A tale of hatred... and reconciliation?

The infamous tale of Jacob and Esau provides more insight than previously thought.

Jacob and Esau 521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Jacob and Esau 521
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
“And Esau despised Jacob for the blessing with which his father had blessed him” (Gen. 27:41).
Jacob bests his firstborn twin brother, Esau, twice.
First, he offers his ravenous twin his lentil soup on condition that Esau pays his “birthright” in return. Whatever the right of the firstborn might mean to us today, or whatever it might have meant to a young man in the ancient Near East, for Esau, the promises for the future were clearly worth less than the immediate pleasure and satisfaction of that soup. And so, he sells his birthright.
However, years later, when their father, Isaac, is old and blind, the birthright comes back into play as Jacob uses his purchase to gain more than simply a right. This time, he acquires his father’s blessing as well. Goaded by his mother Rebecca, who loves Jacob more than Esau (Gen. 25:28), the smooth-skinned Jacob dresses in skins so as to appear to be his hairier brother. A confused Isaac utters the immortal words, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Gen. 27:22). Yet, despite his seeming reservations, Isaac blesses Jacob with the riches of land and power, while the late-returning Esau is left with only a promise of servitude to his brother.
We are left with the understanding that from this point on, the blessings of the chosen son will go to Jacob and to his sons. And we may be impressed at Jacob’s (and Rebecca’s) resourcefulness and his ability to take care of himself. But we are also left with a feeling for the pain and frustration of the rejected Esau, who is certainly a model of respect for his father and has done nothing worse than to think once with his stomach.
And yet, not only is Esau rejected by his father, he and his descendants are rejected by their God and people. Generations later, the prophet Malakhi will insist that God eternally condemns Esau: “But Esau, I hated” (Mal. 1:3). Following the identification in Genesis of Esau as Edom for his red hair/ruddy complexion (Gen. 25:25), the Edomites, enemies of Israel in the time of the prophet, are identified as Esau, in contrast to Jacob, who is loved by God (Mal. 1:2). The stories of conflict between the nations of Edom, Judah and Israel are read back onto the Esau/Jacob stories. Jacob’s acts of trickery were justified, the prophet implies, since Esau’s people were destined to be enemies of Israel.
Jewish tradition continues to identify Esau with the enemies of Israel.
To the rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash, Esau/Edom represented Rome, especially Christian Rome. The famous Rabbi Shimon Bar- Yohai is quoted as saying, “It is a well-known rule that Esau hates Jacob” (Sifre to Numbers 69), and the combination of these associations leads to the presumption that Christians will always hate Jews.
Indeed, the history of Christian anti-Semitism is well documented and anti-Semitism has not disappeared even in our own age of unprecedented Jewish opportunities and successes. And so, those Jews who are constantly looking out for confirmation of Bar-Yohai’s claim of eternal enmity between the brothers will find that confirmation, in all times in all places.
However, determined as they are to see the eternal problems, they often miss the signs that some things have changed. Since the monumental acknowledgment by the Catholic Church in 1965, in the Nostra Aetate declaration promulgated by Pope Paul VI, that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God… [the Church] decries hatred, persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,” many other Christian communities have made their own statements admitting that anti- Semitism was an unfortunate part of their history and committing themselves to respect for Jews today.
The Torah portion ends ominously, as Jacob flees from Esau’s threat to kill him. The text presents an angry Esau who hopes to destroy Jacob, and this is the model that is later read into the nations of Edom and Rome, and all of the Christian people.
The story, however, unlike the story of Cain and Abel, does not end in fratricide. Instead, Jacob and Esau make amends years later when Jacob returns to Canaan (Gen. 33), and they even join together to bury Isaac (Gen. 35:29).
Throughout the book of Genesis, Esau is presented as a complex figure. He has shown respect for his father and has good reason to resent Jacob. Indeed, Jacob is portrayed as a “trickster” who gets his own comeuppance when he is later tricked by Laban (Gen. 29:26). Esau’s jealousy and anger had the potential to lead to tragedy, to be sure. While that tragedy is averted in the lifetimes of Esau and Jacob, Israel did suffer at the hands of the Edomites and later at the hands of Christians.
But this is not the end of our story, either. Just as Jacob and Esau embraced and forgave one another, let us recognize and continue the work towards reconciliation, rather than enmity, between the Jewish and Christian communities in our own day.
The writer is a post-doctoral fellow at the Deichmann Program for Jewish and Christian Literature of the Hellenistic-Roman Era at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.