Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Esau and Jacob Revisited: Demon versus Tzadik?

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Esau and Jacob Revisited: Demon versus Tzadik?

Article excerpt

The treatment of the Esau-Jacob story in many of the early midrashim is an example of rabbinic interpretation independent of p'shat, the close literal reading of the biblical narrative. This approach is deliberate. By transforming p'shat into drash, the liberal open-ended method of homiletics, the rabbinic darshan believed he was articulating an alternative legitimate point, no less valid than that which is derived from the exact literal p'shat reading.

As we shall see, this trend did not go unchallenged in rabbinic exegesis. The Esau-Jacob drash dichotomy, where the former is transformed into the villain and the latter into the tzadik unleashes a counter-school of midrash which sets the record straight by asserting Divine fairness and justness by means of midah k'neged midah [measure for measure].

We begin with the tendency in early rabbinic literature to excuse negative behavior of biblical personalities. This left its mark on subsequent biblical commentaries of the Middle Ages. Such defending would appear even when the close reading of the scriptural text points in opposite directions. Typical is the statement of R. Shmuel bar Nahman who, commenting on ... and Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine; and Israel [Jacob] found out (Gen. 35:22), stated "Anyone who claims that Reuben sinned is mistaken." Similar exculpations are presented on behalf of the sons of Eli (I Sam. 2:12), the sons of Samuel (I Sam. 8:3), King David (II Sam. 11:2-27; 12:1-25), and King Solomon (I Kgs. 10:26-29; 11:1-11) among others: "Anyone who claims that [so and so] has sinned is mistaken." (1) Commenting on the chapters which narrate the sibling rivalry of the twin sons of Rebekah and Isaac (Gen. 25:19-34, 27), rabbinic literature adorns Jacob in garments of righteousness and virtue, the tzadik. Esau is portrayed as wicked [rasha].

Expounding upon the verses: When Esau heard his father's words, he burst into fierce and bitter sobbing and said to his father: 'Bless me too, father!' Isaac answered: 'Your brother [Jacob] came with mirmah and took away your blessing (27:34-35). (2) R. Yohanan, (3) for example, taught: "He [Jacob] came with the wisdom of his Torah"--that is to say, "mirmah" not in its literal meaning of "deceit" or "fraud," but in the sense of ingenuity and acumen gained in the study of Torah. (4) Since he lawfully acquired the birthright, according to this opinion, the blessing rightfully belonged to him. R. Yohanan applies this lesson for Jews throughout time. The deeds of our predecessors guide future generations. R. Yohanan, concerned with Jewish continuity under hostile conditions, urges his people to resist the evil designs of the hands of Esau by means of the voice of Jacob (27:22).

Obvious questions now come to the surface. If, indeed, Jacob acquired the birthright legitimately and lawfully, why was there need to stage the disguise and bring a tasty dish of venison to support the deception of his blind father: 'I am Esau your first-born. I have done as you told me' (27:19)? But it was Jacob, not Esau, who is speaking! It was to Esau that his father made the request, not to Jacob. And was it not Rebekah who had prepared the dish for Isaac and instituted the deception? The ethical Gordian knot tightens.

Another question: Was birthright so critical in Israel's antiquity that it justified a fraud that led to hazardous sibling hatred? That is to ask: Is the person at the dawn of biblical monotheistic ethics judged by the order of his birth rather than by his deeds? Abraham was a firstborn (11:27), but he is chosen for the qualities of his character: 'For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right' (18:19). Generations later, the blessing of kingship was given to Judah, not to Reuben the firstborn (49:10). Moses, though "senior of the prophets among all who preceded him and those who followed him," (5) was not a firstborn. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.