The Deception of Isaac
The well-known story of the deception of Isaac has been so often misinterpreted, that it may be well to endeavour to get the key and meaning of the whole narrative. It has been made a puzzle to tender consciences and imperfect and uncertain minds—not an intellectual puzzle only, for mysteries of that kind are innumerable; but a moral difficulty, a great and most painful wonder as to how such things could be, if not actually sanctioned, yet tacitly permitted, by the Judge of all the earth, whose distinguishing characteristic it Isaiah, in the estimation of holy minds, that he will assuredly do right. Let us endeavour to master the case, and to see exactly what amount of difficulty there is about it, and to show that this difficulty seems to be a necessary quality and incident in the development of all human life. It is often forgotten that Jacob was divinely appointed to be the inheritor of the blessing. The omission from the calculation or thought of that one fact is likely to lead not only to mental perplexity but to moral confusion. You find the proof of the assertion in Genesis 25:23. The Lord said unto Rebekah, in view of the birth of her children, "The one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger." The mystery, therefore, is Divine. The commentator cannot help us here; the light is too strong for his eyes. This is the mystery of today, in our own house, in our own consciousness, in the whole circle of our experience, observation, and knowledge. Read the solemn words again: "The one people shall be stronger than the other people Is that only a forecast, or is it a sovereign appointment? Is it an accident, or a fiat? The mind instantly says, Why should one people be stronger than any other people? But there is the fact. Were there no Bible the facts would still be there, plaguing the mind, challenging the imagination, and tempting the moral nature. "And the elder shall serve the younger." Why this inversion of all presumably natural methods? But there is the fact. We might deny the sovereignty in theory, but there it is in actual history—not the history that stands centuries away from us, and by its very distance in time becomes mythological; but the history of our own little life and our own small household. We cannot explain it. We see the mystery, and if we use it wrongly, it will but add to the confusion of our life; if we accost it obeisantly, as we might accost a visitant from the upper world, a tenderer solemnity will cover our life, a holier influence will lift up our souls to a bolder prayer. We shall do injustice to ourselves if we stumble at such mysteries: in the meantime, when the day is nearly all darkness, with just a glint of light here and there in the murky gloom, we shall do well to stand still, wonder, and remit the case to another occasion where we shall have more light and more time. In all life there is a kind of groping after destiny—a dumb consciousness that we are being called in this or that direction. The voice says, "Samuel"! and we rise and go to our old friends under the dream that they have called for us. Our old friends were deep in sleep they knew not that a voice had fallen upon our ears, even the voice from on high; so that they slept on in peacefulness and in unconsciousness. A marvellous feeling is this pressure towards a given direction. We may not want to go in that special direction; but it seems to us as if we could not resist the influence that is bearing us with gracious violence in the line of a certain goal. We cannot calculate about it; we cannot take paper and pen and ink, and set down and add up reasons and bring them to the total of a logical conclusion. We are in the Spirit, we are caught up by the Spirit in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye: a trumpet has sounded and we are up where the morning is born. We do not understand the narrow and vulgar language of carnal reasoning and market-place reckoning, and calculation and conjecture. This is a mystery we must not omit from our view when we are looking out upon the whole scheme of things; nor must we regard it as a mystery belonging to other people. It is the presence of God in our own soul. This operation of destiny is seen in animal life, even of the lowest kind. Animals are born to their destiny: the ram butts before his horns are visible; there is a scent in the nostril of the beast which stands to him in place of education and training; the eye is made for the kind of work it has to do in the daytime or in the night season. From the very earliest throb of life there is some intimation of destiny had we but keenness of mind enough to see it So in morals—and there the mystery becomes a pain: it does seem as if some people were made to be bad. The commentator must here hold his peace; he can but feel the pressure of a great mystery and explain his feeling in imperfect terms. There is a difference of men in this respect. It is easier for some men to pray than for others to bow the knee in homage and look up to the heavens in expectation. We do not know what going to church costs some people in the way of pain and sacrifice of spirit. Others long for the church-day, the church bell, and the church door; they are filled with joy on Sabbath mornings because the sanctuary will be opened and music divine will make the very air glad; great revelations will be spoken by human tongues, and mighty prayers will make heaven"s day brighter than the sun can make it; the whole time shall be a succession of festival hours, and the heart shall keep high jubilee, not knowing sin, or sorrow, or pain, or weakness, because of the absorption of the soul in God. What it costs another man even to stand up as if he were singing God"s praises cannot be told. There is more devil in him than divinity; he does not want to pray; if you persuade him to church, you cannot tell what a conquest you have won. In all this we have no explanation. The Bible does not make these mysteries, it recognises them and treats them in the only possible, the only just and wise way.
We find also this groping after destiny along intellectual lines. You plan a course of life for your sons—say they are six in number—but you really are doing what you have no right to do. Your business is to find out the way in which the child should go: then train up the child in the way in which he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it; there is something in destiny that confirms itself, something in consciousness and experience that says "This was the right way"; and the sunset shall be without a cloud. It is when parents seek to be the arbiters of their children"s destiny that they set themselves up above God, and are therefore doomed to mortification and bitterness of soul. The Lord sends every life into this world for a point, a purpose, a destiny. Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? I will have no will but thine. What is the angel within me—painter, poet, merchant? Is mine to be a serving life, or a ruling one? Have I to give orders, or to obey them? Not my will, but thine be done. Then service is mastery, suffering is enjoyment, labour is rest.
Jacob was a destined man; Jacob was destined before he was born: what, then, was his error? Not in feeling, how mysteriously soever, the pressure of his destiny, but in prematurely taking it into his own hands. We must not force Providence. Is there not an appointed time to man upon the earth, in a much wider sense than in the sense of marking out the day of his death? Is there not a time for the rising of the sun and the going down of the same? Is there not a seed time in the year, as well as a harvest day? We are tempted to force Providence, thus to do the right thing in the wrong way, and at the wrong time. Right is not a question of a mere point; it gathers up into its mystery all the points of the case, so that it is not enough to be going in the right road; we must have come into that road through the right door, at the right hour, and by direct intervention and sanction of God.
It is tempting to natures like ours to help ourselves by trickery. We do like to meddle with God. Granted that the mother saw the religious aspect of this whole case, and knew the destiny of the boys, she had no right to force Divine Providence. "Isaac loved Esau because he did eat of his venison: but Rebekah loved Jacob." She knew not why. We cannot tell the genesis of our love; it is the mystery of being. What if she knew all the time, without being told in words—she could neither understand or explain—that Jacob would be the possessor of the first blessing? It is a difficult thing to have a secret entrusted to the soul, and yet not to tell that secret to others, or force its realisation by some little act of cunning and knavery. We may go to church at the wrong time, and in the wrong way, and in the wrong spirit. It is not enough to be in the sanctuary: we must be there in the spirit of the house; then the roof will be heaven, and the walls rich as the jasper of the skies. A rough thinking says this or that is the right way, and that is enough; a correct, profound thinking says, "It is not enough to be substantially right: not only must you have a destiny to realise; you must have also a process of destiny—a choice of equal value with destiny itself." Is not this an address to our innermost experience? We will take things before the time. The vineyard is yours, every cluster of grapes is yours; but do not touch one atom of fruit till the sun has wrought out his ripening ministry upon it. We may not touch even things that are our own until the right time comes. We know this in the field; we know it in many mercantile transactions; but it seems impossible for us to carry up that knowledge into the highest religious applications. We cannot wait, because we are imperfect; we cannot stand still, because we are impatient; and our impatience is but one phase of our ignorance.
There was an apparent justification of the action of Rebekah in the previous action of Esau already considered, namely: "Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite: which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah." The mystery of that act we have already considered, and it did seem to justify Rebekah in taking the administration of Providence partially into her own hands. We are not so pitiful of one another as God is pitiful of us. Rebekah would have Esau punished almost instantaneously because he had married out of the law. It is better to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of man. No doubt Esau had forfeited the primogeniture by this act of marrying the Canaanitish women; no doubt he had become what the apostle centuries afterwards described as a "fornicator"; no doubt he had turned the stream of the blessing into wrong lineal channels; had there been no Divine sovereignty revealed even before that act he would by that act itself have forfeited his position in the family to which he belonged. How keen we are to make the faults of other people the reasons for excusing our own selfishness! Was Rebekah moved by the consciousness of destiny, or was she excited by the spirit of revenge? It is easy for us to mistake our revenge for religion. Some men pray out of spite; some men preach Christ out of envy; it is possible to build a church upon the devil"s foundation, and to light an altar with the devil"s fire. Whilst we have not spared Esau in our reading of his unlawful and unnatural marriages, we are bound now not to spare Rebekah in taking vengeance into her own hands. "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." But we like to handle judgment; the hand itches to bestow upon the evildoer some penalty or mark of discredit and degradation, on the plea that it is right to do so. What is right? It is impossible for us to know in that sense what "right" Isaiah, because it covers a space the eye cannot take in, and involves relations which defy imagination. Right—it is God"s word; it is a word as large as God; it is a word that involves the very being of God; it is a term which shuts up God himself in a great necessity. What we have to do is to be patient, to be pitiful, to be kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another; and when the pain is very keen—smarting like a sting of fire—and when the avenging weapon lies close at hand, and we feel that our arm has yet strength enough to inflict the deserved chastisement—it is then that we have to utter a prayer as from a cross: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do"! This is religion, the religion of Christ, the wine of the true heart and sacrament; this is the glorious Gospel of the blessed God. It is an awful thing to be a child of special destiny. It sets a man away from the common lines of things, and makes him the butt of every archer, the sport of every fool; it brings upon him rapid judgments, sharp censures, biting criticisms; he is unmanageable, impracticable, unintelligible; he cannot be set in the straight line and current of things. Jacob was pre-eminently a destined child, a man with a special mark upon him: how he will come out of this we shall see; but God will be King and Master, and right shall be done. What, then, is to be our attitude under the consciousness of destiny, and under the suggestion of tempting events? Our attitude is to be one of perfect resignation. I do not mine own will; the works that I do are not my works, they are the works of him that sent me; I am not creator but creature; I am not musician but instrument—not my will, but God"s will be done. That being done, and being done in me and through me, I am in heaven; I am part of the great sum-total of things—if not a pinnacle, yet a stone in the foundation; if not a stone in the front walls, yet a stone in the inner lining—part of the temple, part of the holy building. God shall fix me where he pleases; I will do nothing of myself; be my future kingly, menial, triumphant, subservient, marked by a strength that never tires, or by a weakness that can scarcely pronounce its own name—it is nothing to me; thy will, my God, be done. If I can say this with the soul, night shall have no darkness, day no cloud, death no sting, the grave no victory.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 27". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent