The Book of Genesis has two great themes that run throughout. The first is the usurpation of primogeniture, or the second-born son stealing the birthright of the first-born son. The second is a man, fearing for his life in a strange land, pretending that his wife is his sister, and the consequences of that deception. In this week's Torah portion, we see both themes played out.
Cain is the first-born son of Adam, but Abel gets God's blessing. After Abel's murder, Seth is given Adam's blessings usually received by the first-born son. Ishmael is the first-born son of Abraham, but Isaac receives Abraham's inheritance and his blessings. The Talmudic rabbis interpreted Ishmael to be the progenitor of the Arab people, and the Koran agrees with this interpretation. By being born of Hagar, Sarah's servant, he loses the privileges of being first-born when Sarah demands that Abraham expel Hagar and baby Ishmael from Abraham's household, sent into the wilderness to their probable deaths. God saves Hagar, and promises her that he will create a mighty kingdom from the descendants of Ishmael. Meanwhile, Isaac, after a certain awkward moment on Mount Moriah, becomes the inheritor of Abraham's wealth, land and servants. When Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael cooperate in burying their father. Ishmael transcends his rejection by the household, and honors his father, and his brother in this process. Abraham had imperiled the lives of both brothers, and yet they both work together to honor their father's last wishes.
In this week's Torah portion, Isaac and Rebecca have children after twenty years of struggling with infertility (just as Abraham and Sarah struggled with infertility). Rebecca has twins, who fight each other in her womb. God tells Rebecca: "And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger." [Genesis 25:23].
The first son was born hairy, with red hair all over his body. The parents name him Esau. The second son is born holding onto Esau's heel with his hand, and is named Jacob ("he will heel" in Hebrew). Esau becomes a mighty hunter and traveller, and Jacob is scholarly and never roams far from his home. Isaac favors Esau, and Rebecca favors Jacob.
An important note should be stated here that colors all that follows. Jacob is later renamed "Israel", and will be the progenitor of the Jewish people. Esau, in the Rabbinic tradition, becomes the progenitor of the people of Edom ("red" in Hebrew), and is later considered to be the father of the Romans by the rabbis of the Talmud. To the rabbis of the Talmud, Rome is the source of everything that is wrong with the world. The antipathy towards the Romans and towards Roman oppression is consistent throughout the Talmud. For mediaeval rabbis, Rome was the Catholic Church, which was ungentle to European Jews. The Talmud was heavily censored in Catholic countries, and the rabbis could complain about being oppressed if they used code words, and Esau became a code word for Ashkenazi Jews for oppression by the Christians in Europe (including the Russian Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe, which often perpetuated blood libels and pogroms in the areas they controlled). Therefore, the rabbinic treatment of Esau is harsh; it seems insanely harsh today taken out of historical context. What we see in the rabbinic commentary is not so much that they are villainizing Esau as the actual brother of Jacob, but rather a catchphrase for all oppression the Jews have subsequently suffered in history.
Secondly, Jacob gets his fortune, his favor and his authority through guile, deceit and extortion. If Jacob is Israel, that makes the father of the Jews look really bad. His place in his family (and therefore in the world) comes through extorting his brother and deceiving his father. The rabbis often defend Jacob by attacking Esau.
So when Esau comes in from the field famished, and begs Jacob for a bite of the red stew (literally, "red stuff") that he is simmering, Jacob demands Esau's birthright as the price for food. The Torah depicts Esau as on the verge of death from hunger. Jacob insists that Esau swear an oath to grant Jacob his birthright before he is willing to feed Esau. Esau gives up his primogeniture, and only then, Jacob feeds him lentil stew and bread.
Previously in the Torah, Abraham twice ventured into foreign lands due to famine in his land, and each time, he insisted that Sarah pretend to be his sister rather than his wife. He explains that if the people knew that the beautiful Sarah is his wife, they would kill him in order to have Sarah for themselves. To modern sensibilities, this seems very cowardly, especially since in each instance, Abraham prospers because of the deceit. Both times, the king or Pharaoh tries to marry Sarah, and gets visited upon by plagues and disasters as Divine retribution for adultery. In each case, the monarch figures out that Sarah is Abraham's wife rather than sister, and angrily expels them both (but not before they amass great riches).
Continuing this trend, Isaac and Rebecca experience famine, and go to Abimelech (Hebrew for "father-king"), king of the Philistines, for relief. Again, Isaac imitates his father, and to protect himself from the Philistines' attraction to the beautiful Rebecca, pretends that she is his sister rather than his wife. This time, Abimelech catches the two of them in flagrente delicto. He is furious. He is outraged that through Isaac's deceit, his own people might have been subject to Divine retribution for adultery. This time, the deceit is detected before any plagues or disasters happen. Abimelech protects them from harm, and their household grows very prosperous. This prosperity provokes jealousy among their Philistine neighbors, and there is an ongoing conflict over the wells that were dug by Abraham a generation ago, and plugged up by the Philistines after Abraham's death. Isaac digs two new wells that his neighbors squabble with him over, and then a third that goes uncontested.
The symbolism of the wells is fascinating. There is a contemporary book called Our Fathers' Wells about the symbolism of the wells you inherit from your father and of the ones you dig yourself.
Isaac moves to Beersheba, and is visited by the Lord in the night. The Lord introduces Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac's father, and tells him not to fear, that He will bless Isaac and provide him with many descendants for his father's sake. Isaac builds an altar and digs a well on the spot.
Esau marries two Hittite women whom Isaac and Rebecca dislike. The Torah notes that these two wives were a source of spiritual bitterness (מֹרַת רוּחַ) to them, giving rise to endless "Jewish boy who marries gentile women" jokes.
The Torah portion ends with another usurpation of primogeniture. The now blind Jacob is on his death-bed, and asks Esau to go out into the field and hunt game for him, to feed him a final meal, so that Jacob can give Esau his dying blessing. Rebecca, overhearing this, gets Jacob to fetch her two goat kids from the flock for her to prepare. She cooks a goat stew for Jacob, and has him dress in Esau's clothing while Esau is in the field, and she covers Jacob's hands and neck with the goat skins so that he feels hairy to the touch, as Esau is hairy.
Jacob brings the meal to Isaac, pretending to be Esau. Isaac asks him, "who art thou, my son?" Jacob replies, "I am Esau thy first born; I have done according as thou badest me: arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me."
Doubting him, he asks Jacob to come closer. Touching his son, he determines that the voice is Jacob's but the hands are Esau's. Isaac asks again: "Art thou my very son Esau?" and Jacob replies, "I am."
With this assurance, Isaac eats the food and then blesses Jacob: "God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine: Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee." [Genesis 27: 28-9].
Following this, Esau returns from the field and brings his prepared game, cooked as his father liked it, to Isaac. Isaac demands to know who is addressing him, and when he finds out that it is Esau, he has a fit of violent trembling. He tells Esau that he has put all his spiritual focus into the blessing that he has just given, and has no power to make a second blessing. "And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father." [Genesis 27: 34].
But Isaac cannot. Sadly, he tells his weeping son, "Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; And by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.". [Genesis 27: 39-40].
I find tears welling up in my eyes as I write this. I feel tremendous pity for Esau. But the rabbinic commentaries do not. The kind ones mention that God's prophecy from Genesis 25:23 once spoken is here made manifest. The others feel that Esau deserves his fate and worse. I'm very uncomfortable with the scorn heaped upon Esau (and there will be more next week) in the commentaries. My rabbi likes to gently remind us that the Torah is more than a literary work, and more is going on than just the narrative. If Esau = Edom = Rome = The Inquisition, then it is justified that Esau is defeated here, and that, even if not, the prophecy stands.
The Patriarchs of Genesis are not saints. They lie, they cheat, they extort and they deceive. They have petty squabbles. The great astonishing fact of Genesis is not that holy men met and were blessed by God. It is that human men met and were blessed by God, with all their flaws intact. A morning prayer says that it is because of God's Divine goodness that we are blessed, and not by our deeds, actions, thoughts and intentions. In a sense, the abuse visited upon Isaac from Abraham at his binding carries over into another generation, and God is present at the worst as well as at the best of times in their lives.
The Torah portion ends with Esau determined to kill Jacob (once Isaac dies) for stealing his blessing. Jacob flees for his life, and at the advice of both of his parents, joins his mother's family to live with his uncle Laban (and hopefully find a wife from that family). Jacob gives him a further blessing for the journey (or is it the same blessing reiterated?): "And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people; And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham." [Genesis 28: 3-4].
Esau, seeing how upset his parents are with his exogamy, marries one of Ishmael's daughters.
Next week: Jacob's ladder.
New Torah commentary at My Jewish Learning
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