A Birthright Worth Beans

The Text


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Jacob gave Esau bread and a stew of lentils in exchange for the older brother's birthright.

24 When Rebekah's time to give birth came, sure enough, there were twins in her womb.

25 The first came out reddish, as if snugly wrapped in a hairy blanket; they named him Esau.

26 His brother followed, his fist clutched tight to Esau's heel; they named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born.

27 The boys grew up. Esau became an ex pert hunter, an outdoorsman. Jacob was a quiet man preferring life indoors among the tents.

28 Isaac loved Esau because he loved Esau's game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29 One day Jacob was cooking a stew. Esau came in from the field, starved.

30 Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stew—I'm starved!” That's how he came to be called Edom.

31 Jacob said, “Make me a trade: my stew for your rights as the firstborn.”

32 Esau said, “I'm starving! What good is a birthright if I'm dead?”

33 Jacob said, “First, swear to me.” And he did it. On oath Esau traded away his rights as the firstborn.

34 Jacob gave him bread and the stew of lentils. He ate and drank, got up and left. That's how Esau shrugged off his rights as the firstborn.

Genesis 25:24–34, adapted from The Message

The History

As recounted in Chapter 1, God made a covenant with Abraham, promising him descendants that would be as numerous as the stars in return for Abraham's fealty to the One God. Although past child-bearing age (tradition indicates that she was ninety years old), Sarah, Abraham's wife, gave birth to a son. They called him Isaac (Yitzchak), which is believed to mean “laughter” in ancient Hebrew, because Sarah laughed when the angels who feasted with Abraham told her that she would have a son within the year, and because the son's conception brought the parents joy.

Isaac was not Abraham's firstborn or heir, however. At Sarah's urging, he had had a child with her servant, Hagar, and the boy had been named Ishmael. After Isaac's birth, Sarah urged Abraham to disinherit his firstborn son, so he banished Hagar and her child to the desert. According to tradition, God's angels saved Hagar and Ishmael, who himself became the ancestor of many people (some say he was the father of the Arab peoples).

At some point during Isaac's youth, Abraham received an extremely disturbing message from God: he was to take Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah and sacrifice him there. Abraham was thunderstruck: the gods he had abandoned in Ur might have required sacrifices, but was the One God no different? Libraries of books have been written about this event. As related in the book of Genesis, Abraham did as he was commanded, and Isaac, though strong and swift, obeyed his centenarian father and allowed himself to be bound on the sacrificial altar. Just as Abraham was about to slit his son's throat, God commanded him to stop, pleased that the man would withhold nothing, not even his son, from God. Moved by this display of fealty, God provided a ram for the sacrifice in place of Isaac. This event, or test of Abraham's faith, is known as the Akeidah, which means “binding.” One can imagine the emotional trauma that Isaac might have had to live with for many years, if not his whole life.

After the death of Sarah, Abraham sent a servant to find a wife for Isaac among their relatives in Ur. The servant, Eliezer, returned with a young maiden named Rebekah (sometimes called Rivka), who became Isaac's wife. He was about forty years old at this time. They settled in the land of the Philistines, and the people of that region prospered. However, the Philistine king, Abimelech, tried to take Rebekah away; but when he discovered that she was Isaac's wife he forced all of Isaac's people out of the country. The fortunes of the Philistines plummeted, and eventually Abimelech invited Isaac's tribe back to Philistia.

Meanwhile, Abraham had married again, to Keturah, who bore six children, and he had additional children with his concubines. But he left everything he owned to Isaac and sent his other sons away. When Abraham died at the age of 175, his sons Isaac and Ishmael (they must have reconciled at some point) buried him next to Sarah, in the tomb Abraham had purchased from the Hittites, probably a branch of the Canaanite peoples who lived in the area of Hebron.

According to the biblical account, Isaac and Rebekah suffered from the same infertility that had afflicted Abraham and Sarah, but after twenty years Rebekah became pregnant. She gave birth to twins who were completely dissimilar. The older boy was called Esau because he was red and covered with hair (Esau means “hairy” in ancient Hebrew; he was also known as Edom, which means “red”). The younger child was named Jacob (Ya'akov) because he was holding onto Esau's heel (Ya'akov means “he grasps the heel,” but that expression signifies “one who deceives' or “one who supplants'—and indeed, Jacob would prove to be the deceiver who supplanted his brother). Esau grew up to be a strong man, a skilled hunter and outdoorsman and Isaac's favorite; Jacob grew up to be a quiet man who preferred to remain in the camp, tending the flocks, and he was Re-bekah's favorite. The parents' favoritism became a source of conflict, jealousy, and enmity between the two young men.

It is not surprising, then, that Jacob would attempt to trick Esau and “steal” his birthright. The opportunity came when Esau returned to the camp from what had probably been a long, unsuccessful hunt. Exhausted and famished, he happened to find Jacob in the middle of making a fine pot of red lentil stew. Esau asked for a bowl of the stew, to which, as the older brother, he was legally entitled. Taking advantage of Esau's fatigue, Jacob slyly began to negotiate: was Esau hungry enough to trade his birthright for a plate of food? Esau may have thought it was a joke—or he may have been too hungry to pay it much heed—or he may not have cared about his spiritual leadership of the tribe—but he swore an oath, giving his birthright to his younger brother.

The birthright was and continued to be extremely important among the descendants of Abraham. The first son born to the father took priority over all of his brothers and sisters. He usually inherited most of the father's wealth, and the law of Deuteronomy eventually fixed his inheritance as a double portion of all of the father's possessions; in fact, the Deuteronomic law forbade a father from favoring a younger son over the firstborn. When the father died, the firstborn became the head of the family, with all the rights (respect and property) and responsibilities (caring for his father's widows, all unmarried sisters, and any boys who had not reached adulthood) of that position. At some point in the history of the ancient Hebrews it became the custom to consecrate the firstborn to God; another custom permitted an animal sacrifice to redeem the firstborn. This may be a secondary explanation for the story of Isaac's near-sacrifice at the hand of Abraham. At any rate, the birthright was a valuable possession, and Esau should have been warier of his brother's intentions.

Biblical Passage Notes

This simple but very famous biblical story has as its center the elements of hunger, greed, ignorance, and a bit of sibling rivalry thrown in for good measure— a perfect tale around which to build a great meal! Here also we have an insight into the two typical ways of life in ancient Palestine, where Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, grew up: the shepherd (Jacob) and the hunter (Esau) personify two differing but contemporaneous groups that lived off the same landscape and often encountered each other amid their daily routines. The perspective of the text seems to favor Jacob, not only because he wins the big prize of birthright at the end, but also because there is an implied preference for his way of life, which is presented as more cultured, more orderly, less impetuous. True, their father, Isaac, we are told, favors Esau, especially because he is strong and could hunt the big, tasty game whose meat was a delicacy for these early tribesfolk; but shepherd and farmer Jacob has the upper hand, a clue we get at the beginning of the story when he comes out of the womb clutching Esau's heel. From that day forward, Esau would always be looking over his shoulder, fearful of Jacob's mischief and deceit.

Esau arrives at Jacob's tent, bursting with an insatiable need to eat. He doesn't even seem to care what his brother is preparing and most likely did not even recognize the dish; perhaps the chance to dine on the unknown and the wonderful odor of sweet Egyptian beans made the meal irresistibly tempting.1 But it must have been a satisfying meal, because he appears to gulp it down and then get up and go on his way very quickly.

The Preparation

The stew that Jacob feeds his brother is made of lentils, a vegetable that is mentioned only four times in the Bible (II Samuel 17:28 and 23:12; Ezekiel 4:9; and in this chapter of Genesis), but it seems very likely that lentils were widely planted and utilized during the biblical era. Even today they are grown throughout the Middle East and are known as a good source of vitamins A and C, and they are rich in protein and amino acids, making it natural that they became a staple among the poorer inhabitants of the land. Planted during the winter season in very small patches of plowed soil and harvested during late spring or early summer, the plants grow to about one foot tall and sport small bluish-white flowers.2

There are two main types of lentils grown in the Middle East. The first is a large, gray bean with a reddish center. This is usually prepared by grinding off the outer layer, the seed coat, leaving the red cotyledons. The seed coat residue is fed to animals.3 Lentils of this type cook more rapidly than the second type, which is smaller and does not have red cotyledons, although some of the seed coats themselves can have a brownish-red hue. This type of lentil is eaten with the outer coating intact. (Cotyledons are the first part of the plant that pokes out of the ground when a seed sprouts; they keep the new seedling fed until it can make its own food through photosynthesis.)

The recipes below feature the smaller lentils, which require less work in preparation. Two of the lentil dishes are vegetarian; the third dish adds some meat for those who want a heartier stew. All are great dishes for a large group of hungry folk, who'll have to give over very little for a tasty meal!

Notes

1. “It is probable that it was made of Egyptian beans, which Jacob had procured as a dainty; for Esau was a stranger to it. It is very palatable; and to the weary hunter, faint with hunger, its odor must have been irresistibly tempting.” Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (New York: George H. Doran, 1921), as found at www.searchgodsword.org/com/jfb/view.cgi?book+ge&xhapter=025
2. See “All the Plants of the Bible” by Lytton John Musselman, http://web.odu.edu.webroot/instr/sci/plant.nsf/pages/allbibleplantslist
3. See “All the Plants of the Bible” by Lytton John Musselman, http://web.odu.edu.webroot/instr/sci/plant.nsf/pages/allbibleplantslist
4. According to Kitty Morse (A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land [Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1998], 11), “Some noted biblical botanists now believe that the apple of scripture was an apricot, or perhaps, a quince. The apricot better fits the biblical criteria: a pleasant-tasting, fragrant, golden fruit, from a shady, silver-leafed tree.”
5. According to Kitty Morse (A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land [Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1998], 19. “The nuts mentioned in the Bible were probably pistachios… which have been widely cultivated since the time of Solomon.”