Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Esau’s Brain: Reclaiming the Wicked Son #HomeComing

I teach Genesis every year, and therefore, have discussed Esau and Jacob countless times. It has given me a sense that Jewish traditions misrepresent Esau, condemning him as evil. I then wondered how many others we have likewise wronged. That turned me to a bigger idea.

Barging into Professor Steve Gimbel’s office one spring, I asked, “Do you want to help me reclaim some of Judaism’s wicked sons running in and around Western philosophy in the Hellenic-Christian tradition? Shouldn’t they too be at our Seder table?” Steve gave me that look he gives me when he has no clue what I’m talking about… but wants to see where it is going.

I explained: Esau and Jacob both had opportunities, reflecting the Bible’s sociopolitical commitment to being settled on the land–farming or herding sheep over nomadism and hunting. Tradition reads nomadic hunters as wicked. Esau is no exception. Tradition hates him.

After an unsuccessful hunt, the starving Esau returns home and exchanges his right to the Lord’s blessing for perhaps a life-saving bowl of lentils. He doesn’t steal the lentils. He doesn’t threaten Jacob to get the lentils. Likewise, he doesn’t place conditions on the exchange. At the same time, Esau is wedded to his way of life as a hunter, not understanding that Jacob has more food security and always will. Farming provides more stability in every direction. Yet, Esau remains a hunter, all the while knowing where he will always find lentils and get them when he needs them. Nevertheless, he’s not cut out for farming and seemingly understands this.

But the trading of something so valuable as a birthright for something so mundane as a bowl of lentils seems irrational to the point of heresy. Instead of thinking about it as trading something great for something ordinary, though, why don’t we instead ask “Who would trade away something abstract for something material?” Now, it might be, as we have been taught, a wicked person. But then again, it might also be a thoughtless one, a starving one, or perhaps even a teen with impulse control problems, making decisions without thinking through the consequences. Is it possible that Esau had ADHD?

If this diagnosis, or indeed, any of these alternate interpretations, is correct then the tradition of reading Esau as wicked is wrong. Having ADHD or being unsettled doesn’t make Esau evil. Esau’s rejection of Elohim’s blessing directs tradition, that is, leads us to where we are. How is that wrong? Maybe, as a restless sort, he knew “I’m not qualified for that blessing.” What is the problem with knowing your limitations? What would we be now if Esau, the nomadic hunter, had accepted the blessing? Would we be settled today? Would the land, haeretz, be meaningful? No. Esau did good by us.

This, of course, does not excuse Esau’s later planning to murder Jacob. But we need to understand that in context, too. When Isaac finds out that he has been duped by his wife and son (Jacob) into giving Hashem’s blessing, the most valuable thing he has, to a hungry person for food, Isaac was deeply saddened. Witnessing his father’s pain and perhaps experiencing his loss in realizing how he, too, had been taken, Esau reasonably became furious. In a rage, he decides to murder Jacob.

This, of course, brings immediately to mind Cain’s murdering Abel, a betrayal that forever uproots Cain. But this case is different. Esau does not kill his brother. Rebekah directs Jacob to her brother’s land, Laban, to marry one of his daughters. Jacob flees, but Esau, a hunter, doesn’t chase. Here we see a difference between evil and anger. Anger is hot, but fleeting. Who among us has not done, said, or thought something while angry that we are ashamed of when level-headed? Evil, on the other hand, is cold and vindictive. An evil person would have hunted Jacob down. Esau does not. I wonder if this is because Rebekah spoke to Esau about his limitations. Mothers know their sons. Esau was not wired for Isaac’s holy blessing. He was not one to settle on the land.

Farming is a grounded, more predictable, disciplined, settled lifestyle when compared to that of a biblical nomadic hunter. Jacob was born for settled life, Esau not so much. Everyone else could see this, certainly his mother; maybe Esau did as well. Could be Rebekah showed him that he wasn’t the one for the blessing, and he understood. Don’t we all wish people had this self-awareness when offered such an opportunity?

We have all seen people promoted to positions they shouldn’t have. Just because you are a great salesperson doesn’t mean you will be a great sales manager. Just because you are an excellent professor doesn’t mean you will be an excellent Administrator. Esau refused to suffer the Peter Principle. In exchanging the promotion for Jacob’s lentils, he shows an understanding that he has no business accepting the blessing. He doesn’t impede what needs to happen. Esau plays it straight.

Esau was a hunter. He could have stolen the lentils or conspired against Jacob or his parents. But he didn’t. No violence. No gaslighting. Esau made the right decision. The correct person got the blessing. Where did he pick up his self-awareness? Maybe from his mother. But its origin is not the point. Esau’s self-awareness itself is something that ought to be celebrated. And in doing so, we can take a figure we long held to be wicked and excluded from our table, and reclaim him, welcoming him.

And that is what Steve Gimbel and I have done in dedicating our new book, Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, to Esau. Like I have done in this reinterpretation, we bring six other Jewish scoundrels–academic philosophers whose background is Jewish, but whose work is secular–to our Seder table. We take their philosophy and view it through various Jewish and Judaic lenses. In doing so, we can see their secular work anew as part of the larger Jewish intellectual project. We proudly look upon all these philosophical Esaus and say, “Lentils for everyone!”

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College
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