Moving on in his survey of the exemplary faith of several old covenant saints, the author of Hebrews in today’s passage looks at key episodes from the lives of Isaac and Jacob, Abraham’s son and grandson, respectively. In each case, he focuses on the blessings these patriarchs pronounced on their descendants.
First, the author tells us that “by faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau” (Heb. 11:20). He refers, of course, to the events described in Genesis 27, when Jacob and Rebekah conspired to prevent Isaac from giving to Esau the blessing Jacob deserved. No one comes out well in the story. Isaac was ignoring the prophecy of Jacob’s primacy (see 25:23). Jacob and Rebekah were right that the blessing should have gone to Jacob, but they employed deceit to get it instead of trying to reason with Isaac. Esau had given away his birthright long before then (see 25:29–34). Nevertheless, the author of Hebrews focuses not on the shortcomings of the parties involved but on the faith of Isaac. This reminds us that true faith is not perfect, that it can exist side by side with sin, as it did in Isaac and his slowness to give the blessing to Jacob. Of course, we should be striving to deny sin so that we grow in godliness, but at the same time we should not despair that God’s grace is far from us if we believe His promises and yet still transgress His law from time to time. The Lord is quick to forgive us when we repent (1 John 1:8–9).
Next, the author of Hebrews says that “by faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph” (Heb. 11:21). Here, the events of Genesis 48 serve as the basis for the example. Not long before Jacob died, he blessed his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph, giving the better blessing to the younger Ephraim. This blessing was strongly future oriented, for Jacob foresaw that the nation of Israel, which at that point did not yet exist, would invoke the names of Ephraim and Manasseh in bestowing blessings and that both would father large tribes (vv. 15–20). So, too, was the blessing Isaac gave to Jacob and Esau future oriented, for he said that each would become a great nation in time (27:26–29, 39–40). These blessings could only have been by faith, for they concerned things yet unseen in the days of Isaac and Jacob. Moreover, though Isaac and Jacob were both wealthy, there was no way that they could fulfill the blessings themselves. God alone would have to do it, and both Isaac and Jacob believed that He would.