Saturday, March 02, 2024

The Blessing of Isaac in the Liturgy of Lent

The story of the blessing of Isaac, Genesis 27, 1-40, is one of four passages from that book that are read twice in the liturgical year, once in the Office, and again in the Mass. The first two in the order of the book, the Creation (chapters 1-2) and the Flood (chapters 6-8) are read in the Office in the weeks of Septuagesima and Sexagesima, then repeated in part at the Easter vigil. The blessing of Isaac is read in the first nocturn of the Second Sunday of Lent, up to the point where Jacob receives the blessing (verses 1-29); the story is then repeated on the following Saturday, starting at verse 6, and ending with the blessing received by Esau. The last example, the selling of Joseph, is read on the Friday of the same week, and repeated in a longer version in the first nocturn of the following Sunday.

The Blessing of Isaac, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82), 1665-70; now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
This story naturally lends itself to a simple moral interpretation, against the vice of envy, which was how it was taken by St Cyprian.

“That Esau was the enemy of his brother Jacob, was a matter of jealousy, for since the latter had received the blessing of their father, the former burned with the fires of envy unto the hatred that inspires persecution. Also, when his brothers sold Joseph, the cause of this selling came from envy.” (De Zelo et Livore V; P.L. IV, 641B)

For this reason, it is paired by the Roman liturgy with the story of the Prodigal Son, in which the elder brother is jealous of the way his father welcomes back his dissipate younger brother. This refers to the penitential character of Lent, and stands as an admonition to those who, like the elder brother, feel themselves to be righteous, not to envy the spiritual good that comes to sinners with repentance. In his book On Penance, St Ambrose comments on the parable as follows.

“Therefore, let us feast on good food, doing penance, joyful for our redemption, for there is no food sweeter than good will and piety. Let no envy of the saved sinner be mixed in with our banquet and our rejoicing, lest he (that is envious) shut himself out of the Father’s house, as explained in the Gospel, he who grieved that his brother, at whose perpetual exclusion he rejoiced, was taken back.” (II.15.86; P.L. XVI, 491C)

He continues with a word against the rigorist sect of the Novatianists, founded by a Roman priest in the mid-3rd century, who taught that the Church had no authority to forgive serious sins committed after baptism.

“You are like him, followers of Novatian, you cannot deny it; who, as you say, do not come together into the Church, because through penance, hope of returning was given to the lapsed.”

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Pompeo Battoni (1708-87), 1773; now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
The story of the blessing of Isaac, however, also posed a problem for ancient interpreters of the Bible, Christian and Jewish alike. A Patriarch like Jacob is supposed to be a model of virtue, as Ambrose writes in his treatise On the Patriarch Joseph:

“The lives of the Saints are a model for the lives of others. And therefore, we have been given those stories that are set forth more fully in the Scriptures, so that when we come to know Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and others of the righteous by reading them, we may by imitating them, follow in their footsteps along that path of innocence which is opened to us by their virtue.” (init.; P.L. XIV, 614A)

And specifically in regard to Jacob, in the book Jacob and the Blessed Life:

“Which of the things that belong to the merit of blessedness did holy Jacob not have? So far was he from association with the wicked, that the faithful people took its name from him, and was called Israel (Gen. 32, 28), since he beheld God with the inner eyes of the mind, while abstaining from sin, sober, without the drunkenness of any excess; and thus did he accept the harshness of his labors, and despise the quiet of idleness. Was it not beautifully and truly said of him, that he also will bear fruit in his time (Ps. 1, 3), of whom it is written ‘Behold, the smell of my son is as the smell of a plentiful field, (which the Lord hath blessed. Gen. 27, 27)?’ ” (II, 1,3: P.L. XIV, 614D)

The problem with the story therefore lies in the fact that Jacob “steals” the blessing (from which the final words above are taken) by pretending to be his brother Esau, for whom their father Isaac intended it. In his seminal book The Bible As It Was, Prof. James Kugel notes how Jewish interpreters wrestled with this question, to preserve the morality of Jacob’s actions. (pp. 208-9; Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997) This was no less a difficulty for the Fathers of the Church, many of whom were concerned to answer attacks on the Bible made by pagan critics ignorant of its true meaning. Such critics might well accuse Jacob, a Patriarch and the Father of the Twelve Tribes, of both theft and lying, and therefore claim that the Bible promoted immoral behavior.

For St Augustine, the goatskins which Rebecca puts on Jacob’s hands represent our sins, and Jacob himself represents Christ taking them on. “By the goatskins are signified sins, and by him who covered himself with them, that One is signified who bore not His own sins, but those of others.” (Contra Mendacium X, 24; P.L. XL, 534) In the Breviary of St Pius V, this passage is part of the sermon of second nocturn of Matins on the Second Sunday of Lent, explaining the readings of the first nocturn. Augustine’s interpretation is also the basis of the Roman vesting prayer for the gloves worn by a bishop. “Place upon my hands, Lord, the cleanliness of the new man, that came down from heaven; that, just as Jacob Thy beloved, covering his hands with the skins of goats, and offering to his father most pleasing food and drink, obtained his father’s blessing, so also may the saving victim offered by our hands, merit the blessing of Thy grace. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who in the likeness of sinful flesh offered Himself for us.”

St Ambrose Baptizing St Augustine; Folio 37v of the book of Hours known as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, by the Limbourg Brothers, ca. 1412-16. The image is inserted into the text of the Te Deum because of the tradition that the two Saints composed this hymn on this occasion; note that Augustine is identified by an anachronistic (in many ways) episcopal miter. (Now at the Musée Condé in Chantilly; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
St Ambrose is also concerned to preserve from this story a moral lesson against envy, for he presumes that both Isaac and Rebecca, as a patriarch and his wife, must also be regarded as moral examples for us.

“We must also not leave the parents (i.e. Isaac and Rebecca) unjustified because they preferred the younger son to the elder. At same time, we must take care lest anyone, in heeding their example, hold an unjust judgment between sons, such that he think one should be loved, and another neglected. For hatred between brothers arises from this…” (De Jacob et Beata Vita, II, 2, 5: P.L. XIV, 616D)

Esau’s threat to kill his brother for “stealing” the blessing shows him to be an unrighteous man. “He grieved that the blessing had been taken away from him; but he ought to have proved himself worthy of it by mildness (in his behavior), not by a crime (i.e., the threatened murder.)” This justifies Rebecca’s actions, since she “did not prefer one son to another, but rather, a just man to an unjust one.” But it was not wrong right for Isaac to wish to honor Esau: “let the father preserve the honor which nature (dictates is due) to the elder.”

At the same time, he also treats Jacob’s actions as a prophecy of the coming of Christ; the sheep from which he feeds Isaac while pretending to be Esau represents Christ, the Lamb of God.

“Jacob went to the sheep (Gen. 27, 9 and 14), and brought (to Isaac) the offspring of innocence, or gifts of sacred prophecy, because he believed that no food was sweeter to the Patriarch than Christ, who was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and a lamb to be a victim. He judged this food to be useful both to their common father, and to the people of which he was a type, which was to be the forgiveness of sins.”

The Rejection of Esau, by the Master of the Isaac Stories (variously identified with Giotto, Pietro Cavallini, or Gaddo Gaddi), in the upper basilica of St Francis in Assisi, ca. 1300.
The supplanting of Esau by Jacob represents the supplanting of the Jews by the gentiles as God’s people. In the season of baptismal preparation, this looks forward to the reception of gentiles into the Church through the administration of that sacrament at the Easter vigil. Ambrose’s commentary is based on an Old Latin version of Genesis 27, 15, in which Rebecca clothes Jacob with his brother Esau’s “stolam – stole”, where the Vulgate says “vestibus – clothes”. (The same word is used in the Gospels for the garment with which the father clothes the Prodigal Son, Luke 15, 22.)

“Therefore, he received his brother’s stole, because in wisdom, he was the superior of the older one: therefore, the younger brother took it off (exuit) the older, because he shone forth in the dignity of faith. Rebecca, as a type of the Church, brought forth this stole, and gave it to her younger son, the stole of the Old Testament, a stole both prophetic and priestly, that royal stole of David, the stole of Solomon, Hezekiah, and Josiah the kings, and gave it to the Christian people, that would know how to use the garment thus received; for the Jewish people had it, but did not use it, and knew not the splendor of its own attire.” (Ibid. 2, 8 and 9)

The theft of the blessing which Jacob perpetrates is therefore justified, because of what it represents in prophecy, the coming of Christ, and the acceptance of Him by the nations. Jacob acted as he did in order to seize the kingdom of heaven, as Christ Himself said, “the kingdom of heaven undergoeth violence, and the violent bear it away.” (Matt. 11, 12)

“The blessing being celebrated, afterwards the elder brother came (Gen. 27, 30), and by this it is declared that the kingdom is granted to the Church in predestination before the Synagogue; but the Synagogue has stolen in, so that sin might abound, and when sin had abounded, there might about also grace. (Rom. 5, 20) … Therefore the younger son is not reprimanded by the father, but praised, as Isaac says: ‘Your brother, coming with deceit has received your blessing.’ For the deceit is good, where the theft is irreprehensible, and the theft of piety is irreprehensible; for from the days of John the kingdom of heaven undergoes violence, and the violent bear it away.” (3, 10)

The book of Genesis is of course part of the Torah, the Law of the Jewish people. The interpretive tradition of both Jews and Christians seeks to explain the Patriarch Jacob’s actions in a way that shows that there is no moral error in them. This would seem then to explain why the Introit of this Mass is a text from Psalm 18, “Lex Domini irreprehensibilis – the Law of the Lord is irreprehensible,” the word used by St Ambrose to describe the Jacob’s “theft” of Isaac’s blessing.

Introitus Lex Dómini irreprehensíbilis, convertens ánimas: testimonium Dómini fidéle, sapientiam praestans párvulis. Ps. 18 Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei,: et ópera mánuum ejus annuntiat firmamentum. Gloria Patri. Sicut erat. Lex Dómini. – The law of the Lord is irreprehensible, converting souls: the testimony of the Lord is faithful, giving wisdom to little ones. Ps. 18 The heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of his hands. Glory be. As it was. The law of the Lord...

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