All for a Father's Blessing

The Text

  1. When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, “My son.” “Here I am,” he answered.
  2. Isaac said, “I am now an old man and don't know the day of my death.
  3. “Now then, get your weapons—your quiver and bow—and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me.
  4. “Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.”
  5. Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back,
  6. Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Look, I overheard your father say to your brother Esau,
  7. “Bring me some game and prepare me some tasty food to eat, so that I may give you my blessing in the presence of the Lord before I die.'
  8. “Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you:
  9. “Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it.
  10. “Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.”
  11. Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I'm a man with smooth skin.
  12. “What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.”
  13. His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.”
  14. So he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she prepared some tasty food, just the way his father liked it.
  15. Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob.
  16. She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins.
  17. Then she handed to her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made.
  18. He went to his father and said, “My father.” “Yes, my son,” he answered. “Who is it?”
  19. Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game so that you may give me your blessing.”
  20. Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?” “The Lord your God gave me success,” he replied.
  21. Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.”
  22. Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”
  23. He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he blessed him.
  24. “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked. “I am,” he replied.
  25. Then he said, “My son, bring me some of your game to eat, so that I may give you my blessing.” Jacob brought it to him and he ate; and he brought some wine and he drank.
  26. Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come here, my son, and kiss me.”
  27. So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said,

    “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.

  28. May God give you of heaven's dew and of earth's richness—an abundance of grain and new wine.
  29. May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.”

Genesis 27:1–29, New International Version


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Rebekah told her younger son Jacob, “Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it.” Deceived by the meal, Isaac gave his blessing to the younger son and had no blessing to give to Esau, the older. Angry and embittered, Esau left his family and settled in Edom (“red”), linking the famous cheese to the tale.

The History

As described in Chapter 2, Jacob tricked his brother, Esau, into trading his birthright for a plate of stew. But their mother, Rebekah, so favored Jacob that she urged him also to steal the blessing of Isaac that rightly belonged to Esau.

Among the ancient Hebrews, the words spoken by parents had power—the power to determine the future, to bring forth good or ill (blessing or curse) upon their children. For example, Noah blessed two of his sons, Shem and Japheth, who had refrained from looking at him when he was naked, and cursed his other son, Ham, who had not turned away; the blessing determined that the offspring of the first two sons would prosper, and the curse, that the descendants of the third son would live in servitude (Genesis 9). Furthermore, the father's blessing (or curse) was believed to be a pronouncement from the One God, and once uttered, the words could not be taken back or redirected or shared with another. The parents' blessing and goodwill were the greatest happiness that a child could desire.

Thus when Isaac felt the approach of death, he wished to bestow his blessing upon his favored son, Esau, to pass on to him all the wealth and power that the family had accumulated, not to mention the covenant that they had made with God. Rebekah, perhaps seeing God's intentions better than her blind husband could, and perhaps knowing that Jacob, not Esau, was the only son strong enough to shoulder the responsibility of the Covenant, directed Jacob to pretend to be Esau in order to steal Isaac's blessing. Other factors may also have been in play: Esau had married outside of the tribe, taking two Hittite women, Judith and Bashemath, as his wives. Later on, he married a half-cousin, one of Ishmael's daughters, but this was no better, as Abraham had disinherited Ishmael.

When Isaac discovered the deception, he was distraught, but God had spoken, and one could neither countermand nor protest God's declaration. However, when Esau discovered the deception, he vowed to kill Jacob upon Isaac's death. Rebekah stepped in again and sent Jacob to Haran to live with her brother Laban until her sons could be reconciled.

Biblical Passage Notes

Verse 3: The King James Version of this text uses “venison” in place of “wild game.” The Hebrew word itself, tsedah, and its variant, tsayid, most often mean simply “meat” or “provisions that have been hunted.” The Hebrew word for gazelle, tsebi, which has a similar etymological origin, was probably what the translators had in mind when they looked at this text. Where it appears elsewhere in the Bible, it was translated by the scholars in King James' day as “roedeer,” which was better known to Europeans. The question of exactly what type of animal Esau would have hunted for food is rather complicated, given that many animal species common in Palestine when the text was written have since become extinct in that location—for instance, the lion, the ostrich, the fallow deer, the onager, and some antelope species. As a consequence, there are still several animal terms that cannot be translated with certainty,1 including the animals in this particular biblical passage.

Verse 17: Rebekah gives Jacob bread to serve Isaac with his meal. It is not a loaf, and it is not unleavened (Hebrew matstsah). It is the very staple of Middle Eastern life, that which provides sustenance, most likely a semiflat bread that contained some yeast. It is fascinating that the Hebrew word used for bread in this text, lechem, can also mean provisions, meat, or food for the feast, just as tsedah carries the same meaning in verse 3 (see previous paragraph). Perhaps such closeness in meanings and usage indicates the serving of a type of ritualistic or very traditional meal, one at which the diner would expect certain foods to be present to make the meal complete, all interconnected, one imperfect without the other.2

Verse 25: What exactly did Jacob give his father to drink? Was it good red wine, or white wine, or merely juice? The Hebrew word used here is yayin, “that which is pressed out, grape juice.” It is the most frequently used word for wine in the Hebrew scriptures (other words, chemer, chamar, tirosh, are used to describe a thick, syrupy or mixed drink, or mead). Yet yayin is the meal wine, sometimes called the banqueting wine, and it is more than grape juice; it is the end process of fermenting the grapes, and it is intoxicating. 3So suffice it to say, Isaac enjoyed his meal with a nice, full, heavy (and heady) red wine.

Verse 28: Though not part of the recipes in this chapter, it bears mentioning that “the grain” of this verse, rendered “corn” in the KJV, has caused quite a bit of confusion among biblical readers. The New World version of corn, or maize as Native Americans called it, was unknown in the Middle East and to the early English translators of the Bible. This verse in Genesis uses the term dagan, one of five types of grain mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that these grains were barley, spelt (fitches), vetch, millet, or pulse, all of which can be used in the making of bread.4

The “new wine” (Hebrew tirosh) of this verse is in contrast to the wine discussed in verse 25. Tirosh is a sweet wine, new in that it is young, and usually unfermented, a kind of grape juice. Isaac's blessing was meant to confer a vast genesis of good fortune, the land of milk and honey promised to his father, Abraham, a place of ever new beginnings and fine living.

The Preparation

This is an intriguing tale, not the least because it involves a small family and a simple meal that affects the fate of entire generations to come. The author of the tale knew a lot about the subjects—especially regarding their needs and greeds—and (s)he capitalizes on all their hungers—the hunger for land, the hunger for power, the hunger to control destiny, the hunger for food—to demonstrate to the reader just how primal our urges are or can become.

The adjectives used by the characters themselves in this passage are both cunning and culinary. One almost gets the feeling that the teller of the tale is as interested in the gastronomical as (s)he is in the recipe for deception. The “tasty” food of verse 4 is more than a compliment to Esau's talents as a chef. This is the language of fairy tales, of the Big Bad Wolf with huge teeth ready to consume an unsuspecting Little Red Riding Hood, or the evil witch in the forest coaxing Hansel and Gretel into the oven. We know that the undoing of someone in the story will be linked to tasting. Isaac is a perfect foil. We learn in verse 1 that he is old, blind, quite feeble, yet astute about his physical limitations. With age might have come the dimming of the taste buds also, so he asks for something “tasty,” the implication being that something “spicy” was necessary to pique his appetite. (Some translations of this text substitute the word “savory,” a pun, no doubt, as the herb savory [Saturejua hortensis L., Hebrew zaatar] has been widely used in Middle Eastern cooking for hundreds of generations.)

The same can be said of Rebekah's instructions to Jacob regarding two “choice” goats. The goats were to be tob (Hebrew for “good”), which can mean sweet, fine, or pleasing. The translators of the New International Version (used above), in their use of “choice,” seem to foreshadow the choice that Isaac makes between his two sons, and underscore the choice that Rebekah has already made as to who is her favorite. That they were also to be “young” goats or kids (in Hebrew, gedi) reemphasizes just whom the battle in this story is between: two young twin brothers fighting for their place in the world, asking the blessing of an old goat who is near death. (The biblical text tells us earlier that Isaac is 137 years old!) That the young kids chosen for the meal are sweet to the taste and not as sinewy or tough as the older goats of the flock betrays the writer's experience in the kitchen. In the guise of Rebekah, this cook knows just what will be tasty and pleasing.

To serve Rebekah's meal as a dinner or for a weekend luncheon will require some advance preparation. Though the biblical text gives the idea of a hastily prepared meal, one should plan to give over an entire day to cooking. To make this more facile, we have framed the meal around a ragout. According to some scholars, this was probably the way in which Rebekah would have prepared the meal herself, the young goat meat marinated with salt, onions, garlic, and lemon juice.5 With enough of all these ingredients, and with the right preparation, goat can taste as good as the finest game of the field.

We know from the biblical text and from the strong storytelling traditions of the Israelites that Isaac and his family, though somewhat settled in Beersheeba, a town in the southernmost part of present-day Israel, were sheep-herding seminomads. This means that though Isaac had grown richer and God blessed him with flocks, herds, and a large household, he also spent some time tilling and keeping the land. The book of Genesis tells us that he was very successful in agriculture, reaping “a hundred-fold the same year” he sowed. Therefore, in contrast to the tents used by full-fledged nomads, Isaac and Rebekah's home was not a temporary shelter (no hastily erected tent) but more of a permanent structure with built-in cooking facilities. Biblical cooks prepared their meals in open courtyards outside their homes, 6using a pit that had been filled with dry grasses and sticks or cattle dung as fuel. Bread was often baked by placing the coals on top of the dough (as in Chapter 1), or sometimes on a griddle or earthen oven. Archaeological evidence has turned up clay cooking pots, cauldrons, and even frying pans, along with some utensils for carving or stirring, but undoubtedly most meals were eaten with the hands, using the folded bread as both a scoop and a sponge, while the fingers picked up the larger or more slippery morsels.

To prepare the following recipes, a modern stove and oven are key; yet some of the same time-tested, ancient methods of food production will be used to create the meal. When serving, to lend an air of authenticity, use large clay bowls or casserole dishes, and maybe some pottery pitchers and drinking vessels. And be bold! Leave the knives and forks in the drawer, and let everyone fend for themselves!