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The storytelling in Genesis is absolutely brilliant. Even though many of the scenes are only briefly related, they are packed with drama; but even more so, their appeal is that they leave so much unsaid in their descriptions that the reader is forced to think about both the circumstances and especially the characters involved. This is particularly true when the story is indefinite or even ambiguous, and in today’s portion, we certainly see plenty of ambiguity.
In today’s sidra we learn much about the characters of Rivka, Esau, and Jacob. Even though Isaac appears, his character is portrayed as a tabula rasa—a blank slate; only at the end of the sidra do we get any feel for Isaac as a person, and even there his personality is only hinted at as he interacts with his two sons when he blesses them.
Rivka, on the other hand, shows a strong, independent, and somewhat fearless personality as she seeks after the meaning of her troubled pregnancy and when she battles fiercely to advance Jacob’s chances in obtaining the first-born’s blessing. Next, Esau is pictured as a bumbling, boorish fellow—if we are to believe the flawed English translations we read. And Jacob? Let’s hold off analyzing his character until we examine more closely how the Torah portrays Rivka and Esau.
Why did Rivka favor Jacob, so much so that she violated all cultural norms, not to mention her husband’s wishes, to break her society’s laws and customs to allow Jacob to usurp what was Esau’s right to inherit? The Torah implies that an oracle from God validated her greater love for her younger son, so she used the words of the oracle to justify her deception. Let’s consider what that oracle actually states.
It’s not really clear if the oracular predictions made at the beginning of the sidra were actually pronounced by an oracle or whether she heard them directly from God, but the sense of the text is that she received the predictions from a person who acted as an oracle. However we interpret the source of those oracular pronouncements, basically she’s given four predictions: first, she will be having twins, which is an absolutely definite prediction. In the next three predictions she’s told something about the future of her twin children.
The second prediction is also quite definite, it’s true that each child did father a nation and according to the third prediction, one of those nations did become mightier. But what about the fourth prediction? In the patented oracular tradition, exemplified by the Greek oracles whose predictions were never quite what they seemed, the fourth one given to Rivka is totally ambiguous, but you need to know Hebrew to realize that. Why? In Hebrew the order of subject-verb-object isn’t fixed. The grammar also works with other sentence word orders such as verb-subject-object or even object-verb-subject. So Gen. 25:23, which reads ve-rav ya’avod tsa’ir, can mean “And the older shall serve the younger,” but just as correctly it can mean “And the younger shall serve the older.” Both translations are equally grammatically valid. To make the oracle definite, the Hebrew should read, ve-rav ya’avod et tsa’ir; this way the ambiguity is resolved because the direct object is indicated by et. Interpreters of the Hebrew unconsciously employ the subject-verb-object word order and assume that this phrase is proof that Esau would serve Jacob, but the Hebrew in no way states this as a definitive prediction.
So how did Rivka understand her oracle? We have no way of knowing, but we have to believe that in the culture of her times, she assumed it meant what society and law required—that the younger would serve the older. Why would she believe otherwise? How could she believe otherwise?
Now the kids are grown; Esau has become a hunter and Jacob is, apparently, a homebody. Isaac, a seemingly weak and passive figure, has developed a strong affinity with his complement, the active, energetic Esau who, as his firstborn, he strongly favors. Rivka, an active, energetic figure herself, has developed a stronger love for Jacob, who, according to Midrash, has grown up to be a scholar. Possibly Rivka had an aversion to Esau’s active, impetuous nature, his acting without considering consequences, as the next pericope, the story of Esau’s abandoning his birthright, relates.
Before we go to that story, recall where Rivka grew up—in the household of Betuel—and her older brother was none other than Laban. In last week’s parashah we saw a hint of Laban’s nature; he didn’t defer to his father one bit; he was right in the middle of the action instead of letting his father, the head of the household, be in charge. Laban knew what he wanted and knew how to get it. You don’t need to read ahead to next week to know about Laban’s character. Rivka knew and understood from her brother, growing up with him, that sometimes trickery and deception were sometimes needed to make certain that the natural course of events required some nudging to make sure the events kept going in the proper direction.
Esau’s impetuous surrendering of his birthright to Jacob showed Rivka that he was not worthy of carrying on Abraham’s line, and her recollection of that ambiguous fourth oracle, and her reflecting on its true meaning, gave her the moral support she needed so that she could justify Jacob as the recipient of the first-born’s heritage.
This brings us to the question of how Esau is portrayed. You can’t tell what kind of person he truly is from the translation or even the commentary on this verse because of its built-in bias. The JPS translation reads:
And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down...” (25:30)
Wow. This is a translation with an ulterior motive! The Hebrew is translated to convey the interpretations of the medieval commentators who sought to denigrate Esau. What would a translation closer to the actual Hebrew look like?
וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן-הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה
Vayomer Esav al-Ya’akov, hali’tayni na meen-ha-adom ha-adom hazeh…
And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me swallow, please, of this red, red [soup]...”
The word “soup” is implied because the usage here of ha-zeh (this) suggests Esau’s pointing to the stew. How do commentators make that statement of Esau’s into one that attempts to portray him as a boorish thug? By looking at the way some words are used, ways that may not be correct in the present context. Na means “please” (in some cases it’s translated as “now”) but JPS and other English translations simply ignore the word. Why? If Esau was a boor, he would never utter the word “please.” What about “gulp down”? Here we need to look at the word hali’tayni, meaning “I swallow.” This word is unique in the Bible. Other words having its root, lamed-ayin-tet, do not occur anywhere else. Yet interpreters, seeing that the word refers to Esau's eating, later defined it as “to greedily swallow.” Such a meaning isn't supported in cognate languages; in Syriac the root refers to the jaw, as in chewing. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic and thus developed later than biblical Hebrew. In Arabic, a language that developed still later, it refers to indistinct speech, as in speech while chewing food. None of those usages imply “eating like an animal,” but since the word is used in this scene, it was defined to describe Esau's animalistic eating. Given that the Bible only has about 8,600 unique words (“Moby Dick” has about 18,000), an assumption that this word only refers to animals eating seems to be a real stretch. But interpreters make that stretch and derive from this word that Esau must be a boor since he eats like an animal. This is a perfect example of circular reasoning
It’s here in the birthright story that we get a true grasp of Jacob’s character. To do that we need to examine Jacob’s role in the scene where Esau, exhausted after a hard hunting trip, stumbles into Jacob’s tent and asks politely for some food. What does Jacob do? In absolute contravention of all societal and family norms, he extorts the birthright from Esau! Whatever happened to hospitality? To familial loyalty? Not only does Jacob demand Esau’s acquiescence, he further, astoundingly, demands that Esau swear to the birthright’s relinquishment as well. This is doubly insulting since in ancient middle eastern cultures, a person’s statement was his bond and a sworn statement was only demanded when a person had previously demonstrated the unreliability of his word.
The Torah hints that this birthright transfer transaction was dubious, actually even illegal, by how it’s related. In all other instances of a sales transaction that the Bible describes, both sides of the transaction are related: the seller offers the sale and the purchaser confirms the purchase. In this case, there’s no such symmetry. It’s all one-sided and no value parity exists at all. What parity can there be between a morsel of food—some bean broth and bread—and one’s future inheritance? Jacob here can only be viewed as an extortionist. Rivka wasn’t even involved; this action appears to be solely Jacob’s idea.
But Rivka knew of this event, and when it came time for Isaac to actually give the first-born blessing to Esau, she acted, and Jacob willingly went along with the deception. No wonder, after Jacob told Laban about his family history, Laban said, admiringly, “You are truly my bone and flesh” (Gen. 29:14).
From this description of Jacob’s youth in our sidra, what do we learn of his character? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
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