Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hukkat

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Hukkat 5761/ June 30, 2001

Two that are One: Israel and Edom - Jacob and Esau

Yonah Bar-Maoz
Department of Bible


This Shabbat we will read of Moses' attempt to travel through Edom on the way to Canaan, and of the negative response he was given. Even at first reading it might be clear to the sensitive reader that the story alludes to another one, namely the encounter between Jacob and Esau upon Jacob's return from Haran in Genesis 32. However, it is the nature of these related stories that sometimes we may read them without an inkling of these links, which are primarily in the nature of related words, so we will try to make them explicit:
Many key words appear in both narratives, for example: "Jacob sent messengers (mal'akhim)" and "Moses sent messengers"; "his brother ('esav ahiv)" and "your brother (ahikha yisrael)"; "coming to meet you" and "come out against you" (both likratkha in Heb.); "let them go on ahead ('ivru lefanay-Gen. 32:17)" and "allow us to cross" (na'bera-Num. 20:17); both stories use the root h-l-kh and the particle na ("please") many times throughout.[1]
Of course, the names of the main characters in Numbers call to mind the events from Genesis: Israel, "for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed" (Gen. 32:29), and Edom, "which is why he was named Edom" (Gen. 25:30).[2]
Below we present the texts for even closer comparison (citing from the Jacob narrative only in part):

Genesis, Chapter 32: Stage 1

(4) Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.
(5) [He] instructed them as follows: "Thus you shall say, 'To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob: I stayed with Laban and remained until now;
(6) I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep and male and female slaves; and I send this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor.
(7) The messengers returned to Jacob, saying: "We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.

Numbers, Chapter 20: Stage 1

(14) From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: "Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us;
(15) that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors.
(16) We cried to the Lord and He heard our plea, and He sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt. Now we are in Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory.
(17) Allow us, then, to cross (na'bera) your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king's highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left until we have crossed (na-avor) your territory.
(18) But Edom answered him, "You shall not pass through us (lo ta-avor), else we will go out against you with the sword."

Genesis, Stage 2

(17) These he put in the charge of his servants, drove by drove, and he told his servants, "Go on ahead, and keep a distance between droves."
(18) He instructed the one in front as follows, "When my brother Esau meets you and asks you, 'Whose man are you? Where are you going? And whose [animals] are these ahead of you?'
(19) you shall answer, 'Your servant Jacob's; they are a gift sent to my lord Esau; and [Jacob] himself is right behind us.'"

Genesis, Chapter 33

(8) And he asked, "What do you mean by all this company which I have met?" He answered, "To gain my lord's favor."
(11) Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for G-d has favored me and I have plenty." And when he urged him, he accepted.
(12) And [Esau] said, "Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.
(14) Let my lord go on ahead (ya-avor) of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace (le-regel) of the cattle before me and at the pace (le-regel) of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir."
(16) So Esau started back that day on his way to Seir.
(17) But Jacob journeyed on to Succoth, ...

Numbers, Stage 2

(19) "We will keep to the beaten track," the Israelites said to them, "and if we or our cattle drink your water, we will pay for it. We ask only for passage on foot (be-raglai e'evora).
(20) But they replied, "You shall not pass through!" And Edom went out against them in heavy force, strongly armed.
(20) So Edom would not let Israel cross their territory, and Israel turned away from them.

We must note further that the response of Edom is also phrased in such a way as to remind us of a particular detail pertaining to the conflict between the brothers: "You shall not pass through us, else we will go out against you with the sword" - "Yet by your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restive, you shall break his yoke from your neck" (Gen. 27:40).

Aside from the linguistic similarities we have parallels in the plot of the two stories. The following is our attempt to summarize the plot for both stories together:
1) Israel is constantly on the move, while Edom is fixed in one place.
2) Israel and Edom have been estranged from each other for a long time.
3) Edom threatens hostility against Israel.
4) Israel initiates an act of reconciliation.
5) There is an attempt to be pleasing in order to achieve reconciliation.
6) An historical overview is given as a basis for the requested reconciliation.
7) Edom rejects any closeness.[3]
8) Israel repeats the request.
9) Relations are severed, primarily because Israel so desired.[4]
The most significant point of similarity, however, concerns the nature of the historical overview given by Jacob/Israel. In both narratives, the historical synopsis appears to be unrelated to the request that follows: why should Jacob tell Esau that he lived with Laban and had acquired cattle, asses, sheep and male and female slaves, and how would this lead to pleasing Esau? In our parasha, how does the fact that the Israelites had been oppressed slaves in Egypt justify their request to cross Edom's territory? In both cases the events of the past are irrelevant to the person to whom the request is addressed, and there is no logical connection between the explanations given and the request itself; this contrasts with the case in Judges 11, in the conflict between Israel and Ammon (which not by chance is the haftarah for parashat Hukkat).
In Judges 11 we see clearly that the two parties to the negotiations only evoke events of the past when these events have a bearing on the conflict, and even when Jephthah mentions things that happened between Israel and another nations, e.g. relations with Edom and Moab, these deeds are brought up to shed light on the general picture and to strengthen the direct arguments against Ammon. This is not the
case with the two narratives we are discussing, from Genesis and Numbers.

The Midrash Explanation
Can a single explanation be given to account for the unique pattern these two stories share?
An interesting way of understanding is suggested by certain homiletical comments of the Sages. These midrashim interpret the unrelated historical statements as innuendos that draw a connection between Esau/Edom and the requests of Jacob/Israel:

Midrash Tanhuma (Buber), Parashat Va-Yishlah, Sect. 5, on Gen.32:5

"I stayed with Laban" - not one of the blessings that your father bestowed upon me was fulfilled. Your father blessed me, "May G-d give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth" (Gen. 27:28), and I do not have even one of these, rather, I have "cattle, asses, sheep," which are neither of heaven nor of earth. Is not your hatred of me only on account of the blessings (of which I have not yet received a single one)?

Midrash Tanhuma (Warsaw), Parashat Hukkat, Sect. 12, on Num.20:14
"You know all the hardships that have befallen us" - They said to him: You are aware that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham, "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers [in a land not theirs]" (Gen. 15:13). We became slaves, and you are free; our ancestors descended [to Egypt] and all the rest [of that story]. What is this like? Two brothers whose elderly father left a debt; one of them paid it off, and some years later began requesting things of his brother, saying to him: you know that the debt which I paid off was both of ours, but I paid it off, therefore do not deny me the thing that I request of you.

According to these two midrashim, Jacob and Israel were implicitly lodging a complaint against Esau and Edom. Jacob was protesting Esau's prolonged gratuitous hatred of him, and therefore essentially demanded the right to return in peace to his father's home; Israel the nation protested that Esau enjoyed peace and tranquility while Israel had been suffering, and therefore demanded, as their right and not as a favor, that they be allowed to pass through Edom on the way to their final destination. According to these comments, our narrative bears a greater resemblance to the story of Jephthah and the Ammonites, in terms of a closer connection between past history and the current conflict.

The Simple Sense of the Text

Nevertheless it is clear that these homilies were not intended as an explanation of the plain sense, the Peshat. Indeed, in the context of the homilies which we cited, the imploring tone of the appeals and the self-abnegation of Jacob and Israel become totally incomprehensible.
Let us therefore present a Peshat explanation that accounts for the questions we have raised. Both passages concern speeches containing oblique innuendoes,[5] and the party initiating contact creates a delicate balance of closeness coupled with distance, on the one hand seeking to deter aggression against themselves while on the other hand trying to allay the other's fears of Israel/Jacob acting aggressively. All this is conveyed without saying anything explicit.
In Genesis, Jacob fears his brother Esau's revenge for having deceitfully obtained the blessing; yet it would not be proper to express this fear outright. Twenty years, after all, had elapsed since that act, and the dust of the years may very well have allayed the heat of Esau's fury. Why, then, stir the dog of hatred from its slumber?[6] On the other hand, one cannot ignore the possibility that Esau's "anger raged unceasing."[7] Therefore it would be prudent for Jacob to hint to Esau that he is not helpless or afraid of violent confrontation, but that he does not wish to have such conflict. This is how one should understand the affirmative message in Jacob's words: the fact that it is I who initiates this meeting shows that I am not afraid of you; and if you ask, was I not hiding from you in fear for twenty years, my answer is that I was not able to see you, not because of my fear of you, but because I was busy, far away, accumulating wealth with Laban "and remained until now." As for you, you need not fear lest I am planning to kill you before you have a chance to kill me, for I am sending you this delegation "in the hope of gaining your favor."
This message, with its dual meaning, is sharpened by Jacob's subsequent actions, sending ahead to Esau large flocks at wide intervals, with words of submission to Esau in the messages conveyed by those in charge of the flocks. Yet at the same time as expressing submission, Jacob also made a show of force, hinted at by the size of his gift: the owner of these flocks, herds, donkeys and camels was also master of many slaves, some purchased and others born into his household, and with their assistance he could easily route a sizable armed force.[8]
The Israelites on their way out of Egypt also faced no easy problem: as long as they had been roaming about in the wilderness, they were capable of coping with attacks by other desert nomads; but now they were approaching areas settled by other peoples, the first of which was Edom. The hostility of settled peoples towards tent dwellers is well known, because of the constant threat which nomads pose to them.[9] It is quite conceivable that Edom, who lived by the sword, would set out to ward off the danger threatening their country, without waiting for the anticipated invasion. To prevent themselves from being attacked, Israel made a request which had no chance whatsoever of being granted, but which constituted a clear challenge. No nation would consent of its own free will to a massive foreign force descending upon it, even if promises of payment accompanied the request for right of passage. Neither Edom, nor Moab, nor the kingdom of Sihon complied with Israel's request, and rightly so. For the same reason, however, such a request was likely to rouse Edom to attack Israel, for they would view the request as a pretext for hostile action, as indeed proved to be the case in the Israelites' behavior towards Sihon (cf. Numbers 21 and Deuteronomy 2).
Therefore the Israelites embellished their request to pass through Edom with a description of their travails in Egypt. Telling of their slavery and oppression was not intended to evoke mercy, but to hint that they were not planning violence; for anyone who intends to attack or make his way by force is interested in making an impression of heroic might, not of feeble powerlessness. The second round of entreaties buttresses this impression after Edom's first refusal, similar to the impression created by the second stage in Jacob's strategy. Instead of avenging their offended honor due to the first refusal, the Israelites humbled themselves again by asking to be turned down a second time. On the other hand, the very fact of taking the initiative and voluntarily appealing to the Edomites conveyed a message of strength and self-confidence, as if to say: we are not afraid to rouse sleeping dogs, and if necessary, we shall have no problem defending ourselves! In addition, mention of the exodus from Egypt could well cool the fire of war-mongering Edomites, for if the mighty Egyptian nation could not stem the tide of these slaves, who was Edom to succeed?
Thus the Israelites passed peacefully along the border of Edom (cf. Deut. 2:1) without a soul opening his mouth to complain; and after the Edomites, they circumvented also the Moabites and Ammonites, until the Israelites reached the borders of the kingdom of Sihon. Only then did military confrontation begin, in accordance with the Israelites' prior intentions.

[1] See Numbers 21:22, where Israel makes a similar request to Sihon, king of the Amorites, but without using this word of politeness.
[2] Compare the parallel account in Deuteronomy 2, where Edom is referred to as "the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir" (vv. 4, 8, 29).
[3] Jacob took the answer brought back by the messengers, "We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him," as a negative response to his attempt to please Esau. Therefore, "Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, 'If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape'" (Gen. 33:8-9).
[4] It is true that Edom threatened Israel, but Israel could have chosen hostile action instead of backing down from their request.
[5] As the Midrash rightly sensed, but we will interpret those innuendoes in a different fashion.
[6] My use of this expression follows the homily in Genesis Rabbah (Vilna ed.), 75.3: " 'Jacob sent...' - began: "A passerby who gets embroiled in someone else's quarrel is like one who seizes a dog by its ears" (Prov. 26:17). Samuel bar Nahman said: It is like an arch-brigand who was sleeping by the roadside, when a passerby came and awakened him and said, "Get up, for it is bad for you to be found here." He rose and robbed him, saying, " It was bad to rouse me[?]." Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: He was going his own way, and you sent to him saying, "Thus says your servant Jacob." Rabbi Judah be-Rabbi Simon began: "What will you say when they appoint as your heads those among you whom you trained to be tame?" (Jer. 13:21); the Holy One, blessed be He, said: He was going his own way, and you sent to him saying, "Thus says your servant Jacob."
[7] In the words of the prophet Amos (1:11).
[8] Cf. Genesis 14:14-15: "When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them; and he pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus."
[9] Cf. Judges 6:2-5:
The hand of the Midianites prevailed over Israel; and because of Midian, the Israelites provided themselves with refuges in the caves and strongholds of the mountains. After the Israelites had done their sowing, Midian, Amalek, and the Kedemites would come up and raid them; they would attack them, destroy the produce of the land all the way to Gaza, and leave no means of sustenance in Israel, not a sheep or an ox or an ass. For they would come up with their livestock and their tents, swarming as thick as locusts; they and their camels were innumerable. Thus they would invade the land and ravage it.