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Jacob's Dysfunctional Family Life -- a study of Genesis 27

Updated: Mar 19

Deception begets deception.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 27

This week's post reads more like a public service announcement about scams and protecting yourself (and your loved ones) because there's not much mystery to the passage itself. Jacob deceives his father into a blessing, unintentionally fulfilling a prophecy given at his birth (and that Isaac may have been trying to thwart). God cannot be thwarted.

Are you really my son Esau or not? (27:21)

When We Studied This Passage in 2018

In the previous cycle, Lifeway split their 2-quarter studies. We studied the first part of Genesis in 2015 and the second part in 2018. So, we spent some of our time getting reoriented to Genesis.

Here are the topics I focused on:

  • Dysfunctional families

  • Playing favorites

  • A big section on Jacob

  • Isaac's blessing

  • Esau

  • The most despicable people in the world

This week's passage is about lying and scamming, and sadly that's a common occurrence in our world. So, I'm going to make my discussion ideas as much "PSA" as Bible study. We can be the wisest Christian in the world and still fall for a scam.

A Time You Got Scammed

You might just start here -- have you ever been scammed? The odds are that multiple people reading this post have. Your personal testimony about it might help somebody you know not fall for it. (Sunday School note: if it's a long story, you might want to save it for another event; remember your time limitations.)

Last month (Feb '24), the journalism world went into a temporary tizzie when the financial advice columnist (!) for a New York magazine acknowledged she had fallen for a scam. There was a lot of "you should have known better" reaction, and eventually more "this could happen to me" reaction. Her story is wild and disturbing, and if you have fallen for a scam, it should help you see that you're not alone.

[Editor's note: the week after this post, I saw an article on the Times that focused on a very low-tech fraud --"How to Win Friends and Hustle People".]

Statistics on Scams

The numbers are very disheartening.

In 2023,

  • 690,000 people reported being tricked by a fraudster,

  • The average amount of the fraud was $500,

  • Law enforcement doesn't have the manpower to address it all.

[Advice: never click on a link in an unsolicited email. (Look up the company/person on your own.) Never open an attachment you didn't ask for. (Contact the company/source directly to get it.) Don't answer calls you don't recognize. (Let them leave a message, and then do some research.)]

Scams are getting worse.

And they're about to get much worser.

Fraud Is Getting Easier: Artificial Intelligence

When we studied this passage in 2018, I talked just a little about fraud. Here we are, just a little more than 5 years later, and it's difficult for me to put into words just how much has changed and how easy it is to fool people today.

I don't know if this section is really for a Sunday morning Bible study or a public service announcement.

This video from a news segment is really eye-opening:

This news segment goes a little more in depth. To be sure, I spotted all of the fakes. BUT think about these factors: (1) the technology is improving every day; (2) imagine if your eyesight isn't so great; (3) imagine watching the video on your phone or when you're distracted. Would it be easier to fool you then?

SORA -- the end of video making as we know it. Last year, I told you about the OpenAI image generation tool called Dall-E.

Learning about it, I realized that I had been fooled by multiple "doctored" images over the previous year. Well, they have now released the same tool, but for video.

There are no signs of "doctoring" because the entire video is generated at once.

Using AI to "Clone" Yourself

Here's where the rubber meets the road. You can now use some of these tools to create AI versions of yourself. This Wall Street Journal article spells it out.

Or watch this tutorial video (!):

The dystopian point? If you can clone yourself, you can clone somebody else.

Jacob had to take advantage of a lot of compounding factors in order to fool and defraud his aging father. Today, just about anybody can fall victim to a fraud.

Public Service Announcement: Elder Abuse

I do want to dwell on this topic for a bit. What Jacob did to his aging father was absolutely despicable. And I believe he paid for it for the rest of his life (see below).

Those sorts of despicable things happen today. We call it "elder abuse".

Elder abuse includes physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation, neglect, and abandonment. Perpetrators include children, other family members, and spouses.

I bolded "children" in the quote because that's the focus of this week's passage. But it's also to point out that people today continue to do to their parents what Jacob did to Isaac.

I know that many of you have worked with cases of elder abuse from a medical, financial, or legal perspective. Those details are best left private, but perhaps you can talk about the "signs" to be on the lookout for.

Wrap it up like this: if you feel somewhat tech-savvy, and you fell for any of the video/audio scams, then how much harder must it be for someone older than us who might not be aware of the ways technology can be manipulated?

A Time You Deceived Your Parents

Perhaps you could go with this: did you ever try to deceive your parents? The answer is yes, by the way. Do you remember the circumstances?

For me, it was usually flat-out lying about where I was going and what I was doing. Truthfully (I mean it!), I didn't do that very often. The places I wanted to go and the people I wanted to see were basically fine, and I didn't really do very much that I needed to hide from my parents. Boring childhood, right?

Or, what about a time your kids tried to deceive you? (Every once in a while, my kids read this post, so I won't give any personal examples that put them on the spot.)

This Week's Big Idea: Jacob, How a Man Blessed by God Can Be Unhappy

Let me nerd out with a Lord of the Rings illustration:

The character Smeagol (Gollum) was a liar, a thief, and a murderer, and he was pitiful and miserable.

Jacob was a child of the promise, blessed by God, and very wealthy, and he was also miserable. And that's probably because he was a liar, a thief, and a manipulator who could never come to terms with the holes he dug in his own life.

Here are some "highlights" of Jacob's life:

  • 25:26 -- weird behavior at birth led his mom to name him "Jacob" ("deceiver")

  • 25:33 -- manipulates his older brother into his birthright

  • 27:35 -- fools his father into a blessing

  • 27:46 -- lies about the reason for going to Laban in Haran

  • 29:25 -- deceived by Laban into marrying Leah

  • 30:15 -- his wives manipulate each other

  • 30:41 -- thought he was tricking Laban out of his herds

  • 31:20 -- deceives Laban about running away

  • 31:35 -- Rachel lies about stealing Laban's idols

  • 32:20 -- attempts to manipulate his older brother through bribery

  • 33:13 -- lies to Esau about where he is going

  • 34:16 -- his sons lie to their neighbors in order to kill them

  • 37:32 -- his sons lie to him about the death of Joseph

We have a number of lessons upcoming about Jacob, so we don't need to exhaust it all today. But I think it's important to get this big picture up front. Jacob seems to be running his entire life, often from relationships and situations he created through his own manipulation and trickery. His life was full of sorrow, fear, and deception. And yet, God still loved him and worked to achieve His purposes through him as He promised Abraham.

It is fitting, appropriate, and instructive that Jacob becomes "Israel". Israel (the man), his highs and lows, the pain and sorrow, the steps toward God and the steps away from God (and God's faithful love toward him) make me think a lot about Israel (the nation).

But let's be clear about this -- yes, God blessed Jacob and loved him, but Jacob still lived a hard life full of broken relationships. In other words, God's love didn't eliminate the consequences for Jacob's sin and failure.


Part 1: Detestable, Miserable, Ingrate of a Son (27:18-20)

(But who am I talking about? Jacob or Esau?)

18 When [Jacob] came to his father, he said, “My father.” And he answered, “Here I am. Who are you, my son?” 19 Jacob replied to his father, “I am Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game so that you may bless me.” 20 But Isaac said to his son, “How did you ever find it so quickly, my son?” He replied, “Because the Lord your God made it happen for me.”

To appreciate what's happening here, we have to read two previous passages:

27:1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could not see, he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” And he answered, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Look, I am old and do not know the day of my death. 3 So now take your hunting gear, your quiver and bow, and go out in the field to hunt some game for me. 4 Then make me a delicious meal that I love and bring it to me to eat, so that I can bless you before I die.”

Two things about this:

  • Isaac is infirm enough to be manipulated.

  • Isaac wanted to give his blessing to Esau.

I'm going to talk more about "blessings" and "Esau" below. For the moment, take a look at this passage about the twins' birth:

25:21 Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was childless. The Lord was receptive to his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22 But the children inside her struggled with each other, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her: Two nations are in your womb; two peoples will come from you and be separated. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.

Did Rebekah tell this to Isaac? Did Isaac know that Jacob (the younger) was prophesied by God to be greater than Esau (the older)?

We have two options: either Rebekah had hidden this slightly important fact from her husband (which is hard to believe), or Isaac was trying to get around God's prophecy by helping out his older son (also hard to believe).

We know from chapter 25 that Isaac favored Esau and Rebekah favored Jacob. Warning signs should be going up everywhere. Perhaps Isaac and Rebekah were trying to deceive each other (and manipulate God?). This would be a black mark on their love story, but we all know that every couple goes through ups and downs. This would be a serious down.

It's a strong favoritism. We know that Esau has acted in ways to deliberately antagonize both Isaac and Rebekah. And yet, against his better judgment (and against God's prophecy!), Isaac wants to bless Esau.

And Rebekah finds out and wants to manipulate Isaac into blessing Jacob. This is a mess. A terrible, terrible mess.

Oh, and it gets worse! Notice how Jacob invokes God in his explanation. He's going to be "paying" for this for a long time.

Aside 1: What's the Big Deal about this Blessing?

Let me just quote what I wrote in my earlier post:


When I read the story of Jacob taking advantage of Esau and then Isaac into receiving the birthright and blessing, my immediate response is “After learning the truth, why didn’t Isaac just whip Jacob and then give the goods to Esau like he wanted?” Apparently, it wasn’t that simple.

You might have heard of “primogeniture”, which is the practice of the oldest son of the most important mother getting the bulk of the inheritance and whatever power/position the father had. It was common to just a few hundred years ago. Why? Because there would only be so much to go around, and the oldest son would likely be the most capable of running the family business (or whatever) at the father’s death. (This is also why so many second sons went into government work and church work.) Importantly, the dad had the authority to designate anyone he wanted to receive the inheritance (if the firstborn were incompetent or whatnot). That would help preserve order in the family and, thus, society.

We’re not exactly sure how this worked in Abraham’s family tree, but we know that the firstborn son was extremely important (the genealogies list the father’s age at his birth, and lists of sons always start with the firstborn; Moses would later codify that importance—think Passover (Ex 13)). Esau obviously didn’t find any value in his birthright, and Isaac still considered Esau the preferred son.

Several scholars believe that the “blessing” that Jacob sought was the “legal” approval of the birthright. In other words, until Isaac gave Jacob his blessing, Jacob would not have received the birthright he “negotiated” from Esau. That’s certainly possible, but a father’s blessing was apparently more than that in that day.

The father’s “blessing” went according to a standard format, and thus it was the equivalent of a legally binding document (remember, this was an oral culture). In other words, the father’s blessing could not be revoked legally. Now—you might be thinking (as I do) that God would not be bound by Isaac’s blessing. In other words, Isaac could pronounce whatever blessing he wanted; God didn’t have to do it. And that’s true! But in the olden days of the patriarchs, God also spoke to and through them, so we should also hear Isaac’s words as a kind of prophecy (just as Rebekah was told by God about this very outcome in 25:23).

What is more, it is evident that Isaac also saw his blessing (being in the name of God) as something more than words he could take back. I wonder if, as he was saying them, he thought about the ancient prophecy that the older would serve the younger, realizing that he had unintentionally fulfilled it.

So, does this mean that God was preordaining this family deceit? No, it doesn’t. The ends never demand the means. If Isaac’s family hadn’t been so dysfunctional, He would have found a “right” way of bringing about the same end.


Quote over.

Aside 2: Was Esau Just a Mess?

Yes, yes he was. We rightly harp on Jacob's character flaws, but Esau wasn't exactly better.

Hebrew scholars are quick to point out that Esau's language is very "primitive". He seemed to care more about learning to hunt than learning to speak. The word he used to describe the "red stew" in 25:30 is actually more like "red stuff". And the word used to describe his eating is actually the word used to describe how animals eat, never humans.

25:34 makes it clear that Esau did not respect his birthright as the eldest.

In 26:34, we learn that Esau married two Hittite women, and they "were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah". And then after Jacob escapes (because Esau was going to kill him), Esau unintentionally doubles down on it: 28:8 "Esau realized that his father Isaac disapproved of the Canaanite women, 9 so Esau went to Ishmael and married, in addition to his other wives, Mahalath daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son. She was the sister of Nebaioth." In other words, Esau wanted to make up to his father by marrying his non-Canaanite relative, but he picked Ishmael's family, maybe not knowing that Ishmael's family was taking him further away from God's promise.

Decades later, when Jacob returns, Esau genuinely seems to be a changed man. But Jacob still distrusts him and attempts to manipulate him.

Anyway, chapter 36 tells us that Esau became the father of a great nation, the Edomites. For a time, Israel (the nation) considered Edom a close ally. (Edom -- descended from Esau; Ammon and Moab -- descended from Lot.) But eventually Edom turned on Israel, leading to generations of war. The last territory of Edom was called Idumea, and the most famous Idumean was Herod the Great, leading to some awkward relationships with his Jewish subjects.


Part 2: An Elaborate Scam (Genesis 27:21-27)

21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come closer so I can touch you, my son. Are you really my son Esau or not?” 22 So Jacob came closer to his father Isaac. When he touched him, he said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he blessed him. 24 Again he asked, “Are you really my son Esau?” And he replied, “I am.” 25 Then he said, “Bring it closer to me, and let me eat some of my son’s game so that I can bless you.” Jacob brought it closer to him, and he ate; he brought him wine, and he drank. 26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Please come closer and kiss me, my son.” 27 So he came closer and kissed him. When Isaac smelled[a] his clothes, he blessed him and said: Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.

This is elaborate. And it entirely depends on the wiles of Rebekah.

27:5 Now Rebekah was listening to what Isaac said to his son Esau. So while Esau went to the field to hunt some game to bring in, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Listen! I heard your father talking with your brother Esau. He said, 7 ‘Bring me game and make a delicious meal for me to eat so that I can bless you in the Lord’s presence before I die.’ 8 Now, my son, listen to me and do what I tell you. 9 Go to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, and I will make them into a delicious meal for your father—the kind he loves. 10 Then take it to your father to eat so that he may bless you before he dies.” 11 Jacob answered Rebekah his mother, “Look, my brother Esau is a hairy man, but I am a man with smooth skin. 12 Suppose my father touches me. Then I will be revealed to him as a deceiver and bring a curse rather than a blessing on myself.” 13 His mother said to him, “Your curse be on me, my son. Just obey me and go get them for me.” 14 So he went and got the goats and brought them to his mother, and his mother made the delicious food his father loved. 15 Then Rebekah took the best clothes of her older son Esau, which were in the house, and had her younger son Jacob wear them. 16 She put the skins of the young goats on his hands and the smooth part of his neck. 17 Then she handed the delicious food and the bread she had made to her son Jacob.

Jacob knows this is wrong but he's more worried about being caught than doing it in the first place.

This involves Rebekah making Isaac's favorite stew, using goat skins to put on Jacob (does that really work?), and stealing Esau's clothes (they didn't have locks, of course).

I cited the "How I Fell for a Scam" article at the top to make it clear that scams are, in fact, extremely elaborate today. Yes, if a scammer put that effort and skill into a legal job, they would probably do just fine for themselves, but they don't seem to be too interested in being legal.

BUT the cue is given up front that Isaac's spidey sense is going off. Something is not right. "Esau" is talking too polished. He got back too quickly. But Isaac is willing to believe that nobody would lie to him about being his son.

As we have learned from scam victims, people who are trustworthy tend to fall for scams more easily because they are also more trusting.

Do what you have to do to make sure you group realizes that we live in a world where people want to lie to us in order to manipulate us into doing what they want.

Anyway, back to the passage.

Actually, no. Let's not talk about the passage anymore. I'm rather sickened by this. It's clear what's going on, and it's gross. Isaac is trusting the person in front of him. (Again -- was Isaac aware that he was attempting to bless Esau in spite of God's prophecy? It sure seems like it.) And the person in front of him was lying to him.


Part 3: The Blessing (Genesis 27:28-30)

28 May God give to you—from the dew of the sky and from the richness of the land— an abundance of grain and new wine. 29 May peoples serve you and nations bow in homage to you. Be master over your relatives; may your mother’s sons bow in homage to you. Those who curse you will be cursed, and those who bless you will be blessed. 30 As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob and Jacob had left the presence of his father Isaac, his brother Esau arrived from his hunting.

These verses are the strongest case that Isaac was deliberately trying to get around God's prophecy (if he knew about it). He wants the rest of the family to serve Esau.

How do you explain this?

I can think of three options. (1) Isaac is blatantly challenging God. It's hard for me to believe, but we've all done stupid things. (2) Isaac didn't know about the prophecy, and he was just following standard primogeniture practices. Or (3) Isaac was himself prophesying. He was speaking the words of God by the Spirit of God. Maybe he thought they meant one thing when he heard himself saying them only to be proven wrong. We can't be certain.

Whatever Isaac thought or intended, his prophecy fulfilled God's promises to Abraham.

12:1 The Lord said to Abram: Go from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

The biggest question of them all: why Jacob and not Esau?

There are some simple, practical answers, mostly dealing with Esau's choice of wives (Canaanites and Ishmaelites). But according to the New Testament, we aren't supposed to know.

Romans 9:6 Now it is not as though the word of God has failed, because not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 Neither is it the case that all of Abraham’s children are his descendants. On the contrary, your offspring will be traced through Isaac. 8 That is, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but the children of the promise are considered to be the offspring. 9 For this is the statement of the promise: At this time I will come, and Sarah will have a son. 10 And not only that, but Rebekah conceived children through one man, our father Isaac. 11 For though her sons had not been born yet or done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to election might stand— 12 not from works but from the one who calls—she was told, The older will serve the younger. 13 As it is written: I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau. 14 What should we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not! 15 For he tells Moses, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 16 So then, it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy.

(I bet you didn't think we were getting into topics like "predestination" and "God's sovereignty"!)

Actually, I think Paul is making a simpler point than that. God's choices are not dependent on human "worthiness". Esau might seem the logical "choice" to be the child of the promise because he was the firstborn. Nope -- God chose Jacob. But then we learn more about Jacob and realize that he's a real scoundrel who isn't worthy of God's blessing.

Bingo. And neither are we.

Why are we saved and not somebody else? It's not because we were smart enough to realize that the gospel message is a no-brainer (plenty of smart people reject the gospel). It's not because we were born into a Christian environment (plenty of churchgoers walk away from Jesus). It's a mystery -- a mystery such that we can only thank God for His love and mercy.

Paul makes it clear that we are now children of the promise, just like Isaac and Jacob. (The parallel verse in Galatians 4 is even clearer: "28 Now you too, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise.") And we should be thankful.

An obvious lesson this week is that God works through flawed people.

But an equally important lesson is that God chooses us out of His love, not our worthiness.

Jacob (who will be renamed Israel) serves as a microcosm of God's future relationship with His people, Israel. And Israel serves as a microcosm of God's purposes for all of humanity. Jacob's failures are their failures are our failures.

Remember how last week we said that Jesus was the fulfillment of Isaac? ("The true and better Isaac" as the song goes.) We can also say that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jacob/Israel. He is the "father" of a people in right relationship with God. But Jesus accomplished it through honesty, compassion, and self-sacrifice. For all intents and purposes, He is "the true and better Jacob". Today, we are children of the promise, not because of Jacob, but because of Jesus.

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