Bible studies with Don Isaac Abravanel’s commentary (also spelled Abarbanel) has withstood the test of
time. Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Genesis chapter 25, we find a most vexing encounter between Jacob and Esau, twins
born to Isaac and Rebeccah. The story requires context, if Bible students are going to begin to make
sense of it.
“And Jacob had been cooking a stew. And Esau came in from the field,
famished. And Esau said to Jacob, Pass this red stew, that I can wolf [it
down], I beg you. I’m famished….And Jacob said, Sell me your birthright
Abravanel provides his interpretation. As is his wont, he hurls poignant questions, in efforts to
understand Jacob’s and Esau’s respective roles within the patriarch’s household. The heated meeting
will do more than define the two brothers’ relationship; it will serve as a primer into western civilization.
Certainly, at least taken at face value, the verses quoted above resound with a most unbrotherly tone,
to put it lightly. Abravanel’s questions follow.
“And the boys grew, and Esau was a wily trapper, an outdoorsman. And Jacob was a scholarly man who
remained in the tents [of study].” If Jacob was a pure and honest soul, why did he treat Esau, his older
brother, so callously? Why would he strongarm Esau into selling his birthright? And for what – a bowl of
lentils? Let’s be honest. Such conduct is detestable, and certainly not becoming of a man who fears God.
Studious Jacob trained himself to avoid temptation, and that, of course, includes keeping hands off that
which does not belong to him.
With regard to Jacob’s ruse to wrest away Esau’s firstborn rights, Abravanel writes more. Readers should
seeAbravanel’s World. But let us share one of Abravanel’s approaches regarding the brothers’
confrontation, one whose aftermath is acutely felt until today.
Abravanel believes that Jacob fumed over the brothers’ role reversal, and sought remedy. Let us explain.
Esau and Jacob’s father Isaac had grown old and infirm; he required daily assistance. That meant
someone – the oldest son traditionally – needed to pick up the slack and perform domestic duties.
Chores included procuring food, cooking etc. Moreover, that someone needed to take charge of family
Esau went AWOL and ditched dad. For extended periods of time, he was away from home on hunting
expeditions and other dubious pursuits. Meanwhile, Jacob stepped up. He acted as if he was the family’s
first born, attending to his frail father’s needs.
Everything fell on Jacob’s shoulders. Devotedly, he executed all domestic duties – large and small. Thus,
what should have been Esau’s job fell to Jacob – by default. Time elapsed. A pattern emerged. Esau
shunned responsibility. Jacob covered for him.
Things came to a head. “And Jacob had been cooking a stew” that day, as he had been countless times
before. “And Esau came in from the field” – after who knows how long. Jacob snapped. Enough of the
charades, the younger brother might have charged. You don’t want to take care of your sick father. I do.
You don’t care about being the first born, and what that entails. I do.
Esau merely grunted, “Pass this red stew…I beg you. I’m famished. And Jacob said, Sell me your
birthright first.” For Abravanel, this is crucial context to the brothers’ tense exchange. For Jacob it was a
turning point, a time of reckoning. Esau would either have to change his errant ways or acknowledge the
truth about Jacob’s de facto role in the family.
Esau’s predictable answer comes in a later verse, as he scarfs down Jacob’s stew. “And Esau said, Behold
I am at the point to die, and what profit shall the birthright do to me?” In Jacob’s mind, buying the
birthright formalized matters, consistent with the facts on the ground.