Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
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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Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Hukkat 5761/ June 30, 2001
Two that are One: Israel and Edom - Jacob and
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
" and "Moses sent messengers"; "his brother
)" 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"
-Num. 20:17); both stories use the root h-l-kh
the particle na
("please") many times
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).
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
(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
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
(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
(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
(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
1) Israel is constantly on the move, while Edom is fixed in one
2) Israel and Edom have been estranged from each other for a long
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
6) An historical overview is given as a basis for the requested
7) Edom rejects any closeness.
8) Israel repeats the request.
9) Relations are severed, primarily because Israel so
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
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
"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
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
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?
On the other hand,
one cannot ignore the possibility that Esau's "anger raged
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
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
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.
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
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.
See Numbers 21:22, where Israel makes a
similar request to Sihon, king of the Amorites, but without using this word of
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).
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).
It is true that Edom threatened Israel,
but Israel could have chosen hostile action instead of backing down from their
As the Midrash rightly sensed, but we
will interpret those innuendoes in a different fashion.
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
In the words of the prophet Amos
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."
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.