
BILL MOYERS: What’s the question? Rebecca, when she feels the strife in her womb, she asks —
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: What is this to me? She’s asking about her place. And she’s asking about a struggle that’s taking place not only within her, but a struggle that she’s going to have to, if not resolve, at least shape toward the future.
BILL MOYERS: And she says, why do I exist?
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: Why do I live? Why is this happening to me? What is this to me? How do I relate? How do I fit in?
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: I think that she, by marrying into this family, I think that she takes on the responsibility of making sure that the covenant that was struck between God and this family, with Abraham and Sarah, who she’s also related to in many ways, that this covenant keep its vitality and go on to the next generation. After all, it’s very tenuous at this point. It’s a fragile, new idea, very difficult spiritual idea that she has to make sure will be transmitted from one generation to the next.
And so she’s finding out, hearing God’s voice, that that is her purpose. Not only as the mother of these two boys in this little nuclear family, so to speak, but there’s a responsibility for future generations. And therefore she has to make the decision between these two boys, none of which is either a saint or a sinner.
ELAINE PAGELS: What strikes me is the way that Rebecca seizes the initiative and engages in deceit as though either God could not affect this transfer of the covenant nor the course of nature. I mean, without her, you have the sense that things would have happened very differently. And they wouldn’t have happened right. So it sort of depends on human cunning and initiative. There has to be a certain kind of person to sort of make the events happen. It’s not as though they will just follow.
BILL MOYERS: But you see, isn’t it out of Jacob’s hands? Isn’t it out of Isaac’s hand? Isn’t it out of Rebecca’s hands? With all due respect to the — and Esau, the wonderful, dramatic, flavor that pervades this story. We’re talking here about the covenant of Israel. Jacob is Abraham’s grandson. So is Esau. One of them is going to become the inheritor of that divine mandate to lead a people.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: The one who chooses to struggle to get it.
BILL MOYERS: But they both are struggling in the womb.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: The one who spurns it doesn’t get it.
BILL MOYERS: He doesn’t struggle. He schemes to get it.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: But Esau spurns it, it says at the end of the chapter.
BILL MOYERS: But you don’t think it matters to God that this blessing is passed on through deception?
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: I’d have to talk to God.
LEON KASS: There’s no alternative at this point.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s what I’m getting at.
LEON KASS: There really isn’t any alternative. Isaac, for whatever good reasons, prefers Esau. Esau is, in a way, a man’s man. He’s a knowing hunter. He’s a man of the field. He brings home the meat that his father likes. He has a kind of immediacy and strength. Jacob’s a quiet boy, hanging around his mother and around the house and makes soup.
Esau goes off and finds two wives. Jacob’s not even interested in women as far as we know at the beginning of this story. There is, from a certain perspective, a kind of manly ideal in Esau. And he’s very touchingly loyal to his father. I want to give him that and give him other things.
LEON KASS: But Isaac’s going to pass on that blessing to one son only. That’s what Isaac wishes. That’s the wrong son by a number of indications in the story. How is it going to be fixed? She’s not going to come and say, let’s go to the marriage counselor. She uses the only means at her disposal, which is this kind of guile. And it’s done very lovingly.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: Why are those the only means?
LEON KASS: What are the alternatives for her?
STEPHEN MITCHELL: Well, how about having a good talk with her husband?
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: But he’s old and blind.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: Well, he can talk. He can listen.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: Maybe he’s a little senile.
LEON KASS: Don’t make him senile.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: We don’t know.
LEON KASS: Don’t make him senile.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: I’m saying he is a little bit slow.
LEON KASS: I don’t think he’s slow.
BILL MOYERS: The fact of the matter is, it is out of his hands, isn’t it?
LEON KASS: It’s out of his hands. And there’s a wonderful —
BILL MOYERS: And she has to correct —
LEON KASS: But there’s a wonderful touch in the story. Isaac says, bring me food so that I may eat and my soul may bless you before I die. He speaks, I think, better than he knows, that something is working through him, unbeknownst to himself.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: You think he’s distancing himself almost from his soul, like the —
LEON KASS: I’m not saying its conscious. I’m not saying it’s conscious. But —
STEPHEN MITCHELL: That just means I, in Hebrew, that said that I may bless him.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: Why is she stepping into this? Is there a vacuum now, and she’s stepping into leadership?
STEPHEN MITCHELL: The women in a lot of these stories are living in a patriarchal culture, without power, where they have to get power by being deceitful. And it’s simply a part of the culture.
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: Yeah, but Isaac has no power either, I mean, because Esau is the firstborn. So he should get the birthright and the blessing. I grant that Rebecca is living in a patriarchal society. But it’s not as if she’s the only one who has something coming to her, as it were, from outside or from some other source saying how things will unfold.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: But think of your own marriage. And is this the kind of communication you would want between your husband and you? This happens because the power issues are such as they were. And women get bent by male dominance.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: Yes, but, Stephen, this is not the only instance of deception. Men do this just as much if not more than women in a sequel to the story. And I think that might be an important clue in the plot of the story, that in fact deception is, A, sometimes necessary, especially in life-and-death situations, and B — well, I’m talking about in the terms of the story.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: In the story.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: I’m not making a moral judgment here. And B, that there’s some way in which the plot — that is to say, God’s plot — and I use that word in both senses — is advanced by deception, by stepping outside the apparent borders of what is acceptable so that life may go on. Life, including blessing.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: What would you do if your children came to you and said, what does this story teach us? Is it OK to be deceitful?
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: Well, no I don’t think —
LEON KASS: Sometimes.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: —that you take a direct moral. Yeah, you have to do something like what you just did. You said in some situations. In some situations, the whole truth may not be told. In some situations, ruses, and to use a more neutral term, stratagems have to be advanced in order that life be saved.
ELAINE PAGELS: It’s important —
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: You believe that?
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: Of course there is, Stephen. And I can give you a couple of very good examples.
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: You would never lie to protect someone? You know, the story of Christians hiding people in the Holocaust or hiding Jews in the Holocaust. And you lie and say there’s no one in the home.
BILL MOYERS: So Robin would say, if I heard you correctly, that the deception is necessary. Or the deception is there because God’s will must be advanced through one of these boys, no matter what destruction or havoc it brought.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: Well, I have to be very careful about saying what God’s will is, because it’s very easy to project one’s own will and to have it become God’s will.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: Amen.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: Thank you. What I said is that life and the blessing must be continued. And the right person has to be chosen to continue it. Otherwise, the alternative is possibly that it stops right there.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: It also teaches me that the hardest decisions are not when you’ve got good and evil or black and white. The hardest decisions for all of us are in the gray areas of life. What’s gray in Rebecca’s life? What’s gray is that neither Esau nor Jacob are morally fantastic people. She has to look very carefully at the character of both boys.
One gives in to temptation right away and is dying any moment because he’s so hungry he needs that Hershey bar or whatever. Jacob is able to be tenacious — I’m not saying he’s good or morally superior — and be self-disciplined, hang in, and be resilient. For this particular stage in history, of this vision that she has — it isn’t just for herself. She’s responsible for thousands of years, till us sitting here today discussing this ancient covenant. She picks the one that will have the characteristics to — and maybe we can move from this and say what makes a good leader. I don’t know.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: But it’s the gray areas of life where the hardest decisions have to be made. Just as God has to work with imperfect people.
BILL MOYERS: Stay with the story for a moment.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: As I see it, the problem is very simple — that she loves one child, and the father loves the other child. It’s the same problem as in Cain and Abel. God accepts the one and does not accept the other. Hence, great suffering.
LEON KASS: And the question is, can we solve this problem in this generation without Cain and Abel? Now, it comes very close. But she figures out a way out of a very bad situation with a husband who, for whatever reasons, has a wrong relation to his sons. And especially if it’s a male-dominated world, especially, that’s very powerful. And it’s up to her somehow to take her knowledge and to fix this. I would even want to argue that she gives Isaac a gift in this deception. So she enables him to see —
STEPHEN MITCHELL: Wow.
LEON KASS: —his own — He’s been blind for a long time. He’s not just dim of sight in his old age. He’s been blind to the question of his sons. And if you say that Rebecca is a shrewd woman, and she really knows her boys, she has this problem. How do you reverse the order of nature?
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
LEON KASS: How you reverse the — nature has put Esau first.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: Make the older become the younger.
LEON KASS: How do you reverse this order? Nature hasn’t been cooperative. How do you do it without fratricide? How do you put the one who is capable, in a way, of carrying on the new way —
BILL MOYERS: Without violence.
LEON KASS: Without fratricide.
BILL MOYERS: Without repeating the story of Cain and Abel all over again.
LEON KASS: Exactly. Whether she knows about it or not, we know about it. That’s the way, the uninstructive way.
ELAINE PAGELS:Yes, the storyteller certainly knows about it.
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: I would wonder whether Rebecca does not lead the situation closer to the brink of the Cain and Abel disaster by precipitating the deception, by becoming the agent of the deception.
LEON KASS: How would you have fixed this?
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: I don’t know if it can be fixed.
LEON KASS: It’s got to be fixed.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: That’s right. It’s a presupposition of the story that it must be fixed.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: I think that the desire to fix things is a huge problem. And the other way is trust.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: Trust in what? Who?
STEPHEN MITCHELL: Trust in the intelligence of the universe, the justice of God, that things as they are are very good. There’s some deeper way of making things right by letting things happen in their own way.
The problems — you know, karma is a very good word for all of this. The problems that are caused by rushing in and fixing things go down from generation to generation. We see this over and over. And it’s a very honest and accurate story about how people cause pain for each other.
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: But couldn’t you argue that within this story there’s a word of God to Rebecca, and there’s Rebecca’s subsequent action? Not a lot of comment. Was she right? Was she wrong? Was she acting? Now, what does she actually fix? In other words, she doesn’t fix this word of God. What she does is to act in a way that puts the word of God — “word” meaning is his word to her — into effect. Now, we could debate endlessly. Did she have another way? Probably. But we don’t know what it is. Could it have happened another way? Is it descriptive, or is it God’s will? Is it just the way it happened, or did God want it that way? And the story just kind of plops it down. And it’s very hard not to read it and say, it’s God’s will, and it’s Rebecca’s initiative and that she chose it. She worked it. And God intended it. And God willed it. Just as you read the story. There it is.
LEON KASS:That’s really lovely.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: Maybe here we’re getting the theme that we all have to struggle with — at what point is Rebecca fulfilling the will of God? And in the way in which she’s fulfilling it, is there a tension between the will of God and how humans carry out what they think is right or wrong? Is there a conflict, or not? Harmony maybe. I don’t know. But she goes forth to affect and intervene in history and make something happen.
BILL MOYERS: Talk a little bit about the choice of Rebecca. Why Rebecca? What’s singular about her choice?
LEON KASS: She is, in a way, in place of Abraham in this generation. She makes his journey away from Haran, from a house of idol worshippers. But she somehow comes to embrace this God, whom she didn’t know. She’s heard about this strange fellow Abraham who went away. And word has probably come back. When she has this struggling inside of her, she goes voluntarily to ask of the Lord, of Yahweh. And it’s thanks to her and to her perspicacity and courage and prudence that this fragile way, barely begun, survives in this generation with all of its subsequent troubles, I grant you. I mean, it’s not a perfect solution. But she didn’t inherit a perfect situation.
BILL MOYERS: And it’s never for her own status, is it? It’s always for
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: For the covenant.
LEON KASS: Yup.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: She doesn’t win. Rebecca doesn’t win. In effect, she’s defeated by the nature of her children and by the very need of her children to triumph over her. I think anyone who’s a mother, and especially the mother of children growing up and seeking their fortunes, which is certainly beginning with my children —
BILL MOYERS: How old are they?
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: Well, I have a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old. Daughters in particular, not sons. But I think the same thing obtains. And the past two years have been a scene of defeat as the older one struggles to wrest her birthright, which is really her place in the world, from me. And she has to defeat me as a mother and allow me to sacrifice my closeness with her and my desire to keep her as a child, someone whom I can have in my arms, as she goes out. And I think that this story, it shows us a parent who must have grieved as he went away to his destiny. And she would never see him and never be able to experience his presence in her tents again.
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: We hear a lot of people in the present day talking in very breezy ways about family values, and making appeal to the texts of the Bible for a very simple set of uncomplicated family values. Well, here we have a very complicated family. And so there are some very difficult decisions that involve choices about value and who will be the recipients of blessing.
I think the story becomes, for contemporary readers, as a tremendous caution about oversimplifying, about glossing over the anguish. The question of value and the question of blessing is a very intricate one.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: Why does it resonate with me? It bothers me because I’m a mother of children. And how have I handled sibling rivalry? And maybe not so great. And I feel this more and more as I read the story, as to how to deal with this terrible problem. And number two, what am I, or any of us here, ready to do for a country that we love, for a cause that we love? How much are we ready to sacrifice?
BILL MOYERS: How does this speak to you about raising your family, raising your children?
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: It says that, to some degree, it’s inevitable that the complex of the family is going to have conflicts. They’re built into the family, conflicts, because we have different personalities, the mothers and the fathers. The children come with different personalities. And however much we love each one of the children, each child never gets enough love on some level. There’s always more to give. And we always want more. That’s number one.
Number two, we don’t get any harmony in life ready-made. Because we’re made in the image of God — I always have to go back to that — we’ve been given the tools and the privileges of thinking, of wondering, of planning, of analyzing, of compassion, of love, of patience, to use all these things in order to produce harmony. Because it’s not there on a silver platter.
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: Well, I was wondering, isn’t part of it that in the conflicts and the difficulties that we have in families, whether they’re nuclear families or the larger human family, you don’t have to get rid of them before God’s purposes can be worked out? It is precisely in and through them that this promise of God as is carried out.
There’s something very matter-of-fact about the way that this whole upsetting of the order is actually accepted by the characters in it. And Isaac, as you said, seems to finally come around. But he accepts it.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: But look at the price that’s paid.
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: Yes, it is a price.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: Jacob’s life is miserable.
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: But you don’t have to clean things up and get it all tidy and say, ah, now we can have the will of God. It’s in the messiness of it all that it’s worked out.
BILL MOYERS: Abraham Lincoln’s life was miserable. Abraham Lincoln was the instrument of some historical purpose in the life of this nation. But look at what happened to Abraham Lincoln, to his wife, to his children, to himself.
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: And that’s why we need stories like this. Without this kind of story, you would need a hero who chopped down the cherry tree and then went and said, Mom, I did it, it was me. Instead of the one who, like most kids in life, said, I didn’t do it. It was my sister or someone else.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: So what does it do for you as a mother? How do you apply it to yourself?
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: OK. I hear the lesson, if you will, about loving equally. But don’t we also see our children differently? We understand their different characteristics. What works as discipline for one doesn’t work for the other. We often have to say to our older one, well, this is part of the responsibility and the privilege of being oldest. The words we hear most often that we have forbidden in our home are, “no fair.” There’s a lot of stuff in life that isn’t fair. And it isn’t fair the older one gets to do this and the younger one doesn’t, or vice versa. But there is a recognition that these are human beings. These aren’t just kids. These are people.
And there’s a part of shaping their lives to say, you can go on fighting your whole life if you want. And plenty of people have done it. But maybe there are other ways to think about how you might relate, get along, what choices you might make.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: I’m glad you’re laughing.
ELAINE PAGELS: I mean, this is a story about a family and brothers and a society in which it can’t be a win-win situation. I mean, only the older brother gets the blessing. It’s a terrible anguish in the way it’s portrayed. But it’s really about two nations. And it’s about the preference of Israel over other nations and the validation of that preference by the divine covenant, and the problematic quality of that preference. Because it’s not because of moral superiority according to this story.
LEON KASS: I think the business about the nationhood is really crucial here. Rebecca, I think, expected, after 20 years of barrenness, one heir. That’s what you’d expect, there to be one child. And when she goes to ask of God, he doesn’t say, two children are in your womb. He says, two nations are in your womb.
ELAINE PAGELS: Yes.
LEON KASS: That this isn’t just a domestic story. That there are going to be two nations coming out this. And one is going to be lost. And then the question is, why would God, or why does the story suggest that the transmission into the next generation requires this opposition? Why is the struggle somehow important for the cultivation of the new way? Why can’t it be smooth?
BILL MOYERS: And why is it?
LEON KASS: It seems to me to start — and I don’t know. I’d be interested in other comments. That the arduousness of this struggle is a kind of humbling of the natural pride that we have in our progeny, the pride of the firstborn and the confidence that we have that everything is set. That Jacob begins with a kind of confidence that his smarts can handle things, that he can go forth and make things right.
But he is made in a way, like in the Greek tradition, Odysseus, also the clever man made to suffer much and wandering for 20 years, comes to somehow learn the limitations of cleverness, and to learn what it really means to have a brother and what it really means to be in relation to your family of origin, and what it really means to be in a relation to God.
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: Contemporary Christian theologian Justo Gonzalez speaks of our history as a non-innocent history. And I think that this story of the blessing that is bestowed by Isaac on Jacob is a terribly frank admission of the non-innocence of a people’s history. The story is told even though it can make us queasy, even though it is potentially a source of embarrassment.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think is the point of this story?
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: Oh.
BILL MOYERS: Why is it in here if it’s as honest as you say it is? And I think it is.
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: This is who we are, says the author. This is where we have been, says the author. Now we have to deal with that as individuals, as families, and as peoples.
BILL MOYERS: We seem more troubled by this story than the Bible is. There is no moral judgment rendered on any of these characters, right?
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: But there is. Because deception begets deception. Nobody gets away with anything. And we’re avoiding that.
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: But no narrator ever says, and she shouldn’t have done that, or she deceived him and it was wrong.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: But it’s subtly put in. It’s subtly put in.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: It’s called karma.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: Jacob lies to his father. The father doesn’t see in darkness. Jacob’s father-in-law, Laban, will mislead him in darkness. The women are exchanged, one wife for another. So the themes are subtly woven that deception begets deception. Then addressing about Esau, whom I’m very fond of — I mean, he’s a lovely young man. And the blessing gives him a peaceful life. Jacob is constantly struggling. Who says one wants to have Jacob’s destiny necessarily? Esau gets a nice blessing. He’s going to have fertile land. He won’t have to struggle.
And maybe in that first chapter, where he sells his birthright, so to speak, for that bowl of soup, there’s one little editorial line at the end. And Esau spurned his birthright. Maybe Esau, in his heart of hearts, maybe didn’t want the responsibility of being the first one, so to speak.
BILL MOYERS: Have you ever read Elie Wiesel’s account of Esau? He says, you know, this is a pitiful figure. He said, nobody loves him. His own mother seems to resent him. His younger brother is more clever. And when he comes back to his sad, old father with a humble request — Father, just please give me a blessing too — his father, whom he loves and who loves him, rejects him. I mean this is a pitiable figure.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: But he can’t. His father has no choice.
LEON KASS: He gives him a blessing.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: I disagree. I think his father truly loves him and can’t do anything. Apparently this blessing is immovable. And I’d like to add this aspect — that maybe Isaac was right in his preference. We also have the later story of the finale of this problem of between the brothers, where finally, after 20 years, Jacob is away and goes through all sorts of things and gets married, becomes rich. Finally the brothers meet. What happens there?
Esau is the one who opens his heart and opens his arms and embraces his brother and cries and forgives him. I mean, he could easily have been filled with the rage still and killed him. Jacob is still shifty and doesn’t really accept his brother’s love. So why not give Isaac some credence for seeing something in Esau?
BILL MOYERS: This whole story takes place around something called a blessing. If it weren’t there, I don’t think we’d be talking about this story. So what is the blessing we’re talking about? And why is it so important to this story?
STEPHEN MITCHELL: In the story it’s the right of the eldest, and ultimately the land. In the larger sense, I can’t take this notion seriously or this God seriously. In the larger sense, blessing is something real and ultimately important. And it’s something that all of us have and can open to. And it’s not a question of one person getting it. It’s not a possession. It’s not something that has to be given to either the one son or the other.
BILL MOYERS: But inside this story —
STEPHEN MITCHELL: Inside this story, it seems to be very simply the right to have the land and to father the people who will be the inhabitants of the land.
BILL MOYERS: But doesn’t it also involve the covenant, the covenant God made in the Genesis story with Abraham and the descendants of Abraham?
STEPHEN MITCHELL: But the covenant is to have the land.
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: But that’s not all it is. Isn’t the blessing also a promise of God’s presence with Jacob? You said it nicely when you said a blessing is not a possession, something you can seize, precisely because it is the promise of God, of the presence of God.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: But where is God not present?
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: But that can be elusive. Well, I think this story talks about the presence of God, not only with Jacob, but with the people in a particular way. That doesn’t mean exclusive. But you can have a particular way.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: But if a blessing can be given, if God’s presence is given to one person to the exclusion of the other, it is exclusive. And it’s a ridiculous way of talking about presence.
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: Why is it ridiculous?
STEPHEN MITCHELL: Because it’s not one thing that can be given.
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: But isn’t it true that the way we experience the presence of God in life is in very particular, concrete ways? It’s not some sort of abstract out there. But it has to be personalized, made concrete, made individual. All right, this is the way that God is present with Jacob.
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: Let me bring some light to that from the Latino tradition. However young or however old a child may be when he or she leaves the house, every time they step out the door, whether it’s been 10 minutes or a week, the parent, mother or father, blesses the child, touches the child, and grants the child a blessing so that the child can go forth blessed.
LEON KASS: What are they really doing?
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT:What are they doing for the child? What is the child walking away with?
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: With the presence of God. It enables the child to keep walking even when the child is walking away from its parents.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: Go forth into life. I’m blessing you, not because you’re better than every other kid on the block, but because to me, in my relationship with you, in this intimate relationship of mother and child, you are special. You are of incredible importance. You matter. Or you also matter in the world at large, whatever will happen to you outside.
This, to some degree, is the same thing that we get in the first chapter of Genesis where God blesses us and says, you are made in my image. I’m endowing you with a spiritual identity, that whatever happens to you in life externally, you carry that inner knowledge that you’re special to me.
BILL MOYERS: In the Latino tradition, is that blessing communicated equally, without favor?
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: The blessing is given to every child. Every child requests the blessing of mother and father.
BILL MOYERS: So we’re not talking about the same thing in the story of Isaac. We’re talking about something very unique here.
ELAINE PAGELS: The power of the story, it seems to me, is that it is so morally problematic, like the situations we encounter. It’s absolutely not the case that the good person gets the good result. But what seems to me the focus of the story is that it’s not a dysfunctional family. Simply there are two nations struggling here. And the story is about why Israel becomes God’s favorite tribe, his favorite nation. And how that relates the people of Israel to all the other people who are, in a sense, brothers, and who are in fratricidal strife with other nations and the claim to be God’s chosen.
And then the way that Christians later appropriate that. I mean, the father of the church, Tertullian, in the second century said, yes, Jacob and Esau. This is, of course, about the older brother. Esau is Israel. And the younger brother, Jacob, is the church. So we are now the favorite. And we have supplanted the one that was the older brother. And this is still, I think, for Christians today — and I can’t speak for Jews — for Christians today there is a claim that we are the only people who have the real revelation from God. And all others are benighted, deficient, inferior.
BILL MOYERS: So it may be a story that is morally ambiguous or neutral, but it is historically indispensable to the people of Israel.
ELAINE PAGELS: It’s deeply part of our culture, for better and for worse.
BILL MOYERS: How does that influence the way the story is told?
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, it seems to me that almost every people I can think of places itself at the center of the universe, emerging in the place of greatest importance. And that’s what this story does. And it happens to be adopted by our culture. But if it becomes a claim of —
BILL MOYERS: Favoritism.
ELAINE PAGELS: Divine favoritism, yes.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: Of superiority, yes. And sometimes this kind of, you could call it extreme inflation of the importance of self, whether that self is a personal self or a national self, can be very touching when it’s carried out with a certain kind of lightness and kindness. I think of the pueblo people that Jung visited who every morning had to get up before sunrise and do a certain ritual in order that the sun could rise. And they were doing this, as they thought, for the sake of all people. They were just the ones who were given that task. So that’s a very touching take on it.
However, I must say that the idea of being God’s favorite, or even God’s chosen, is a very dangerous idea. In my opinion, if you’re understanding or open to God truly, you can’t possibly imagine that God can have this kind of preference. And later, in fact, the prophets try to step or dance around this idea by saying, you know, aren’t all my people my beloved children? Aren’t the Ethiopians, the Egyptians my chosen people too?
LEON KASS: We’re very early in the Bible’s account of human history and indeed of this nation. And one shouldn’t forget that at least the narrative has, before God adopts Abraham and starts over with him, God has tried several times a universal way.
He’s tried a universal way at the beginning. After the flood he tries another universal way with Noah and his sons. And it falls apart in the very first generation. It’s at that point that God gives up the universal way, not the universal intention, but to try over this time by dividing peoples, electing one, and allowing that one to bear the burden of being somehow the carrier of God’s new way still, hopefully, to the world as a whole.
ELAINE PAGELS: But, Leon, excuse me.
LEON KASS: Please.
ELAINE PAGELS: This is not the way the Egyptians would tell it or the way the Arcadians would tell it or the way the Babylonians would tell it.
LEON KASS: I understand. On the other hand, international strife was not invented by the Bible. And therefore the question is, can that strife be turned to good?
BILL MOYERS: Leon, how do you then deal with the fact — if the Jews believe that they are the chosen people, and the Christians believe that they’re the new chosen people, and the Muslims think that they’re the chosen people, how do you ever achieve any kind of peaceful existence?
ELAINE PAGELS: I think that there’s no model in this story for that.
BILL MOYERS: And in none of the other texts outside the Jewish tradition, there is no model.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: I think there’s a misunderstanding here, if I may say so, about choice. I see choice differently, and all out of the biblical text. I think every people and every person has a particular task in life. Maybe we, as Americans, we’ve been chosen or we’ve taken on the choice or the task of being the first successful pluralistic society in history. That doesn’t mean that we are better than the Italians. Maybe their task is something else. Or that we’re better than the British who produced parliament, or the Russians with wonderful music, or whatever. It merely says God has chosen this particular group for one particular task. That doesn’t mean that Esau is morally worse than Jacob or vice versa.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: When you say only one —
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: And if you don’t carry out the task, you lose the privilege of being in this particular role.
LEON KASS: But what is the task?
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: The task is maybe the birth of monotheism.
ELAINE PAGELS: It isn’t just a task. To be Jacob means domination over all your sons, and ownership, and primogenitor in the family. That’s what it means.
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: This isn’t, I don’t think, a particularly triumphalist narrative.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: Meaning?
MARIANNE MEYE THOMPSON: Right. Something like Israel is the chief nation, superior to all others, chosen by God, and they will dominate. Jacob doesn’t even know that this blessing has been given to him. I mean, Rebecca knows it. But does Jacob ever know that he’s been chosen in this way? He kind of blithely goes through life.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: Plus he has to earn it over and over and over again. He learns. And he learns through struggle. And he learns through some suffering. And there’s always a mystery about it. So that’s, I think, what you were trying to get out when you said choice is not choice to have the supreme or dominant position.
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: As I’m listening, I’m playing around with the idea of how very differently this story would read if it were told from the perspective of Esau, the perspective of various marginalized peoples around the world who, in the course of their own history, have rarely, if ever, been allowed to tell their own story. Because their stories have always been co-opted for them and told on their behalf by those who were more strong or more shrewd or ultimately, bottom line, more powerful in the ways of this world.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: The story has been told also through Esau’s eyes. And that’s one of the points of genius in these Genesis writers. We can feel the great pain of Esau — bless me. Bless me, too, Father. I mean that cry echoes through eternity. And it seems to me that the greatest consciousness in the Book of Genesis is not the consciousness of the God character. It’s the consciousness of the writer. There’s a generousness of spirit that comes from these writers, which is also including the perspective of the defeated. And it’s a very, very moving and important quality of the text. Because it seems to me that that is being filled with God’s generosity and inclusiveness.
If we all think of these great and powerful and deep stories as a kind of dream, as a kind of pattern for the soul — these are soul stories. It’s very helpful sometimes to step into the story and see where we are, to step into the Garden of Eden story and see at what point in the garden are we? Are we standing beside the serpent? Are we with God? Are we with Eve? It’s very interesting to find out. And maybe tomorrow I’ll be at a different point in the scene. But right now I find myself standing beside Esau.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think you could ever overstep boundaries to get what you want?
STEPHEN MITCHELL: Uh-uh.
BILL MOYERS: So you couldn’t be standing beside Rebecca?
STEPHEN MITCHELL: I would never do that, no.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: And I’m right in her shoes. I’ve put myself in her shoes. I’m overcome with compassion for her. I really love Rebecca. I love Rebecca because of the struggles that she went through, the suffering that she went through.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: You know what moves me?
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: I’m so full of compassion for her.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: I am also. What moves me in that story about Rebecca is when Jacobs says, perhaps he’ll see the trickery and the blessing will become a curse. And she says, that’s all right, my son. I will take the curse on myself. That’s an extremely moving point.
BILL MOYERS: What does it mean to be chosen? You were born in Israel. Do you feel chosen?
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: Chosen for a responsibility, not better than Elaine or Steve or anybody else in this room. Chosen, we were always told — I’ll tell you. I’m telling you. I’m telling you. I’m sharing it.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: I’m also Jewish, too.
NAOMI H. ROSENBLATT: Right. And then we have to discuss responsibilities. I remember standing in the school yard and being told, the sun beating down and standing in my starched uniform, being told that a whole people is going to rely on my shoulders to survive. That if I don’t put the good of my people, so to speak, in front of my own needs and so forth, we will not — da-da-da-da.
And this was the end of the Second World War, that immigrants were coming in out of the camps. And we were sent out as young kids — we were teenagers — to help them. It was our responsibility to give them a place to call their own, to take them in and make them feel whole. It was always responsibility, endless, endless responsibility.
BILL MOYERS: As a son of Judaism, what is the covenant to you?
LEON KASS: Well, you mean now?
BILL MOYERS: Yes, now.
LEON KASS: I would say the foundation, it’s a certain kind of orientation in the world, a certain disposition of one’s soul to live righteously and to be the bearer of right and, if at all possible, to aspire to sanctify this life as it has been given to us to try to do.
BILL MOYERS: Does this story speak to you? Does it put you in place?
LEON KASS: Oh, this story puts me very much in place. It puts me in place both in a familial and a national way. We are given children as a gift. We’ve inherited something from those who’ve come before. It’s our task to do at least as well as we have been done by, that we’ve been given something treasured to hand on. And there are all kinds of temptations in today’s world, more tempting than venison. And that I as a father face them, and my wife as a mother faces them.
LEON KASS: For Rebecca to see that she, in a way, sacrifices this son as her own. She sends him forth on life’s journey with the father’s blessing, the voice of Abraham and God ringing in his ear, to be taught his lessons — which he badly needs — of the world. That’s our task. We don’t rear our children from ourselves. We try to dedicate them to something noble and fine, right, and holy. I’m just terribly moved by this story. And I love this woman. I just love this woman.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: When I come to the stories in Genesis, I am working and struggling and loving with my ancestors. And it’s sometimes a very painful process. I know a lot of my friends who are Buddhists, some of whom became Buddhists because of their problems with the Bible, all of them sooner or later have to come back to the Bible and wrestle with God.
I want to say also that I have other ancestors. The Buddha is my ancestor. Lao Tzu is my ancestor. Jesus is my ancestor. And they are not causing pain in the way that these particular, very human ancestors are. They have transcended this kind of suffering and are acting in absolutely compassionate, God-filled ways.
ELAINE PAGELS: When you take a group of stories like this and you put them in a canon and you decide they’re going to be the basis of a culture, you have to read into them. I mean, they’re already complex. But you need to read into them your own complexity or your own issues in order to experience them, interact with them.
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: The miracle is that God refuses to be limited to these stores. This is not the only script for God.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: Well, and the stories themselves don’t exist in a vacuum.
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: That’s right.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: All through this conversation, we’ve been treating these stories as if they existed independently of the people who read and interpreted them and the people who put them together and enclothed them in a scroll or between the covers of a book. And they don’t. They’re there because people already understood the stories in a certain way and understood that God is in the gaps, so to speak, as well as in the lines of the story. And the meaning somehow encloses the stories themselves. Because the meaning is in the lives of the people whom the stories have already shaped.
LEON KASS: I like very much what you say, Robin. For these stories to live in the life of a people, they have to be appropriated by thought and conversation and wrestling with the text and with the figures of the text and their meaning. In a certain way, there is a certain kind of divine spark that appears when one takes that task seriously.
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: And somehow when that happens, Rebecca ceases to become merely a character in a tale told many times. Somehow we enter into conversation with her.
LEON KASS: She’s here.
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: She’s here in this circle of persons.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: And she blesses, too.
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: And she blesses. And somehow our heirs and our descendants are participants in the conversation.
LEON KASS: And I think any reader who reads these texts has at least to wonder to himself or herself whether there isn’t also some mysterious source that lies behind it.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: Namely?
LEON KASS: Well, to say the least, that these are divinely inspired words. If Homer can begin the “Iliad” by saying, “Sing, muse,” and says that he’s somehow a vehicle for something beyond itself, books like this that so profoundly show us our life and try to help us guide our way in ways that, left to our own devices, we might never discover.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever get angry or troubled that God seems to have planted complexity in the center of the garden and has been willing to live with the consequences, to let us live with the consequences?
JEAN-PIERRE RUIZ: I’m actually more satisfied that God has planted the complexity than I would have been had God made things simple. I think life would be substantially more dull had God made things a bit more straightforward. There’s a richness to it and an awesome beauty to the complexity of life, to the uncertainty of the future. I think that’s a blessing. And I think that’s part of the blessing that’s bestowed by Isaac on Jacob, the complexity of Jacob’s future.
ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: But it takes something to see that as a blessing. Because we begin by wanting things to be simple. And it turns out that, in the end, we have to be human. And I think that’s what these stories are telling us.
This transcript was entered on April 15, 2015.