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Genesis 26: A Flashback

Genesis 26 is backstory; it’s a flashback; it’s an excerpt from a previous time. It’s wedged between Jacob’s receiving the birthright and Jacob’s receiving the blessing. Why here? Because it pertains to both. 

Why a flashback?

Flashback is a literary device used to create a background to the present situation. An author uses this device as an opportunity to provide insight and meaning within the story at hand. Flashback is one of the most common and recognizable writing techniques, and when executed well, one of the most effective.

There is generally a trigger, something that causes the narrator to recall a particular event or detail from the past. The trigger is explored/explained in the flashback itself, which serves to provide new information to the reader. In this case, the flashback is triggered by Esau selling his birthright. “Esau despised his birthright,” says the final verse in Chapter 25. Then the page turns to Chapter 26, and suddenly the reader is transported back in time to the moment that God went to Isaac and endowed Isaac with all that was given to Abraham. 

In other words, when Esau trades his birthright for a pot of beans, it’s as if the Narrator calls a time-out. He’s like stop the tape. Let’s rewind. Let’s go back and understand the magnitude of this birthright. Let’s visit the moment I personally went to Isaac and promised him all the power and authority of Abraham. 

The flashback commences. We find ourselves witnessing a time when Isaac and Rebekah are living among the Philistines in Gerar. They live here “for a long time” (Genesis 26:8). Their marriage is a total secret. The locals don’t realize that the two of them are married. (Note: from this we can ascertain that Isaac and Rebekah were still childless. Had they any children in Gerar, the locals would have known that Isaac and Rebekah were husband and wife. There would have been no hiding their relationship. This is an important note because it lends credibility to the idea that this is, indeed, a flashback.) 

Isaac is lying to the locals, acting like his wife Rebekah is actually his sister. Why? Because he is afraid! He is acting out of fear. And this tells us something about his character. It tells us that Isaac can sometimes lose sight of the big picture because what’s in front of him is the most pressing thing. He’s a godly man, of course, but the danger in Gerar is clear and present, and God’s larger-than-life promises are, well, larger than life. So he loses sight of the big picture and decides to lie about his situation. And no one knows that better than his own wife, Rebekah, who has to pretend to be his sister “for a long time.” She knows it’s deceitful on their part, yes, but it’s for a good cause. 

The flashback ends when we reach the final two verses in Genesis 26. We now return to the present. We’re back where we left off. Esau abruptly re-enters the frame. He sold his birthright the last time we saw him. Now we see him selling his family name as he intermarries with the Hittites.

No doubt, Esau will squander the blessing. Esau has already proven himself to be careless (selling his birthright so easily), resentful (despising his birthright), and rebellious (marrying women without regard to his parents or his heritage). But what’s his father Isaac supposed to do? Here’s Esau, his firstborn son, right in front of him, waiting eagerly for this blessing.  

The birthright and the blessing in a nutshell...

Birthright: the responsibility to take care of the family and the estate 
Blessing: the means with which to carry out that responsibility
Whoever has the birthright (typically the firstborn son) needs to get the blessing,
the means with which to carry out the birthright. 

Esau should not receive the blessing. He is the firstborn son, but he sold his birthright to Jacob. So Jacob is the one to whom the blessing should go. And their mother Rebekah knows this with such certainty. (After all, in Genesis 25:23 God told her that the older would serve the younger.) But Rebekah also knows her husband. She knows that her husband can, at times, lose sight of the big picture. He did it in Gerar, and he is about to do it again. If he gives the blessing to Esau, it will be a big mistake, one he cannot undo. So it is decided: she will protect her husband from disaster. She will be deceitful, yes, but it’s for a good cause.  

In time, her husband would learn the truth. Isaac would learn that Rebekah was behind the scheme to switch Jacob for Esau. And Isaac would have been furious with his wife, had it not been for one important discovery. He discovers that Esau sold the birthright to Jacob! As it turns out, Jacob has legally come to possess the firstborn status! Because the birthright––the firstborn status––was sold to Jacob. So, as a matter of fact, Isaac’s wife really did protect Isaac from a terrible mishap––that is, to give the blessing to someone who does not possess the birthright in God’s eyes. 

Still, a very brave maneuver on Rebekah’s part, to do what she did, to risk her name on so daring a move. What if it had gone wrong? But you know, maybe such bravery she learned in Gerar, going out as a “single” woman, risking herself among the Philistines for such a long time. While Isaac was afraid, Rebekah learned how not to be afraid. She certainly wasn’t too afraid when she told Jacob, “My son, [if this doesn’t work], let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get the ingredients for me.”

Now can we conclusively say that Genesis 26 is flashback? No, we can’t. But the idea does seem to have some merit. As flashback, the chapter’s placement in Genesis sure makes more sense to me. And interestingly, another curious thing opens up. And that is, when the king spies Isaac and Rebekah being intimate with each other in Gerar (26:8), maybe this detail captures the special moment when Jacob and Esau were conceived. Sure––the idea is far-fetched, so I say it with a sort of wink, but then again, if it is a flashback, the possibility works just fine within the narrative. 

Laban's Gods & Jacob's Curse

In Genesis 31 Jacob ditches his father-in-law Laban. Laban doesn’t know that Jacob is running away. And Jacob doesn’t know that his wife, Rachel, stole some of Laban’s idols before they got away. 

Genesis 31:19: “When Laban [was away], Rachel stole her father’s household gods.”

Once Laban realizes that Jacob has taken his family and fled, Laban goes in pursuit. It takes a week but eventually Laban catches up to Jacob. Laban says to Jacob, “Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your [homeland]. But why did you steal my gods?”

Jacob didn’t know that Laban’s idols were stolen, let alone that someone in his party stole them. Jacob replies by pronouncing a curse over the thief, saying, “If you find anyone who has your gods, that person shall not live.” The underlying message: whoever stole your gods will die. 

Laban goes searching for his stolen idols. He goes into Jacob’s tent, then Leah’s tent, then into the tent of maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. Finally, he enters Rachel’s tent. Rachel is the last suspect on the list maybe because she is least expected to commit such a crime.

It’s a tense moment inside Rachel’s tent. “Rachel had taken the household gods and put them inside her camel’s saddle and was sitting on them. Laban searched through everything in the tent but found nothing. Rachel said to Laban her father, ‘Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.’ So he searched but could not find the household gods” (31:34-35). Finding nothing, Laban gives up and lets the matter go. He never gets his idols back. 

Fast forward...

It’s Genesis 34. Jacob sets up camp just outside a town called Shechem. In Shechem, Jacob’s daughter is seized by the royal guards and raped by the town’s most honored prince. But her brothers ride in in a surprise attack and kill the prince, the king, and every other male Shechemite in the city. They rescue their sister from her captor’s house (34:26) and carry off all the women and children of Shechem.  

Jacob now finds that all the women and children of Shechem have come under his authority. And they have brought with them their own small idols and household gods. “So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes’” (35:1). “So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem” (35:4). 

Imagine the scene: the women and children of Shechem are stepping  forward; one after another, each person offers up his or her idol to be buried in a pit by the old oak at Shechem. Jacob is standing there beside the pit, supervising this whole thing. And now imagine Jacob’s surprise––his horror––when suddenly his beloved wife Rachel steps out and delivers Laban’s gods to the pit. 

Jacob recalls the curse he spoke toward the person responsible for the disappearance of Laban’s gods. Unknowingly, he had cursed his own beloved wife! 

The story chronicles what happens next. Jacob and his camp leave Shechem and begin their journey southward. They move through Bethel and then on toward Ephrath. “While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty . . . As she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named her son Ben-Oni. But Jacob named him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way...” (35:16-19, condensed). 

Does Jacob’s curse have anything to do with the timing of Rachel’s death? We can’t be sure. But it is an intriguing coincidence.

One last thought: maybe Rachel didn’t step out. Maybe she kept the idols hidden in her tent while the Shechemite women came forward to surrender their gods. If this was indeed the case, she missed her opportunity because her secret was bound to come to light. For Jacob would have discovered the idols upon her death. The idols would have been found among her items, and again, a horrified Jacob would have called to memory the curse he pronounced to Laban on that fateful day.