As observed earlier, Isaac is so passive seeming compared to Abraham before him and Jacob who follows. Pulling away from the observations of their personal lives, we can compare Isaac and Jacob on a much larger scale, as The Complete Bible Handbook reminds us (see sidebar under Bible Study for link). As so often happens in Scripture, in looking at the big picture we get yet another lesson for our own lives.
Isaac is the most passive of the Patriarchs. In Genesis 22 he is silently bound by Abraham (though much subsequent Jewish tradition ascribes to him a more active participation). Isaac plays no active role while Abraham's servant acquires a wife for him. A blind and bedridden Isaac is deceived by his wife and younger son. Only in Genesis 26 does Isaac act in his own right -- and here, all the stories are reminiscent of earlier episodes in Abraham's story. Perhaps one implication of Isaac's story is that God's purposes do not necessarily need strong, active, and distinctive people for their continuation and fulfillment.
Jacob is different. His name becomes that of the nation Israel, and his 12 sons become the ancestors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In telling of its eponymous ancestor, one might expect the Israelites to tell of a courageous, faithful, God-fearing hero. But Jacob's faults are shown along with his virtues. In his youth, he connives in deception and is a liar as well. When, later in life, he is transformed by a mysterious encounter with God and his name is correspondingly changed, he is still no model. He is a poor parent, showing favoritism among his children and provoking deadly sibling rivalry. The Bible's portrayal of this man as Israel's ancestor is remarkable. It is a reminder that God can use even the weak to do good things. It is a story acting as a reminder that there are many baffling paradoxes in the encounter between God and humanity.
In these narratives, it is made clear from the outset that Jacob and Esau represent the two peoples of Israel and Edom (Gen. 25:23, 30; 27:29a). However much the stories embody the historic rivalries of these two peoples, the chief figures are important in their own right. Their difference is most obvious when Esau forgives Jacob, for in Israel's history -- and especially in Obadiah -- Edom is particularly remembered for its ruthless exploitation of Jerusalem when the latter was overthrown by the Babylonians.