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Without the Book of Job, the Song of Songs, the Psalms, the Gospel of Luke or the Book of Genesis art and poetry would be very different from what it is, and certainly poorer in beauty and words. But at the foundations of the (also poetic) powerfulness of the Bible there is a radical, unconditional, absolute faithfulness to the word that is very difficult to understand for us, contemporary readers, but is of decisive importance for us, too.
In the cycle on Isaac the nature and power of the words come from the tension between Rebekah’s “subersive” plan and Isaac’s will. The alliance of JHWH and Abraham continues with the story of the twins who are presented to us as rivals and being in conflict ever since they left their mother’s womb (‘The babies jostled each other within her’, 25:22) Esau ‘became a skilful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents’ (25:27). At the same time the personal preference of the parents is revealed to us: ‘Isaac … loved Esau’, while the mother ‘Rebekah loved Jacob’ (25:28). When he feels his nearing death, Isaac asks Esau to catch a wild game for him, »so that I may give you my blessing before I die« (27:4). Rebekah ‘was listening’ as the two were talking and she said to Jacob, »Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so that I can prepare some tasty food for your father…so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.« (27:8-10) And Jacob said, »But my brother Esau is a hairy man while I have smooth skin. What if my father touches me? I would … bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.« (27:11-12). And Rebekah said, »My son, let the curse fall on me. « (27:13) So Rebekah ‘took the best clothes of her elder son Esau … and put them on her younger son Jacob. She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins.’ (27:15-17) And Jacob went to his father and said, »I am Esau your firstborn.« (27:19) Isaac then touches his son and says, »The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.« (27:22) But after having smelled the clothes of Esau (‘the smell of my son is like the smell of a field’ 27:27), he pronounces the words of blessing: »May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness – an abundance of grain and new wine.« (27:28-29) After the blessing has been stolen, Esau returns from the hunt and offers the dish to his father. And Isaac says, »Who are you?« He answers, »I am your son … your firstborn, Esau.« (27:32). And this is where the narrative twist comes.
At this point the modern reader who does not know how the story goes on would expect that Isaac’s sense of justice would make him call Jacob back and take his blessing off of him, and perhaps even change it to a curse on him. But nothing like that actually happens: ‘Isaac trembled violently and said, »Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.«’ (27:35). Isaac realises that he had been deceived and feels sorry for his beloved son but does not take his blessing back: »I blessed him – and indeed he will be blessed! « (27:33) ‘Then Esau wept aloud.’ (27:38) And so Esau joins the invisible people of those who are cast-off but not abandoned, together with Ishmael, Cain and their many children.
In order to gain a deeper inderstanding of this complex episode we should suspend “ethic” judgement and resist political analysis (Esau becomes the forefather of the rival peoples of Israel) as well as the psychological opining about Jacob and Rebekah’s behaviour – and concentrate on Isaac mainly, and the logic of the Alliance and of the word. Isaac is Abraham’s son who was given and then re-given. He is the one to continue the Alliance of his father and of Noah’s rainbow, the inheritor of the Pact with the Voice that had created the world by uttering it, pronouncing it. The same Word that had called Abraham, talked to him and later also to Isaac (26:2-6). They had entered into dialogue with the God of the Creating Voice and believed the power of those words. The words that made a promise were forceful, they were words uttered for eternity.
The safeguarding of and faithfulness to the Alliance, therefore, were also meant to be safeguarding of and faithfulness to the given word. But in order to safeguard the word and prevent its degeneration, the “price” to be paid was its irrevocability: if the word can create as it is being uttered, then it can always create and for eternity, even when uttered to a deceitful son. Isaac could not take his blessing back because the words he uttered were of a creative power, they had worked, they had changed things, they had made Jacob, their taker, a blessed one who ‘indeed will be blessed‘.
Genesis and the entire Biblical culture have saved all the power of the Word by affirming and saving the irreversibility of words, too, and by assuming all their painful (and at times really painful) consequences – for an extreme case let us think of the scandalous episode of Jephthah‘s daughter (Judges 11:30-50). But it was thanks to this safeguarding of the word at any cost that one day someone could write: ‘The Word became flesh’ (John 1:14).
Poets, writers, journalists, all the lovers and friends of words, their value and responsibility should all have respect for Isaac and Biblical humanism for having saved the creating power of the word. Our culture has lost this power and this eternal validity. We are flooded with words that don’t say anything anymore. Words that multiply as if multiplication of written words could compensate for the death of the creating force of the uttered word. So we fill contracts with numberless words that are written but never pronounced and that tell a lot about the distrust in and inefficiency of words that should be their foundation.
But the power of the written contracts may only come from the power of words. Contracts were born as part of the evolution of pacts that have always been and are still words with a creating power. Contracts are dead pieces of paper if behind the written words there is nothing creative and efficient – when the different civilisations decided to put pacts in writing, contracts and laws were made to give more power to the given word, not to substitute it.
Some of the old power of words survives today in the (very few) pacts that have not yet been turned into contracts. During the wedding ceremony, for example, it is the words of the bride and groom that create the new reality of becoming ‘one flesh’, words that later are reinforced and ratified by their own and their witness’ signatures. If those creating words were not there first, the wedding signatures would not say anything or have a very frail message. It is the reciprocal promises uttered that make the family, it is the meeting of the voices that create it. We all know and we should not forget that when we want to say something important to a relative or a friend – to apologise, for example – it is not enough to write a letter, and it is even less efficient to send an e-mail. We have to talk, to say ‘forgive me’, we have to hear ‘I forgive you’ uttered, it is not enough to see it written. It was true in the past and is still so: in order to start a relationship, a family or business we have to learn and re-learn to speak, we have to say our pacts, promises, alliances and we have to say them ‘aloud’. All this is also true for enterprises and markets: when they lose contact with the words uttered by persons they lose their very nature and leave the realm of the human. The power of the words ‘I love you’ uttered to a person (and only to one) can only be fully understood inside a frame that suggests responsibility because of the creating power and irreversible nature of the word.
Our era seems to be in a dark night of the word, of words, and so our society is risking to die suffocating in a sea of small talk, chats and text-messages. We ought to get reconciled with and get back in touch with the word and words, with their seriousness and responsibility. We may find help for this new, great and decisive encounter in listening and in the appreciation of poets. Poets are essential for life because they create: they make words alive and defend them from death. Above all, they are essential for our times without the word and so without words. After Leopardi the ‘places’ of Recanati and the world are not the same any more in the Italian language and each people have their own masters to re-create things by the power of the word. Their poetry re-creates and changes things for ever.
Thank you, Father Isaac and thank you, Esau: you have paid a great price to safeguard the word for us. The responsibility not to under-estimate your valuable gift is ours.
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 04/05/2014