Toledot–Sympathy for Esau

When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with a great and very bitter outcry, and said to his father, “Bless me, too, father!”  But he said, “Your brother has come in deceit, and he has taken away your blessing.”  Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” And he said, “Have you not kept back a blessing for me?”  Isaac answered Esau, “I have already made him your lord, and I have given him all his brothers as servants, and endowed him with  grain and wine. What then can I do for you, my son?”  Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father?  Bless me, too, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.  (Gen. 27:34-38)

The figures in the Bible tend to get polarized in its subsequent interpretation, drawn to extremes of good or evil.  Such is certainly the case with Esau.  Beginning  with Edom’s* alliance with the Babylonians at the time of Judah’s destruction in the 6th century BC, later biblical traditions and biblical interpreters increasingly took the view that Esau/Edom was simply wicked.    The rabbis and their medieval successors see Esau as standing for pagan (later Christian) Rome.

However, the text evokes sympathy for Esau at this point.  True, we have seen enough of Esau to view him as less worthy than Jacob to carry on the ancestral promise to Abraham.  But Jacob is flawed too, not least in this episode, and Esau is not so “wicked” that we don’t feel sorry for him in this moment.

*remember, Esau = Edom just as Jacob = Israel

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