Light from the Sidra

Toldot ('Generations')

Torah: Genesis 25:19-28:9. Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42


One of the best-selling novels of the 1970s was Alex Haley’s Roots which went on to become a successful TV mini-series. Roots traced the history of an African-American family back to Kunta Kinte, an 18th century black man who was taken forcibly from Africa while an adolescent and sold into slavery in the United States. Though Haley was sued for plagiarism by Harold Courlander, the novel and television series caused a cultural sensation in the USA and stimulated great interest in genealogy among Americans and a greater appreciation of African-American history.

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 turns out alright. Even though Isaac is not exactly 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 who, says  Everett Fox in The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentaries and Notes, ‘emerges as the most dynamic and most human personality in [Genesis]. The stories about him cover fully half of Genesis, and reveal a man who is both troubled and triumphant. Most interestingly, he, and not Avraham, gives his name to the people of Israel.’

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 in Genesis zerah is a recurring and dominant theme, not least in the accounts of brothers.

Cain and Abel were born but despite Eve’s hopes that Cain would prove to be the zerah who would crush the head of the serpent, he was in fact the seed of the serpent who almost literally crushed the head of his righteous brother. When Ishmael and Isaac were born, the elder brother turned out to be ‘a wild ass of a man’ whose hand is against everyone; Isaac, although the younger of the two zeraim, was the one with whom God would be.

One of the most interesting and fascinating features about the characters who feature in this week’s Torah reading is that they are all deeply flawed. When Isaac sojourns among the Philistines, he repeats the mistake of his father in Egypt when 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 continued 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 turned out to be duplicitous and assisted Jacob to trick his father out of the birthright he had planned 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 are as different as chalk and cheese: one is hairy, the other smooth; one is easy going, the other ambitious; one is desert-wise, the other street-wise. Even from birth, there was a rivalry between Jacob and Esau, especially on the part of the younger brother Jacob. Like their father, both sons are flawed.

Esau loves his belly 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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