Light from the Sidra


Genesis 25: 19-28:9. Haftarah Malachi 1: 1-2:7

Last week, Britain’s major Jewish Newspaper The Jewish Chronicle was giving away software to help readers trace their family history. The interest in finding out about our ancestors has always been with us but more people than ever are looking into the history of their family, no doubt hoping to find some colourful characters or to discover if they have links to their favourite celebrity or to the royal family.

Genealogies have always been of interest to Jewish people. Genesis is full of family histories or “toldot”; and an exciting set of histories they are. The last Sidra ended with the toldot of Ishmael. This week’s parasha begins with the toldot of Isaac, the child of promise. As in the other genealogies of Genesis, when a number of toldot are listed, the first ones tend to be the “and so-and-so begat so-and-so…” kind. This is a device to get the less important lines out of the way in order to make way for the detailed histories of the main characters. So it is here.

In response to the prayers of Abraham, God blessed Ishmael but Isaac was the son through whom God’s purposes for the well-being of the world would come to fruition. God would be with Isaac. In the Bible, God being “with” someone makes a practical difference to the way things work out in their lives. Even when external circumstances seem to be conspiring against the person or persons God is with, everything will turn out right. Even though Isaac is not the most interesting or well-developed character in the Bible, God is with him; and Isaac is important as a bridge between his father Abraham and his son Jacob.

In Genesis 3:15, God promised that the seed [Hebrew: zerah] of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. The promise was vague and general, but as we have progressed through Genesis, zerah has become a recurring theme, not least in the accounts of brothers. Cain and Abel are born but despite Eve’s hopes that Cain will prove to be the zerah who crushes the head of the serpent, he is in fact the seed of the serpent that crushes the head of his righteous brother. When Ishmael and Isaac are born, the elder brother turns out to be “a wild ass of a man” whose hand is against everyone; Isaac, although the younger of the two zeraim is the one God will be with.

One of the most interesting and fascinating features about the characters in this week’s Torah reading is that they are all deeply flawed. When he sojourns among the Philistines, Isaac repeats the mistake of his father in Egypt; he passes off his wife as his sister. The subterfuge was, at best, stupid; at worst it was a lack of faithfulness to God. Nevertheless, God had called Abraham and his “seed” to be a blessing to the nations, and in Genesis 26 we see that God’s purpose continues to be worked out despite Isaac’s lapse of faith.  

So often in households, it is the wife who keeps the husband and children on the straight and narrow. However, Isaac’s wife Rebekah turns out to be duplicitous and assists Jacob in tricking his father out of the birthright he plans to bestow on his older and favourite son.

Isaac comes over in these chapters as a relatively minor, colourless and weak character in comparison with his sons Jacob and Esau. The two brothers as different as chalk and cheese: one is macho, the other a mother’s boy; one is hairy, the other smooth; one is easy going, the other ambitious; one desert-wise, the other street-wise. Even from birth, there is a rivalry between them, especially on the part of the younger brother Jacob. Like their father, both are flawed.

Esau is a man’s man who loves his stomach more than God and doesn’t appear to take religion seriously. Jacob is a chancer for whom Yahweh is the only god of his father. From these unprepossessing characters, God will bless the nations. Through these deeply flawed, Torah-unobservant ancestors of the Jewish people, God’s purpose for the world will unfold. They may fail but the God who keeps covenant does not. If they are faithless, he remains faithful; he cannot deny himself.

Two thousand years later, when the Jewish people doubted God loved them, he would remind them through the prophet Malachi that he had “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau. God never makes a statement that will not be vindicated by subsequent history.

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