Parashat Toledot 5769/ November 29, 2008
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Esau in Josephus
Dr. Michael Avioz
Department of Bible
Doctoral Student in the Department of Talmu
Josephus Flavius, who lived from 37 to
Josephus' Rewritten Bible
There are many differences between the rewriting of history
in Josephus and its presentation in the Bible.
Some of these differences can be ascribed to events of the times:
Josephus lived during Roman domination of
Since a comprehensive analysis of Josephus' rewriting of relations between Jacob and Esau would exceed the limits of this article, we shall limit ourselves to presenting several main points that illustrate the changes Josephus made in the biblical account and shall suggest several hypotheses as to why he did so.
These points illustrate the apologetic nature of Josephus' writing, so typical of his works. As opposed to the Greek and Roman authors, who presented the Jewish religion as bellicose and rebellious, he presented Judaism as a peace-loving faith with no intent of rebellion; a religion that sanctifies the values of honesty and justice and has no intention of taking over the world. Josephus sought to convey these general messages by the way he recast the story of Jacob and Esau. The messages were addressed both to gentile as well as Jewish readers: those who bad-mouthed the Jews in Josephus’ day; readers who had been swayed by anti-Jewish propaganda and cast doubt on the progressiveness of the Jewish people; naïve people, ignorant of the nature of Jews and Judaism; interested intellectuals; Jewish readers from a select group close to the Roman government (descendants of Herod and others close to them); people in ruling and administrative circles throughout the Roman Empire, and Jews with a Hellenistic education throughout the Dispersion. 
Nevertheless, apologetic considerations alone are not sufficient to account for Josephus’ omissions and additions to the story of Jacob and Esau. Another motive can be found that accounts for at least several of the changes, namely a desire to provide an answer to difficulties arising from the biblical narrative itself, as we see in the following changes:
1) Josephus clarified for his readers the meaning of the ambiguous expression, rendered in English as “the older shall serve the younger.”
2) The positive presentation of the figure of Esau  is based on the fact that the plain sense of the text does not necessarily portray Esau as the epitome of evil. Josephus’ decision to present Esau in such a positive light could also have stemmed from literary considerations.
3) Josephus resolved another exegetical difficulty: should Isaac’s blessing to Jacob (“May G-d give you…”) be viewed as prophecy or supplication?  Josephus’ alteration to the story (“Lord of the Universe … please keep Your promise”) makes things clear: Isaac’s words were said as prayer and supplication to G-d.
4) Josephus’ addition (see above, 5) regarding the request that G-d fulfill his promises could have been based on Genesis 28:4: “May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which G-d assigned to Abraham.” This addition can resolve the difficulty that Abarbanel noted in his commentary: “why … did he not mention [in the blessings] anything spiritual, neither inheriting the land nor what the Lord had sworn to Abraham?”
In conclusion, in reading the biblical stories as recast by Josephus, one should take into account the historical setting in which Josephus lived. Equally, one should be closely attentive to his rewriting and examine how his recasting of the text transforms the biblical narrative, especially in the places where it is obscure and replete with gaps, into a story more readily understood by the reader.
 Esau is mentioned primarily in Antiquities 1.257-258, 265-277, 335-336. To derive maximum benefit from this article, it is recommended to read it along with Josephus’ work.
Many sources in the works
of the Sages and post-biblical literature refer to Esau as a symbol for
Apion (Heb.), Arye
 On the portrayal of Esau as having many undesirable characteristics, see C. T. R. Hayward, “A Portrait of the Wicked Esau in the Targum of Codex Neofiti,” in The Aramaic Bible: Targums in their Historical Context, Sheffield 1994, pp 291-309; L.H. Feldman, Josephus’s Interpretation of the Bible, Berkeley 1998; The Brill Josephus Project, Vol. 3: Judean Antiquities 1-4, translation and commentary by L. H. Feldman, Leiden 2000. For a positive portrayal of Esau, see: Irit Aminoff, “Shivho shel Esav ba-Aggadah ha-Eretz Yisraelit,” Alei-Si’ah 19/20 (1984), pp. 224-229; A. Shinan, “Kibbed Esav le-Aviv Yoter mi- Meni,” Devarim she- Yesh la-Hem Shi’ur: Iyyunim u- Verurim be-Mitzvot Kibbud Av va-Em, Alon Shevut 2008, pp. 443-454.
 For greater detail, see Abarbanel’s commentary on this subject.