Characters as Symbols, People as Symbols

Or: A Defense of Esau

This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Genesis these days. More about the project here.

Rebecca speaks. The words of her prayer, her challenge to God in her struggles to conceive are recorded.  She struggles to conceive, and, when she finally does, the twins in her womb struggle with each other.  Rebecca asks why, and God tells her that there are two nations in her womb, and that “the elder shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:22-23)

So the story of Jacob and Esau becomes both a story about brothers and a story about something much wider-reaching, much more expansive than that. 

These babies are laden with a heavy weight; they’re symbols of entire nations, even before they’ve emerged into the world. 

Could they ever have had a chance?  In the simple, straightforward meaning of the Torah—well, actually, yes. 

Esau is a hunter, and one day comes from the field, famished, desperate for food.  Jacob offers to sell him the lentil stew he’d been preparing in exchange for Esau’s birthright—that is, the right to be recognized as the first-born in matters of authority and inheritance. Esau is so famished that he agrees.   It’s a brief exchange, just a few verses in Genesis 25. 

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished.”

Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”

And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?”

But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.

Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. (Genesis 25:29-34)

It’s possible to read the verses as though Esau is a foolish brute, Jacob thoughtful and strategic.  It’s also possible to give Esau the benefit of the doubt—to see how Jacob comes off as coolly manipulative, exploiting his brother’s hunger rather than sharing generously, refusing to hand over food until Esau has formally sworn away his rights. 

Towards the end of Isaac’s life, Esau earnestly goes to the field to hunt for game to prepare as part of receiving his father’s special blessing, and learns only after the fact that Jacob had disguised himself, tricked and lied in order to steal the blessing from him. Esau, anguished, weeps bitterly—Isaac had inadvertently already blessed one child to rule over his brother, and now there was no taking it back. 

Esau exclaims, “first he has taken away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!”  From his perspective, Jacob has lied and tricked and stolen from him multiple times, leaving him with almost nothing. 

In his anger, Esau says that he wants to kill his brother, but this was clearly a temporary reaction in the heat of the moment.  For, years later, when Jacob passes through his territory, Esau greets his brother not with murderous designs—as Jacob had feared—but with a hug, and a kiss, and a tearful embrace. 

I see in the Torah’s Esau a sweet man who tried in good faith to do what was expected of him and who was exploited and abused by those who should have been caring for him—both his brother and his mother, who instigated the blessing theft. I see a man who felt anger at being unjustly wronged, and who was nonetheless able to lovingly forgive—even though his brother never apologized for the harm caused.  

And yet. The Rabbis offer a very different picture of him.  There are a few midrashim—Jewish interpretive retellings, Torah fan fiction—that suggest that even while still a fetus in gestation, Esau is a bully who “stretch[es] out [his] fists” and gets excited—even in utero!—when his mother is near an idolatrous site. (Genesis Rabbah 63:6) 

The Talmud (Bava Batra 16b) claims that the lentils that Esau took from Jacob were actually meant to be the meal of comfort for mourners, intended for Isaac on the day of Abraham’s death—that he stole his father’s meal of comfort instead of agreeing to a sale, as the plain text of the Torah suggests.  That same page of Talmud suggests that the same day that he ate the lentils, Esau committed murder, rape and blasphemy.

The Rabbis also claim that, during the tender reunion of the brothers when Esau kissed him—literally,

“Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4)

—he actually went in to bite Jacob’s neck. They describe him as an idolater, an adulterer, a robber and plunderer and compare him to a pig. More to the point, Genesis tells us that Esau “was named Edom,” (Genesis 25:30) so he is given symbolic association with the Edomites, and, as such, the Rabbis associate him with the violent, occupying Romans, and themselves with clever but physically weaker Jacob (who will eventually be renamed Israel.)

Families do this all the time.

They typecast its members into certain roles, even if it’s not fair. Members get treated as though it would be expected that they would behave a certain way—the troublemaker, the pretty one, the unfortunate one, the well-behaved one, the popular one—and whatever the case, it does damage. 

At Passover, we talk about four children—a wise child, a wicked child, a simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask—glossing over the fact that the questions posed by the so-called wise child and the so-called wicked child are actually, functionally, the same question.  The parent has the answers prepared already, has already decided who is wise and who is wicked, without stopping to hear what the kid is really asking. 

It’s the same impulse that undergirds sexism, the determination that a woman in power is shrill or hectoring instead of powerful and passionate; it’s what convicts unarmed Black men in the media, even as they’re the ones who are murdered by police.  When the narrative has been chosen, facts don’t matter.  Even though they should, they always should. 

We do this also with communal narratives.

We tell a story about the generosity of the victor, we justify the actions of the participant with whom we identify, we look the other way at the harm they perpetuate because it helps us to wrap up the story in clean, easy packages. 

It’s tempting to tell a story in which the Maccabees were the brave heroes fighting tyranny.  It’s much harder to square Jews’ identification with them with the fact that they were, in part, waging war against their more assimilated brethren, and that they committed horrific atrocities in neighboring communities after they won.  It’s harder for non-Indigenous—especially white—Americans to talk about the United States’ government’s genocide of and ongoing oppression of Indigenous Americans because, if the thread gets pulled all the way, we need to face the ways in which we are colonizers, now, here, today. 

From the Rabbis’ perspective, the vilification of Esau was useful—it was a way for them to discuss their feelings about living under the Roman Empire in ways that were coded, safer. 

It’s likely not a coincidence that they made the midrashic choices that they did given that Herod, a Jewish convert with Idumean—that is to say, Edomite—roots was regarded by the Rabbis as being in league with the Romans.  

Their anti-Esau writing may also have been a veiled anti-Christian polemic; Rome at the time of these Rabbinic texts was already Christian, and they were likely aware of supersessionist claims by Paul (Romans 9:10–13) and others (The Epistle of Barnabas 13:1-3, Tertullian’s Against The Jews 1, and other texts) that identify Christianity with the line of Jacob, supplanting the “older sibling,” Judaism. 

As Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin writes, Jacob and Esau become, to the Rabbinic mind,

“a powerful symbol of the sense of the highly fraught relationship between Jews and Christians, eventually between Judaism and Christianity, between the Rabbis and the Church.”  

They could use this literature to play out their sense of that entirely difficult relationship on their terms, in usefully coded language.  

And their vilification of poor Esau could also help them to address how the man who would eventually be, in our tradition, the ancestor of the evil Amalek—who appears later in the Torah—and the wicked Haman from the Book of Esther could have come from the family of our matriarchs and patriarchs.

In the Torah text itself, Esau is depicted as a legitimate member of the family—a loved, mystified, hurt, angry, betrayed, longing participant in the story. 

In order to square the plain meaning of the Torah text with Esau’s genealogy, the Rabbis go to great lengths to explain how someone who, through his lineage, represents evil and oppression of the Jewish people, could come from our same family. 

A person becomes a symbol, their needs and intentions flattened. 

And while Esau is not a person now, has not been here with us in the same way that Michael Brown was, that Eric Garner was, that George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were, that the new woman who just got promoted or the one who just got passed over for a promotion are, I think doing this to Biblical characters is a disservice, because it helps us forget not to do this in real life.  

Literature—sacred literature as well as every other kind—can teach us empathy, can teach us to listen, can teach us to find sensitive attunement to other lives, other experiences—even if they are not like our own. 

The Rabbis wanted to—perhaps needed to, given the dire reality in which they lived—flatten and vilify Esau.

And yet, the Torah knows better. 

Moses commands the Israelites:

“Do not hate an Edomite, for he is your brother.” (Deuteronomy 23:8)

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