Jacob’s sons assumed that their father’s death would prompt Joseph to kill them. This is due to events that occurred more about 40 years earlier and were since forgiven by Joseph.
This is not the first time such fear surfaced. It seems hard to believe that during the Judah-Joseph exchange nearly 20 years earlier, the brothers did not suspect that the person in front of them was Joseph. For one, Simeon was in an Egyptian prison where he was possibly told. At a minimum, Joseph suspects that the brothers suspect.
Joseph doubts the brothers’ assertion that their father is still alive. Hence, he asks them immediately after revealing his identity: “Is my father still alive?”
Why would he think that the brothers might be lying to him about Jacob being alive?
A possible explanation is that just like Esau pledged to only kill Jacob after their father’s death, Joseph might think that the brothers assume that he would not kill them as long as their father is alive.
This is supported by the brother’s reaction. The mere question of Joseph scares them. If they suspected that this is Joseph, then they should not be scared by the confession, but rather by the consequences of the onerous question Joseph just asked – possible indication that Joseph is going to kill them if Jacob is no longer alive.
Extrapolation to Esau’s plans to kill Jacob
So why did Esau not kill Jacob upon Isaac’s death as he planned? One simple reason could be that as Rebecca suspected, his anger subsided. But even if that is the case, it should not detract from Jacob’s fear that Esau would kill him after their father’s death. Indeed, extrapolating back from our parasha, the brothers knew that Joseph’s anger subsided. Ninety years have passed, and they were still assuming that Joseph would kill them after the death of their father.
At the famed encounter of Jacob with Esau upon the former’s return, Isaac was still alive. Hence, Jacob’s fear and extreme precautions seemed at first premature. Like firing anti-aircraft missiles when the attacking jet is still on the runway.
Isaac only dies decades later – after Joseph is sold to Egypt.
Why would Isaac’s death not trigger fear by Jacob that Esau would kill him? Possibly, because by that time, Esau feels he already has the blessing!
Esau has the blessing? Option 1
Joseph was the clear heir to Jacob. Perhaps internalizing the lesson of the succession battle of previous generations, Jacob chooses the heir early, and even prepares a special gown to make it clear. Moreover, as indicative from Joseph’s dreams of Jacob bowing to him, it is even possible that Jacob already “abdicated” to avoid such succession battles later.
Therefore, the presumed death of Joseph (who is childless at that time), can be interpreted by Esau as the end of the blessing lineage of Jacob, and the “return” of the blessing to him. Hence a few years later, when Isaac dies, there is no longer a reason to kill Jacob. E.g. the brothers’ malaise actions saved Jacob twice: from Esau and from famine.
We are also told that Jacob refused to be consoled and instead announced that he “plans to descend to his son’s death.” We are then told “his father cried over him,” which could be read as Isaac crying over Jacob, who just announced his own death. Such a reading can lead Esau to strengthen the conclusion that the blessing goes back to him. In addition, the sons of Jacob, recognizing that Joseph has the blessing, disqualify themselves by marrying a Canaanite (at least Simeon and Judah). This while Esau corrects that disqualifying faux-pas, and stunningly marries an additional wife – a Semite. Why would he do so, had he not thought he is still a contender for the blessing?.
While this read is consistent with the textual description (pshat), there is another alternative that is simpler.
Esau has the blessing? Option 2
Did Jacob forfeit his blessing to Esau at their encounter? It seems so: “Please take my blessing that was brought to you, because God gifted me and I have everything; and he urged him, and he took.”
In addition, Jacob ceremoniously bows to Esau seven times, and refers to him as “my lord” and to himself as “your slave” – the mirror image of the blessing he received from Isaac.
Moreover, Jacob is aware that he obtained his wealth thanks to the blessing. If the blessing belongs to Esau, then so should this wealth. Indeed, Jacob seems to transfer his wealth to Esau.
He sends a massive amount of animals to Esau. Jacob “took of that which he had with him.” This occurs after the division of the camps that initially includes the animals. We are then told Jacob passed the family (now without the animals), and was left alone. The next time we hear of the two camps, it is no longer with the animals (those are en route to Esau). There is a supposed difficulty in the assertion that Jacob gave all his assets to Esau in Jacob’s later reference of the “slow travel” of the children when talking about the risk of flocks and herds dying.
But extrapolating from other stories in Genesis such as Judah’s encounter with Tamar (traveling without the herd), and the brothers’ migration from Shechem to Dothan (possibly due to the herd exhausting the food supply), we can understand that the herd cannot move slowly or they would run out of food. Jacob’s slow pace (due to children), would put the herd in danger. E.g. the herd is with Esau! (Jacob obtains new assets shortly thereafter as bounty).
And so by this reading, at Isaac’s death, Esau feels he has the blessing, and hence there is no need to kill Jacob. But here comes a transformative twist.
Jacob got a superior blessing
Right before Jacob’s supposed forfeiting of his father’s blessing to Esau, he encounters an angel. Jacob issues a startling demand: “I will not release you unless you bless me.” Indeed, the angel proceeds to bless Jacob: A face-to-face Godly blessing now supersedes the “placeholder” human blessing given by Isaac.
The blessing that provided Jacob’s wealth can now be forfeited to Esau. Indeed, we subsequently learn that Esau becomes enormously successful. This while Jacob becomes Israel!
Some 35 centuries or so later, Theodor Herzl engages in a similar struggle that he interpreted as an internal struggle within Israel against the opposition, who are addicted to exile and fail to recognize the transformation of Judaism. He too issues a demand: “I will not release you unless you bless me.”
Like Jacob, Herzl passes on that blessing. He writes a farewell article to the Nation of Israel, titled “Our Hope.” Right before he died, he retitled that article: “Journey’s Blessing.” ■
The writer’s new book, Judaism 3.0 – Judaism’s transformation to Zionism, is now available for pre-order on Amazon. For details and information on launch events, please visit Judaism-Zionsm.com or facebook.com/Judaism3.0