The earliest midrashic commentaries on the story of Jacob and Esau portray Esau as thoroughly wicked. Since Jacob does not seem to emerge from the deception of his father with much credit, the vilification of Esau seems a little unfair. But, like much of midrash, if we need to consider it in its historic setting if we are to fully understand it.
The Rabbis of the second and third centuries considered themselves responsible for restoring national and religious morale during the calamitous Roman occupation of the Land of Israel. As part of this responsibility they recast one of the most controversial of all biblical stories, to give it a contemporary context and an unequivocal message.
The biblical account of Jacob’s seemingly exorbitant demand for the birthright in exchange for a bowl of soup, and his deception of Isaac to receive his blessing, is problematic. Jacob’s triumph over Esau seems unjust, the Bible does not indicate that Esau was unworthy of inheriting the covenant God made with Abraham and Isaac. Jacob and therefor Judaism, it appears, benefitted from an act of trickery. Esau was the rightful heir, Jacob a usurper.
For that reason alone we can understand why the rabbinic commentators wanted to paint a picture of Esau as evil. Esau’s wickedness is how the Midrash fights it way out of a difficult corner. Jacob’s triumph is necessary because Esau is utterly unworthy.
That is certainly one reason why Esau is vilified in the Midrash. But there is more to it than that.
The biblical story of Jacob and Esau story opens with Rebecca, who is pregnant with twins, feeling them struggle inside her. She consults God who tells her that she will give birth to two nations. One will be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.
The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63,6) explains that the foetal struggle, was display of the twins’ innate tendencies. When their mother passed a temple of idol worship, Esau wanted to enter and so strove to be born. When she passed a house of Torah study it was Jacob who struggled to emerge. Thus the separate characters of the twins are established and sealed even before they enter the world. Esau is destined to be an idol worshipper, Jacob a student of Torah.
The conflict between them begins, according to the Bible, on the day that Jacob stews broth and Esau returns weary from the field. The midrash expands by telling us that Esau was weary for on that day he has committed theft, rape and murder. Jacob was cooking lentils, the food of mourning. They are for his father Isaac who is sitting shiva for his own father, Abraham, who had died that day, five years before his allotted time. His premature death is, according to the Midrash, an act of mercy on God’s part, so that Abraham not be distressed by the evil that his grandson Esau did that day.
The picture is of Esau as a wicked and violent man, idolatrous before birth, who, because ‘he ate and drank and got up and left’ was not even redeemed by social graces. Other midrashim state that he rejected the fundamentals of Judaism and the idea of the resurrection of the dead. It all illustrates Esau’s general unworthiness to inherit God’s covenant with Abraham.
The historical background for all this is based on God’s explanation to Rebecca that she has two nations in her womb. They are Israel and Edom, the alternative biblical names for Jacob and Esau. Edom is portrayed throughout the Bible as an enemy of Israel. The Amalekites, Israel’s supreme enemy throughout much of the Bible period are an Edomite tribe, descended from Esau’s grandson.
The rabbis believed that whole of Israel’s future is foretold in the Scriptures. If the Bible did not explicitly refer to the Roman oppression of Palestine it must certainly allude to it. They looked for a biblical narrative that anticipated the brutality and of the Romans, who had destroyed the Temple, wreaked havoc upon Israel and instituted the Hadrianic persecutions of the early 2nd century.
The rabbis found what they were looking for in the enmity between Jacob and Esau, evolving as it had into implacable biblical hatred between their descendants. It was, after all, Esau’s vow to kill Jacob that caused him to flee to Paden Aram, the first of many exiles that Israel would suffer. More than that, they found that one of Esau’s descendants was named Iyrom (Gen 36,43), a name that sounds similar to Rome and allowed to associate Esau with their oppressors. Rome, they declared, was the manifestation in their own days of the wicked Edom/Esau.
The Midrash is explicit. Referring to Rebecca’s oracle, it explains: ‘Two nations in your womb’- Two rulers of nations: Hadrian amongst the idolaters and Solomon amongst Israel (Genesis Rabbah 63,7). Similarly, Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai expounds the verse ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau’ (Genesis 27,22) as ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob crying out because of what the hands of Esau did to him’ (Genesis Rabbah 65,21).
The rabbis of the early Midrash, seeking to explain to their persecuted nation why their land was under the tyranny of Rome explained it with reference to the Jacob and Esau story. They were living during the time foretold to Rebecca – when one nation (Esau) would be mightier the other (Jacob). But one day the tables would turn. Then the older (Rome) would serve the younger (Israel).
Harry Freedman’s 2014 book The Talmud: A Biography is now available in paperback on Amazon. His most recent book, Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul is available from Bloomsbury Publications, Amazon or www.harryfreedmanbooks,com