Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Biblical Studies

Jacob and Esau and the Emergence
of the Jewish People

Daniel J. Elazar

Life is full of hard choices between less than perfect alternatives. According to the Bible, even God is faced with such choices. It is part of the greatness of the Bible that it poses the problem that God, as well as humans, faces in choosing between less than perfect alternatives, even in connection with those whom it presents unequivocally as God's special people. The Bible does so even at the risk of exposing the ancient Israelites and hence the Jewish people to unjust criticism, based upon showing them, as Oliver Cromwell once said to his portrait painter, "warts and all." That may be a situation less than pleasant for Jews to face and indeed in previous generations as well as the present there were those Jews who either ignored those critical parts or reinterpreted them to show that the Jewish forefathers were always God-fearing models of what the Almighty expected. In this respect the Bible is far more honest than some of its interpreters.

Frequently, the Bible presents characters whose personalities and roles confront those of other characters in order to make its point. This part of the biblical message reaches its apogee in the parallel cases of Joseph and Moses who are presented as binary opposites, Joseph because of his assimilation into Egypt and his unrestrained service to the pharaoh in subordinating the Egyptians and bringing his brother Israelites down to Egypt, is not counted among the patriarchs and indeed represents the end of the patriarchal line, while Moses, who represents the new leadership that inherits the mantle of the patriarchs, liberates his people not only from Egypt but, insofar as possible, from Egyptian culture, after starting at the very heart of that culture in the pharaoh's palace and family.

Here we examine a different confrontation, not so stark as that between Joseph and Moses but more direct between Jacob and Esau, two brothers, the sons of Isaac and the grandsons of Abraham, at least one of whom is destined to carry on the patriarchal tradition. They ultimately give birth to the Jewish people as a covenanted people, invested with the task of doing God's will through their polity and society.

The story of the two brothers, Jacob and Esau, is a classic example of that dilemma and how God faces it in determining who shall carry on the Abrahamic line that will serve His purposes in the development of a societal model for the world. Jacob and Esau share both good and bad traits upon which to try to build leadership for the future. God is faced with having to choose between two combinations of traits and to select what would be better for leadership of his people. The Bible leaves us with the problem of trying to understand the choice between two flawed individuals and what that means for us, the readers and students of the Bible in every generation.

Neither portrait is all that flattering and it is too easy to move quickly from them to negative assessments of the individuals portrayed without fully understanding their complexities as individuals. We must remember that the Bible starts from the assumption that all human beings are flawed in one way or another by the very nature of things and that its purpose is not to demonstrate the flawed character of individuals but to suggest some lessons about the problems by choosing among human weaknesses by focusing on human strengths, to be prudent in our choices yet to maintain our moral vision.

Natural Versus Federal Man

Esau and Jacob are introduced as struggling (vayitrotzetzu) with each other from the womb (Genesis 25:22). The homiletic treatment of this has been extensive, considering the way each has come to symbolize conflicting dimensions of power and authority. The common element uniting both is their tremendous energy which must be directed and harnessed. Jacob is to become Israel (literally: one who struggles with God) whose energy is to be directed by the covenant with God, while Esau will struggle with men and animals (nature) to become, in the eyes of the Midrash, the exemplar of a non-Jewish imperial ruler.

The future of the two struggling fetuses is foretold by God and is stated in ethno-political terms. The fathers of the two nations -- goiim and leumim are the terms used -- are struggling. Jacob emerges as he is to live the first half of his life, struggling for personal advantage, as Yaakov, one who grasps at the heel of his brother, trying to get out first.

The twins grow up as very different people. The description of Esau as a hunter and man of the field fits with the description of his appearance at birth, but that of Jacob as a quiet man, dwelling in tents, contradicts the first description of him. Given what follows immediately, one senses an irony in this description, although it may indicate the other dimension of Jacob's personality which also stays with him, namely the desire for a calm existence that remains his strong arm through all his struggles.

In the second recorded confrontation between the two, Jacob takes advantage of Esau's weakness, namely an unthinking impulsiveness, to press his advantage in a most unbrotherly way, first acquiring Esau's b'khora (birthright) for a bowl of lentils and then his father's blessing. The birthright has to do with inheritance of goods and position both. The tale is typically biblical. The "bottom line" is that by his actions, Esau demonstrates that he does not deserve to be the one who continues Abraham's responsibilities and rewards under God's covenant, since he does not have the steady, thoughtful qualities which are required. Rather than getting his own food -- after all, he was not really starving to death and Jacob was not the only kitchen in the encampment -- he responds impulsively to a good smell and, in the words of 25:34, "despises his birthright."

Jacob shows his wiliness as well as his greater intelligence and forethought. Jacob's eye is always on the main chance; he sees his advantage and takes it, perhaps not believing the foolishness of his despised -- and despising -- rival. What he does is not quite honorable, though not illegal. The title he gains is at least partially valid, although he is insecure enough about it to conspire later with his mother to deceive his father so as to gain the blessing for the first-born as well (Chapter 27). In short, he is what nineteenth century Americans would call "sharp," a characteristic associated with the products of covenantal cultures -- the term was invented to describe the New England Yankee descendants of the Puritans -- ever since.

Much later, Esau marries two wives, both Hittite women, that is, locals, in violation of Abraham's (and God's) injunction not to take wives from among the Canaanite population. Again, one gets the sense of a headstrong person who acts impulsively, without sufficient thought (26:34-35). His marriage is described as a vexation to both Rebekah and Isaac. Even his father, who has strong affection for him, is hurt by his act. This action alone forever rules out Esau as the bearer of patriarchal continuity. Esau could have overcome the sale of his birthright; as we see in the next chapter, Isaac was still prepared to give him the blessing due the firstborn. But acquiring foreign wives meant the detachment of his children from the Abrahamic line.

Both the personal and psychological and the public and national dimensions of the rivalry between the two brothers are noteworthy. Despite the dreadful deception on the part of Jacob and his mother to gain Isaac's patriarchal blessing, Jacob's vocation as Isaac's legitimate heir in the continued founding of the Jewish people is reaffirmed. In essence, the Bible tells us that a bright, calculating person who, at times, is less than honest, is preferable as a founder over a bluff, impulsive one who cannot make discriminating choices. Jacob continues to display characteristics which are later to become part of the non-Jewish stereotype of Jews (although they are only prominent, not typical -- witness the very different characters of Abraham and Isaac), while Esau continues to display characteristics which are later to become part of the Jewish stereotype of non-Jews ("goyim").

The public and national purposes of this story are, by now, self-evident -- that the Esaus of the world, however attractive they may be in some ways, cannot assume the mantle of Abraham because of their personal deficiencies -- is already brought to our attention. At the very least, the Jacobs are the lesser evil because they can be chastened, educated, and redirected. In subsequent chapters God is to test and temper Jacob to turn his intelligence and cunning to moral ends.

In essence, what we have here is the climax of a struggle between natural man (Esau) and covenantal (or, in sixteenth and seventeenth century terminology, federal) man (Jacob). Both are presented realistically -- "warts and all" -- in the Bible's way. Thus it is not a confrontation between good and evil, but a choice between two limited and flawed human beings. Esau has the good and bad qualities of natural man -- principal among them, generosity and impulsiveness, the characteristics of natural liberty. Jacob's character is at least equally mixed, joining intelligence with guile. Isaac, passive and insecure, is easily drawn to Esau, but God chooses Jacob since He can bind him by covenant and hopes to restrain his sharpness through the constraints of federal liberty -- liberty in accordance with the terms of the covenant -- while natural man simply cannot be restrained except by force.

Once again, God's choices are limited by the realities of human frailty. He makes the best choice that He can but we need not exaggerate the goodness of one or the badness of the other.

Covenant or Contract?

After Jacob steals his father's blessing and enrages Esau, Isaac responds to Rebekah's request by sending off Jacob with a second blessing, actually commanding him not to take a Canaanite wife and to go to the family hearth for one instead (Chap. 27). The Bible conveys the sense of Isaac as a not-very-strong person, much influenced by his wife, attempting to play a role of strength by issuing commands (27:1 -- vayetzavehu), something which even God does not ordinarily do. The reader knows how absurd it is for him to be commanding Jacob to do what Rebekah set him up to do in the first place to save Jacob's life.

Isaac transmits Abraham's promise to Jacob for the first time. His blessing includes both personal fertility and national promise. Up to this point, whatever legitimation Jacob has obtained has been obtained by deceit. Here, for the first time, he obtains a blessing more or less on his own. Whatever the source of the suggestion and the reasons behind it, Isaac knows it is a valid one. Perhaps it also brings with it recognition that, with Esau's marriage to a Hittite woman, only Jacob can be the bearer of the berakhah. Isaac gives it fully.

Shocked by his father blessing Jacob, Esau suddenly realizes what his Canaanite wife has meant to Isaac. He makes one last attempt to remedy the situation by also marrying a first cousin, the daughter of Ishmael. The effort to parallel Jacob is both clear and insufficient. Ishmael's is not the favored side of the family.

Jacob Encounters God

Jacob leaves home to avoid Esau's wrath and his transformation into a man suitable to carry on God's enterprise begins (Chapter 28). While Esau is left trying desperately to please his father, Jacob confronts God for the first time on the road, at Beth El. God proffers His covenant to Jacob, who, lacking more than sharpness, immediately turns it into a contractual arrangement. The careful reader cannot fail to perceive that a new dimension needs to be developed by the clever, often devious, younger brother. He has begun his testing.

Jacob's first encounter with God (28:10-22) in a Divinely-inspired vision is perfectly appropriate: a ladder set up on the earth and reaching to heaven. No one is more of this world than devious, scheming, jealous, ambitious Jacob who is here called to raise himself heavenward. God could hardly appear to him directly; first He had to get his attention. Hence the device of the ladder and the heavenly beings going up and down, bringing Jacob's gaze and thoughts toward heaven.

God then becomes very personal in His guarantees and promises to Jacob, knowing His customer, as it were. God's revelation to Jacob is a reaffirmation of the promise to Abraham in even more practical and earthy terms suitably attractive to Jacob, given his character. The promises of territory and kith are repeated, along with the statement that all the people of the earth will be blessed, that is legitimized through Jacob's descendants.

Jacob's response is equally in character. He is awed by God's presence but still tries to make a deal with Him by vowing that if God keeps His promise in four specifically personal ways (protection on his way, food, clothing, and a safe return home), he will acknowledge Him and even reward Him by tithing -- to "sweeten the pot" for God, as it were, a sure sign of Jacob's contractual approach to the matter. Jacob understands that God is not Esau, to be taken advantage of in a bargain. Nor is He Isaac, to be deceived. God is a real power, hence the deal should be a good one for Him. God does not respond to all of this. What is most notable at the end of the chapter is God's silence.

The foregoing chain of events is not a covenant and is not described as such but it clearly is presented as having all the elements of a pact. It is, indeed, a reaffirmation of the covenant with Abraham on God's part which is turned into a kind of contractual arrangement by Jacob. Jacob is not morally ready for a covenantal relationship. His transformation may have begun but it has just begun. God offers him a great promise for the future and Jacob concentrates on the details of his present well-being. (Notice that he makes no reference whatsoever to the covenantal future in his vow.) Significantly, God, understanding Jacob, offers both possibilities. He needs Jacob to continue the unfolding of His plan, hence must educate him and bring him along.

The whole incident teaches us about the similarities and differences between covenant and contract, how they can be confused with one another because of their common emphasis on the freedom and integrity of the partners, their roots in negotiation, and the resultant mutual obligation, yet how they differ in their scope, in the basis of the obligation incurred, and, perhaps most important, in the spirit which surrounds and informs them. This relationship between the two species of pact is an enduring one, encountered in every situation where one or the other is used. There is place for both in our imperfect world, not only by using a contractual relationship as a way station toward a covenantal one but also for each in its own place and situation, but, as much as their relationship to one another should be understood, they should not be confused.

Jacob Meets His Match

Jacob goes on to meet a greater artist at deception than he, his uncle Laban (Chapter 29). First, he is deceived in his marriages, thereby acquiring two wives, Leah and Rachel, and their handmaidens who are to mother the tribes of Israel, and in his work relationships. Jacob's hatred for Leah is not explained. One is led to deduce that her very presence is a constant reminder to Jacob of how he, the deceiver, was deceived in turn, forced into an unwanted marriage and seven years' additional free service to his uncle, in order to claim his beloved Rachel. Given what we know about Jacob's concern for his personal well-being, this was a deception that hurt greatly. Hence there is nothing that Leah can do to win her husband's love.

Here we have another example of Jacob's callousness toward other human beings. Leah is caught in a tragic web no less than Esau, and Jacob, while not the weaver of either, is very much involved in heightening the pain of their respective tragedies. In the end, each is somewhat compensated by God; Esau becomes wealthy and powerful in his own right (Chapter 36), Leah (and her concubine) provide most of Jacob's sons, and Jacob loses Rachel (Chapter 35), lives for years in the belief that Joseph, his favorite son, is dead (Chapter 37), and finally is forced to end his days in Egypt (Chapter 46). It is through Jacob's tempering by life that he is transformed to become Israel.

After twenty years, Jacob and Laban reach the parting of ways, not without bitterness, fear, and further deception, causing God to intervene to protect Jacob and his household. The end result is a covenant between the two men, defining their future relationship by separating them one from the other. Up to this point, covenants have only been used to bind; here we learn that they can be used to separate as well. There are certain relationships that are best preserved from a distance and this is certainly one of them. In a sense, the covenant is a sign of the good sense of the two principals who are both crafty and prudent.

Jacob Becomes Israel

Jacob moves out of one dangerous situation toward another, both with members of his family -- Laban and Esau -- and, on the way, decisively confronts God (Chapter 32). Through that very mysterious confrontation, crafty, self-centered Jacob becomes one who strives or wrestles with God (yisrael), thereby establishing his destiny and that of his heirs forever. This destiny is to be embodied in the name of the people who inherit him. A new relationship is thereby established, one of striving with God.

There are those who, like Abraham, hearken to God and those, like Isaac, who passively accept God's dictates. Jacob has none of the characteristics appropriate for either role; witness how he has tried to contract with God for protection. But he can be brought to at least strive with God, wrestle with Him in the spirit of his heritage. Thus, Jacob's wrestling with God completes the patriarchal cycle of relationships with the Almighty, from Abraham's powerful and dignified service to Isaac's submissiveness to Jacob's ambivalence. Earlier covenant negotiations give way to wrestling and bargaining for a blessing.

The story is constructed as follows: Jacob completes his arrangement with Laban only to learn of Esau's approach with a large body of men at his side, frightening Jacob, who takes steps to save as much of his people and property as he can if there is trouble, without resorting to force of arms. Jacob has no military resources at his disposal so he can only maneuver, another paradigm of the Jewish condition throughout much of Jewish history.

He then turns to God in a very carefully phrased prayer (as we would expect -- his every move and word reflects forethought) which:

  1. invokes his fathers (v. 10);
  2. reminds God that he is returning to his land and kith at God's request (v. 10);
  3. emphasizes his unworthiness (certainly true in this case) to be one of God's hassidim (v. 11);
  4. indicates that he had taken what steps he could to protect his camp (v. 11);
  5. asks God to save him, and especially his sons (v.12), from Esau because of His promise to multiply Jacob's descendants (v. 13).

Every element is appropriate in a petition which is, at the same time, the opening of a negotiation. Jacob terms God's response to His servants the patriarchs, hasadim or loving expressions of covenant obligation and emet or true manifestations of covenant loyalty.

The third element in Jacob's preparations is the assembly of gifts for Esau on a grand scale and the arrangement for their presentation in the most effective way, prior to their meeting and in waves, to soften him up for the actual encounter. What we have before us is vintage Jacob in a defensive posture -- prudent, crafty, careful, covering all his bets. He divides his camp so that at least half of his wealth is likely to be preserved, he asks God's help in a carefully constructed prayer, he not only arranges to present Esau with abundant gifts but takes care to arrange the manner of their delivery, and then he secretly transfers his immediate family to safety, just in case.

Finally alone by his own doing, Jacob is now open to the climax of his life, the encounter with the mysterious stranger who speaks in the name of God. In the wrestling that follows, Jacob displays two of his strongest characteristics -- tenacity and the ability to make it pay. Jacob wrestles the stranger to the point where he can ask for a blessing.

As his blessing, Jacob's name is changed, to Yisrael. Unlike the firm faith of Abraham and the accepting faith of Isaac, Jacob wrestles with God all his life, doing His will only after that wrestling. This becomes his people's destiny until the end of days. Thus it is the unique destiny of the Jews -- Israel -- to wrestle with God as well as be witness to His covenant. Israel's future is not one of blind faith and obedience to God's will but one of difficult covenant partnership, of wrestling with their own inclinations and doubts in the face of a mystery which will not fully reveal itself. Covenants do not necessarily end strife; they contain it within a framework or, better, within certain bonds. In that sense, the imagery of the conflict between Jacob and the stranger is paradigmatic. The Jews are still holding the mystery in their arms and will not let go without a blessing, while it grasps the hollow of their thighs.

Jacob perceives what has happened to him -- that he has seen the face of God and that his destiny is now changed. At the same time, he has acquired a permanent limp because of his wounded thigh. One does not emerge from such a conflict without some scar.

Jacob, now Israel, is ready for his confrontation with Esau -- prudently prepared by his own agency and properly chastised yet blessed by Divine agency. The confrontation continues the saga of the complex relationship between the two brothers and sharpens the biblical description of natural versus federal man. Esau remains as open and impulsive as Jacob is prudent and crafty. Jacob determines to make peace between them but to keep their relationship at arm's length. After his three confrontations, Jacob reaches Canaan and begins to settle into a new set of tribulations.

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