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B'resheet/Genesis 27:2 And he said, "Look, now: I am old; I do not know the day of my death."
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These are the words of the patriarch Yitz'khak to his first-born son, Esau. Yitz'khak is currently around 130 years old - an astonishingly good age in today's reckoning - and, as is an essential feature of the scene that is just starting, nearly blind. His eyesight has failed; perhaps not only does he feel old, but without being able to see, wishes that he were dead or thinks that he soon will be. Rabbi Joshua ben Karhah commented: "When a man comes to his parents' age, for five years before and five years after he must fear death. For thus did Yitz'khak reason: If I am to attain my father's years, I am yet far short of them. But if I am to attain my mother's years, then behold now, I am old" (B'resheet Rabbah 65:12). Unlike Moshe, who will be told, "Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo ... and die on the mountain which you go up" (D'varim 32:49-50, ESV), Yitz'kak does not know when he will die. Heading the list - according to b. Pesachim 54b - of the seven things that are concealed from man, is the day of death, "for man does not know his time" (Ecclesiastes 9:12, ESV). Yitz'khak, indeed, is being a bit premature; he will not die for another fifty years as the Torah will later tell us: "Now the days of Yitz'khak were 180 years. And Yitz'khak breathed his last, and he died" (B'resheet 35:28-29, ESV).
So what is going on in our text and what does Yitz'khak think or know? What is be trying to achieve? His words start with , the interjection 'behold!' or 'look!', followed by the particle of entreaty: 'please' or 'now'.Ibn Ezra seems definite that "'now' is indeed the correct translation of ." This is followed by , the Qal affix 1cs form of the root , to be or to grow old, so here "I am old" or "I have become old". Since the phrase , the elders of Israel, often refers to community leaders who appear active enough at times to climb mountains, we can probably assume that 'old' is a relative term, with different meanings and ages for different people. Then, Yitz'khak adds, , a matching Qal affix 1cs from the root , "to know, discern, be aware of" (Davidson), "I do not know the day of my death" - I do not know when I will die. Given my current age, Yitz'khak seems to be saying, I might die at any moment; then, as the Radak explains, "if I die suddenly I will not be able to bless you."
Is Yitz'khak here being less than totally transparent? Painting the picture positively,Abravanel suggests that "the Holy One had not told him (as He had told Avraham) which of the sons was to receive the blessing of Avraham, so he had to chose. He naturally picked Esau, the first-born." The Rashbam supports his right to choose, putting these words in Yitz'khak's mouth - "Look, because I am old, I am asking you, please - because I want to allocate to you the blessing that I have to distribute while I am still alive" - then adding, "that is the blessing of Abraham and the inheritance of the land." Other commentators are less optimistic about Yitz'khak's motives. Chizkuni surmises that "Yitz'khak knew that Esau had sold his birthright and that Ya'akov could claim a birthright portion at his death, so wanted to give Esau a gift before he died so that Ya'akov would not be able to take it from him", while the Bekhor Shor prefers: "Since Ya'akov bought your birthright, if I do not give you something before I die you will lose everything."
OvadiahSforno reports that "a blessing is more effective when the one who gives the blessing is close to death ... because the soul is separated from the physical (bonds) more so, at that time." While the biblical text is not specific about whether people know when they will die, it is quite clear about the future in general. The Proverb writer tells us, "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring" (Proverbs 27:1, ESV). Teaching about His own return, Yeshua tells his disciples to "stay awake -- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning" (Mark 13:35, ESV) and James writes, "you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (James 4:14, ESV). Gordon Wenham wants to know, if Yitz'khak does not know the day of his death, "why he is preparing a deathbed blessing?" He then observes, "However we take these problematic words, they do not reflect well on Yitz'khak's intentions. Clearly, he wants to make sure to bless Esau and to give nothing to Ya'akov."1
It does seem clear then, that Yitz'khak was not telling the rest of the family what he was planning. On the contrary, he is acting to pass the blessing to Esau without anyone else knowing. This is discovered, as it were, almost by accident. Just a few verses later, the narrator tells us that "Rivkah had been listening as Yitz'khak spoke to his son Esau" (B'resheet 27:5, NJPS), while in the next verse Rivkah herself tells Ya'akov, "I overheard your father speaking to your brother Esau" (v. 6, NJPS). It is then Rivkah, rather than Ya'akov and despite the latter's objections, who sets up the plot to deprive Esau of the blessing. She organises the food, the clothing, the story and even the goat-skin to cover Ya'akov's hands. Is Rivkah's interference in or subversion of Yitz'khak's intentions really very different from his own? Both are trying to protect the interests of their favourite son and both have an idea of who should receive the inter-generational blessing.
Indeed, some commentators suggest that the narrative and conversations that follow hint fairly strongly that Yitz'khak deliberately allowed himself to be deceived, recognising that Rivkah's perceptions of the two sons was more accurate than his. Although, when the plot is discovered, Yitz'khak tells Esau that "your brother came with guile and took away your blessing" (v. 35, NJPS), there are no recorded words of rebuke and when he sends Ya'akov to Paddan Aram to take a wife from among the daughters of Laban, he formally and publicly gives him the Avrahamic blessing: "May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham" (28:3-4, NJPS. Perhaps by this time, the Spirit has confirmed where the blessing should be, so that Yitz'khak simply follows through to complete the public record.
Looking back to our text in the light of our discussion, we can perhaps see Yitz'khak using words and concepts - the powerful idea of a deathbed blessing - in order to bring about at a human level what he wanted to be the case. Through the ease with which that want is frustrated and redirected, the narrative suggests thatHaShem's providence was quietly over-ruling all the events to bring His determined purpose to fruition.
The question for us today has to be: do we always say exactly what we mean, or can we hide behind words and religious actions to conceal our true motives? The gospels relate Yeshua telling us to "Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil" (Matthew 5:37, ESV). This means that we should only use plain and simple words, without embroidering our language and - in particular - not swearing oaths to backup our statements. James amplifies this: "But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your "yes" be yes and your "no" be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation" (James 5:12, ESV). Here's a repetition of the command not to swear oaths, plus the important addition that our words should mean what they say and what others expect them to mean by the usual meanings of those words. We cannot say one thing and mean another, or let others think that we do. Finally, Rav Sha'ul writes to the Corinthians about coming to see them: "Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say "Yes, yes" and "No, no" at the same time? As surely as G-d is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No" (2 Corinthians 1:17-18, ESV). We must not say or communicate two things at the same time - that would imply deception or double-mindedness, as if we cannot make up our minds or want to be ambiguous. Sha'ul uses Yeshua as his exemplar of consistency and faithfulness: "For the Son of God, Yeshua the Messiah, whom we proclaimed among you ... was not Yes and No, but in Him it is always Yes" (v. 19, ESV).
Dressing our words up in religious language or invoking ritual essentially counts in the same way as taking an oath to affirm our words. It attempts to incorporate G-d into our words and affairs as if He has told us to do or say that, has given us approval or permission to do or say that, or endorses what we say or do in a way that makes difficult to challenge us because they feel as if they are challenging G-d. When we do this, we effectively put G-d's name on the line together with ours and then when we slip and fall, He is dragged into the mud with us - we bring dishonour on His name and reputation. We need to learn from Yitz'khak, to say and do only what is open, transparent and consistent with the love and holiness of G-d.
1. - Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994), page 206.
Further Study: Proverbs 10:18-19; Luke 12:19-20; James 4:13-15
Application: Have you ever played the 'G-d' card in your conversations to justify or gain approval for your position? This is a habit we need to break so that we simply say 'Yes' and 'No', meaning what we say and proving ourselves trustworthy to show people how faithful and trustworthy our G-d is.
Comment - 21:14 31Oct21 Joshua VanTine: Thank you for very challenging drash that leads to great introspection. As we will be held accountable for every idle word, may Heaven help us to tame the tongue. Let's follow the great Rabbi Yeshua HaMashiach who is ready to teach us so that the words of our mouths and meditations of our hearts will be acceptable in HaShem's sight. Our Rabbi from Nazareth is ready to start class, so let's study to show ourselves approved, with simple 'yes' and 'no' answers in being trustworthy talmidim of our Teacher!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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