"I have loved you!" says the Eternal One. But you say, "How have You shown Your love for us?" "Is not Esau Jacob's brother?" says the Eternal One, "But I have loved Jacob, and hated Esau. . ." (Malachi 1:2-3)
Among the many familiar villains in the Torah (Pharaoh, Amalek, Korach, and so on. . .), Esau stands out as one of the earliest and most closely related to our patriarchs. As the firstborn son of Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob's twin, he holds a rather exalted place in the most important family of our people. While he certainly does not bask in love in the Torah's words, he is not so badly maligned in this earliest phase of our literary history. But when one explores what happens to Esau in the interpretive history that follows, one sees a veritable slew of later interpretations that deny him any possibility of redemption. Before we ponder the causes of such exegetical fratricide, let's first take a look at some of the origins of this interesting and somewhat troubling trend.
From their very beginning the Torah pits these twin brothers against one another in a way that transcends normal sibling rivalry. In the scene of their birth (Genesis 25:24-26), we read:
When the time came for her [Rebekah] to give birth, lo-she had twins in her belly! The first came out reddish [admoni] all over, as though covered with a hairy mantle, so they named him Esau; his brother, following, came out holding Esau's heel [akeiv], so they named him Jacob [ Ya-akov].
Rashi, following earlier midrashim, locates the derivation of Esau's name in a passive form of the root asah, "to make" or "to do," implying that Esau came out fully "done"-covered with hair all over his body as if he were a fully grown man. The explicit mention of his "reddish" color opens another opportunity for pouring negative inferences on poor Esau: Rashi explains that admoni, related to the Hebrew root for red ( alef-dalet-mem), indicates that Esau will soon shed blood! This same root also gives rise to a connection between Esau and a neighboring and hostile people, the Edomites/Idumeans, who lived in the area to the south and east of the Dead Sea, an area of ruddy sandstone. Already, in these three short verses, the stage is set for a very negative reading of Esau's life and habits.
The subsequent terse description of the twins' childhood also provides an underpinning for later interpretive development. In the next few verses, Genesis 25:27-28, we read:
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. Isaac favored Esau, because he [Esau] put game in his mouth, but Rebekah favored Jacob.
Rashi's reading, this time following prior explicators from Midrash Tanchuma, once more shows a significant tendency toward the negative:
"a skillful hunter"-[Esau knew how to] hunt and deceive his father through his mouth. And he would ask him: "Father, how do we tithe salt and straw?" So his father thought that he was precise about his observance of the mitzvot.
This is but one of many highly negative impressions created by later interpreters. Nothing in the text of Genesis reflects Esau as a man of deception, and the passage never even begins to hint that the intended victim of Esau's hunting was his father-much to the contrary, Isaac is portrayed as the recipient of Esau's gamey largesse.
If we actually read the Genesis passages with an open mind, we note something quite odd: it is Jacob who is the real deceiver, with an unhealthy assist from his mother Rebekah. First, Jacob helps Esau part with his birthright by taking advantage of his brother's hunger and fatigue (25:31-34). Then Jacob absconds with Esau's blessing from their father (Chapter 27) through clearly deceptive and manipulative means that take advantage of Isaac's poor eyesight. And yet, our traditional commentators rarely, if ever, take Jacob to task for his actions. At most, there are those who indicate that later deceptions that happen to Jacob are just recompense for his own early misdeeds. But there is little in the way of ad hominem critique leveled at him the way it is at Esau.
Why, then, does our tradition do this? The answer is somewhat straightforward, but one must read on in Genesis to understand why. As the story of our patriarchs and matriarchs continues, it is Jacob who struggles with the angel and is then renamed Israel, the name that adorns our people even until today. Jacob's two wives and two concubines give birth to the descendants whose names become the very organizing principle of the twelve tribes of Israel. And Jacob will serve as a main character in the drama of his son Joseph, who himself plays such a pivotal role in the transition to Egypt that leads to the ultimate covenant and redemption of the Jewish people. That is to say: Jacob is just too much of an insider for later commentators to dismantle his reputation without doing damage to the entire Jewish people.
Esau, on the other hand, wanders out of the frame of the Torah's view, and the Edomites/Idumeans who bear his name continue to be a competing and sometimes hostile neighboring people long after the Torah's stories are committed to parchment. Long after the writing of the Torah, this people disappears into the mists of history, and aside from some fascinating archaeological remains, there is little to tell their story nowadays. Familiar with their early character and their later outcome, our commentators stress how alien their progenitor Esau is from his very birth, and make him out to be an evil individual at every opportunity.
Sadly, this tendency is still operative today. How often have we cast a critical eye on the outsider, when we should have looked critically at ourselves? How easy is it to cast a negative assessment on someone we truly do not know, when it is our own behavior that could use adjustment? When relating to new members of our community, new immigrants to our country, or those with different political, economic, sexual, or religious orientations, our behavior is highly predictable: human characteristics are exactly the opposite of those we hope to see in our God. We are quick to anger and slow to forgive, considering ourselves first and being less generous to others. To redeem Esau is to look at him again and try to see him anew. Not to whitewash his problems, for, like any human, he has them. But to truly redeem him, we must first look at ourselves and ask why we treat others-outsiders-the way we do. In redeeming Esau, we have a chance to redeem ourselves
Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.