Sibling rivalry. Every year for my birthday (in November), my mom makes the famous Jason Cake. A rich, impeccably tasty artwork of juicy chocolate cake with thick white frosting and a coat of dark chocolate. I love that my mom makes me this cake. My two younger siblings, on the other hand…not so much. They also want the cake for their birthdays, which are in September. This debate roils the family every September and November. People take sides.
Unfortunately for them, I know my Jewish history, and knowing is half the battle. Today’s episode is all about a younger sibling, Jacob, successfully stealing the Jason Cake (the family inheritance) from his older brother, Esau. Their mom, Rebecca, is complicit in the whole business, while their father, Isaac, the son of Abraham, is totally duped. Like the Jason Cake, the resentment between Jacob and Esau will make lasting enemies in the Near East, spread fear throughout the land, and cause the younger brother to be sent out into the wilderness alone.
Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, becomes pregnant with twins, who even in her womb begin struggling with each other. God explains that they each represent a separate nation, one which will be stronger than the other, and the older son will serve the younger one. Esau is born first, Jacob just a moment after. Esau grows up to become a hunter and outdoorsman, while Jacob stays close to home. Isaac favors Esau and Rebecca favors Jacob.
Returning hungry from the woods one day, Esau promises to give Jacob his birthright in exchange for some of the food Jacob is making. Esau, as the oldest, is entitled to two things: that birthright, which is the material inheritance of the family, and the blessing, which is kind of the spiritual transfer of family leadership from father to oldest son.
Decades later, Isaac, fearing his coming death (he actually lived another 80 years) summons Esau in order to bestow the blessing. But Rebecca wants Jacob to get it, so she dresses Jacob up like Esau in order to fool Isaac (who is blind). Though skeptical at first, Isaac finally believes that Jacob is Esau and bestows the blessing, which promises Jacob great abundance, the respect of people and nations, and dominion over his brother. Only when Esau returns from the field to get the blessing does the deception get revealed, but by then it’s too late: there are no take-backs on blessings.
Rebecca overhears Esau muttering a promise to kill Jacob when Isaac dies. She arranges for Jacob to leave home, and he is sent out into the wilderness alone.
Isaac: Son of Abraham and the second of Judaism’s three patriarchs. Old, blind, and duped by his wife into bestowing his blessing on Jacob, he is nevertheless an eminently decent and loyal leader.
Rebecca: Isaac’s decisive wife, known for her kindness and generosity. Yet she deceives Isaac into bestowing his blessing on Jacob, her younger son whom she favors.
Jacob: The younger twin who remains close to home and ends up fleeing into the wilderness alone to escape the wrath of Esau.
Esau: The outdoorsy older brother who gives up his birthright, loses his blessing, and swears revenge on Jacob. He gets a bad, and unmerited, rap in the Torah.
- Jewish tradition blames Esau’s inherent wickedness for his lot in life, and as the progenitor for everything bad that has befallen the Jews, from the destruction of the Temple to the Holocaust. But it’s hard to demonstrate that from a straight reading of the Torah text, which doesn’t record Esau doing anything particularly evil. In fact, it’s Rebecca and Jacob who behave terribly throughout this story!
- Again and again the Torah gives us an interplay of brothers against brothers. Older brothers are nefarious, and younger brothers emerge over them as leaders. Cain and Abel — Abel was the the younger. Isaac and Ishmael — Isaac was the younger. Esau and Jacob. Soon it will be Jacob’s son Joseph against his many older brothers. Moses and his older brother Aaron when we get to the Book of Exodus. This is a major theme of Jewish tradition.
- This story was written to reflect the historic relationship between the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Edom. Jacob (associated with Judah) and Esau (associated with Edom) are twins because the Jews in Judah considered the Edomites to be close relatives. The Kingdom of Judah, younger than Edom, nevertheless became more powerful around the year 1,000 BCE. Jacob gets both the birthright and the blessing because Judah was the more prosperous kingdom. So the biblical writer of this story wasn’t just relaying a legend about the origins of Judaism, he was also using this story to explain to his readers why the geopolitical world they lived in looked the way it did, and justified the Kingdom of Judah’s dominance in the region.
- The birthright is the inheritance that went to the oldest sibling of a family. In the ancient Near East this was a common legal contract that could be traded or sold.
- The Torah says that Esau was red and hairy when he was born. This is a big clue, since the word for red is “edom”, and Edom is the name of the ancient kingdom which claims descent from Esau.
- Just like Isaac joined with his estranged brother, Ishmael, to bury their father, Abraham, together, so will Jacob and Esau eventually reunite to bury Isaac in the same tomb.
- My brother-in-law, my sister’s husband, is secretly on my side about the Jason Cake.
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© Jason Harris 2017