According to Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives, the top regret of the dying is: ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ Her observation speaks to the fact that often we fail to pursue the hopes, dreams and aspirations which we have; focusing instead on what others expect and want for us. Bronnie’s observation can be important for all of us, as we try to live our lives without regrets, but it also might have been good for our patriarch Jacob to have heard and heeded her advice.
This week we have the famous story of Jacob stealing his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing. As a reminder; Isaac is getting old and he tells his son Esau that he should bring him some of the food, which he likes, so ‘that my soul may bless you before I die’ (Genesis 27:4). Rebecca overhears this, and instructs Jacob that he should pretend to be Esau so that he might receive the blessing. The deception is successful and Isaac therefore gives him the blessing which begins: ‘Therefore God give you of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth…’ (Genesis 27:28).
After the discovery of the deception, Esau is understandably very upset with his brother, and Rebecca makes plans for Jacob to leave, so that there will be no way for Esau to take revenge. As Jacob prepares to leave, Isaac says to him: ‘And God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a multitude of people; And give the blessing of Abraham to you, and to your seed with you; that you may inherit the land where you are a stranger, which God gave to Abraham’ (Genesis 28:3-4).
In focusing on the blessing which Jacob stole from Esau, we sometimes neglect that fact that it appears that there was another blessing which Isaac had intended to give to his younger son from the very beginning. Isaac had always wanted to give Jacob the patriarchal blessing, linking him to Abraham. However, his deception led him to receive both the blessing intended for Esau, and the one he was always supposed to receive.
For much of Jacob’s life he appears as a soul divided, unsure about what direction his life should be taking. It is as though he is conflicted between pursuing the blessing of Esau and the blessing which was always meant for him. This conflict may be seen in the two names he ultimately possesses, and the way in which the text switches back and forth between them. He is named Jacob because he clung to Esau’s heel when he was born; and he is named Israel because of his own wrestling and striving with a divine being.
I do not think Jacob was conflicted because he stole Esau’s blessing, but his possession of two blessings, one meant for him and one meant for his brother speaks to the conflict within him. At times he tried to live a life true to himself, pursuing the blessing he was always supposed to receive. While at other moments he seems to have tried to live a life true to Esau, pursuing a blessing that was never meant for him. We are challenged to learn from Jacob’s mistake to pursue the blessing which is uniquely intended for us.
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