The second is that rav and tzair are not opposites, a fact disguised by the English translation of rav as “older.” The opposite of tzair (“younger”) is bechir (“older” or “firstborn”). Rav does not mean “older”; it means “great,” or possibly “chief.” This linking together of two terms as if they were polar opposites, which they are not – the opposites would have been bechir/tzair or rav/me’at – further destabilizes the meaning. Who was the rav? The elder? The leader? The chief? Was it the more numerous? The word might mean any of these things.
The third – not part of the text but of later tradition – is the musical notation. The normal way of notating these three words would be mercha-tipcha-sof pasuk. This would support the reading, “the older shall serve the younger.” In fact, however, they are notated tipcha-mercha-sof pasuk – suggesting, “the older shall the younger serve”; in other words, “the younger shall serve the older.”
A later episode adds yet another retrospective element of doubt. There is a second instance in Bereishit of the birth of twins, to Tamar (Bereishit 38:27-30). The passage is clearly reminiscent of the story of Esau and Jacob:
There were twins in her womb, and while she was in labor one of them put out a hand. The midwife took a scarlet thread and fastened it around the wrist, saying, “This one appeared first.” No sooner had he drawn back his hand than his brother came out, and the midwife said, “What! You have broken out first!” So he was named Peretz. Soon afterwards his brother was born with the scarlet thread on his wrist, and he was named Zerach.
Who then was the elder? And what does this imply in the case of Esau and Jacob? (See Rashi to 25:26, suggesting that Jacob was in fact the elder.) These multiple ambiguities are not accidental but integral to the text. The subtlety is such that we do not notice them at first. Only later, when the narrative does not turn out as expected, are we forced to go back and notice what at first we missed: that the words Rebecca heard may mean “the older will serve the younger” or “the younger will serve the older.”
A number of things now become clear. The first is that this is a rare example in the Torah of an oracle as opposed to a prophecy (this is the probable meaning of the word chidot in Bamidbar 12:8, speaking about Moses: “With him I speak mouth to mouth, openly and not in chidot” – usually translated as “dark speeches” or “riddles”). Oracles – a familiar form of supernatural communication in the ancient world – were normally obscure and cryptic, unlike the normal form of Israelite prophecy. This may well be the technical meaning of the phrase, “she went to inquire of the Lord,” that puzzled the medieval commentators.
The second – and this is fundamental to an understanding of Bereishit – is that the future is never as straightforward as we are led to believe. Abraham is promised many children but has to wait years before Isaac is born. The patriarchs are promised a land but do not acquire it in their lifetimes. The Jewish journey, though it has a destination, is long and has many digressions and setbacks. Will Jacob serve or be served? We do not know. Only after a long, enigmatic struggle alone at night does Jacob receive the name Israel – meaning: “he who struggles with G-d and with men and prevails.”
The most important message of this text is both literary and theological. The future affects our understanding of the past. We are part of a story whose last chapter has not yet been written. That rests with us, as it rested with Jacob.