Saturday, March 6, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #10 Birthright Blessings; Marriage in the Covenant

(Genesis 24-29)


The overriding theme of the stories of these chapters is that it is not easy to come by a covenant marriage, but that when we put forth the tremendous effort required, the Lord will assist and blessings will ensue.  Here are some incidents that teach these lessons:

Gen. 24--Abraham's servant was given the overwhelming responsibility of traveling back to the homeland to find a worthy wife for Abraham's birthright son, Isaac.  He brought great riches with him as gifts, requiring ten camels for transport (vs. 10).  The task was overwhelming, requiring divine guidance.  The servant asked in prayer for a sign that the future wife of his master would be one who would offer him water, and additionally offer the ten camels water.  This would certainly single out the woman, because, although offering water to a male traveler was fairly normal ettiquette, offering to water the camels was well beyond the call of duty.  One camel could drink up to 30 gallons!  It was an extraordinary young woman who would offer this service, perhaps it was even unheard of.  But when the caravan arrived at the well, not only did Rebekah volunteer the service, but she "hasted" and she "ran" to complete it (v. 19-20).  When the servant discovered that she was a cousin, and therefore met the requirement set forth by Abraham, he knew his prayer was answered (v. 23-27). 

Rebekah's family wanted to have a little time with her before she left them to marry Isaac (v. 55), but the servant wanted to obey the Lord immediately, since the Lord had answered his prayer so immediately (v. 56).  Rebekah concurred, and went with the servant, never to see her family again.  Upon their arrival at Isaac's property, she saw a man cutting through the field to meet them (v. 64-65), and was told it was her future husband.  The closing words of this episode of the story are beautiful:  "and she became his wife; and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death" (v. 67).  Loving each other, and comforting each other are elements of a covenant marriage.

Gen. 25--While Isaac's brother Ishmael was blessed with a dozen sons, Rebekah was left childless.  (It's interesting how many righteous women in the Old Testament struggle with fertility issues.)  Finally, she was blessed with twin sons, Esau and Jacob.  An interesting description is given of Jacob in the footnote to vs. 27:  Jacob was "whole, complete, perfect, simple, plain."  Jacob valued the birthright, and bought it from his brother (v. 31-33).  Esau, like so many people, was overtaken by the physical desire of the moment, in his case hunger, and lost perspective of eternity. Unfortunately, many saints today do the same, selling their spiritual privileges for fleeting passions.

Gen. 26--Because Isaac continued in righteousness, the covenant promised to his father was restated in his behalf (vs. 2-5).  The same can be true for each one of us, as covenant children, particularly as we receive our patriarchal blessing.  Like his father, everywhere that Isaac went, he built an altar and called upon the Lord (v. 25).

Meanwhile Esau sold his birthright again, marrying outside the covenant and against his parents' wishes (v. 34-35) while  Jacob remained unmarried until age 40, presumably because no covenant wife was available where they lived.

A little note of explanation: Both Abraham and Isaac, when they moved to a new land, ended up telling the local royalty that their wives were their sisters. Both wives were cousins, so this was true, "sister" and "brother" being general terms for relations. Why hide the fact that they were wives? Camille Fronk Olson explains that if a king desired the wife of another man, he would kill the husband [Women of the Old Testament, p. 32-33]. This deception, therefore, saved the lives of Abraham and Isaac. In both cases, the king, upon discovering that the object of his affection was already married, returned the wife to her husband, and promised protection for the husband from others who might desire the wife. So why did the deception have to occur in the first place? One idea: Perhaps the kings needed to personally get to know the people involved, and gain an appreciation for their integrity, before they would extend this highly unusual offer.


"Rebekah is one of the greatest patterns in all the revelations of what a woman can do to influence a family in righteousness...Women are appointed, Rebekahlike, to be guides and lights in righteousness in the family unit and to engineer and arrange so that things are done in the way that will result in the salvation of more of our Father's children" (Bruce R. McConkie, Ensign, Jan. 1979, p. 62, 63).

Gen. 27--Isaac planned to bless his son Esau with the birthright, despite Esau's unworthiness.  This would have been a grave error, and Rebekah saw that.  She conspired with Jacob to put him in the right place at the right time to receive the birthright blessing.  This is an example of a wife who kept her covenant to obey her husband "in righteousness."  In this case, she would have been wrong to obey her husband, because in a matter of eternal importance, he was following convention and personal preference, rather than the Spirit.  Rebekah, however, had received a revelation before the twins were born that the younger was to be the leader of the family (Gen. 25:23), and besides, Esau had given up his birthright twice, definitely demonstrating that he did not have the integrity or foresight to be the patriarch of the family. 

When Isaac realized which son had received the blessing, he knew it was right.  What a prophet binds on earth is bound in heaven, but also what he looses on earth is loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:19).  Isaac had the power to revoke the blessing, but he let it stand (v. 33), because he knew his wife was right.  The Lord could easily have caused Jacob to be born before Esau, therefore preventing this problem from arising, but instead He chose to teach a lesson for many generations to come:  Righteousness is more important than circumstance, and revelation is more important than tradition.  When Isaac afterwards blessed Esau, he restated through revelation the same truth that had been revealed to Rebekah years before, that he would be subservient to his younger brother.  Despite the outward confusion, the blessings were given correctly through the Spirit, as the Apostle Paul stated, "By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come" (Heb. 11:20).

Esau was so angry at being tricked, he plotted to kill his brother after his father's death (v.41).  This was told to Rebekah and she sent Isaac away to stay with relatives, saying that otherwise she would lose both her sons in one day: one to murder, and the other to execution (v. 45; see Gen. 9:6).  To Isaac, she stated the reason for sending him away to be the need for Jacob to find a wife among the covenant people, which was definitely necessary.  Of course, this was the Lord's plan as well.

It is worth noting that later Esau took a covenant wife (Gen. 28:6-9), and that when Jacob returned to Canaan many years later,  "Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept" (Gen. 33:4).


Gen. 28--As Jacob went on his journey, he was granted a remarkable dream in which he saw a ladder ascending into heaven, with angels traveling up and down it, and the Lord standing above it.  The message of the dream was that the covenants Jacob made with the Lord were as rungs of a ladder to heaven.  He himself would have to climb the rungs in order to obtain the promised blessings that would allow him to enter into heaven with the Lord (Pres. Marion G. Romney, "Temples--The Gates to Heaven," Ensign, Mar. 1971, p. 16)  The Hebrew word translated as "ladder" could also be translated as "stairway" or "ramp."  The choice the King James translators made to use the word "ladder" provides us with a great symbol of the effort and time required to make our way to heaven.  We believe that it is through the merits of Christ that we are saved, but Christ requires us to move our hands and feet and climb the ladder of covenants in order to qualify for His grace.  It is not an elevator.

David E. Bokovoy, instructor at the Boston LDS Institute, currently a doctoral student in Hebrew Bible studies, recommends circling "the place" or "this place" anytime it is found in the Old Testament, because it almost always refers to a temple place (Know Your Religion Lecture, Feb. 15, 2002, Logan, Utah). Jacob said, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.  And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place!  this is none other but the house of god, and this is the gate of heaven...And he called the name of that place Beth-el" (v. 16-19).  "Beth-el is [short for] Beth-Elohim, which means literally 'The House of the Lord'" (Pres. Romney, as noted above.)  Even more interesting is to note a couple of additions which Joseph Smith made to verse 22 in his translation.  (These additions are not in the LDS Bible footnotes.)  The added words are in italics:  And the place of this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be the place of God's house.  (How much Hebrew did Joseph Smith know?)

Gen. 29--Interestingly, Jacob met his wife, Rachel, at a well, just as his father's servant had met his mother at a well.  In this case, however, it was Jacob who served Rachel, by rolling away the stone covering, and drawing the water for the flock.  Typically it was the woman's job to water the sheep, however in this instance it seems that a tremendous effort was required to open the well, since the shepherds were waiting for all to be gathered together in order to do it (v. 8).  It was "a prodigious feat for one person--a measure of Jacob's elation at seeing [Rachel]" (Harper-Collins Study Bible, p. 44)  Both of these covenant marriage relationships began with an act of great service: another lesson for us to follow throughout our marriages.

In an ironic twist, Jacob's father-in-law Laban and Rachel's older sister Leah tricked him into marrying Leah first, a similar act to the deception that Jacob and his mother worked in order to procure the birthright blessing.  Of course, in keeping with social convention, the older daughter should be married first, and in all the seven years of labor, there was apparently no other suitor.  Since parents always arranged their children's marriages, and the father had supreme rule over the family, it was not so strange for Laban to control the marriages of his daughters (Sidney B. Sperry, "Hebrew Manners and Customs," Ensign, May 1972).   It certainly would have been nicer, though, if it could have been done honestly, as this method set up a conflict and competition in the family at the outset: Leah was "unloved" (another translation for the word used as "hated" in v. 31), while Rachel was cherished (v. 20).


The people of the Old Testament times lived in an imperfect society with flawed families.  Plural marriage was particularly plagued with feelings of competitiveness and unfairness, so much so that the problems of "loved" versus "hated" wives were actually recognized and addressed in the Law (Deut. 21:15-17).  We today still live in a fallen world with imperfect people and troubled relationships.  We may encounter discrimination, negligence, or abuse from others when we expected love and kindness.  But God Himself is perfect, and His love is extended towards all.  In the lives of Leah and Rachel, as in the lives of Sarah and Hagar, we see the impartial kindliness of the Lord.  In both cases, both women found solace in their relationships with God.  In both cases, the Lord blessed the less-loved wife with the compensatory joy of motherhood immediately, and made the favored wife wait a while.  This delay of infertility, though, was followed by the delight of a son who had the birthright, or earned it through his righteousness.  In all cases, the Lord communicated his care and concern to the woman in her individual trial (Sarah in Gen. 21:1, 6; Hagar in Gen. 21:17; Leah in Gen. 29:31-32; Rachel in Gen. 30:22). 

God is always inviting, comforting, and encouraging, and is no respecter of persons.  The scriptures show repeatedly that His love is offered to all:  "He layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him" (2 Ne. 26:24); "Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price" (2 Ne. 26:25); "All men are privileged [to partake of God's goodness] the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden" (2 Ne. 26:28); "Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men" (Alma 5:33); "Blessed are all they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost" (3 Ne. 12:6).

In our times of affliction, or our situations of injustice, we can have confidence that the love of God will find us and compensate.  "I, Jacob, would speak unto you that are pure in heart. Look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith, and he will console you in your afflictions, and he will plead your cause, and send down justice upon those who seek your destruction. O all ye that are pure in heart, lift up your heads and receive the pleasing word of God, and feast upon his love; for ye may, if your minds are firm, forever" (Jacob 3:1-2).
(This is my own photograph of the Salt Lake City Temple.
I hold the copyright, but you are welcome to use it
for teaching purposes.)
Despite the imperfections of the partners involved, covenant marriages put us on that ladder, bringing us ever closer to heaven.  Both Leah and Rachel developed great faith through their marriage and child-bearing trials, which carried them through other trials.  For example, when their prophet-husband received the command of the Lord to uproot the family and move back to his birthplace, where the threat of being murdered by Esau weighed heavily on his mind, he consulted both women, and both responded, "Whatsoever God hath said unto thee, do" (31:14).  Jacob did, and was joyously surprised by the heartfelt welcome of his now repentant brother Esau (Gen. 33).  Generations afterward, when Boaz married Ruth, the blessing of the members of the wedding party to Ruth was that God would make her as great as Leah and Rachel.  Together, these two women, with their two handmaids and their husband, bore and built the House of Israel, and their names are honored forever.  Today, regardless of our circumstances, we similarly play a part in building our own branch of the House of Israel, and we can also leave a great legacy of faith as we make and remain true to our covenants.


Unknown said...

Great Blog on lesson 10! Thank you very much!

ldswomenofgod said...

This is exactly what I was looking for for my lesson this Sunday.

May I just add that when Jacob experienced his dream, climbing the ladder, he was literally receiving his endowment from the Lord, the same way we do today.

Thank you for writing up all the thoughts and ideas I have been feeling for this lesson. As we broke down the Abrahamic Covenant in earlier lessons, we now see the covenant in action.


Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...

You're welcome, Curtis! So glad you can use it!

Jan, great minds think alike! I haven't read about Jacob actually receiving his endowment that day, although it makes sense with it being a temple place. Do you have a reference for that?

ldswomenofgod said...

S. Michael Wilcox taught the Seminary and Institute teachers this idea years ago while I was attending these classes.

S. Michael Wilcox is an Institute teacher at the UofU and has written several books on the scriptures and the temple.

Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...

I absolutely love Michael Wilcox's lectures and books! He has wonderful ideas!

Unknown said...

Nancy, an excellent blog on Old Testament, Lesson 10.

Very well done.

It was interesting and revelatory to read about Jacob and Esau from a female perspective.

I look forward to reading your further blogs with interest.

Thank you.

Me said...

I've been gathering my thoughts for days on this lesson, and your blog post so articulately expresses the story, and helped me a lot. Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

"In our times of affliction, or our situations of injustice, we can have confidence that the love of God will find us and compensate." Thank you for your testimony... and I'm doing my best to believe that God is trying to find me and compensate. Thank you for your lessons, they have provided real value in my life.

Unknown said...

Many thanks Nancy,

Like Erika I have been at a loss on how and what to present this week. I always prepare for class with a few angles to enable the Spirit to guide which path/s the class will take. Your lesson 10 blog has settled me immensely.