We've come to think of the twins Jacob and Esau as yin and yang, good guy and bad seed. But if we read the story with more sensitivity, we will note that neither character plays strictly to type. For political reasons, our tradition demonized Esau and elevated Jacob. This midrashic effort distorts our understanding of both characters and obscures a deeper lesson about covenant and blessing.
On the surface, Jacob is the classic homebody, a quiet domestic presence who contrasts Esau's hunting and gathering brawn. As the Torah says, "When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a homespun man, keeping to the tents" (Genesis 25:27). The Hebrew rendered here as "homespun" is tam, the same word used for the "simple son" of the Passover Haggadah, the one who doesn't know how to ask. The word can also mean "blameless," "upright," "mild," or "perfect."1 Jacob is anything but these qualities. He colludes with his scheming mother Rebekah to buy Esau's birthright and steal his father's blessing.
We tend to think of Esau as a hairy, burly brute, who preferred the outdoors and hunting to domestic pursuits. He shortsightedly trades his birthright for some stew, and he unwittingly lets his brother and mother steal Isaac's blessing. But like Jacob, Esau is not one-dimensional: he has both good and bad qualities. Being less conniving than his brother certainly can't be considered a character flaw. When Jacob's deception comes to light, Esau cries out in anguish to his father and weeps, begging for another blessing (Genesis 27:34, 38).
In this moment, the reader's sympathy rests with Esau. We may not like his style, but he's done nothing to deserve mistreatment by Jacob. The prevailing Rabbinic view of Esau, however, paints him as the bad guy. One commentary explains:
The Sages generally regarded Esau as a villain and the archetypical anti-Semite, the spiritual ancestor of Imperial Rome and all the other European persecutors of Jews. Here, however, they sympathize with his tears and his pain at being cheated and are uncomfortable with Jacob's having gained the blessing by fraudulent means. "Years later, our people will have to shed tears for what the descendants of Esau (the Edomites who helped destroy the First Temple and the Romans who destroyed the Second Temple) did to them, as retribution for the day Jacob made Esau cry." (David L. Lieber, sen. ed., Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary [New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001, p. 158)
This interpretation, and the history of the persecution of Jews in the Christian West, highlights the bitterness borne from a zero-sum approach to God's blessing. In the biblical story, Jacob feels compelled to manipulate Esau because only one can possess the birthright and only one can receive the blessing of the firstborn. I wonder if this zero-sum approach is a symptom of the agricultural revolution, a vast economic and social transformation in the background of many of our Torah stories. (The ancient Sumerian cities in the Fertile Crescent are thought to be early examples of the successful shift from nomadic hunter-gatherers to tribes settled in cities with organized farming, borders, social systems, and political hierarchies. Abraham, born in the Sumerian city of Ur, came from this civilization.2) Once you have the notion of owning land, the problem of inheritance follows. If a family with multiple children owns a finite amount of land, who inherits it, and how much? Who will stay and cultivate it, and who will leave to find another home and livelihood? In other words, who gets left out?
When the zero-sum paradigm seeps from property into the realm of blessing—that's when the trouble really begins. The midrash cited above illustrates this point with tragic irony. Jacob wrested his father's legacy from his firstborn brother and gave rise to the Jewish people with our concept of chosenness. Christians, from the early church fathers to the medieval Catholic Church, took that legacy from their "firstborn brother" the Jews and claimed it exclusively for themselves. God's covenant with the Jews, they claimed, had been superseded.3 The ancient Rabbis recognized the irony of this role reversal, admitting in the midrash that our forefather Jacob laid the foundation for the zero-sum covenant theology that plagued Jews for centuries.
It is ironic, too, that the character of Esau points to another way, a nonzero-sum approach. After learning of Jacob's deception of Isaac and the blessing already conferred, Esau weeps and asks a question that every person of faith should ask: "Do you have but one blessing, my Father?" (Genesis 27:38).
Esau, of course, was asking for his own sake. In our day, it's the responsibility of every member of the human community to ask this question not just for ourselves, but also for others. This question opens the door to theological pluralism, to the notion that I have my special relationship with God while you have yours. It reminds us of the terrible price that can be paid for exclusivist claims on blessing, salvation, and religious truth. In a zero-sum faith, there is always a winner and a loser. In the ebb and flow of history, we have all found ourselves on the losing side of this proposition at one time or another. Isn't it better, then, to throw out the proposition and affirm instead that my God has more than one blessing?
The record of brotherly relations in the Torah is abysmal. The first example, after all, is Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau looked like they were headed in that direction, too. But when they reunited, years later, somehow they transcended their tortured past and fell into a loving embrace: "Esau, though, ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him. And they burst into tears" (Genesis 33:4).
In Tol'dot, Jacob makes Esau cry and, as the Rabbis taught, we Jews paid for it throughout history. Years later, the brothers meet and cry together, recognizing the price they've both paid for their feud. Finally, Jacob shows us another way: "to see your face," he says to Esau, "is like seeing the face of God" (Genesis 33:10). If there was hope for Jacob and Esau, there is hope for us, too.
Note to Genesis 25:27, W. Gunther Plaut, sen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. (NY: URJ Press, 2005), p. 174
"Chosen People," Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol 5 (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1996) pp. 500-501
Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.