HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 20, 2008
Jacob and Esau Redux

From: GOD as revealed to his humble servant, John R. Guthrie


And God Said: Rewrite Esau and Jacob? John, Son, that’s one of my best stories. Leave it to somebody with an MFA from Antioch LA to want to second-guess God. The story rambles a little, though, so I will run through it for you.

Canaan (Palestine) about 4000 years ago: Esau and Jacob were twins. First-born Esau was macho, Jacob a dreamer. Isaac, the boys’ father, decided to bless Esau, his favorite, thus vesting him with a mantle of authority and the entire inheritance. Isaac, though elderly, had a voice like a drill sergeant. “Esau, get me some venison to give me strength to give you a blessing, boy.”

“Yessir, Dad. Be right back, Sir. Anything else, Sir?”

Esau and Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, was eavesdropping from behind the curtain. Rebekah, sotto voce, “Jacob, come here. Your daddy’s about to give the whole schmear to Esau. He sent him to get venison for him first. Hurry! Kill a kid and cook it. You take it to your Dad. Wrap the hide ‘round your hand, hairy side out, so you’ll feel like Esau.  And wear this old cloak of Esau’s so you’ll smell like him. He’ll think you’re Esau, and bless you.  Remember, Mom is on your side, and so is Alzheimer’s.”

***

Jacob, shlepping that char-grilled goat meat: “Dad? I have your venison. Coming in, Sir.”

“Esau? You bagged a deer already?”

“Dad, I give all credit for my speed and my marksmanship to God and to you.”

“Esau? You sound like Jacob. But that’s Esau’s hairy hand. And whew, there’s no mistaking it; you’re Esau. Yum! Good venison.  Son, I’m gonna give you a blessing you won’t forget.”

The real Esau returned, sweaty, weary, and very soon, furious.

“Jacob,” Rebekah hissed, “you gotta go to Uncle Laban’s house over in Syria, or Padan-Aram, as they say. At least until everybody cools off.”

“Mom, that’s five hundred miles.”

“Jacob, Esau’s packing heat; he’s got a two cubit bronze sword with him, and every time he sits down he’s sharpening it.”

“So what? I can take him.”

Rebekah’s brow wrinkled. She paused, then brightened. “Honey, your Uncle Laban’s daughters are pretty as a field of lilies. Think! You’d have a good time, maybe marry a few of them,” she smiled, “maybe give mom and dad some grandkids.”

When Esau, already terminally jealous, got wind of Jacob’s wife-hunting expedition, the local women, except for the lack of a scruffy beard, suddenly all looked to him like clones of Yassar Arafat. So he went to his Uncle Ishmael’s house. Ishmael’s daughter Mahalith; well, she was a sort of trailer-trash cutie.

In the meantime, Jacob hastened eastward, beckoned by his lovely first cousins. He even dreamed about making mucho babies with Laban’s daughters. And whether it was the desert or the stone pillow, you tell me. He insists that I climbed down a ladder from heaven and cheered him on. Wow! Me, at my age, with my knees, climbing down ladders? But, wait till you hear the rest.

Jacob finally walked into Uncle Laban’s settlement, horny as Laban’s alpha Billy goat. The first young woman he saw, he walked right up, grabbed her, and S-M-O-O-O-C-H. It was Uncle Laban’s daughter, Rachel. Sexual harassment charges? Nah. Rachel wasn’t complaining, and anyway, Uncle Laban had something else in mind.

Laban had two daughters. Leah, the oldest, was sweet, a good seamstress, and all the girls in camp just loved her. But Rachel, the one Jacob had the hots for, she was a Fox! Jacob asked Laban’s permission to marry Rachel. “Sure, Jacob. You’re welcome to marry my virginal, twelve-year-old daughter. I’ll throw a wedding party that you won’t forget. Promise! Oh, by the way, you wouldn’t mind working the fields, castrating steers, butchering a few goats, and taking an occasional turn on the olive press and such for me, dawn to dusk for seven years, would you? Just to offset the cost of Rachel’s orthodontics and such?”

“Any thing you say, Sir -- Dad. Thanks, Sir, a lot. I’m grateful. You won’t regret this decision, Sir.”

“Sure. If you’ll let go of my hand, I’ll send for the Rabbi.”

***

In the newlywed’s tent the morning after the wedding feast, Jacob groaned, opened one eye, then the other. His head throbbed, his mouth felt and tasted like the entire Palestinian Camel Corps had bivouacked there. But he smiled anyway, and turned to his bride: “Rachel, come to me, ‘my darling, my love, my flawless one…’”
Leah turned, smiling, snuggled close, and inhaled deeply.

Jacob jerked back, eyes wide, mouth open. “What the hell…? LEAH?  A-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-hhh. God, say it’s not true and I’ll never touch another drop. G-0-D-D-D-D?”

A slumbering Uncle Laban was awakened by the wails of anguish that resounded across the desert.  He smiled, took a deep breath, rolled over, and, still smiling, soon was sleeping again.

What can you be but a fatalist, living with a bunch of semi-savage nomads in the middle of ten-thousand square miles of desert, the only option the unpopulated wilderness beyond? Jacob accepted his lot, and soon was even talking bride price with Laban again.

“Dad, you got me by the gonads, Sir. Sure. I’ll do seven more years for Rachel.”

“Thy wisdom exceedth thy years, my son!”

The years that followed were as marked by world-class familial dysfunction as were the years before.

Jacob’s children were as follows:

By Leah; even now I can see Leah through the mists of millennia; sturdy, plump, and never one to be taken lightly. She eventually reigned supreme in the kingdom of pots and pans, the domain of household intrigues. Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun. Also sweet, star-crossed Dina called her Mother.

And Rachel, lovely Rachel; alluring? Effortlessly and always. But there was also wit and quickness behind those dark eyes that so sparkled with promise and enticement. She knew, in her heart of hearts that somehow she had more to offer than she was allowed to give, and that her life should be fuller. She dreamed of what might lie beyond the furthest horizon. But she loved her first-born Joseph, and her late-in-life son Benjamin.

The proxy wives:

Leah’s handmaiden Zilphah: After the way of concubines in those times, Zilphah lived her life quietly and dutifully. She was Dan and Naphtahili’s mother, but only with surrogate tacked on first, a prefix every bit as despised and dreadful as step-. Did she ever wish that the fruit of her womb would call her, and not Leah, Mother? But, she reminded herself, at least she ate regularly, and so did Dan and Naphtahili, though they now belonged to Jacob and Leah.

Rachel’s handmaiden Bilhah. Her hazel eyes were downcast, her manner humble, her speech tentative. Only occasionally did she dare glance toward her mistress, longing for identity, status and authority of her own. “Nonsense,” Jacob would’ve said, “she and Zilphah are like family, and they just love being our slaves.” Such is always the master’s delusion. Bilhah handed both Asher and Gad to Rachel at the moment of their birth.

Jacob prospered, increasing his share of the livestock by selective breeding and a little juju.

Did they all live happily ever after? Those of you who know a thing or too about blended families don’t have to ask. But they survived. And despite the anguish they suffered, there was in the end, a moment that transcended all, an epiphany, a moment of energy if you will.

Israel, as Jacob came to be called, wore out his welcome in Syria, and was forced to leave. The land of his birth was now Esau’s fiefdom. The rag-tag procession that was the family of Israel/Jacob, trudged back into Palestine, accompanied by the braying of livestock, the tinkling of camel bells, the shouts and curses and whistles of the drovers. As he marched toward an uncertain reception from his brother Esau, he was scared shitless. 

Esau heard that Jacob was returning, “Sound assembly!” he ordered the bugler. Soon, with four hundred narrow-eyed warriors stepping out the cadence behind him, Esau was marching toward Israel/Jacob and his family. Just what he was thinking at first, payback, caution, I never asked.

As he topped a rise, Esau spotted his straggling kinsmen in the distance. On Esau’s command, the infantry halted and wheeled into a skirmish line on the cusp of the ridge. Spears held at the carry bristled up against one of those Palestinian skies too bright and blue to look at. Esau’s sword scraped against the scabbard as he unsheathed it and held it ready. Israel/Jacob’s family stopped, and clung to each other. It was quiet, just a little whistle from the wind blowing over the dunes, a baby crying somewhere in the background. Unarmed and empty-handed, Israel/Jacob began the long walk up the rise toward his brother. You could see him shaking. He stopped, looked back, then continued. He was fifty cubits from Esau when he stopped again. Then, like a submissive dog that bares its throat to another, Israel/Jacob fell forward to the ground and lay there.

Esau looked at him there; just looked. Then he started walking toward him, sword in hand, then he ran. He raised his sword high over his head--then let it tumble to the ground behind him. He fell upon his brother, embraced him, and they wept.

Esau, in that moment, and in that instance, had found something I’ve been trying to tell you all about since I first coaxed you to your prehensiled feet that long-ago day on the Serengeti. The preachers and rabbi’s and mullahs call it a lot of overlapping things; redemption, forgiveness, grace. I call it class. Yeah. Esau had class. And though Palestine yet burns, and evil still festers and blooms, even so, in Esau’s forgiving embrace of his brother, there is a glittering and precious jewel called hope. And with that jewel in hand, you can believe me when I tell you that somehow, in the end, it all comes out right.

GOD


John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He then garnered a formal education to include medical school and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group before going into private practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online. (Link)


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