At Isaac’s pleading, God allows the infertile Rebecca to conceive, but her pregnancy is painful, a torment. Distraught, she cries out, and God tells her that the upheaval in her womb will result ultimately in the triumph of the younger of her twin sons, Jacob, over Esau, the elder. At their birth, the second son holds the firstborn by the heel. Time passes. Jacob, the “heel-grabber,” sets up Esau to trade his birthright as elder (a double portion of inheritance) for Jacob’s mess of lentils. More time passes. Rebecca puts forward her own plan of usurpation, by which Jacob will trick his blind, old father into bestowing on him the blessing that belongs to Esau, thus completing the transfer of status, as well as wealth, from father to younger son.
Both these episodes of sibling rivalry dramatize male conflicts over male inheritance and lineage. In such stories, women need have no role once they bear their children. Yet Rebecca is the one to whom foreknowledge is disclosed, and it is she who directs the usurpation plot that brings “God’s will” to pass. Why is she assigned such a powerful, determining place in the narrative?
The answer has to do with the nature of our Patriarchs and the character of God in Genesis. The Hebrew patriline — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — is made up of men who are not chosen on their merits. Who was Abram, that God should single him out? “Go forth… and I will make you a great nation” (Genesis 12:1-2). That’s it. Despite what later commentary writes about Abram’s faith and piety, the text is silent. God says nothing about Abram’s character or merit, does not grant him even the faint praise He has granted Noah as the best man of his generation. Neither does the text offer a clear reason why Abraham’s son Isaac should be preferred over his firstborn, Ishmael; Ishmael is, after all, like Esau a generation later, man enough for God to promise him a parallel lineage and destiny as father of another great people. In this arbitrary world, the younger sons rise to first place because of their mothers’ efforts on their behalf. Sarah evicts Ishmael and puts forward Isaac, son of her womb; Rebecca is the agent who sees to it that Jacob elbows her other son out of Jewish history.
Jacob’s election has been problematic for readers of Genesis throughout the ages. To justify Jacob, the rabbis of the Midrash Rabbah twist the plain sense of the story to read Esau as evil, as the prefigurement of Rome, the dread enemy of the Jewish people in their own day. In the late 20th century, Aviva Zornberg writes eloquently of Jacob’s spiritual growth as he takes on the garments of his world-toughened brother; in this line of argument, it is Jacob’s capacity to undergo transformation from trickster to veteran of inner struggle that earns him his place. Yet it is difficult to read the Esau of the text as malicious and evil rather than simpleminded, a man of the body. His father, Isaac, after all, does love him, along with the fruits of his life as a hunter. And the deceit Jacob practices in that tent, were it perpetrated by some character other than a designated patriarch, would surely merit biblical condemnation — banishment — rather than rehabilitation. In the final analysis, the justification for Jacob’s elevation seems to be that God has chosen him.
No, life is not always fair, says Genesis. What you think you deserve is not necessarily what you get. God does not reliably reward and punish according to the simplistically hopeful principles that children are taught in Sunday school. These are not pleasant recognitions to keep re-encountering in our fundamental sacred text. But the writer of Genesis manages to deflect hostile questioning of the Divine in these matters. Who evicts Ishmael? Sarah. Who deceives Isaac? Rebecca. Powerful women are the “point persons” for how God’s story — history — unfolds. These women rule in the founding family drama of the Hebrews. God speaks to them, and they are God’s agents; it is they who make the baffling, ethically troubling selections that God has in mind, promoting the winners and sending the losers, the discarded sons, out into left field.
Scholars and interpreters in recent years have worked hard to build the case that the world of Genesis is woman-neutral, if not woman-friendly. Just look at those centrally positioned, powerful women characters! But the ethical burden of power is often not pretty. The memorable stories in our foundational text are more descriptive of how God’s universe works than they are morality tales of good supplanting evil, merit winning place over mediocrity. It’s a harsh text. But Rebecca, like Sarah before her, is situated brilliantly. The deceitful theft is not really Jacob’s fault; it is Rebecca who put him up to it. Genesis has a time-tested principle in place by which to redeem itself: When men disappoint, and God and justice fail, it’s “blame the mothers.”
Naomi Myrvaagnes, a fiction writer and poet, is resident scholar in the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.