Answers to Questions by Yair Davidiy
Was Jacob wrong to trick Esau into compromising his birthright?
NOTE: Originally this article had the same points given below BUT it made (in good faith) a mistaken attribution. This mistake has since come to our attention after seeing the Commentary of Rabbi Mecklenbourg (pictured below). A few changes were necessary and have been made.
Jacob did not trick Esau. A close examination of the verses in question in the ORIGINAL HEBREW gives a different impression.
This is how the passage appears in translation:
Genesis (NASB) 25:
29 When Jacob had cooked stew, Esau came in from the field and he was famished; 30 and Esau said to Jacob, 'Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.' Therefore his name was called Edom. 31 But Jacob said, 'First sell me your birthright.' 32 Esau said, 'Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?' 33 And Jacob said, 'First swear to me'; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
First notice that the expression translated 'First sell me' Genesis 25: 31 in Hebrew is "HaYom" i.e. "this day" not necessarily "first"!
The Zohar expands on the point (25:34) that "Esau despised His birthright." It should be translated as "Esau was despising his birthright" or 'Esau would despise his birthright.' Esau was in fact prepared to give it away. Having been born first in fact entailed two benefits, a spiritual aspect and a physical one. Esau rejected the spiritual facet. This was in line with what we know of his character from the beginning.
These matters are discussed by Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaakov_Tzvi_Mecklenburg
author of "Haketav VehaKabbalah" ("The Script and the Tradition"), 1839, on Genesis 25:34 "VeYaacov Natan." Rabbi Mecklenburg notices the Zohar emphasizing the expression "And Jacob gave" or 'Jacob had given' (Genesis 25: 34). This has been wrongly translated above as "Then Jacob gave."
In the Original Hebrew ALL the verbs in Genesis 25:29-34 BUT one are in the imperfect tense.
What is intended by "imperfect tense?"
Wikipedia tells us:
# The imperfect (abbreviated imperf) is a verb form, found in various languages, which combines past tense (reference to a past time) and imperfective aspect (reference to a continuing or repeated event or state). It can therefore have meanings similar to the English "was walking" or "used to walk." #
As stated ALL the verbs here are in imperfect tense except the verb "gave" in the expression "And Jacob gave" (Genesis 25: 34). In this case the verb is perfect, i.e. simple past tense.
# All the verbs but one are in the past imperfect tense (also known as the vav-reversal.. #
For the sake of euphonics we could also render the imperfect as 'would do' and perfect as pluper perfect i.e. 'had done'.
We should therefore translate the verses in the following way (it is sufficient to translate the verses 32-33 to make the point):
32 Esau would say, 'Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?' 33 Then Jacob would say, 'Swear to me, this day'; so he would swear unto him, and would sell his birthright to Jacob. 34 And Jacob HAD GIVEN Esau bread and lentil stew; and he would eat and would drink, and would rise and would go on his way. And Esau would despise his birthright.
Why is the verb "had given" in 25:33 in the past (perfect) tense?
It implies that Jacob had PREVIOUSLY given the food before the sale!
In other words Jacob had ALREADY given food to Esau before the sale was made!
Gil Yehudah pointed out that in a similar instance the Commentator Rashi on Genesis 4:1 made a similar deduction when all the verbs excerpt one are in the imperfect tense and only one in the perfect.
In summation as the Zohar (quoted by Rabbi Mecklenburg) explains:
Esau despised the birthright. He would have been prepared to give it away just to avoid any responsibility it might impose on him.
Jacob however wanted to buy it so that the acquisition would be clear and certain. Esau came in from the field tired and famished. Jacob gave him food. After that Jacob asked Esau to sell him the birthright in exchange for the food he had just eaten. Esau agreed, rose from his place and went on his way.
This explanation may or may not be acceptable to others. It is however consistent with the grammar of the Original Hebrew.
Later, Jacob was to disguise himself as Esau in order to receive the Blessing of the First-Born from his father Isaac (Genesis ch. 28).
We saw above that 'Esau would despise the birthright' i.e. 'Esau was despising the birthright.' He had not been forced to sell it. After that as henceforth holder of the birthright Jacob had the right to the Blessing of the First-Born.
This is proven by the fact that DESPITE being misled by Jacob, Isaac immediately afterwards, when the truth had been made known to him, confirmed the blessing,
"Yes, and he shall be blessed" (Genesis 27:33). Later Isaac AGAIN confirmed the blessing to Jacob (Genesis 28:3-4).
Jacob valued the birthright.
At their birth it had been prophesied to Rebecca (the mother of Esau and Jacob) that Jacob would have pre-eminence over Esau (Genesis 25:23).
Jacob in first buying the birthright and later deceiving Isaac was doing what he had to do. In pretending to be Esau he was following the instructions of Rebecca (Genesis 27:6-17). Rebecca and Jacob were doing what they could to fulfill the Prophecy.
We should learn from this.
Prophecies for the good are meant to be fulfilled.
Prophecies for the bad however may be averted by changing our behavior to a more positive direction.
We should endeavor to do what we can to fulfill them.
Later Jacob received the Blessing from Isaac by deceiving him BUT Isaac confirmed the blessing to him after that:
33 "Yes, and he shall be blessed."
3 May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. 4 May He also give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your descendants with you, that you may possess the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham.
The function of blessing another in the Bible is to act as a conduit, e.g.
Numbers 6: 27 So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.'
The blessings given by Isaac did not emanate from him but from the Almighty. That is why Jacob was able to confirm the blessings to Jacob immediately afterwards (Genesis 27:33) "Yes, and he shall be blessed.") and later to consciously repeat them in detail to Jacob (Genesis 28:3-4).