Torah Portion of the Week: An Esau We Didn’t Know

Parashat Toldot.

Jacob and Esau
Jacob and Esau as depicted in The Mess of Pottage, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot Wikimedia Commons/James Tissot/Jewish Museum, NY.

Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9), is the first chapter in the story of Jacob, which, if we include Joseph’s narrative, constitutes half of Genesis. This week’s reading describes Jacob and Esau’s murky relationship and the poor communication between their father, Isaac, and Rebecca, their mother: Whereas she favors Jacob, Isaac prefers Esau. After failing to attain the birthright after being born, Jacob purchases it from Esau in return for a bowl of lentil stew – and then, on his mother’s counsel, steals Esau’s blessing by posing as him.

An additional, lesser-known story hides inside this Torah portion: A different version of the chronicles of Isaac and Rebecca’s family, it is part of another narrative thread that uniquely describes not only this family’s history but all Israelite history from Creation to the death of Moses.

According to the “Documentary Hypothesis” of Bible scholarship, all of the Torah, including Genesis, intertwines separate stories into a single chronological sequence. This sequence, however, is frequently interrupted and includes repetitions, contradictions, narrative gaps and varying styles that attest to the components from which the canonical text was initially composed, and these are what enable us to identify the original narrative threads.

Between the description of the sale of the birthright and the theft of Isaac’s blessing, we read: “When Esau was forty years old, he took to wife Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite; and they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebecca” (Gen. 26:34-35). A part of the narrative thread that scholars refer to as the Priestly Source, these verses do not depict any struggle between the brothers and the parents over who is the real firstborn and who will receive Isaac’s blessing. Instead, they briefly describe Esau’s marriages to two gentile women, which sadden his parents.

Readers may well expect to discover how the disappointed parents react, but instead a story from another source – depicting Jacob disguising himself as Esau at Rebecca’s initiative, so as to deceive Isaac – intervenes. The clear connection between the fate of the birthright and the blessing being stolen is expressed by Esau, who screams: “First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!” (Gen. 27:36). The report of Esau’s marriages interrupts the narrative-thematic link between the birthright and blessing stories: But Isaac and Rebecca do not cooperate when it comes to the story of the theft of the blessing, which is apparently told – as per the order of the text – after the marriages are reported; moreover, the nuptials of Esau, who longs to receive his father’s blessing, are not mentioned.

The narrative expectations that Esau’s marriages create are realized later in Parashat Toldot – in what is apparently a direct continuation of the original priestly thread: “Rebecca said to Isaac, ‘I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, what good will life be to me?’” (Gen. 27:46). We should read this verse, and those following it, in sequence and as a direct continuation of the description of the marriages (Gen. 26:34-35), without the story of the stolen blessing, which has been inserted in the middle. In this way it is possible to feel the narrative and stylistic continuity that, it is hypothesized, characterizes the original text.

Let us continue with the story of the marriages: Rebecca believes that Esau is a lost cause, but that Jacob can be saved. So Isaac summons Jacob, blessing and commanding him: “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women. Up, go to Paddan-Aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May he grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham” (Gen. 28:1-4).

This context of this passage does not fit that of the canonical story: We already know that Isaac blessed Jacob, falling for the deception and believing he was blessing Esau. And Isaac’s second blessing of Jacob renders the first superfluous, even contradicting it. When this weekly portion is read as a single narrative, it is unclear why Isaac blesses Jacob twice and why Jacob disguises himself as Esau if Isaac need have to be coerced into blessing the former. However, we can understand the blessing and command when we read them within the context of the priestly narrative, as distinct from the other thread.

The Priestly Source depicts a family that is more harmonious. While, in the other narrative, Rebecca sends Jacob to her brother’s home to save him from Esau, who wants to avenge the theft of the blessing, in the priestly version of events, Rebecca and Isaac both send Jacob to Paddan-Aram to get married, and Esau – who is not portrayed as a potential murderer here – is seen as the dutiful son determined not to hurt his parents. Although he does not divorce his Hittite wives, he marries another woman, who is not an undesirable Canaanite but rather Abraham’s kin: “Esau realized that the Canaanite women displeased his father Isaac. So Esau went to Ishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nebaioth” (Gen. 28:8-9). Perhaps this story hints that Jacob deserves Abraham’s blessing because, unlike Esau, he does not marry foreign women. In any event, this point is not expressed explicitly and the text does not describe any struggle or conflict over this issue.

Jacob’s departure from his parents’ home and his journey to his uncle is also presented in two versions. In Parashat Toldot, we read: “Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and gone to Paddan-Aram” (Gen. 28:7). However, the first verse of next week’s reading gives a different version of Jacob’s departure: “Jacob left Beersheba, and set out for Haran” (Gen. 28:10). Where does Jacob go: to Paddan-Aram or Haran? Does he seek a wife or is he fleeing Esau? Is he leaving because of Isaac’s command, in the wake of Rebecca’s concerns – or because of his mother’s counsel? The Torah includes two different responses to each of these questions. The narrative’s redundancies and contradictions, which repeatedly interrupt the continuity of the story, enable us to uncover both of what are in all likelihood interwoven, separate stories, along with each story’s internal coherence.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.