Jewish and Christian tradition alike used Jacob and Esau to explain an ongoing antagonism, but also an eternal close connection. When Jacob irrespective of his ambivalent behavior in the Bible is claimed to be Israel, his twin-brother Esau represents the “other.”
Gen 25–35 with its chiastic structure recounts the lives of the twins with a focus on proximity and distance. It starts with the boys in the womb of their mother Rebecca, who, after she received an oracle regarding the twins in her womb, favours Jacob. Esau is “red” (adom) and “hairy,” Jacob grasps the heals (eqev) of Esau, who is born first. Esau becomes a hunter, Jacob a tent-dweller. Esau sells his birthright for a pot of stew and Jacob finally overtakes his older twin when he tricks their father Isaac, who really loves Esau, into blessing him instead of Esau. The blessing includes subservience to Jacob. Jacob fears the wrath of Esau and flees to Haran, where he marries Leah and Rahel, who become the mothers of the twelve tribes. Esau on the other hand marries non-Israelite women, among them Ishmael’s daughter. Jacob wrestles with Elohim (God/angel) in the night, a fight that serves as a symbol of his conflict with Esau. After having been apart from each other for 20 years, Esau and Jacob meet again. They kiss each other, reconcile and leave in different directions– Esau to Seir, Jacob to Sukkot (Gen 33). Reconciliation does not necessarily imply amalgamating or extinguishing any difference of opinion, but the brothers can live in peace, separate from each other.
Some biblical texts regard Esau as the progenitor of the line of Edom. This results in a positive (Deut 2–3 and 23:7–8) and negative attribution (Am 1:11f., Ob, Mal 1:2–4 and Joel 4:19).
Philo interprets the twins Esau and Jacob symbolically as the division of vice (desires, sensual pleasures) and virtue, wisdom and folly, temperance and lasciviousness (Quaestiones et solutiones in Genesim 4.161 et seq.).
In the New Testament, Paul distinguishes between the "children of the flesh" and the "children of promise" (Rom 9:6ff.) Not all of the children of Abraham are “children of promise”. God is free in his election, and Jacob’s election against Esau’s is proof thereof, according to Paul. In the Epistle to the Hebrews 11:20 the author emphasizes that both Jacob and Esau were blessed by faith. However, they did not share the same respect regarding the blessing: “See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done” (Heb 12:16f.).
Similarly, early Rabbinic exegesis states clearly that it is Jacob who is elected. According to GenR 63:8 R. Yose ben Halafta said: “Why did Esau emerge first? He replied: (Esau may have emerged first, but) the first drop (of semen) was Jacob’s.” Jacob is the one worthy to be the heir of his father instead of “Esau and all the princes of Edom” (Sifre Deut. § 312 or § 343). Esau (like Ishmael) is depicted here as unworthy and unfit. Only Jacob’s children merit God’s commands. Jews and Christians over the centuries share a common endeavour in concentrating on the evil behavior of Esau. Jewish exegesis charges Esau negatively, presents him as murderer and adulterer (e.g. in GenR 63:1). On the one hand he is destined for evil, even before he is born, on the other hand he freely chooses to renounce the privileges of the Israelites. In GenR 63:10 both brothers grow up together and go to the same school, but as adults Esau visits the houses of idolatrous worship, while Jacob attends a higher Jewish education. Esau’s criminal “character” found in Gen 25:29 is the subject of various interpretations. The biblical description of Esau who returned exhausted from the field is thereby laden with meaning. He is depicted as being exhausted from raping and murdering (GenR 63:12). For Abraham it is better to die before witnessing his wicked grandson’s acts: “…is this a good old age when he sees his grandson practising idolatry, immorality, and murder! Better that he quit this world in peace!”
When Esau commits the three great cardinal sins, denial of God, murder, and sexual misconduct, it is possible to find an indication that he brutally and sacrilegiously cut ties with his “family”. In this manner the rabbis more and more identified Esau and his nation Edom with Rome.
The early Christian teacher Tertullian (c.160–c.220) emphasizes in the beginning of his Adversus Iudaeos that the Jews are the older people and were privileged with grace of the law, but “beyond doubt […] the prior and greater people […] the Jewish — must necessarily serve the lesser; and the lesser people […] the Christian— overcome the greater. For […] the people of the Jews […] quite forsook God, and did degrading service to idols, and, abandoning the Divinity, was surrendered to images.” In Against Marcion 3.24 he repeats that Esau has the law, and afterwards also the heavenly blessings through the gospel by faith. Here it seems that Tertullian thinks of Jews who became Christians. Even though they are the “older brothers”, they are less loved than “the later and more excellent people,” the Christians.
According to Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–397; De Jacob et via beata 2.9.2) the clothing of Esau is identified with the “Old Testament” that could not properly be understood by the Jews until the Christians put it on. A counter-history can be found in Talmud yNed 3:8,38a. In the world to come, Esau sits in the garden of Eden wrapped in a prayer-shawl, but God throws him out of paradise. In modern terms, Esau’s Judaism is depicted as being “fake.” Christian and Jewish exegesis dispute the symbolic meaning of garment as expression of faith. Jews may be deceived by the pious Esau, but God cannot be fooled. One may ask if the Esau of this text is a representative of the Christian Rome and thus Christianity is recognized by God as “fake”-Judaism.
Jewish exegesis also depicts Esau as a hypocrite regarding the law/halakha. According to GenR 63:10 (and Rashi) he asks how to tithe salt and straw, which is never commanded by law.
Ambrose sees the Jews as slaves of the law, but he also mentions that Jacob’s blessing for Esau was a serious proof of Isaac’s love, since Isaac was aware that Esau was not able to control himself.
For Augustine (354–430) the biblical statement of the older who will serve the younger (Gen 25:23) is confirmed by the politics of the Roman empire and a slow but consequent deterioration of the status of Jewish communities. Here politics creates facts to “prove” Sacred Scripture. In Augustine’s eyes Jews are dispersed across the world to serve Christians as “custodians of the books” (custodes librorum), like servants carrying the books for their masters. Augustine’s doctrine became very influential over the next centuries, not only in theology but also in practical politics regarding Jews.
The Jewish reaction concentrates on another verse of the Bible, where Esau sells his birthright; it offers an explanation for the success of Rome after the destruction of the Temple and the suppression of the Bar Kokhba uprising. The rabbis leave this world to Esau/Edom-Rome but ensure their own election in the world to come. GenR 63:12 interprets the phrase ka-yom in Gen 25:31 (“Sell me your birthright ka-yom”) as “for a day.” Esau (Rome) owns this world, but the Jews want to live securely for a day (= 1000 years, see Ps 90:4) in the shadow of Esau, and will inherit the world to come. Subordinance is not equal to religious submission or the acceptance of the superiority of Christianity. It is a result of the catastrophes of the uprisings in the first and second centuries CE and a sober view on reality. Rabbinic Judaism focussed on teaching and learning Torah and developed a counter-history as a special type of argument against the Christian mainstream discourse. Rome in Rabbinic eyes is the last of the kingdoms the Book of Daniel spoke of and will be defeated at the end. Esau as Rome is a construct of a Rabbinic discussion of identity, which could not be conducted without a critical confrontation with the Christian claim to be Jacob. This discussion establishes a new identity which draws boundaries.
Midrash Genesis Rabbah shows how ambivalent Rabbinic tradition regarding Esau was in this time. It reinforces that Esau is “circumcised” – hence, in effect “Jewish” (GenR 76:9; 80:4) – and tells that he wanted to “repent” (lit. “convert”) as we read in GenR 67:13: “Yehoshua ben Levi said: he decided to ‘convert.’ (Esau’s wife) Mahalat (says), that the Holy One, blessed be he, has forgiven him all his sins; and (his other wife) Basemat (says), that his mind was now satisfied.” This is a reaction to Isaac’s disappointment that Esau married non-Jewish wives. Some Rabbinic texts speak of conversion and thereby open the possibility for Esau to return to Judaism.
But these positive images of Esau are in the minority in the Midrash. Esau’s bad behavior changes him. GenR 37:2 insults him as kushi, which is a curse word, because he behaves like the wicked Nimrod, the hunter. GenR 37:3 explains that Esau is the father of the Edomites because of his wickedness.
The same Midrash GenR (in 63:7) identifies the ge'im, the (two) “great” (or “proud” persons) in the womb of Rebecca with the Roman emperor Hadrian and the Israelite king Solomon. Though not contemporaries they become symbols for the – equivalent – Roman and Jewish power. Hadrian stands for the Roman empire, strong and violent. Hadrian was responsible for the suppression of the Bar Kokhba uprising in 135 CE.
The later Midrash Tanhuma (Bereshit 7) depicts the wicked Hadrian as megalomaniac who wants to be acclaimed as a divine being. Although Hadrian is no Christian emperor, one can easily detect the anti-Christian polemic of this early medieval midrash.
In Rabbinic texts, like the voice of Jacob being distinguished from the hands of Esau, good behavior should be differentiated from that of Rome, which is murderous, predatory and treacherous. But it shall also be contrasted to the way of life of Jesus, which according to the Talmud is characterized by magic, blasphemy and sexual misbehavior (eg. bSan 107b; bSot 47a; bAZ 16b-17a).
Esau’s descendants are wicked like Amalek, the great enemy of Israel, and Haman, who tried to kill all Jews in Persia (Book of Esther).
But when Esau weeps, when he is outwitted by Jacob (Midrash Psalms 80:4; EstR) these tears will not be forgotten by God. In the later Kabbalistic text of the Zohar (II,12b) these tears will be responsible for the exile of the Jews as a punishment by God against Israel. And on the other hand Israel’s tears in the exile will motivate God to free his people.
While Hadrian or Titus (who was responsible for the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE) function as symbol of the enemy, another Roman emperor, Antoninus (= Caracalla, who reigned between 198–217), is depicted as a pro-Jewish politician who seeks the advice of the patriarch Yehuda ha-Nasi (= Rabbi). In tBer 57b und AZ 11a the geyim in Rebecca’s womb are Antoninus and Rabbi. Jacob and his descendants, even the great patriarch Yehuda ha-Nasi, can act like Esau (bAZ 10a) when he gives Antoninus advice to kill his enemies. In the stories of the (possible) conversion of Antoninus (cf. yMeg 1:13(10),72b and bAZ 10b) we find a recollection of the tale of Esau: “Once he asked him: Shall I enter the world to come? Yes! said Rabbi. But, said Antoninus, is it not written, ‘There will be no remnant to the house of Esau?’ (Ob 1:18). That, he replied, applies only to those whose evil deeds are like to those of Esau.”
In Tanchuma, Yitro 13 (38b) and Pesiqta de Rav Kahana 12:20, Esau is offered the possibility to return to the Torah, an option that is given during the astrological season of Gemini, the twins.
In medieval Jewish tradition the wicked kingdom Edom/Rome is explicitly combined with Christianity. Ramban/Nachmanides in the 13th century explains in his Sefer ha-Ge’ula that the Edomites were the first who went astray and believed in Jesus, an error that spread across the Roman world. In his eyes Rome and Edom, though different nations, were considered as one empire because they shared the same spirit. One can argue that the harsh distinction between Jacob and Esau is a result of the ongoing persecution and negative experience of Jews, but nevertheless the same Nachmanides describes the Jewish-Christian relationship in his days as ambivalent and explains that there also exist rulers who save Jews (Perush ha-Tora to Gen 32:9). Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508), who supported the Reconquista but was nevertheless expelled from Spain, found a new home in Naples and later in Venice, speaks in a mixture of mystical and exegetical commentary on Isa 33:10 of a metamorphosis of the soul of Esau into the soul of Jesus and the Christians. Jesus is Esau and Esau is Edom. Besides, metaphorically, all enemies of Israel were called Edom, and Abravanel emphasized the brotherhood of Isaac and Ishmael and envisioned the Muslims taking part in the destruction of Edom (e.g. commentary on Gen 25).
Christian scholars in the Middle Ages reaffirm the patristic typology of Esau as Jews (Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville etc.). The Glossa Ordinaria in the 12th century add that the conflict between Esau and Jacob represents the ongoing struggle of good and evil in every nation, an opinion the Venerable Bede had already expressed in the 8th century. Esau signifies flesh versus spirit. Guibert de Nogent (1055–c.1125) compares the “red” Esau with the animalitas, blood, and carnal desire. In the 13th-century Bible Moralisée Esau represents the “usurers, malefactors and wicked people” outside of the church.
Jewish scholars react and argue that the brotherhood of Esau and Jacob was already cancelled in the prophecies of Obadiah. They highlight the (negative) Christian character and marginalize the ethnic brotherhood and permit interest from Christians as “uncircumcised strangers” (Nitzachon Vetus; Sefer Yosef ha-Meqaneh etc.).
Rabbinic texts had depicted Esau as unworthy, unfit. Gikatilla (1248–c. 1325) – to mention only one Kabbalistic thinker – in his Sha‘are Ora loads this tradition with a cosmological meaning. When God gives room for the creation of the world in the act of (necessary) differentiation, some waste is produced. This waste is related to the 70 princes (called Elohim) of the people of the world. They are necessary in God’s plan and in the world to come they will recognize God as the God of Israel. Esau with his mountain Seir is part of this cosmological plan. Seir is the place where the demons (Seirim) live with their prince Sammael, who becomes the leader of all the other princes. When Israel sins, he gains power. The Rabbinic idea of Esau gaining power, when Jacob forgets God (e.g. in GenR 65:20) here obtains a mystical-cosmological meaning.
Some texts in the Zohar locate the evil (Esau) on the left side of God, due to the fact that he represents the element of justice (in contrary to the element of mercy represented also by Jacob) and strict judgment in God (= Hebr. din), which is associated with the divine name Elohim. Jacob calls Esau Elohim in Gen 33:10: “For to see your face is like seeing the face of Elohim.” Judaism is convinced that this attribute of God needs a balance in the divine compassion. People are not able to withstand pure justice. Jewish tradition makes clear that it is provoked by the negative behavior of a person. It is not an abstract or strange power but can be present even in the practice of a commandment not performed with the right intention.
In his Shnej luchot ha-berit Toldot 18b, Isaiah Horowitz (ca. 1570–1626) summons different aspects of Esau from Rabbinic to mystic tradition. Esau represents the aspect of justice. In the heavens Sammael, the accuser, is his representative. He is identified with the evil inclination inside every person, and with the angel of death.
Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740–1809) in his Qedushat Levi (Va-yishlah, fol. 86 b) emphasizes this struggle with the evil inclination and argues that people should always take a second look at their deeds. Supposedly pious acts endure in God’s judgment if they are performed in the right way, concentrating on the holy nucleus.
In Jacob Frank’s (1726–1791) (pseudo-)messianic system Esau plays an enormous role, both as earthly Christian power and as cosmological “big brother.”
A modern reception like the novel “Esau” by Meir Shalev returns to the biblical figures in the setting of the 20th century, with a great sympathy for Esau who, cursed and disinherited by his beloved mother, leaves his family and village to become a writer in the United States, later returns and unfolds a wonderful family story.
In Jewish modern literature and analysis from Heinrich Heine (e.g. in "An Edom") to Shmuel Klitzner ("Wrestling Jacob"), Esau still functions as “the other” in a more analytic way than before, being aware of the “Alter Ego” of Jacob.
In Jewish art Esau often represents Christianity. In the Golden Haggadah (Catalonia around 1320–1330) Esau is portrayed returning from the hunt. He holds a hare on his shoulder, which is a non-kosher animal. Here he represents the Christians trying to persuade the Jews to end their commitment to the Biblical commandments.
To sum up: Jewish and Christian tradition mostly depict Esau as “the other,” the counterpart to Jacob, as wicked, materialistic, rough. Sometimes he is the Alter Ego, and the roles of Jacob and Esau can switch, but in most texts the negative connotation dominates.
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