Who is the real Esau?


The following post is quite different than my usual posts, as it is a slightly modified section of a paper that I have been working on.  I have attempted to go through the Esau narrative in the Torah and point out many of the unanswered questions that appear throughout the story.  For anyone interested in biblical narratives, this reading presents many interesting and new ways to read the Esau narrative.

Hope you enjoy!

       The biblical portrayal of Esau is multi-layered and ambiguous.  On the one hand, Esau is initially introduced as struggling against Jacob in Rebecca’s womb (Genesis 25:22), seemingly foreshadowing the inevitable clash between nations that can symbolized by the rivalry between Jacob and Esau.  On the other hand, the Bible portrays Esau as a respectful and reasonable young man who, at times, causes the reader to feel his sorrow.  When stripped of all later commentary, the Esau that emerges from the Bible is multifaceted and elusive.  Throughout the narrative there are almost two completely different ways that one can interpret the text.  Was he a man doomed from birth to serve as a literary foil for Jacob, or was he free to create his own destiny?  Was Esau so focused on instant gratification that he was willing to trade his birthright for soup, or was he a man on the verge of death, who was taken advantage of and inveigled by his brother?  Ultimately, the way that one will come to view the biblical character of Esau, will heavily depend on their approach and reading of this ambiguous narrative.    

       The story of Jacob and Esau begins in the womb when they are depicted as struggling against one another (Genesis 25:22).  Their anguished mother, Rebecca, goes to seek out the Lord to ask why this is happening to her.  The Lord responds with the enigmatic statement: “There are two nations in your womb, and two regimes from your insides will be separated, and the might will pass from regime to regime, and the elder will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).  What is Rebecca to make of this answer?  For the rest of her life she appears as a staunch advocate for Jacob, who is even willing to have her husband tricked to help him (Genesis 27:5). One way to read the narrative is that Rebecca was justified in her actions, for she was just following her received prophecy.  According to this reading, the narrative of Jacob and Esau fits the recurring motif throughout Genesis of primogeniture and God’s favoring of the younger son.  However, there is an equally valid, yet completely contradictory way to read the words of the oracle.  Due to the non-standard verb-noun-subject placement in biblical grammar, the line “and the elder will serve the younger” can be read as “The elder, the younger will serve” (Genesis 25:23).   Richard Friedman suggests that Rebecca may have heard this cryptic line and used it as a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In this light, Rebecca’s preference for Jacob came first and only then did she interpret the prophecy as referring to him.  This reading also helps answer the question of how Isaac preferred Esau to Jacob (Genesis 25:28) and even wanted to bestow the ultimate blessing upon him (Genesis 27:1).  If God had already made his preference of Jacob known to Rebecca, would we assume that she would never mention this once to her husband and rather trick him instead?  Even before Esau is born the biblical portrayals of him are fundamentally equivocal and able to be interpreted in a variety of manners.

       When the adult character of Esau is first introduced he is described as a “man who knew hunting, a man of the field” (Genesis 25:27). Before one is able to draw too negative a conclusion based on Esau’s profession, the Bible quickly tells us that he was loved by his father Isaac for he “put game meat in his mouth” (Genesis 25:28).  Again this is a description begging for elucidation.  Does this mean that Isaac was shallow enough to pick a favorite son because he was fond of the meat that Esau captured?  Or does this verse represent the fact that Esau was careful to honor his father and make him happy, and capturing meat is just one example?  Once again the depiction of Esau largely depends on the way that these elusive verses are read.

       In his first interaction with Jacob, Esau is depicted as coming home from a day of hunting and he is famished (Genesis 25:29).  Jacob, who is fortuitously cooking a stew at that moment, takes the opportunity to “purchase” the birthright from Esau (Genesis 25:31).  Esau’s response: “Here I’m going to die, and what use is this, that I have a birthright?” (Genesis 25:32), is somewhat ambiguous.  On the one hand, this statement may be hyperbolic, attesting to the fact that Esau was unable to think in long terms, and cared more about immediate physical desires than long term spiritual endeavors.  However, if this verse is read literally and Esau was actually starving and on the verge of death, then the criticism should fall on Jacob.  Immediately after this interaction the Bible writes that “Esau disdained the birthright” (Genesis 25:33), yet the story is still unclear.  Did Esau disdain the birthright as a result of being forced to trade it for his life?  Or was the fact that Esau was willing to trade the birthright, an indication of how he disdained it?   Again, the cloudy cause and effect relationship throughout Esau’s narrative allows him to be viewed from a multiplicity of perspectives, each one based off of a simple reading of the biblical text.

        The climax of the birthright story begins when a frail Isaac is finally ready to give his blessing to Esau.  It is very telling that Esau responds to Isaac’s summoning with the single word “hineni”, here I am (Genesis 27:1), a word that recalls Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son just a few chapters earlier.  As Esau heads out to the field, his brother Jacob appears and tricks Isaac into thinking that he is Esau, thereby usurping the blessing for himself.  At this point a very important matter demands elucidation.  Is the Bible’s assumption that the birthright is separate from this blessing?  On the one hand this would explain the fact that Jacob did not simply inform his father about the deal.  Furthermore, Esau’s response to Jacob, “He has usurped me two times now, he has taken my birthright, and here, he has taken my blessing” (Genesis 27:36), really only makes sense if the birthright and blessing are disparate entities.  However, as biblical scholars are quick to point out, the consonants of the root word “bless” (brh) are the exact same as those that make up “birthright” (bhr), pointing to a connection that is difficult to dismiss.  Furthermore, if they are separate entities then it is strange that the “birthright” is never discussed again after its initial purchase.  Regardless of whether or not Jacob did actually purchase the rights to the blessing, Esau seems genuinely crushed (Genesis 27:34) and Isaac was genuinely tricked (Genesis 27:33).  Esau’s sadness soon turns into violent anger and a desire to kill his brother, although he will respect his father by waiting until long after his death (Genesis 27:41).  This forces Jacob to flee home (Genesis 27:43), thus concluding this part of the Esau narrative.

        At the same time as the aforementioned drama unfolds, another crucial drama within Esau’s life is taking place.  The seemingly unimportant details of Esau’s wives end up revealing Esau in a new light.  The Bible writes that Esau took two Hittite wives: Judith bat Beeri and Basemouth bat Elon (Genesis 26:34).  We are then immediately told that these wives were a “bitterness of spirit to Isaac and Rebekah” (Genesis 26:35).  The Esau who was so careful to fulfill his father’s desires now suddenly takes wives who cause his father disappointment.  Later on in the narrative, Rebekah even complains that she is “disgusted with my life because of these daughters of Heth” (Genesis 27:46).  However, when Esau notices that his father commands his younger brother to take a wife from inside the family instead of from Canaan (Genesis 28:6), he immediately follows suit.  The reason given for Esau’s decision is explicit.  “And Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan were bad in his father Isaac’s eyes.” (Genesis 28:8) Esau then takes Mahalath bat Ishmael as an additional wife, presumably with the intent of making his father happy.  The only problem is that he still kept his other two wives, which were the cause of suffering for Isaac.  Did Esau feel that taking an additional wife would be able to pacify his father?  Or was he simply unable to depart from his Hittite wives?  The answer to this question would hinge on the reason for Isaac and Rebecca’s bitterness toward his Hittite wives.  If they were upset that he, or his children, would be negatively influenced by the Hittites then taking an additional wife would not alleviate the situation.  Yet if they just wanted to make sure that their legacy and namesake would be passed down through Esau within in the pure Abrahamic bloodline, then marrying Mahalath would be a commitment to having a full Abrahamic child.  Whichever way one chooses to read this story, it is evident from this narrative that Esau was extremely cautious to make his father happy and respect his wishes.

       The climax of the Esau narrative is during his reunion with Jacob.  After many years of avoiding his angry brother, a scared Jacob finally meets with Esau in the land of Seir (Genesis 32:4).  Although Jacob prepares for the worst, he is greeted by a friendly and peaceful Esau who clearly misses his brother: “And Esau ran to him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him.  And they wept” (Genesis 33:4).  In this moment of pure joy the brothers seemingly leave behind any negative feelings that they once harbored towards each other.  Esau tries to turn down the monetary gifts that Jacob sent ahead to him (Genesis 33:9), but Jacob is unrelenting.  Moreover, Jacob even compliments Esau by saying “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis  33:10).  It is difficult to avoid the connection between this enigmatic verse with one in the previous chapter, when Jacob finishes his all-night wrestle with the angel: “So Jacob called the place Peniel (face of El) saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” (Genesis 32:30).  Was the episode of Jacob’s wrestle connected to Esau in some fundamental way?  Or is Jacob simply bestowing the most honorable of titles upon his brother by referring to him as a divine being?  Again this line allows for a variety of different and even contradictory explanations.  This cryptic comment leads into one of the most important, yet often overlooked, lines in this narrative.  Jacob once again begs Esau to accept his gift (Genesis 32:11), however when one looks at the words of this verse an additional reading is uncovered.  “Take my gift (brh(ti)) that I brought you” (Genesis 32:11).  The word that is generally translated as gift is the same word as “blessing”.  In this final meeting between the brothers, Jacob returns the sought after “blessing” to his brother Esau.  Whether this gesture has practical ramifications (after all the blessings were already bestowed) or is just a symbolic way of apologizing, it appears that all strife between the two has completely dissipated.

       Yet, Esau would be tricked one final time by his brother Jacob.  Esau suggests to Jacob that the two of them travel together to Seir (Genesis 33:12), and even offers some of his servants to help Jacob make the journey (Genesis 33:15).  Jacob, however, tells Esau that since he needs to walk slow due to his children and flock (Genesis 33:13), Esau should travel ahead and they will eventually meet in Seir (Genesis 33:14).  Of course, Jacob never had any plan to travel to Seir, as he goes directly to Sukkot and then Shechem, continuing his own narrative (Genesis 33:17).  Jacob has successfully separated himself and his family from Esau for the last time.  What is the reason for Jacob’s separation?  Jacob may have still feared that Esau would eventually change his mind and wish to exact revenge.  Alternatively, Jacob may have recognized that his mission demanded an individualistic identity and that separating himself from his extended family was an imperative.  Either way, Jacob and Esau do not meet again throughout the rest of the narrative, they have officially separated and will grow into two different nations.

       The last we are told of Esau is in chapter 36 during a long list of Esau’s genealogy.  Esau takes his family and possessions to the land of Seir, which will eventually grow into the nation of Edom (Genesis 36:8).  In this chapter an additional reason from the split with Jacob is revealed, namely that they each had too much property for the land to support (Genesis 36:7).  While this reasoning is somewhat confusing, after all the land of Canaan was massive and all Esau had was a couple hundred men, it is similar to Abraham’s reason to depart from Lot (Genesis 13:5).  It may be that the claim that the land cannot “fit” two groups is meant to be translated as more of a metaphorical idea rather than a literal fact.  Both Abraham and Jacob had their own spiritual journeys to attend to in the land of Canaan, journeys that demanded a large degree of separation from the rest of mankind.  Esau, soon Edom, is now officially a separate entity from his brother Jacob and the sons of Israel.  

       The narrative of Esau leaves its reader with many questions.  Is Esau an unfortunate man who was repeatedly inveigled by his younger brother, or was he a strong hunter and commander who represented a direct threat to the father of Israel?  As we have seen, there is no one way to read the Esau narrative.  The Deuteronomist warns us: “Do not hate an Edomite, for he is your brother” (Deut. 23: 8), while Malachi informs us that God harbors a deep hatred for Esau (Malachi 1:3).  Moreover, both Hosea (Hosea 12:2) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 9:3) heavily rebuke Jacob for his trickery, but fail to comment on Esau’s character.  The ambiguous nature of Esau in the Bible leads to a more nuanced view of Esau in the midrashic literature than is frequently noted.  As we will soon see (this part is for the actual paper, not the blog post), the rabbis did not only view Esau through a typological or symbolic lense representing Rome, Christianity, or even the “other”, rather, throughout midrashic literature, the gracious, caring, and loving biblical character of Esau is still prevalent.

Endnote: The entire narrative of Esau’s wives is nearly unanimously ascribed by biblical scholars to the Priestly source, rather than the Yahwist and Elohist sources that make up the vast majority of the Esau narrative.  This helps explain the fact that the narrative dealing with Esau’s wives does not completely flow within the context of the “main” Esau narrative, along with the contradictory reasons for Jacob leaving his father’s house (Genesis 27:43 and Genesis 28:2).  In the Priestly source the three disconnected episodes of Esau’s wives come one after another.  While the insights of source criticism are an invaluable aid to the study of the Bible, the character of Esau – as understood by readers throughout the vast majority of history – would have composed of a single, divine author.  For this reason I have chosen to avoid discussing source criticism and focus on the full, biblical picture of Esau.

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