Isaac, Jacob, and Judah: Blessings to Non-Firstborn

March 30, 2015

            Contrary to the common tradition in the Ancient Near East, Abraham’s descendants did not pass on blessings and birthrights to their firstborn sons. Instead, beginning with Abraham, sons born later in the birth order received these blessings. Though this shift away from tradition seems to be the consequence of the actions of man, God seems to affirm this shift by reiterating to both Isaac and Jacob the covenant which he first established with Abraham (Gen 26:1-5; 35:10-12). In the midst of this upset of tradition, there are unique interactions between the different family members which play into the development of each family member as an individual.

            This paper will examine this multigenerational transmission process utilizing Bowen’s family systems theory. Some parts will be quite technical; for example, assigning levels of differentiation to individuals or analyzing various triangles. Other parts will be more loosely observational, such as noting the generational tendency toward deception. Ultimately, I will discuss possible treatment for this family, including spiritual direction options.

The Family

            The family of Isaac, Jacob, and Judah plays a central role in the history of the nation of Israel. Beginning one generation down from Abraham, the father who was called out of a pagan land to begin God’s chosen people, these three generations follow the family from being a single family to being a clan on the cusp of becoming a nation.


            Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age, as the first step of the fulfillment of God’s covenant to Abraham to build Abraham into a great nation (Gen 21). Their lack of faith led them to try to fulfill God’s promise on their own terms, leading to Hagar’s birth of Ishmael. When Sarah finally does have Isaac thirteen years later, she has Abraham throw out Hagar and Ishmael due to her jealousy (Gen 21:8-14). Sarah selfishly acts to “preserve” her son, convincing her husband that she knows what is best, and we will see Isaac’s wife repeat the same process years later.

            As he was growing up, Isaac experienced what was likely a transformative encounter with his father’s faith (Gen 22:1-14). He and Abraham went to Moriah to offer a sacrifice to God. After arriving at the place for the offering, Isaac learned that he was the intended sacrifice. Though an angel prevented Abraham from actually killing his boy, Isaac was a firsthand witness to the absolute trust that Abraham had in God, an experience that was likely to shape his own faith in later years.

            In Isaac and his wife Rebekah, we see echoes of Abraham and Sarah, both positive and negative. Negatively, we see Isaac repeating Abraham’s selfish lie, claiming Rebekah as his sister to save his life, rather than trusting in God’s protection (Gen 26:6-33, see also, Gen 12:10-20; 20:1-18). We also see favoritism of sons. While Abraham’s preference of Isaac over Ishmael may seem less obvious, Isaac explicitly loves Esau rather than Jacob (Gen 26:28). On the positive end of things, we see God opening Rebekah’s barren womb twenty years after they got married, leading to the birth of twins Esau and Jacob (Gen 25:21-26).

Jacob, a.k.a. Israel

            As previously mentioned, Jacob and his twin brother Esau were born miraculously when God heals Rebekah of her barrenness. These brothers, like their father and uncle, were caught up in a competition of their parents’ affections. Esau, an outdoorsman, was his father’s favorite, while Jacob was loved by Rebekah. During Rebekah’s pregnancy, God revealed to her that Esau would serve Jacob (Gen 25:23). This may have led to Rebekah attempting to intervene “to help God”, just as her mother-in-law attempted to do in giving Hagar to Abraham.

            Jacob is known for his trickery. First, he convinces Esau to sell his birthright for some stew (Gen 25:29-34). Then Rebekah and Jacob together trick Isaac into giving Jacob the generational blessing, rather than giving it to Esau (Gen 27:1-29). This echoes Abraham’s passing the full inheritance to Isaac, his second-born, rather than Ishmael. We do not know if Isaac found out about Jacob’s acquisition of the birthright, but, rather conspicuously, Isaac does nothing to punish or discipline Jacob for stealing the blessing.

            To protect her favorite son, Rebekah convinces Isaac to send Jacob to get a wife from her family, rather than having him marry local women like Esau did (Gen 27:46-28:5). Still competing for his parents’ affection, Esau marries an Ishmaelite woman (of Abraham’s bloodline) when he sees Rebekah send Jacob away for a wife (Gen 28:6-9).

            Here, the deceiver becomes the deceived. After working for seven years to marry Rachel, Laban gives him her older sister Leah instead. He is permitted to marry Rachel afterwards, but with the promise that Jacob will continue to work for the next seven years as well. Jacob and Laban also strike a deal for Jacob to receive the colored and patterned sheep and goats as his wages. Laban deceives Jacob again, removing his colored and patterned sheep and goats, presumably to minimize the chance for those sheep and goats to reproduce. (Gen 30:25-43).

            When God calls Jacob back to Canaan, he deceives Laban by running away (Gen 31:20). In this departure narrative, it becomes clear that Jacob understands that Laban continually cheats and deceives Jacob, but he does not seem to recognize that he is reaping the deception and trickery that he sowed earlier with Esau (Gen 31, notably verse 7).

            Through the sisters, we see sibling rivalry once again, but instead of seeking parental affection, Leah and Rachel compete for their husband’s love. Although this competition probably extended into many aspects of their lives, the Bible reveals it primarily through bearing children. Leah has six sons and a daughter: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah (Gen 29:31-35; 30:14-21). Rachel gives her maidservant Bilhah to Jacob to act as a surrogate mother. Bilhah bears two sons: Dan and Naphtali (Gen 30:1-8). In reaction, Leah gives her own servant Zilpah, who has two sons: Gad and Asher (Gen 30:9-13). Finally, God opens Rachel’s barren womb and she has Joseph, and years later, through a complicated birth that leads to her death, Benjamin (Gen 30:22-24; 35:16-20). Like his father and grandfather, Jacob is guilty of favoring his son Joseph (and later Benjamin) over all the others (Gen 37:3-4; 42:4).


            Judah himself does not star in the heart of the narrative, although he seems to undergo a lot of personal development. His first reported individual action is convincing his other brothers to sell Joseph into slavery rather than kill him. This was not done out of benevolence, but pragmatism: at least by selling him, they gained monetarily (Gen 37:25-28). Later, during the famine, Judah takes personal responsibility for the safety of Benjamin, even offering to take Benjamin’s place in punishment (Gen 43:3-10; 44:16-34).

            When Jacob grows near the end of his life, he curses his three firstborn sons. Firstborn Reuben forfeit his right to the blessing when he slept with Jacob’s concubine (Gen 35:22). When their sister Dinah is raped by Shechem, Simeon and Levi continue the generational sin of deception by telling the men of the town that they must become circumcised. Then, before they heal, the two brothers enter the town and slaughter all of the men. Although Jacob confronts the two, they merely justify their actions, and no disciplinary action is taken (Gen 34). Interestingly, althought Jacob passes the birthright on to Joseph by “adopting” Ephraim and Manasseh as his own sons, the blessing of rule, wealth, and health is given to Judah (Gen 49:9-12).

            Judah’s longest narrative reveals both his fear and honor in admitting his sin. In Genesis 38, Judah chose Tamar as his firstborn’s wife. However, this son was wicked and God put him to death without an heir. Per levirate marriage, Judah’s second son married Tamar. This son was also wicked and died without an heir. Judah promised his third son to her, without intention of actually marrying them for fear the youngest would also die. When Tamar discovered that Judah had deceived her, she deceived him, pretending to be a cult prostitute. She was discovered to be pregnant with his children, and Judah acknowledged that he had wronged her, allowed her to live, and did not sleep with her again. Later, Judah, Tamar, and their twins, Perez and Zerah, all appear in Jesus’ genealogy (Matt 1:3).

Analysis According to Bowen

Levels of Differentiation

            On Bowen’s scale of differentiation from 0-100, Isaac seems to fall in the 35-50 range. He is still powerfully moved by comfort, possibly evident in the absence of disciplining Jacob, and in favoring the son who provided food he liked. Isaac also had several transformative experiences in his life, including almost being sacrificed and receiving the Abrahamic covenant and blessing from God.

            Jacob seems to be in the same 35-50 range as his father. His chronic problem with deception and comfort seeking may put him a little lower, in the 30-40 range. He is easily persuaded at times, as shown when Rebekah convinces him to trick his father for the blessing. He also displays passive-aggressive tendencies for when it comes to disciplining his children.

            His time separated from his parents and brother served as a time of tremendous personal growth and formation. In particular, Jacob’s three encounters with God served as times where he solidified his personal values as distinct from those of others. When Jacob dreamed of God at Bethel and received the Abrahamic covenant, Jacob dedicated his life to God (Gen 28:10-22). Yet twenty years later, while leaving Laban, Jacob wrestled with God, demanding a blessing, almost as if he believes he does not deserve God’s previous blessing, perhaps because he had stolen the blessing from Isaac (Gen 32:22-32). Finally, God calls Jacob back to Bethel. Jacob rids himself and his household of all foreign gods. God reaffirms the blessing of the name change, and reaffirms the giving of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 35:1-15). From this point on, Jacob seems to be completely dedicated to God.

            Judah seems to be higher on the scale of differentiation, possibly in the 50-65 range. This may be the result of the family dynamic he grew up in (four mothers, eleven brothers, and a sister). He makes judgment calls for himself and influences others to join his cause. He thinks logically in the midst of stressful situations (e.g. selling Joseph instead of just killing him). However, he still responds to his relationship system, taking responsibility for Benjamin on the brothers’ second trip to Egypt, and begging to be taken in Benjamin’s stead when it seems Benjamin has stolen from Joseph. He responds to the death of his first two sons in fear, but takes full responsibility for his actions with Tamar after being confronted.


            Rebekah forms a triangle with Isaac and Jacob. She had received the prophecy from God that Jacob would rule over Esau, but this does not seem likely to happen since Isaac favors Esau so much. Rather than bringing her troubles to Isaac directly, she attempts to alleviate the stress by taking situations into her own hands. This is most evident when she convinces Jacob to deceive Isaac and steal the blessing.

            Leah and Rachel form a triangle with Jacob. What could likely have been a sisterly rivalry from early age continues to grow as they both marry Jacob and vie for his love. As stated before, their main method for earning his love is childbearing, going beyond their own capacities and involving their servants and bartering for the right to sleep with Jacob (Gen 29:31-30:24).

            Judah forms a triangle with his son Shelah in order to relieve the stress between himself and Tamar. Rather than dealing with the problem of his sons wickedness leading to their death and her being a widow twice over, Judah pretends to promise Shelah to Tamar. It almost seems as if Tamar responds by creating a triangle of her own with her disguise as a temple prostitute being the “third angle”.

Emotional Cut Off

            Rebekah cuts off Jacob by sending him to Laban to save him from Esau. Jacob continued the time of emotional cut off as he remained away for twenty years, hiding from Esau and remaining distant from his family. He then attempted to cut himself off from Laban by fleeing back toward his mother and father, although in the end, Jacob and Laban’s separation seems to be more amiable. When returning, Jacob appears to make peace with Esau, but once again parts paths with his brother (Gen 33:1-20).

Family Projection

            The family projection process affects each generation of this family. Sarah so focuses on the “problem” that Ishmael poses to her own son that she convinces Abraham to drive Hagar and Sarah away.

            Unexpectedly, this process seems to begin in the next generation with the news from God that Jacob would be served by Esau. Again, their birth order serves as the problem, and Rebekah repeatedly focuses on how to help Jacob fulfill that prophesy, utilizing deception and persuasion to get him the blessing and keep him safe from his brother.

            Judah does not appear to be on the receiving end of family projection. Rather, since Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, receive attention as “problem children” and Joseph and Benjamin are favored due to Jacob loving their mother most, Judah appears to have developed outside of the direct effect of family projection.

Intellectual vs. Emotional Systems

            Each generation displays a powerful emotional system which often overrides its intellectual system. Isaac enjoys the food that Esau prepares and favors him over Jacob. His investment in the emotional system also leads to his employment of his intellectual system to meet the needs of his emotional system (e.g. intentionally lying about his wife to save his own life).

            Jacob’s frequent flight seems to be an example of his emotional system in action, fleeing from Esau, then fleeing from Laban. Even his wrestling with God could be classified as the result of his emotional system, since he seems to be acting out of his own anxiety over meeting his brother again after twenty years. However, in his two encounters with God at Bethel, he is making choices governed more by his intellectual system than his emotional system.

            Judah, though often acting out of his emotional system (e.g. joining his brothers in throwing Joseph in the cistern and refusing to give Shelah to Tamar), seems to quickly begin employing his intellectual system (e.g. suggesting they sell Joseph rather than kill him and owning up to his sin in regard to Tamar).

Weltner Pathology Level

            Although not a part of Bowen’s family systems theory, understanding a family’s pathology level according to Weltner will help in understanding which form of treatment would be best. We will analyze the family of each man when he was the head of the household.

            Isaac’s family seems to be at Level 3. The basic structure of the household is in place, but roles are distorted which do not allow for healthy parent-child differentiation. Rebekah’s influence is much greater than it should be, at least until Jacob leaves to live with Laban. By contrast, Isaac’s role as father seemed very limited, particularly coming from such a patriarchal tradition. Regardless, both sons seem to be very poorly differentiated before Jacob leaves.

            Jacob’s household is much closer to Level 2 than Level 3. His wives fight for his love. Servant girls are raised to the status of mothers. One son sleeps with one of said servant girls. Two other sons act on their own to avenge their sister’s rape, slaughtering the men of an entire town. Still another son is sold into slavery. Very few of these actions are disciplined, and none are disciplined in a timely manner. The authority structure and personal boundaries in this family are all tossed head over heels.

            Judah’s family is harder to categorize due to limited accounts. However it seems like his family is in Level 4, or possibly Level 3. His family seems to have a basic structure in place. However, this structure is disrupted by the deaths of his two oldest sons. His reaction, like Jacob’s after losing Joseph, is to cling tightly to his last son, Shelah. Although there are definitely things to address regarding family roles (e.g. Tamar’s role in the family as his daughter-in-law and the mother of his two youngest sons), Judah’s family would probably best be served by therapies to help them work through the loss of the two oldest sons and the complicated events surrounding Joseph and the rest of the family.


            With all of this background information assembled, we will conclude with suggested treatment on a family by family basis.Isaac’s family, having a Level 3 pathology, would best benefit from family systems therapy. They need help reestablishing appropriate boundaries and considering how Isaac and Rebekah’s childhoods affect the way that they lead their own family. They also need to focus especially on Rebekah’s over-attachment to Jacob, possibly through additional individual counseling sessions for Rebekah. If Jacob had not been sent away, it is very possible that he would have remained very enmeshed and failed to differentiate.

            It also would have been helpful for Isaac to receive spiritual direction. Even though he had seen his father’s faith in action on several occasions, Isaac’s own faith is conspicuously absent in his Biblical account. If he had had a better grasp on his own faith, he may have been able to lead and love his family better, removing the need to compete for affection.

            Jacob’s family is much more complicated due to the size and dynamic of their family. However, having a Level 2 pathology, Jacob’s family would be well served with structural therapy. His boys have naturally build in “teams” based on who their mother was. In addition, many of these maternal delineations are also reinforced by age differences. The structural therapist would need to focus on helping them recognize that they were all a team as a family. Jacob, in addition, should undergo marital counseling to help sort out the struggle for love between his wives, and the blurred lines of his servant girls who mothered some of his children. Jacob also needs to understand the danger of favoring one child so obviously over the rest of his children.

            Jacob could definitely benefit from spiritual direction, especially after he left his mother and father. His leadership in his family would have benefitted from a stronger spiritual foundation. He seems to be fighting against a life-long feeling of inadequacy, possibly because his father favored his older brother, he had tricked his brother into selling his birthright, and he had stolen Isaac’s blessing for Esau. God communicates the Abrahamic covenant to Jacob twice, almost as if Jacob did not truly receive the covenant the first time.

            Judah’s family would also benefit best from a family systems approach. Because of the death of Judah’s two oldest sons, they would need guidance in mourning properly and appropriately. They would also benefit from clarified boundaries due to his complicated relationship with Tamar and their sons Perez and Zerah.

            Spiritual direction would have helped Judah as he processed his guilt regarding Joseph and his relationship with God in light of that. It also might have helped reveal the reason for the deaths of his sons, which the Bible says was their wickedness. Having a strong spiritual foundation would have also helped keep him from acting out of fear and keeping Shelah from Tamar, which probably would have prevented the adulterous relationship with Tamar in the first place.


Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s