Esau has the birthright. Jacob wants it. He sees his chance when Esau stumbles home one day, famished, exhausted, and half-delirious, from a deer hunting trip intended to supply the brothers' blind old father, Isaac, with his favorite game meat. Exploiting his brother's hunger in the manner of a heroin dealer coercing sex from a trembling female junkie (or a banker pushing a teaser-rate mortgage on a shift-worker with a child on the way) Jacob demands that Esau sign over the birthright in return for a bowl of lukewarm gruel. And it works! Not only is the swindle a success in base, material terms, it's a hit with many of the critics. To this day, the scholars and divines charged with interpreting this smelly deal heap endless censure on hungry Esau's weakness while carefully theologizing away well-fed Jacob's sleaziness.
Enter their mother, manipulative Rebekah. Having always favored Jacob the Smooth (a mild, managerial "dweller in tents") over Esau the Hairy (who brings home the venison), she takes such delight in her clever darling's coup that she cries out for an encore, urging him to impersonate his brother and extract a blessing meant for Esau from their sightless, sentimental father. Jacob would rather quit while he's ahead, but Rebekah nags and pleads and wheedles until he agrees to run the con. Esau catches him, rats him out to Isaac, and insists on receiving what is his, but Isaac, now drained of patriarchal mojo, can muster up only a wimpy mini-blessing. "Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth and of the dew of heaven from above."
Dew and fatness? Say you're kidding, Dad. So what did you promise my scummy little brother?
"Let people serve thee and nations bow down to thee; be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be everyone that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee.
There it stands, and because it's in the Bible, there it will go on standing: our civilization's first white-collar crime. Its placement halfway through Genesis seems no accident, as it speaks to the book's core concern, its ruling idea. No, not sin. Not obedience. Not faith. Those are certainly important issues in this account of the struggles of a new race to organize and elevate itself, but they are luxury themes compared to this:
From a functional, practical perspective, the work of a great, great many early Bible stories is to articulate, investigate, and, in some fashion, adjudicate a variety of title claims to a great array of holdings and assets, some physical, some social, some spiritual. We may feel as we turn the pages of the scripture like seminarians in a lovely library, but really we're law students in a drafty lecture hall. And what we're doing is analyzing precedent, from the case of the Soup Bowl and the Birthright (a right which some contend Esau essentially forfeited the moment he contemplated parting with it, especially for such a lousy price, meaning that little brother Jacob inherited it before he paid for it, meaning he could have petitioned to have the soup returned) back to Adam and Eve's Eviction Without Notice (since they'd trusted God and never demanded a lease, and since He'd trusted them and never asked for one, and also because no rent was paid or charged, leaving no financial paper trail for the serpent to conjure into an oral contract, their position or status in Eden was roughly that of two grown-up children camping out indefinitely in a parent's yard).
It's all about getting, giving, keeping, appraising, losing, regaining, and dividing. If there were a motto carved into God's Throne, it might well read: "The buck starts here." As does the hectare, the olive grove, the ingot, all the cattle and the chattel, the birthright, the pearl, the breastplate, and the grape. And the lordships, of course, which aren't just titles and costumes, but large sealed crates of prerogatives and licenses lashed to the backs of camels led by slaves.
Genesis is a treatise in story form on the paramount economic questions that civilized societies must answer, credibly, consistently, and durably, if they're not to backslide into piracy or erupt in orgiastic grabbing. Why do certain people have more than others? And what authority or history legitimizes their holdings and their powers? The Bible's answer is circular but perfect: our belongings belong to us because they're linked to a lengthy chain of title securely held at its far end by He who originally owned them unencumbered, absolutely free and clear, by virtue of having made them out of nothing, without assistance, without outside investment, such that no lien nor levy can ever hurt them.
In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth, but in doing so, in the very act of acting, He created the deed. And all the deeds deriving from it, too, which He knew would be worthless as legal instruments unless they were properly recorded and filed. That's when his clerks got down to work, affirming the standing of the first Creation by verbally constructing another one under it, the great Book of Owning and Claiming we call The Bible.
Which moves me -- in a way I wasn't prepared for, and in a way I'm wary to indulge, lest personal digressions and reflections become a distracting habit in these posts -- to close with some words about the the Bible I own. It's right here on my laptop on my desk, a fat, loose, heavily footnoted edition thats my mother reread every year or so but suddenly stopped rereading about four months ago, when a strep infection from her right sinus crossed a fragile layer in her skull and landed her unconscious, in a coma, in the Critical Care ward of Iowa Methodist Hospital. She was seventy. She was healthy. I loved her terribly. After leaving her body in Des Moines, where she'd gone two weeks before she died so she and her boyfriend, John, who lived there, could pass a few days having fun at the State Fair, I drove back up to her house in Minnesota and spent a week or so among her things. It didn't help, though. Her things brought no relief. They didn't feel like hers at all, but like objects on loan on from Macy's, Pottery Barn, and a number of her favorite antique stores, where some of the items might well be sold again soon.
Except for one thing, which wasn't like the other junk and now belongs to me, her eldest son, because the law is clear on certain matters, even if it's not actually the law now, even if it's just my notion of the law, or perhaps my idea of what the law should be.
By taking my mother's Bible, I claimed my birthright. By reading it and writing about it, I hope to discover what it's worth to me. At the moment, with the wind down and the sun up and stainless blue skies in all my office windows, I wouldn't trade it for anything on earth, but tonight, later on, when I come in from the weather after hours running errands, I'm not so sure. A bowl of warm soup might sound awfully good then, especially if I can eat it in the kitchen and pretend or imagine or actually day dream (it's a trick I'm getting good at) that it's from her.