Thoughts from the Sukkah 2016 Edition – Day 1

Last night when I saw our sukkah I knew that this was the year I needed to break down the story of Jacob. A friend’s family joined us for dinner and as we ate in our sukkah I shared the story with her to test where I have come in telling it and I think I’m ready.

Lutton Sukkah 2016

Lutton Sukkah 2016

The story of Jacob’s return to the Land concludes with him parting ways with Esau and journeying to Succoth (another way to spell Sukkot ) and that struck me a few years ago so I dug into the details even more. Let’s just say this is not your Children’s Bible story and he is not your Sunday School Jacob. I know others have had questions about a lot of things in his story and, like me, probably struggle with the answers not at all addressing the issues you see. So let’s dive in and see where it takes us.


Jacob is twin to his brother Esau. When they were in utero God shared things with their mother about them. This really touches me because I am a mother of twins and when I was pregnant I almost miscarried one of them. In fact, it was how we learned they were twins. As I cried and prayed and did all I could to keep both babies safe inside me the Lord spoke very plainly to my soul and assured me, “When this is over you will have two healthy babies.” The relief I felt was immediately matched by a great concern.

When WHAT is over?

For the next two years I clung to that promise from God and when it was all over I did in fact have two healthy babies, but I needed that assurance from the Lord in order to make it through.

One of the things we all had to survive was one of my boys being born with a giant congenital hairy nevus — a large black birthmark that is tumorous and grows hair. On my son it took up over 1/3 of his back and he required 3 surgeries before he was 18 months old to remove it.

In researching the condition for my son I was surprised to come across writings that suggested this is the condition that Esau had. Esau’s nevus would have at least covered his arms and his trunk. This is a known presentation for this condition. As a person with this kind of nevus grows and the skin stretches the color changes to red and the hair becomes goat like. Since that is the description of Esau we are given in Scripture, the idea makes a lot of sense.

There’s a lot more I could unpack in this regarding bonding with both parents and why Isaac may have favored Esau while Rebecca may have favored Jacob. So very much goes into bonding and if she almost lost Esau in the same way I almost lost my son, if that is the meaning of the “warring within her” that she cried out to God about, let’s just say I have compassion for Rebecca in ways I didn’t before that experience. I am strongly bonded with both of my sons despite each of their early health challenges but the challenges those health issues created to bonding cannot be dismissed.

Let’s also clear up right here and now that when it says one “loved” one son this doesn’t mean that they didn’t love the other son in a way that we would equate to parental love. It merely means they preferred their company.

As the boys grew it became clear they had different personalities. Jacob was more of a homebody and Esau was more of a wild man out trapping and working in the field. One teaching is that he wasn’t just adept at trapping animals, but of asking questions that would trap his father into thinking that he was more righteous than he was. He liked wordplay and one example suggests he asked his father how tithes should be taken from salt and straw — even though he knew there was no tithe expected from them. The idea was that he wanted to look really righteous by pretending he wanted to offer those tithes, but since he already knew that they weren’t required he knew he wouldn’t have to do anything with the answer. He also got his father’s allegiance through bringing home meat to feed him and serving his taste buds. Isaac apparently loved fresh game.

When Esau was 40 years old he married two Hittite women and they led him to spiritual rebellion against Isaac and Rebecca. One Jewish Tradition is that while he waited so long to get married Esau was living immorally and enticing married women to have affairs with him. The idea behind him marrying at 40 is that he claimed, quite hypocritically, that he was following the example of his father who waited until that age to marry. (We can talk about Isaac’s story another time but let go of your preconceived ideas about him as well. The whole sacrifice thing didn’t even take place until he was at least 30.) So Esau married at the same age as his father but he didn’t marry a righteous woman. He married TWO Hittite women. This act is thought to have sealed the deal on him being unworthy of carrying on the family mission.

In fact, the insight God gave to Rebekah during her pregnancy was that Jacob, the second born, and not Esau, the firstborn, would be the one to receive the firstborn blessing. The event where Jacob buys Esau’s birthright is thought to have been after the death of Abraham. This would explain why Jacob was making red lentil soup — a traditional mourner’s meal. Sacrifices were still offered by the firstborn of the family and Jacob was concerned that his wicked brother would be standing in front of the family and God offering unworthy sacrifices. Jacob wanted to make sure that wouldn’t happen. Esau valued the food more than his birthright and he sold it with no deception involved–for a bowl of lentil soup.

But back to Esau and his wives, who he married when he was 40. Since Isaac was 60 years old when his sons were born he would have been 100 years old at the time of these marriages. At the point where Isaac summons Esau to his room to tell him that he is old and doesn’t know when he will die, the Rabbi’s teach that Isaac was actually 123 years old. His mother had died when she was 127 years old and Isaac was contemplating his own mortality. Because Isaac had always preferred his oldest, and because he held out hope that he would indeed become worthy of his blessing, Isaac gave him the opportunity to honor his father and be blessed by him.

Rebecca found out about this plan and set in motion one of her own. She told Jacob to take stew into his father and pretend to be Esau so that he would receive his father’s blessing. Jacob was concerned that even though he could not see well at this point, Isaac might reach out to him and notice that his arms are not covered in goat-like hair. So his mother covered him with the skins of the goat kids she had used for the stew. Jacob goes in to his father and uses intricate word play to avoid lying outright to him, while still convincing him that he was the one who should receive his father’s blessing.

This is the blessing that Jacob received that day from his father Isaac

May God give you of the dew of the heavens and of the fatness of the earth, and abundant grain and wine. Peoples will serve you, and regimes will prostrate themselves to you; be a lord to your kinsmen, and your mother’s sons will prostrate themselves to you; cursed be they who curse you and blessed be they who bless you.

Jewish commentary teaches that this blessing for all of the physical things intended to go to Esau may have been done with the awareness that Jacob was to be the spiritual leader of his people and Isaac didn’t want to burden him with physical wealth that distracted from that. If this is true then giving Esau all of the material blessings would have been so that Esau could see to the earthly needs of his people while Jacob was freed to see to the spiritual needs. This would be supported by the blessing he gives to Jacob when he knows it is him.

Between the two blessings, however, is revealed some intense family drama. Esau came home and prepared the meat he hunted for his father, took it in to him to serve him and be blessed, and found out that Jacob had received the blessing. Esau begged for any blessing that his father had to give him and received this

Behold, of the fatness of the earth shall be your dwelling and of the dew of the heavens from above. By your sword you shall live, but your brother you shall serve; yet it shall be that when you are aggrieved, you may cast off his yoke from upon your neck.

Esau was not going to be forced to plunder and fight for his sustenance, but he was going to be victorious in battle. “When you are aggrieved” speaks to a time, should it come, that Jacob might transgress the Torah and not be worthy of the blessings. Isaac put out there a future opportunity to take Jacob down if he is unworthy of what he has received. And Esau’s response was to determine to wait until the time for mourning his father was finished and then kill Jacob.

When Rebecca learned of Esau’s intent to kill Jacob she went to Isaac and complained about those Hittite daughters-in-law she had to endure and how much she hated her life because of them. She begged Isaac to send Jacob to her brother Laban so that he could marry a righteous wife from her family. Isaac agreed and as he sent his son out to find a wife he blesses him in this way

May El Shaddai bless you, make you fruitful and make you numerous, and may you be a congregation of peoples. May He grant you the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may possess the land of your sojourns which God gave to Abraham.

And off went Jacob on his grand adventure.

The Adventure Begins

Before we are done with today’s portion of the story, let me add what happens at the beginning of his journey so that we can keep this in mind as we read on this week.

Jacob started out on his journey and when he laid down to go to sleep for the night he had a dream. You’ve probably heard of Jacob’s Ladder — this was that dream.

Jacob sees a stairway set Eastward with a top that reaches toward heaven and angels of God were ascending and descending on it. God stands over him and says this to him

I am Adonai, God of Abraham your father and God of isaac; the ground upon which you are lying, to you will I give it and to your descendants. Your offspring shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out powerfully westward, eastward, northward and southward; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and by your offspring. Behold, I am with you; I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this soil; for I will not forsake you until I will have done what I have spoken about you.

The thing that jumped out to me about this blessing is that God identifies himself as God of Abraham and God of Isaac, and then makes a promise to him of what he will do. Nothing here is mutually balanced. This is simply a statement of who God is and what he is going to do — and he is doing it because of the promises made to Abraham and Isaac, not anything to do with Jacob.

Jacob recognized the significance of this, made an altar, blessed the Lord, and made this vow to God

If God will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going; will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear; and I return in peace to my father’s house, and Adonai will be a God to me — then this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of God, and whatever You will give me, I shall repeatedly tithe it to you.

And that sounds like a beautiful prayer of faith, unless you read it closely.

He knows this is God. And God knows who he is. This is a very honest exchange.

God does not identify himself as “your God” for a reason. He isn’t. Not really. Not fully. The blessings will pour onto Jacob because of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac, and God will stay with him until all of the things that were promised shall come to pass. And Jacob responds, “Okay — you do all of that and when I return to the Land blessed like you’re talking about THEN you will be my God.”

One Jewish commentary explains that this cannot be a promise of loyalty, because it is conditional. If the things promised by God hadn’t come to pass, then Jacob would not have been obligated. Opinions differ on how much faith he had that they really would and therefore they are a commitment, but I cannot shake the tradition this family has of wordplay. It goes back to Abraham saying that Sarah is his sister so that he won’t be killed and plundered . . . TWICE! I didn’t go into it but the same thing happens with Isaac and Rebecca during their story. Esau engaged in trickery and trapping through wordplay with his father, and it’s through wordplay that Jacob takes his father’s blessing from Esau.

So Jacob begins his grand adventure with God promising him many amazing things and Jacob responding, “If you do all of that, then you’ll be my God.”

And off he goes to find himself a wife from his mother’s family.

Day 2

Speak Your Mind