Monday, May 9, 2011

Notes on the KJV: Of Blessings and Birthrights

At Ohio State University’s recent conference on “The King James Bible and Its Cultural Afterlife,” David Richter gave a fantastic paper on “Misleading Moments in the KJV” that helped to clarify several potentially confounding passages in Genesis.

Jacob’s deception of Isaac (with Rebekah’s help!), when he steals Esau’s blessing, has always troubled me, but before Richter’s talk I had never noticed before that, according to the King James Version, Esau really doesn’t have cause to be upset. You’ll remember that when, after Jacob has tricked Isaac into thinking that he’s Esau by covering his arms in goat’s hair and cooking him some goat meat, Esau returns to the house he begs Isaac for another blessing: “Hast thou but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father” (Genesis 27:38). Isaac does bless him, and Esau’s blessing is, at least in the KJV, substantially the same as Jacob’s. In Jacob’s blessing, Isaac pronounces, “God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth” (27:28). He blesses Esau in essentially the same language: “Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above” (27:39). So if Isaac pronounces essentially the same blessing on both brothers—if Esau’s going to enjoy prosperity as a farmer—why does Isaac’s blessing continue with the words, “and by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother” (27:40)? Why does Esau want to “slay my brother Jacob” (27:41)?

The problem here, Richter explained, is that Hebrew prepositions have multiple meanings; the same word that means of can also mean from. Esau’s blessing, then should read something like “Behold thy dwelling shall be far from the fatness of the earth, and far from the dew of heaven above.” No wonder he was so upset!

(Part two of Richter’s commentary on Jacob and Esau coming soon!)


Jenny said...

I once named my shoes Jacob and Esau. One was hairy-er than the other.

Alana said...

I like Jen's comment on your post. Its an interesting insight into that scripture though.