So this last week we studied Toldot, the narrative with the most famous interaction between the brothers Jacob and Esau – in which Esau sells his birthright for a bowl of lentils. If you grew up Christian as I did, it might seem that Jacob is the villain of the story, the deceiver, somehow tricking his brother out of his birthright. But…that is not what is really happening here.
If you look at the Hebrew it says that Jacob is known as an ish tam, a blameless or guiltless man. So we might get the wrong idea if we are looking at our bibles in English. For example, when I was growing up and heard that Jacob wanted to stay around the tent but Esau was a man out in the wild, hunting and trapping it seemed to me that I would want to be like Esau, a manly man and not Jacob the homebody, the mama’s boy. In some modern translations it actually says Jacob liked to stay home among the tents but that is not in the Hebrew at all. In fact when we fill in the gaps with the oral interpretations traditional to Judaism we understand that the tents were not his home at all. He was going to study Torah with Shem and Eber. As an aside, Shem is a son of Noah and Eber is his grandson. And Eber is where the word Hebrew is derived and it means crossover, a connotation of the word Hebrew.
So what is the story with this stew, this bowl of lentils? And why does Esau spurn, or despise, his birthright? It is important that it is lentils. But why? In Jewish tradition, especially at that time, this was the first dish that you made for someone in mourning. The Rabbis say that because the lentil is round it reminds us that grief is all around all of us; and it has no mouth just as the mourner is silent. But who is mourning in this story? Oral tradition has it that it is Jacob’s father, Isaac; this was the day that Isaac’s father – Jacob’s grandfather – Abraham dies. So why isn’t Esau helping? He comes in from the field and the bible says in English that hs is a man of the wild, of the field. In Hebrew this actually means that he himself is undisciplined, is wild. Midrash says that he comes in from killing the man known as Nimrod who we learn about in the tower of Babel narrative, not from merely hunting.
Esau says give me some of the red stuff, but the Hebrew says pour into my mouth that red red. Nowhere do we see the word stew, soup or dish. He focuses only on appearance, he desires something red. Esau begins here to be known as Edom or red, who has an appetite for blood and war and violence. He says pour it into me, not that he wants it to eat. He wants to consume it but he wants someone else to feed him, to do the work.
So in proper context, it is not that Jacob is the boring homebody, the mama’s boy and Esau the real man out in the world hunting and trapping. The Rabbis say that the best trapping Esau did was with his words, deceiving his father into believing he was a righteous man. He asked Isaac questions about tithing and other righteous acts, not caring at all about them, just to trick him. So in this story, it is really Jacob that is the “good guy” as it were; Esau is the one whose intentions are not correct.
So why must/does Jacob deceive his father? It is prophesied at the time of their birth that the older – Esau – will serve the younger – Jacob. It was always supposed to be Jacob that was given the blessing, the birthright. It was only coming to Esau as a result of his trickery and his bringing food that his father preferred. Jacob was just setting things right.
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