Rebekah’s Personal Favoritism
By David Wright
Anna smiled whenever she remembered playing with her favorite childhood doll. Marcie had golden curls and a soft, fun-to-hug body. Anna had pretended that the doll was her daughter. After dressing her each morning and putting colorful ribbons in her hair, Anna gently laid Marcie in a tiny stroller and went “shopping.” The mall and the grocery store were conveniently located in the guest bedroom.
Now, at 27, Anna was expecting a little doll of a far more precious sort—one that squirmed, kicked, cried, nursed, loved, and grew. The nursery, newly decorated with a coat of pastel-pink paint, was ready and welcoming. Anna could not wait to snuggle her baby girl and kiss her soft, sweet cheeks.
When the big day finally came, Anna received the shock of her life. The baby in the obstetrician’s hands was a baldheaded boy. Anna could not believe her eyes. “The ultrasound showed a girl!” she protested. The doctor laughed and said, “Either we need a new machine, or else this cute little guy is going to be very good at playing hide-and-seek.”
Anna’s husband was exuberant, but she felt disappointed and cheated. Knowing, though, that ingratitude for a healthy baby was selfish and foolish, she kept her unhappy thoughts to herself. But she never bonded well with little Mark. She refused to redecorate the nursery for him, choosing instead to give him a colorless bedroom down the hall. Anna took good care of her son’s physical needs, but as he grew she became impatient with his boyish ways.
Anna coped with her negative feelings by praying for another baby to come as soon as possible. Surely the next child would be the little girl of her dreams. And the Lord answered her prayers. Three years after Mark’s birth, Marcie came home from the hospital to take up residence in the pink nursery. Now, for the first time, Anna was thoroughly enjoying motherhood. But she had a problem, an attitude that would cause more and more trouble as her children grew.
Rebekah, wife of the biblical patriarch Isaac, was guilty of personal favoritism too. In her case, though, both children were boys, fraternal twins. Her favorite was the younger son.
Although Rebekah and Isaac were cousins, she was personally unacquainted with him until they married. Abraham, Isaac’s father and Rebekah’s great uncle, had left Haran for Canaan many years before these two cousins were born. Isaac, of course, was born in Canaan, but Rebekah’s family had remained in Haran, where she was born probably some 25 years after her future husband.
When his beloved Sarah died, Abraham realized that his son was lonely. So he instructed his oldest and most trusted servant, Eliezer, to make the long trip to Haran to find a wife for Isaac among the relatives there. God blessed the servant’s journey, bringing him to the home of Rebekah, a girl who was “very beautiful to behold, a virgin” (Gen. 24:16).
Accepting Isaac’s marriage proposal must have been difficult for Rebekah. She would have to leave her native city, her parents and extended family, and everything familiar. She would be traveling a great distance with a stranger to marry a stranger at the end of the trip. However, two factors probably influenced her to say yes. First, the rich gifts sent for the prospective bride and her family validated the old servant’s claim that Isaac was a man of great wealth. Marrying him would mean a life blessed with material comforts. Second, marrying Isaac seemed to be the Lord’s will for her (Gen. 24:50-51).
Isaac was 40 years old when Rebekah married him. No doubt, she loved and respected her husband, but their union produced no child. For 20 years Rebekah grieved over her inability to have a baby, and Isaac shared her distress. He “pleaded with the LORD for his wife, because she was barren,” and at last “the LORD granted his plea” (Gen. 25:21). Rebekah conceived.
Conceiving thrilled Rebekah, but the pregnancy troubled her in an unexpected way. Feeling movement in the womb is usually an exciting thing for an expectant mother. The pokes and kicks signify life and heighten anticipation. Mom wants to see the lovely face of the child moving so strongly within her. For Rebekah, though, the movements of her twins became a source of great anxiety. Instead of merely exercising their tiny limbs, the babies seemed to be fighting. If her children fought each other before they were even born, what peace would the family know after the twins began to grow?
Rebekah was so worried that “she went to inquire of the LORD” (Gen. 25:22). This might mean that she asked Isaac to seek an answer from God. After all, the patriarchs received direct revelations. But the expression “went to inquire” suggests that Rebekah sought an answer from the Lord in some other way. Perhaps she went to her father-in-law, Abraham, who was still alive at the time of her pregnancy. As head of the family, he might have been her first choice.
Anyway, God revealed to Rebekah that “two nations are in your womb, two peoples shall be separated from your body; one people shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). Contrary to what many people think, God did not here predestine Esau to eternal damnation and Jacob to eternal life. Yes, Esau made some mistakes, but so did Jacob. The Bible portrays Esau in his mature years as a good man—gracious, forgiving, responsive, and fully at peace with his younger brother.
The descendants of these two brothers, the Edomites and the Israelites, were the main subject of Rebekah’s revelation. These “nations” were neighboring peoples with a long biblical history of conflict and war. Rebekah’s preference for Jacob is sometimes ascribed to her knowledge of this prophecy about the younger son, and her husband’s preference for Esau to his ignorance of it. But that Isaac knew nothing of the prophecy is unknown – and unlikely. Besides, the Bible itself seems to suggest a more natural explanation of their differing preferences.
Jacob may have won his mother’s heart at the moment of birth. His older brother “came out red. He was like a hairy garment all over” (Gen. 25:25). An unusually hairy infant would probably never win a beautiful-baby contest. No doubt, Jacob was considerably more attractive. He also endeared himself to Rebekah by showing remarkable tenacity. Esau might have emerged from the birth canal first, but baby Jacob had a firm grip on Esau’s tiny foot. “Big Brother,” Jacob seemed to say, “you’re not going to get ahead of me.” The manner of the younger twin’s birth so impressed his parents that they named him Jacob, meaning “heel-holder” (one who outwits another by trickery).
As the twins grew into men, Rebekah had another reason to prefer her younger son. Esau was an outdoorsman, “a skillful hunter, a man of the field.” Since the family was rich in herds and flocks, Esau’s hunting trips were motivated by pleasure rather than need for food. Jacob, however, had no interest in being away. He “was a mild man, dwelling in tents” (Gen. 25:27). He had a pleasant disposition and enjoyed being at home with his parents, which surely delighted his mother.
The author of Genesis made no effort to hide the dysfunction in Rebekah’s home: “Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Gen. 25:28). While these parental preferences were understandable, they were also inappropriate – and destructive. Personal favoritism wreaked havoc in Rebekah’s family.
Fearing his days were numbered, Isaac, now old and blind, called his older son to his side. He then asked Esau to take “your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me. And make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me that I may eat, that my soul may bless you before I die” (Gen. 27:3-4). This “blessing” from Isaac was to be a special gift. It was more than a verbal affirmation of the father’s approval. The inspired patriarch would give his son a prophetic blessing. Whatever he pronounced in the name of the Lord would be fulfilled.
Esau gathered his weapons and went out to hunt. Since Jacob had already manipulated him at a vulnerable moment and obtained the birthright (Gen. 25:29-34), Esau was particularly eager to hear the good prophecy his father would speak concerning him and his future descendants. Rebekah, however, had no intention of letting her darling be bested. She told Jacob to kill two tender young goats and bring her the meat. Rebekah explained that she would prepare the tasty meal her husband wanted, and so Jacob could be the recipient of the blessing in place of his older brother.
Jacob vigorously protested—but not on moral grounds. He only feared being caught. “Look,” he said, “Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth-skinned man. Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be a deceiver to him; and I shall bring a curse on myself and not a blessing” (Gen. 27:11-12). Rebekah, however, assured her anxious son that her plan to deceive Isaac would work. And she was right, although her words of assurance probably haunted her later. “Let your curse be on me,” she said (v. 13).
Feeling reassured, Jacob brought the two young goats his mother had requested. With the meat she made the “savory food” Isaac loved (Gen. 27:14). With the skins she made coverings for Jacob’s smooth hands and neck. Her final touch was to give him clothing that belonged to Esau, clothing that smelled like the great outdoors.
No doubt, Rebekah watched anxiously as Jacob carried out her clever scheme. She certainly had reason to be worried. Esau might return from his hunt at any moment and catch Jacob in the act of impersonating him. Besides, Isaac was suspicious. No longer able to recognize faces, he identified people by the sound of their voices. The son standing before him expecting a blessing sounded like Jacob but claimed to be Esau. Isaac insisted on feeling his son’s hands. Yes, they were hairy all over. Isaac ate the food presented him but remained skeptical. Only after smelling the distinct fragrance of Esau’s clothes was he satisfied. He then pronounced the beautiful blessing Rebekah had coveted for her favorite son:
Surely, the smell of my son
Is like the smell of a field
Which the LORD has blessed.
Therefore may God give you
Of the dew of heaven,
Of the fatness of the earth,
And plenty of grain and wine.
Let peoples serve you,
And nations bow down to you.
Be master over your brethren,
And let your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
And blessed be those who bless you! (Gen. 27:27-29)
The blessing Rebekah dishonestly secured for her darling son probably surpassed her expectations. Isaac’s words, beautiful and full of promise for future generations, thrilled her. But her triumph was short-lived, for she had seriously underestimated Esau’s reaction.
Rebekah’s precious Jacob “had scarcely gone out from the presence of Isaac” when her older son “came in from his hunting” (Gen. 27:30). He, too, prepared savory meat and brought it to his father. When Isaac was approached for the second time, he recalled his suspicions and instantly grasped what had happened. Trembling violently, Isaac asked Esau: “Where is the one who hunted game and brought it to me? I ate all of it before you came, and I have blessed him—and indeed he shall be blessed” (v. 33).
Beside himself, Esau “cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry” (Gen. 27:34). He begged his father for a blessing, any blessing, but Isaac replied, “I have made him your master, and all his brethren I have given to him as servants; with grain and wine I have sustained him. What shall I do now for you, my son?” (v. 37). Esau refused to accept his father’s no. He wept. He begged. Finally, Isaac said: “Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose you shall break his yoke from your neck” (vs. 39-40, RSV).
This dubious blessing infuriated Esau. His smoldering resentment toward Jacob, which had been kindled by Rebekah’s favoritism and Jacob’s earlier acquisition of the birthright, now blazed up into open hatred. He was so enraged that he planned to murder his brother. So as not to grieve his father, Esau decided to wait until after Isaac’s death to carry out his malicious purpose.
When someone reported Esau’s bitter words to Rebekah, she came face to face with the enormity of her mistake. By preferring one child over another, she had stirred up an enmity between the two that threatened Jacob’s life and her own peace of mind. Frightened, she urged Jacob to escape from danger by temporarily living with his uncle Laban in distant Haran. “Stay with him a few days,” Rebekah said, “until your brother’s fury turns away, […] and he forgets what you have done to him” (Gen. 27:44-45). Those “few days” turned into months and then years—20 of them.
Apparently, Rebekah died while Jacob was away in Haran. She never met his Rachel and Leah. She never held his children in her lap and told them family stories. Ironically, her preference for Jacob was the very thing that separated her from him.
Anna experiences a similar catastrophe. Saving the nursery for baby Marcie is only the first evidence of her unwholesome preference for her daughter over Mark. As the children grow, Anna’s ungodly attitude becomes more and more apparent—not necessarily to outsiders but certainly to everyone in the family.
Young Mark, of course, is the person most aware of his mother’s favoritism. She regularly takes his sister to the mall on shopping trips for new clothes, but his T-shirts and jeans always seem to come from yard sales and bags of hand-me-downs passed along by Aunt Barbie, who has three boys older than Mark. Anna also plays favorites on special occasions such as birthdays and Christmas. As Mark matures and becomes more aware of what gifts cost, he realizes that his mom always showers Marcie with expensive things while spending as little as possible on him.
If these inequities involved only money, Mark could overlook them. He would tell himself that expensive clothes and gifts must mean more to a girl. But Anna’s preference for Marcie shows itself in other ways too. For instance, she unfairly faults her son every time the children have a dispute. If Marcie slaps her brother and he strikes back, their mother gives Marcie a lecture on hitting and gives Mark a paddling. If Marcie goes into his bedroom without permission and takes something that does not belong to her, Anna scolds her for failing to respect her brother’s privacy. But if Mark enters Marcie’s room and takes something, Anna makes him sit down for an hour and gives Marcie permission to go into his room and take anything she wants.
At first, Marcie benefits rather innocently from this double standard. She loves big brother and enjoys tagging after him. But in time she comes to feel a sense of superiority. Marcie has nicer clothes, a better room, and the freedom to treat Mark just about any way she pleases. If he threatens to tattle on her for some misdeed or harsh word, she smiles smugly and says, “Go ahead.” Both children know exactly what will happen.
Late one night Mark overhears an argument confirming the suspicion that his mother lacks proper love for him. Unable to sleep, he slips downstairs to get a glass of chocolate milk. Standing in the dark kitchen, he hears his parents speaking heatedly in their bedroom. “Why are you so hard on Mark?” his father asks. “I’m not hard on him,” his mother replies angrily. “Yes, you are,” his father shoots back. “You always blame him for everything that goes wrong—even when it’s Marcie’s fault. Mark is a good kid, Anna. If you don’t lighten up, he’ll deeply resent Marcie one of these days.”
Mark’s father understands the situation well, but he is mistaken about one thing. His son will not resent Marcie “one of these days.” Mark resents her now. And knowing that his father is aware of the unfairness and yet does nothing to intervene only makes matters worse. Leaving the chocolate milk carton untouched in the refrigerator, Mark trudges back to bed, his heart heavy with sadness and anger.
Mark overhears this conversation at a critical time in his young life. He is 13, a difficult age of insecurity and self-doubt, even for children who feel safe and loved. Over the next two years he grows in height and bulk at an astonishing rate, but his anger increases at an even greater pace. Mark becomes unmanageable and rebellious. He openly defies his parent’s wishes, causes trouble at school, refuses to do his homework, and insists on hanging out with unsavory friends. His parents suspect that he is experimenting with drugs.
But the person most offended by Mark’s towering rage is Marcie. After learning for certain that his mother has a favorite child, Mark never leaves his sister alone. He constantly bullies her and derisively calls her “Mommy’s little baby.”
The children become adults. Mark finally learns to stifle his feelings and treat Marcie civilly. But she never forgives his unkindness to her. Mark buys a home across the street from his parents and raises his own family there, but Marcie feels uncomfortable living close to her brother. After marrying, she moves to a distant state and rarely comes home for a visit.
- In this chapter the author suspects that Esau’s homely appearance at birth may have contributed to Rebekah’s preference for Jacob. Do you agree or disagree? Why? If a child is more attractive than her siblings, will the mother of the children be unaware of it? Does physical beauty make a child more precious and important? What is God’s view of outward beauty?
- Physical beauty is not the only external trait that may tempt a mother to play favorites. Why is rearing a child with average intelligence often more stressful during the school years than raising a gifted child? How does athletic ability in a child affect a parent’s ego? What is the biblical perspective on human intelligence and athleticism?
- Personality differences between Esau and Jacob clearly played a role in Rebekah’s preference for her younger son. What personality traits in a child rub most moms the wrong way? How does a Christian mother protect her heart against favoritism if one of her children is submissive and organized – but the other is stubborn and messy?
- Discuss whether a parent is able to acknowledge the differences in children without being unfair. If a submissive son responds well to verbal correction but his stubborn brother often needs physical discipline, must the boys’ mother always treat them in exactly the same way? If a mother knows in her heart that she loves her children equally, how can she communicate this to them? Should she verbally assure them that she has no favorites?
- Was the trouble caused by Rebekah’s favoritism confined to her immediate family? What happened in Jacob’s home as a result of preferential treatment? Where did Jacob learn to favor one son over all the others? If you were treated unfairly or even harshly as a child, how can you avoid repeating the mistakes of your parents?