Background

The News from Beersheba

The Water Bearer is woven from the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and their descendants as told from Genesis 16 through Genesis 46. It begins immediately after Genesis 27:41, when Jacob, disguised as his brother, steals Isaac’s only blessing, the one that should have gone to Esau.

However, this event is only one in a string of reversals, blessings, deception, and promises of land and wealth. If the many details of this family story, often contradictory or unexplained, are unfamiliar, or are no longer clear to you, below is a brief summary of the events in the family saga that precede Esau’s narrative.

Abraham, Sarah, and some of their relatives left the urban civilization of Ur and journeyed southwest into the wilderness. Abraham had been called by a god who had promised to make of him and his descendants a great nation. Arriving in a wild part of the land of Canaan, God promises to assign the land to Abraham’s offspring forever. By some years later, Sarah has borne no children, so she gives her handmaiden, Hagar, the Egyptian, to Abraham to “consort with.” Hagar conceives a child. Sarah argues with Hagar, and treats her harshly, and Hagar runs away. By a spring in the wilderness, an angel finds her and tells her to return, promising that she will bear a son and name him Ishmael.

When Abraham is ninety-nine, and Sarah ninety, God again appears to him, offers the covenant of blessing and protection, and announces that Sarah will bear a son who will carry the covenant. Abraham asks that Ishmael, too, may be included, and God assures him that Ishmael will be blessed and be a great nation, although the covenant will go to the yet-to-be-born Isaac. Sarah then bears Isaac, and, concerned that Ishmael will share the inheritance of her son, urges Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. God tells Abraham to do as Sarah says, so Hagar and Ishmael are sent away with only a skin of water and some bread. Soon, with no more water or food, Hagar leaves the boy and walks some distance away, for she cannot bear to see him die. An angel appears and leads her to a well, saving them both.

Sometime after that, God instructs Abraham to take his son Isaac up to the mountain and sacrifice him. Abraham obeys, binds his son, places him on the altar, and lifts the knife above Isaac. Only as the knife is in the air does an angel cry out for Abraham to stop. He is told that this was a test, to ensure that he feared God, and is led to a ram to be used as the alternative offering. Abraham is again blessed, and told of the covenant between God and all of his offspring.

Sometime after this, Sarah dies, and Abraham purchases by legal contract a cave in Machpelah to use as a burial site. This cave, with its field and all the trees within the field, become Abraham’s possession. Abraham then sends his servant back home to Ur to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant is led to Rebekah, great-niece to Sarah, and negotiates with her brother Laban for her. They ask Rebekah if she wants to go with this man, and she says yes. Then Rebekah and her maids and her nurse Deborah leave to travel to Isaac. When they arrive, Isaac brings her to the tent of his mother Sarah, loves her, and finds comfort after his mother’s death. Sometime after that Abraham dies, and is buried by his sons Isaac and Ishmael.

Rebekah is barren for many years, and Isaac pleads with God on her behalf. She conceives twins, who struggle in her womb. In pain, she cries out to God, who tells her that she is carrying two nations, two separate peoples, and that the older will serve the younger. She delivers, first Esau, born with a “hairy mantle,” and then Jacob, holding onto Esau’s heel. Esau becomes a hunter, a man of the outdoors, while Jacob is a “mild man” who stays in the camp. Isaac favors Esau, but Rebekah favors Jacob. Isaac increases his wealth, and makes peace with his neighbors, and finds water in Shibah, now identified as Beersheba. The brothers turn 40, and Esau takes two wives from the local Hittite people.

Isaac, now old with dim eyesight, calls Esau to his side and asks him to go out and bring back some game to make his favorite dish. He promises to then give Esau his innermost blessing. Rebekah overhears this, and orders Jacob to get kids from the flock so she can make a favorite dish of Isaac’s, and then to put on Esau’s best robe. She covers his hands and neck with skins of the kids, so he will seem hairy when his father touches him. Jacob objects to her plan, afraid he will be found out and cursed. Rebekah assures him that any curse will be upon her. Jacob goes in to his father, repeatedly identifies himself as Esau, and receives his father’s blessing. Immediately after, Esau returns, prepares a dish, and goes in to his father. Isaac realizes he has been deceived. Esau sobs, begging, “Bless me too, Father!” Isaac replies that he has made Jacob master over him, and given Jacob all the inheritance. He has only one small blessing left for Esau, and predicts that, while Esau will serve his brother, he will one day grow restive and break Jacob’s yoke from his neck.

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