Jacob and Esau - The full story
Some very early background about the conflict in the Middle East.
It is said about Jacob, the third in the line of Patriarchs after Abraham and Isaac, that he was an innocent man, that he couldn't contemplate evil, let alone administer it. And yet we know that he obtained his first-born right by controversial methods, that his father disliked him, that he was mistrusted by his uncle and that his marital relationships were very complex. What is the truth about this man, who was later renamed Israel, the man who was to become a Father of the nation?
ֽThe first controversial event in his life was his birth. His mother, Rebecca, had waited for over forty years before she finally conceived to Isaac. When her water broke, nine months later, she sensed that something was not right. A struggle seemed to be taking place inside her womb, after which a red haired head appeared in between her legs, immediately followed by another who was holding the first one's ankle with his hand, as if pulling himself out. This was Jacob. In Hebrew, Jacob is Ya'akob which is derived from the noun ankle (akev) which in turn creates the verb to follow (la'akov). This event was perhaps the most significant one in the lives of the two brothers. It mapped their lives for them, condemning them to become personal enemies later in life and for their descendants to engage in a war which is still raging today, more than 3,000 years later!
As the boys were growing up, they were developing distinct characteristics. Jacob is said to be a quiet man, spending his days in the tent with his mother, cooking and doing the domestic chores around the house, while Esau is a wild one, out all day, engaging in more "manly" activities such as hunting. He is the one who is responsible for bringing the food back home, where Jacob cooks it for the family. Their parents, Isaac and Rebecca, are getting old and although far from being incapable, they are enjoying their sons' help. Jacob is Rebecca's favorite. He is helping her around the house, he listens to her, his heart is good and full of wisdom. Esau is Isaac's favorite. he is a real man. He is big and strong, his body is covered with red hair, he is the best hunter around, and he makes Isaac laugh. Isaac finds Jacob a little bit too effeminate. Many a time he reproached Rebecca for making a sissy out of him. He would prefer his son to be more of a man, like Esau, and be worthy of the future titles that he will inherent.
Rebecca thinks that Esau is too unruly. He argues too much, he is quarrelsome and many times she had to rescue whimpering Jacob from his clutches. She is afraid of Esau. He is too wild, there is something dangerous about the way he carries himself. And she certainly does not like the way the maid is looking at him. She knows deep in her heart that this boy, who is now in his teens, will be trouble. And she remembers God's words. Theirs is not an ordinary family. They have been chosen. She knows that her off springs are destined for more than just this life. She remembers the words. She remembers that the first born will become the next link in the chain of chosen people after Abraham and his son Isaac. She knows that whoever succeeds Isaac as the head of the family carries a monumental role in history. With a sigh, she also remembers that it was Esau who emerged first into the world. That cannot be denied. But she also remembers that Jacob was close by behind him, holding on to him. And she remembers the long hours of labor when she was feeling as if the two were tearing her apart from inside. Were they fighting? Were they fighting over who was going to come out first? Could they possibly have known already the significance of who emerges first? Silently she curses that arbitrary rule. Why should the future of the nation be dependent upon a mere chance?
And so, with the tips about cooking and other domestic affairs, Jacob is also taking in his mother's resentment. He is a bit bewildered by all that talk of being the future patriarch. If being a patriarch is anything like what his father is, then he is not quite sure he wants that. He much rather stay at home with his mother. He even tried to talk to Esau about it, much earlier, when they were still boys. Esau couldn't understand what the fuss was all about either and confessed that Isaac has been on to him about the future of the nation etc. recently too. They thought at the time that maybe things will get clearer later and just went on playing.
Time moved fast and the boys were moving apart. It was getting more and more difficult for them to communicate about anything of any importance. In fact, they were hardly speaking to each other. Nor were Rebecca and Isaac on speaking terms any more. And each of the brothers was effectively, if not officially, cast as the support team for one the parents. Sometimes the long summer evenings were truly intolerable. It was worse for Jacob who preferred to stay at home after the evening meal. He had to bear the long deep silences between Rebecca and Isaac while Esau was out somewhere chasing girls. Jacob was beginning to nourish a little resentment towards him. He couldn't help thinking about what his mother had told him: whoever has the first born right will have all the power. Could he possibly let the reckless Esau, the womanizer Esau, the wild man Esau, carry that title?
At this point, the biblical story teller relates a curios little tale about a certain lentil stew. Esau is reputed to come home from the hunt one day, his tummy rumbling but instead of just serving him with a bowl of that "red red stuff" Jacob teases him and tells him that he would only get some food if he let him, Jacob, have the first-born right. Now, this has been repeating itself over the last few weeks, the same thing every evening. And every evening Jacob is more insistent, less easy to persuade to drop all that nonsense about birth right and just hand over the food. But that night is special, Esau is really hungry and Jacob is really stubborn and Rebecca is there in the background, and Isaac isn't, so that he can't tell Jacob off for profaning sacred issues like birth right with lentil stews. According to the story, Esau relents that night, tells Jacob he can have the birth right, eats the delicious stew and leaves the tent for his nightly merry making with the girls. In his heart he reckons that words are not important here but deeds, and the birth right is his, regardless of what anyone says, and even if he did want to give it up, he couldn't. So if Jacob wants to play a game, why not? After all, it goes well with Jacob's effeminate nature to be teasing him like a girl. And he forgets all about it.
But Rebecca doesn't. Unlike Esau, she know that Isaac is not very well. She sees the blood stains that he leaves on his handkerchief. She knows that he hasn't got much longer. She also knows that in order for either Jacob or Esau to merit the birthright, one of them has to be blessed by Isaac. She knows that the lentil stew episode is merely funny, nothing else. In fact, if she was the editor of the family's chronicles, she would either cut that story out altogether or foot note it. Compared to what followed, it is merely anecdotal.
The story about the lentil stew is cute, in the most American-accented sense of the word. Reading it, it is difficult not to smile, however slightly, to oneself and think that if Esau is so stupid and base as to sell his birth right for a mere meal, then he deserves what's coming to him. And this is precisely the reason for the lentil stew story. What Jacob, with Rebecca's direction, does later is a serious matter. He cons Isaac into believing that he is Esau and so obtains the blessings which Isaac reserved for Esau. By deceitful means he provides for himself a place in the history book and become the Third Patriarch, am man to be revered and admired. But the means by which he obtains this position are far from admirable. They are indeed the means by which most politicians obtain their positions of power. And if so, then Jacob is no more than the first politician in the history of his people, doing all he can to get what he as all politician want, P.O.W.E.R
What are the implications for Jewish believers if the story of Jacob is thus interpreted? How are we to relate to one of the Patriarchs if we know that in fact he got where he got by deceiving both his father and his brother? The answer depends upon our attitude. If we expect Jacob to have been a pious man, as the text attempts to make him, then we will be deeply shocked and certainly will not accept this interpretation. If, on the other hand, we believe that even "holy" figures are merely flesh and blood, then the story of Jacob, interpreted thus, is refreshing. It is good to know that the big Patriarch was not above our human weaknesses. The question is whether we want the truth or whether we want heroes. It is impossible to maintain Jacob as a hero, as the future stories about him try to establish, and at the same time accept his human fallibility in his quest for political power.
Another serious implication is revealed here if we consider the role of Rebecca in the downfall of Esau. She is portrayed as the one who is doing all the subversive work behind the scene. She is the one who poisons Jacob's innocent soul and pushes him to plot against his brother and to cheat his blind father. In fact, she is seen to be using Jacob as a pawn for her own reason which is never made explicit in the text. It is a misogynist implication, one which implies that it is a woman who drives a man, a holy man, to commit acts which are beneath him. She is the evil one. The echoes back to the story of Adam and Eve are not difficult to pick up. It is as if the writer of the myth realized that Jacob's reputation is at risk here and need to be protected. A pure and innocent man could have not committed the acts that Jacob did. The problem is that such a pure and innocent man could not have existed. He is part of the Patriarchal myth. And the devious woman who corrupts that innocence is part of the same patriarchal myth. The writer of this story has done well. He has split off the less savory aspects of Jacob and attached them to Rebecca. But Rebecca herself needs to remain a "good" figure. Her name cannot be connected to all those unsavory actions. A scapegoat needs to be found. Someone who can become the Shadow for all those people who are not allowed to own up their less pleasant qualities.
I don't think Esau really ever stood a chance. He was the perfect candidate. Already we know of him that he is wild, that he spends his time hunting, he is earthy, no doubt he is pagan. No doubt they all were at that point, but the historian now attempts to cover up that fact and leave Esau with the marks of the pagan savage. This image will come in handy in later years when the Israelites, the descendants of Jacob, wage wars against the descendants of Esau. By turning him into the amalgamation of all which nobody else wanted to be, the historian absolved Jacob from taking responsibility for his actions and still maintain Rebecca's relative good reputation.
What can we learn from all this? Jacob is perhaps not such an admirable and altruistic figure as we are later encouraged to believe (see later stories of how Jacob was cheated by Rebecca's brother, Lavan) but he is certainly a more believable and credible figure if we acknowledge openly his attempts to gain control over his family. Rebecca is guilty of favoring one son over another for reasons that remain speculative. Isaac is a gullible old man who is more fond of his food than his sharpness of perception. And Esau becomes the nomad of the future, exiled from his family by their lack of love and condemned to life of battles, an estranged and bitter man, a man who has no real love, despite the many women he marries. He is the wounded hero, the wounded Wild Man, whose values are simple and earthy and who gets out maneuvered by the city-slickness shrewdness of his mother and brother. He becomes their Shadow, warlike and angry. By rejecting Esau from amongst their midst, Rebecca and Jacob reject the aspects of themselves which they dare not own up to. Or their historian does not believe they should own up to. By rejecting those aspects and piling them onto Esau, their historian creates for them a powerful enemy. Esau becomes the enemy of Civilization, the dark force of the earth, the threatening power of passion. He is the peasant who has been thrown off his land and who returns at night with a knife in his hand to seek revenge, and when he is caught (he is always caught because the passion and the pain of his motives make him a lousy fighter and he makes too much noise), he is accused of being a terrorist and of endangering the peacefulness of his a peace-loving nation.
The historian who wrote these stories was aware of later developments. He knew that Esau begot the tribes that later occupied Canaan and who fought the Israelites when the latter returned from their exile in Egypt, the exile which began with Jacob's sons. By polarizing Jacob and Esau thus, the historian was performing a very basic propagandistic task. He was dehumanizing the enemy in order to justify a war against him and his descendants.
It is a sad story, a story of corruption, of lost innocence, of two brothers who lose one another through the manipulation of their parents and in the name of nationalism which become more important than their own lives.
Esau becomes the Shadow, the powerful enemy so as to allow Jacob to remain innocent and to provide a justification for the later wars that will ensue between the descendants of the two brothers. This is the tragedy of the family. By rejecting one aspect of themselves, the enemy is created and a war is started, a war which is still raging in the region. What face would history have if it was possible for Jacob and Rebecca to take full responsibility for their actions, for their striving for power, for their Shadow, rather than project it into Esau, rejecting him and beginning the long battle. But Esau remained the powerful dark deed in the mind which refuses to accept itself and therefore turns against itself, causing ultimate self-destruction. He is the injured Shadow who, unless we make peace with and accept as ourselves, will destroy us.
The idea for this article was inspired by a sermon given by Professor Mike Billig on the subject of Jacob and Esau at the Nottingham Progressive Synagogue on 9th November 1991.