Notes on Genesis (xii)

‘One shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.’ (Gen 25:23)

Even before they were born the twins carried by Rebekah struggled within her womb, and in what cannot be seen as good parenting, we are told that their father loved Esau, the elder, and their mother Jacob. Ambrose observes that no parent should ‘love the one and esteem the other less. From this line of conduct fraternal hatreds are aroused…Let children be nurtured with a like measure of affection.’ The first-born went on to sell his birthright to his younger brother for a dish of red stew  (‘potage’ in the Authorized Version), and subsequently, with Rebekah’s connivance, Isaac was tricked into blessing the younger in place of the elder. The story constitutes one of numerous cases of sibling rivalry described in Genesis; think of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Leah and Rachel, and Joseph and his brothers, a sequence to be continued in the New Testament in the parable of the prodigal son. Astonishingly, in every case the narrator takes the side of the younger or youngest. How are we to interpret this pattern? According to Ambrose, the elder stands for the synagogue, the younger the church that came later and displaced it. Hence, in the case of Isaac blessing Jacob, ‘it is revealed that the kingdom was predestined to be bestowed on the church rather than the synagogue.’  

The relationship between the synagogue and the church is a difficult area, not made any easier by some liturgical language. Traditionally, the Roman rite for Good Friday included an invitation to pray for misbelieving Jews (oremus et pro perfidis Iudaeis). This is not necessarily as hostile as may first appear; it is possible to understand the misbelieving Jews as being that element among them who do not believe rather than the entire people. But most people would take it in the second way: ‘You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog, And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine’ (The Merchant of Venice), and uneasiness as to the way the petition might be understood must lie behind its recent removal from the liturgy. The Orthodox service of anticipated Matins on the evening of Holy Thursday mentions, after the sixth Gospel reading, ‘the swarm of God-slaying Jews, the lawless people.’ This is remarkably strong language. It is possible to go some way towards lessening the weight of the word ‘God-slaying’ (Theoktonos) by seeing it as reflecting the high Christology of Orthodox liturgy, in which the parents of the Virgin are termed ‘ancestors of God’, but it occurs as well in the Fathers (Maximus the Confessor uses it.) Curiously, St Paul uses the word ‘lawless’ (anomos) in a contrary way, of people other than Jews, as being foreign to the Law (1 Cor 9:21). A modern translation substitutes ‘Judeans’ for Jews, but this seems evasive.

Perhaps the best that can be said is that this part of the tradition is hard to live in, and that in the light of emphases that go deeper than it does it may be possible to move on.


  • Hi John – you may be right about the bad parenting – but Genesis seems to have a regular thing for younger sons and daughters supplanting their elder siblings: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and Aaron.

  • Sorry, hit post before I got to the end – which is that it seems to follow a folk tradition – it’s always the youngest son who kills the dragon, Cinderella who is belle of the ball.

    • Thank you, Marion. I should have remembered Moses and Aaron! Yes, there is a kind of folk tradition operating here, and I’m interested in whether the kind of subversion involved in such stories does not merely give voice to the aspirations of the children, younger siblings and oppressed communities among whom they have been relished, but may be in some way embedded in a Judeo-Christian view of a deep realitiy in which the first shall come last, etc. This touches on the concerns of Liberation Theology.

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