Toldot is where it all begins, the twins kicking up a fuss in Rebecca’s womb, getting an early start on the long, bloody, push-and-pull that constitutes history. There he is, our tricky Grandpa Jacob wrestling his way into this world, on the heels of a minutes-older, much hairier brother.
Nothing comes easy for Jacob — not birth, not birthright, not blessing, not women, not children. And nothing ever will for us, the grandchildren who bear the name he had to wrestle for, Israel, the God-Wrestler.
It’s Jacob we focus on, retelling his story, relitigating the rights and wrongs of the road he traveled, carrying on the long quarrel with Esau. It isn’t enough for the Bible to imply that he didn’t deserve the birthright, if he was willing to sell it for, as the King James puts it “a mess of pottage,” or to point out, in 26:34 and 28:9, Esau’s multiple “intermarriages.”
Rabbinic literature piles on, explaining the tumult in Rebecca’s belly by Esau’s frantic attempt to get out whenever she passed by a place of idolatry. But there’s no getting around the fact that Esau hardly seems worthy of the birthright, despite the technicalities of birth order.
For a member of a famously clever Jewish family, he was no intellectual giant; Robert Alter renders Esau’s request to Jacob, at 25:30, as “Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff, for am I famished,” noting that “the writer comes close to assigning substandard Hebrew to the rude Esau.” Esau cannot come up with the word for stew, and “instead points to the bubbling pot impatiently as (literally) ‘this red red.’ ” And the word he uses for eating is in rabbinic literature “reserved for the feeding of animals.”
Esau is a hunter, a man of appetites, the outdoors, a red-state redneck, a member of the NRA; to put it delicately, he doesn’t share our values. Jacob, Rebecca and God were right to wrestle the birthright out from under his nose.
If Jacob — trickster, mama’s boy, bookworm — lives on, so, too, does Esau, as rabbinic literature read his story. Esau’s children, as Isaac’s belated blessing to him promised, live by the imperial sword, spreading out over the Earth as Christendom. The fraternal struggle, for the rabbis, expands to fill the world. And while Esau’s children fight it with weapons, Jacob’s children take them on the way they know best, with stories, midrash and Jewish smarts.
The argument, then, is hardly a symmetrical one: No defense lawyers assemble on Esau’s side of the table to make the case to invalidate a birthright purchased under duress, or a blessing obtained by stealth and some sheepskin. No one speaks up for Esau. Even those cultural forces that reclaimed Hagar for Jewish memory have passed Esau by.
But maybe that’s as it should be. When Esau sells his birthright for something that looks better to him, he leaves the historical stage to his ambitious brother, and to us, Jacob’s still-striving grandchildren.
Jewish tradition has overwhelmingly voted for Jacob over Esau, in line with their mother’s preferences and those of God himself. But even here, there’s another voice in the story — that of Isaac, who preferred his hairy to his bookish son.
Yes, the old man was blind, and too fond of his steak. But maybe what he liked about Esau wasn’t a product of delusion or appetite, but of honest assessment: There’s something to love about a man who prefers a good lentil stew to a birthright.
Jacob defines his life as one of fraternal struggle, but Esau doesn’t — he doesn’t even seem to realize he’s been cast in that role. Jacob schemes to get Isaac’s sole blessing, but Esau cries, “Bless me, too, Father” (Genesis 27: 34), and asks his father, a few verses later, “Have you but one blessing, Father?” (38). When Esau finally wakes up to the game he’s been compelled to play, he protests against his brother’s cheating ways but also against the game itself, which takes for granted that fathers, and God, have only one blessing to bestow.
Isaac loved him, and heard him, and maybe it’s time we did, too.
Naomi Seidman is the Koret Professor of Jewish Culture and director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.