The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “what’s Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that was published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere. This week’s essay is from Toldot.

The Transfer of a Birthright (Chapter 27)

Chapter 27 raises many questions. I will mention some of them. Thinking about these questions gives us a deeper understanding of the biblical episode and ideas on how to conduct our lives.

The chapter has an episode that causes Bible commentators to scratch their heads. Were Jacob and his mother Rebecca acting improperly when they deceived Isaac to get him to bestow the blessings he intended to give to Esau on Jacob, or were they acting properly? Some rabbis and scholars maintain that they acted wrongly and that Jacob was punished for his behavior. Others say that the two did what they needed to do.

As a prelude to the story, why doesn’t the Bible reveal whether or not Isaac knew that Esau had inappropriately sold his birthright for some lentil soup? Isn’t it relevant?

Why was Isaac so concerned about food (Genesis 27:3–4) prior to his intended blessing of Esau? Shouldn’t he have used the opportunity to have a heart-to-heart talk with his firstborn about his responsibilities? Is it significant that the need for food appears in the two stories about Esau selling his birthright for lentil soup and his father offering him blessings only after a large meal?

The Bible seems to imply that Rebecca was eavesdropping on Isaac’s conversation with Esau (Genesis 27:5). Was this appropriate? Why did she need to eavesdrop? Why didn’t Isaac inform Rebecca that he intended to perform an important task that would affect the future of their descendants? What conclusions can we draw about their family life from their behavior? Did Isaac and Rebecca have a dysfunctional family?

How do you account for the complicity of both Rebecca and Jacob in the deception of Isaac? Is Jacob’s response to his mother that he feared his father would discover his deception (Genesis 27:11–12) an ethical one, since he seems to imply that what he is doing is wrong only because his deception may be discovered? Can you find a way to justify their plan?

Is Jacob’s statement, in which he claims to be Esau, an outright lie (Genesis 27:19)? Some rabbis read the Hebrew as a true statement: “It is me; Esau is your firstborn.” Why did the rabbis try to justify Jacob? Is this a proper reading of the text? Would Jacob have been justified in submerging the truth, although the statement may not exactly be a lie?

Does Jacob merit Isaac’s blessing (Genesis 27:28–29)? Why does Isaac insist that Jacob’s blessing cannot be nullified once he is told how Jacob obtained it? Jewish law today recognizes that a statement, contract, oath, or promise entered into with fraud or mistake can be nullified. Is it possible that this ability to nullify based on a mistake didn’t exist in ancient times, as seen in the story of Jephthah (Judges 11, 12), who promises to give as a burnt offering “whatever comes forth of the doors of my house to meet me” (Judges 11:31), and then he is surprised when his daughter steps out? Or can it be that Isaac doesn’t nullify his blessing because he finally understands that Jacob really merits it? What leads you to think that this is so? Why doesn’t Isaac give Esau a blessing more acceptable to him than condemning his descendants to “serve” Jacob (Genesis 27:40)?

Why has there been such enmity between the descendants of Esau and Jacob, especially since the Bible records the ultimate reconciliation of the brothers (Genesis 33:4–16)? Is the answer simply that today’s enmity has nothing to do with the strife between Jacob and Esau, and rabbinical statements that the strife continues today is a homily?

What is the meaning of this story? Should we believe that blessings work? Should we take this tale literally? Can we interpret this and other biblical narratives in ways that stray from the literal meaning of the text?

The following are some moral values that can be gleaned from this episode.

The ends do not justify the means. Rebecca knows that Jacob should be Isaac’s rightful heir. She received this revelation while she was pregnant (Genesis 25:23). She feels justified in taking any steps, even resorting to deceit, to insure that Jacob receives what she is certain belongs to him. Yet she seemed to be punished for her act. She is forced to send her beloved Jacob away from home and she apparently never sees him again. It is interesting to note that the doubling in the verse, “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), has been interpreted to mean “pursue your goals of justice through just means.”

Are there occasions when the ends do justify the means? If our goals are just, and we have no alternatives, is it wrong to employ unjust means to accomplish our objectives?

People cannot escape judgment by claiming that they were commanded to commit an immoral act. Jacob seems reluctant to carry out his deceit despite the insistence of his mother, who is ready to assume full responsibility for his act (Genesis 27:12–18). But Jacob’s culpability becomes clear from the punishment he endured in exile in the house of Laban.

Can a child defy his parents if he considers their demands immoral?

Retribution is meted out “measure for measure” in accordance with one’s deed. Jacob deceives his father and later is similarly deceived when his father-in-law substitutes Leah for Rachel in marriage (Genesis 29:25). Later, Jacob’s sons also deceive him with their behavior concerning his daughter Dinah (Genesis 34) and his son Joseph (Genesis 37).

Is the saying, “He who digs a pit to trap another person will fall into it himself,” always the case, or do people frequently get away with their evil acts? When we see poetic justice in operation, how do we react to it—as if it was a coincidence, a rule of nature, or the hand of God?