A Portrait of Esav
Esav the Enigma
Frequently, the Torah simply recounts events without pronouncing explicit moral judgment on the characters involved. In cases where the circumstances are hazy and details are scant, the reader must then struggle to piece together assorted (and sometimes contradictory) clues in order to reveal the lessons and meanings of the characters and their stories.
Esav is a case in point. The Torah tells us very little about his deeds and makes no definitive character evaluation. A cursory survey of the data seems to show that much of the evidence the Torah does provide is, at most, equivocal:
- Bereshit 25:27 states that Esav was a hunter ("אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד"). Is this an implied critique of Esav's choice of profession,1 or might it even be praise for his talents?
- In Bereshit 25:34, we read how Yaakov persuaded Esav to sell his birthright and how Esav then disdained it. Was there a moral failing in this episode? If yes, was it on the part of Esav or Yaakov?2
- Bereshit 26:34-35 notes that Esav married two Hittite women who caused grief to both of his parents.3 Yet, Bereshit 28:8-9 also records that when Esav realized this, he tried to rectify the situation by marrying a daughter of Yishmael.4
- In Bereshit 27:41, the Torah tells us that, in his anger over the stealing of his blessing, Esav contemplated killing Yaakov. Had Esav attempted to execute this plan, it would undoubtedly have been a heinous act, but it is far from clear that he ever tried.5 And can one blame him for being furious not only at being swindled, but also at having his father add insult to injury by giving a second blessing to Yaakov?
- When decades later, Yaakov returns to Canaan in Bereshit 32-33, Esav comes to greet him accompanied by a group of 400 men. One possible reading is that Esav was bringing an army in order to attack Yaakov. But if so, why would he instead embrace and kiss him?
To sum up, while the Torah may present Esav as a somewhat coarse character, it is much more questionable whether it views Esav as a wicked or even negative person. And while Hashem makes plain His own endorsement of the choice of Yaakov to be the next patriarch (and this surely is a factor which motivates some exegetes to find faults in Esav),6 it is not so obvious why Esav was rejected.7
Parents Playing Favorites
Sefer Bereshit is replete, from beginning to end, with sibling rivalry and parental favoritism. Yet, the story of Yaakov and Esav and their relationships with their parents stands out, as it is a case where despite the brothers sharing the same father and a mother, each parent favors a different child. These preferences are proclaimed already at the very outset of the narrative in Bereshit 25:
(כח) וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב.
(28) And Yitzchak loved Esav, because he ate of his hunting, and Rivka loved Yaakov.
These predilections come to the fore again, in the story of the blessings. While Yitzchak planned to bless Esav, Rivka ensured through deceitful measures that Yaakov was blessed.
- What is the meaning of "כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו"? Was Yitzchak's most important consideration purely gastronomical?
- What led each parent to favor a different son? Was Yitzchak wholly unaware of or apathetic to Rivka's considerations?8
- Why does Hashem ratify Yaakov's blessings if they were obtained through chicanery? Could it be that this was only a de facto recognition? Given Hashem's confirmation, how are we to understand Yitzchak's original plan to bestow them upon Esav?
Hashem's Choice and Historical Esav
While Hashem does select Yaakov to be the father of the chosen nation, the Torah never discloses His opinion of Esav. The prophecy of Malakhi, though, is much more blunt, opening with the following statement:
(ב) אָהַבְתִּי אֶתְכֶם אָמַר ה' וַאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמָּה אֲהַבְתָּנוּ הֲלוֹא אָח עֵשָׂו לְיַעֲקֹב נְאֻם ה' וָאֹהַב אֶת יַעֲקֹב. (ג) וְאֶת עֵשָׂו שָׂנֵאתִי וָאָשִׂים אֶת הָרָיו שְׁמָמָה וְאֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ לְתַנּוֹת מִדְבָּר.
(2) You have been loved by me, said Hashem. But you say, Where was your love for us? Was not Esav Yaakov's brother? Said Hashem: and Yaakov was loved by me. (3) But Esav I hated, and I made his mountains a desolation, and I gave his inheritance to the jackals of the wilderness.
According to Malakhi, Hashem loves Yaakov but hates Esav. However, Malakhi does not explain what caused this preference. Additionally, is this prophecy speaking of Esav the individual, or is it merely using his name as a symbol for the nation of Edom with whom there was historical strife and enmity?
Significantly, Esav as a symbol lived on long after his genetic descendants had blended into the pool of nations. From the Idumeans during the Hasmonean period, through the Romans, and continuing to Christianity, Esav remained as the archetype of Israel's sworn enemy. Undoubtedly, these associations influenced many of the approaches of the commentators throughout the generations.