The book of Genesis, as it has come down to us, recounts the blessing of Jacob on two separate occasions: Genesis 27:1-29 and Genesis 28:1-5. They are in fact doublets, and at this point it should not be surprising to learn that they are each a part of two, once separate, textual traditions which were later grafted together, and as a result created these contradictions.
In the first account (Gen 27:1-29), we are immediately told that “Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see” (27:1). This, in fact, is the pretext upon which Jacob and Rebekah prepare to deceive the old blind patriarch into giving the blessing and inheritance that rightfully belong to the firstborn Esau, to Jacob. That is to say, in this account Jacob, prompted by his mother Rebekah, plans to deceive the nearly-blind Isaac by presenting himself disguised as Esau his older brother in order to steal, through this ploy of deception, Esau’s blessing. And indeed it works like a charm. Isaac is duped into thinking that Jacob is Esau and gives him the blessing of the firstborn (27:13-29).
After Jacob successfully dupes his father, Esau enters and presents himself before his blind father to receive his rightful blessing which has now already been given to Jacob, the usurper (more about this rascally character later). Esau weeps and pleads with his father for a blessing. Recognizing that this is indeed his firstborn, Isaac laments having been duped and deceived by his son Jacob: “Your brother came with deception and he took your blessing” (27:35).
This is not, however, the same Isaac nor the same scenario that we meet in the blessing of Jacob that happens anew in Genesis 28:1-5. Here we meet an Isaac who is neither blind nor old. He not only sees and intends the blessing for Jacob but willingly gives Jacob the covenantal blessing in all the pomp and circumstance typical of other covenantal passages belonging to the Priestly source (see below). Genesis 28:1-5 differs sharply in tone, style, vocabulary, and theological emphasis from the preceding account, and proceeds as if the blessing and its circumstances in Gen 27:1-29 never happened!
The preceding account, Genesis 27:1-29, displays features that we find in other passages now identified as the Yahwist source: it is presented informally as a familial dialogue with little to no religious perspective; word punning plays a prominent role throughout, especially on Esau’s and Jacob’s names; the narrative style is also informal and playful; the depiction of Jacob as a deceiver and usurper is a standard Yahwist theme; and Yahweh or any theological emphasis or moral critique of this vagrant act of deception is totally missing. These are all features we find elsewhere in the Yahwist textual tradition.
Contrary to J’s decrepit, blind, bed-ridden, and duped Isaac, P’s Isaac is none of these. First, he cannot be much older than 100 years according to the P narrative. For if Esau has married at the age of 40 (26:34), then Isaac would have been 100 years old at this time. We know from Genesis 35:28, a P text, that Isaac was 180 years old when he died. Thus Isaac is still relatively young according to P’s life-spans. Furthermore, the point is, that he is not blind, bed-ridden, nor old and decrepit in this account.
Second, P’s blessing is portrayed differently than J’s in chapter 27. In 28:1 Isaac commands Jacob to present himself to him and knowingly with perfectly healthy eyes blesses Jacob by reiterating the Abrahamic blessing of land and progeny:
“May El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, so you’ll become a community of peoples, and may he give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your seed with you, for you to possess the land of your residences, which god gave to Abraham” (28:3-4).
The thematic and theological material of this passage—namely, its insistence on the transference of the blessing of El Shaddai, its mention of a community or assembly of people intrinsically tied to the promise of land, and the divine decree to be fruitful and multiply—links it to other P blessing passages in Genesis (e.g., 17:1-14; 35:11-12; 48:3-6). The morally questionable Jacob of J is rewritten by the Priestly source as a righteous and obedient son who furthermore upholds and exemplifies one of the prominent staples of the Priestly writer, endogamy (see #48).
The blessing in Genesis 28:3-4 is typical of P’s style, thematic emphasis, and vocabulary, and weighs heavily against J’s Isaac in the preceding narrative, especially if one assumes a continuous narrative. After being duped by his son in the previous version, why would Isaac then with no knowledge of the previous bed-side blessing which his trickster Jacob son stole through deception bless him again? Simply, he doesn’t. Chapter 28 is from another scribe, another source, that of P. It was most likely written, as we saw in previous passages (see #28), to rectify, from the Priestly writer’s perspective, the Yahwist’s presentation of Jacob’s blessing. However, an even later redactor stitched these two versions together, and as a result created the inconsistencies and contradictions presently in the combined JP text.
At this point we might conjecture a bit further. Since P’s portrait of Isaac and the manner in which Jacob receives the covenantal blessing are so diametrically contrary to those of J, that we might assume that not only was P rewriting the story, but he rewrote it in order to replace J’s version. Think of it this way: all the texts that we have identified, and will identify, as P most likely existed on one single scroll as an independent work. These stories helped forge the identity of an exilic and/or post-exilic community and emphasized those themes important to the Priestly guild that P represented: Yahweh as El Shaddai, the eternal Abrahamic covenant, community, endogamy, etc. In other words, the stories and “history” in this P scroll served this particular community and at festivals and cultic events these stories were recited and shared. The Yahwist scroll was now archived, since the Priestly scroll with its new version of Israel’s patriarchal “history” spoke to the specific needs and concerns of this particular community. Still at a later date, these various scrolls were themselves collected together perhaps in an effort to safeguard all of Israel’s “sacred” scriptures. It must have been at this point that a Redactor or school decided to preserve both accounts through an elaborate process of cut-and-paste. It was the redactor who placed the P material into the J(E) narrative, and in turn this new textual creation served yet the purpose of another community.
In other words, the two contradictory stories of J and P were now “read” through an even larger, and centuries-later, interpretive framework. As we shall see, this process of subverting previous textual traditions or co-opting them as parts of later narrative frameworks repeatedly happens throughout the history of the Bible’s making.