Among the most exquisite stories in all of Tanach is Genesis 27, Isaac's blessing of Jacob. In this essay I wish to highlight the artistry of this author. I shall also draw attention to the bracketing structure that the redactor has built around the story. Finally, we will once again draw attention to how the Genesis author is attuned to the travails of Jewish life in the Diaspora. But first to the artistry.
If we ignore the aesthetics of our literature, we fail to notice that some stories are written better than others. Why would this be important? Attention to aesthetics helps us discern the distinct styles and techniques of various biblical writers. In making this discernment, we also highlight the anthological character of the literature. Some authors were very intent on engaging foreshadowing or ironic flourishes; others were quite direct and had no ear for subtle plot elements. Many of the stories that exhibit somewhat compromised aesthetics probably started out quite a bit better than they currently are. One suspects that they have suffered from the integration of ideological materials that compromise what was their original literary integrity. An example of a compromised story occurs at the beginning of next week's parashah, Genesis 28:10-19. The first three verses of the story work wonderfully, having Jacob view a remarkable stairway to heaven. But then, suddenly in verse 13, the redactor has God standing next to Jacob on earth-which makes the stairway itself at best incidental, at worst irrelevant-and then he throws at us the standard ideological overlay of the covenant's threefold promise for land, progeny, and wealth. What, then, was the purpose of the stairway? Angels frequently appear to patriarchs and others in biblical stories. Surely this"stairway" image had some other purpose in its original setting. By verse 16 Jacob awakes and nothing more is learned of what we sense was a scene displaced by the stereotypical ideological overlay in verses 13-15.
Perhaps you are wondering how we can go about making such judgments, since aesthetics are most often thought of as a matter of personal taste. Judging whether you like something is, indeed, a matter of personal taste. But in performing an analysis of a piece of literature, we can set up evaluative criteria that involve more or less objective assessments based on an internal evaluation of the literature's own characteristics. The ideological overlay we have referenced is just such a criterion. It is always external to a narrative's plot. Sometimes it is skillfully integrated, other times it is just sort of thrown in so that the redactor can repeat his primary concern. (One might argue that the example in Genesis 28:10-19 was skillfully executed, since the story itself still seems to work.) As far as literary techniques go, we have an array of questions we can ask that regard the aesthetic characteristics of a narrative. For instance, does a story involve irony? Does a story involve wordplay? Does a story pivot off of imagery that was set up in a previous narrative? Does a story pivot off of multiple layers of meaning? Throughout the Hebrew Bible we find the use of irony, of wordplay, and now and again we are quite struck by how a story functions at multiple levels-not simply because we think it does (subjectively), but because other biblical authors engage the multivalence of another narrative in their own stories (an example of this kind of"pivoting" will be given in the upcoming essay on Vayishlach). With this in mind, we can evaluate any given story by engaging at least some of the measures biblical authors themselves engaged. Now it may be that we don't agree on how skillful a particular author was in engaging these various literary techniques. Such disagreements will usually happen on the margins of what makes something ironic, or a wordplay, etc. For the most part, these literary techniques are not all that subtle, and the majority of us will at least agree on their presence, regardless of how we assess their qualities.
Aesthetic sensitivity also alerts us to the social context in which this literature was created. That is, its beauty is part of its entertainment value. And we should not lose for a second cognizance of its function as entertainment. If the stories were not good, if they were not well crafted, they would not have attracted a loyal following. As a whole, enough stories included in the anthology had to be sufficiently pleasing or challenging to capture the imagination of the intended audience.
By engaging the text in terms of its aesthetic characteristics, we also hope to establish something about the history of its composition. As noted, some stories simply appear to be truer to their original aesthetic forms than other stories. Those stories whose aesthetic integrity has been compromised have almost invariably suffered from the workings of an aggressive redactor's pen-a redactor who had ideology high and aesthetics low on his list of values. Our discussion of Genesis 27 will show both forces at work.
Regardless of whether you read the parashah in preparing to read this essay, I would ask you to read chapter 27:1-29 at this time, but leave out one line, verse 23.
Five times in this narrative Isaac questions who is before him (vv. 18, 20, 21, 24, 26). The entire story pivots off of Jacob's inability to trick his father. But the author leaves this all quite ambiguous, and given Isaac's response to Esau later in the chapter (v. 35), one might believe that Isaac is a victim rather than a coconspirator. The climax of Isaac's certainty as to his server's identity is expressed in that glorious verse,"The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau!" (v. 22). Logic demands that Esau would not appear before his father using his brother's voice (as if that could be feigned anyway). This verse, then, is not an admission of confusion on Isaac's behalf-it is a declaration of knowledge. Isaac knows full well who is before him, and he transfers the responsibility for his complicit behavior to God himself when he calls for the most intimate and telling of tests-a kiss. The two men, face-to-face, cannot fool one another, but Isaac thinks to himself,"Ah, the scent of my son is like the scent of the fields that Yahveh has blessed" (v. 27). It is Yahveh, Israel's God, who is sending Isaac a sign as to what he should do. After all, Isaac is also a man of the field (see Genesis 26:12), and in this way, Jacob is meant to be his successor.
The verse I had asked you to leave out of the story occurs right after that phrase about the voice being that of Jacob and the hands ostensibly being those of Esau. At that moment, the text adds the comment:"He did not recognize him, however, because his hands were hairy like the hands of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him" (Genesis 27:23). This is a rather clumsy insertion executed by some editor who simply could not suffer the heightened ambiguity and subtlety that functions throughout this narrative. Whoever added this verse wanted it to be certain that Isaac was not thought to be complicit. As I pointed out a moment ago, this phrase about the voice and hands is not an admission of confusion, but a statement regarding Isaac's certainty. Moreover, the out-of-place character of this inserted verse becomes evident when one notes how it jumps to the blessing itself, despite the fact that there remain two more challenges to the server's identity before the blessing is to convey (that of verse 24, just before the food is served, and that of verse 26, the kiss).
Isaac's blessing of Jacob, then, is a glorious, freestanding story that ends up in this anthology of stories for one main purpose: to move Jacob back to Paddan-aram. Esau's desire for vengeance is ostensibly the basis for Jacob's displacement out of harm's way. But the redactor integrated this clean element in the plotline with a pressing religious concern: intermarriage. Our story in chapter 27 sits within a frame that includes Genesis 26:34-35 and 27:46. Those verses read as follows:
When Esau was 40 years old he took to wife Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. They were a bitterness of spirit to Isaac and Rebekah. (26:34-35)
So Rebekah said to Isaac,"I abhor my life because of the daughters of the Hittites: if Jacob takes a wife from the daughters of the Hittites-like these from among the daughters of the land-what would my life be worth?" (27:46)
With these verses we now have two pretexts for Jacob's relocation to Paddan-aram: (1) Esau's desire to kill Jacob-which emerges from the narrative itself; and (2) Rebekah's desire to find her favorite son a nice Jewish girl-which is inserted into the narrative by the redactor. The relocation of Jacob will result in his marriage to Leah and Rachel, neither of which would qualify as"Jewish" by rabbinic standards. But endogamy-marriage within the clan-was the concern at the time. (See the comments on endogamy and identity in the essay to Parashat Noach.)I suppose we might also note that our story confirms the antiquity of a Jewish mother's proclivity for melodrama. Rebekah frames intermarriage as rendering her life meaningless. On the other hand, this notion that a son might be lost through intermarriage will ring clairvoyant for all future generations of Jews living in the Diaspora. And once again, we find how attuned our Genesis story is to life in Diaspora.
Admittedly, it is not easy to reconceptualize the Torah as a book for the Diaspora, especially after a lifetime of reading it as having been written in the Land of Israel and for the Land of Israel. But by this point in our essays on these stories, our case should already begin to stand on solid grounds (see"Reform Voices of Torah Preliminary Comments on Torah and the Book of Genesis"). Esau, Jacob's brother, will inherit a land and remain there. Jacob will seek a wife in Mesopotamia, come back to make peace with Esau, but almost immediately thereafter find his entire entourage displaced to Egypt. When you are living in your own land, isolated from other cultures, you have no fears of intermarriage. The repeated retreats to Mesopotamia for wife hunting, and the constant frustration of displacement-despite the covenantal promise-speak most loudly to those who were experiencing the very same tensions in real time: the Jews of the Diaspora.
In a way, that single verse about hands and voice tells the story of Torah itself. The hands here are the hands of the land; the voice is the voice of the dispersed yearning for the land. We should not be fooled by the former, even though that is what the editors may have been hoping for in the end.
David H. Aaron received his doctorate from Brandeis University and ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati. He is professor of Hebrew Bible and History of Interpretation at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati. His most recent book is Etched in Stone: The Emergence of the Decalogue (T & T Clark, 2006). You can contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 David H. Aaron