Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Toledot 5769/ November 29, 2008

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Esau in Josephus

Dr.  Michael Avioz

Department of Bible

Doctoral Student in the Department of Talmu

Josephus Flavius, who lived from 37 to 100 C.E., wrote four major works:  The Jewish War, Antiquities of the Jews, The Life of Joseph, and Against Apion.   In Books I-XI of Antiquities, he reconstructed biblical history from Creation through the time of the Persian kingdom.  In this article we focus on the figure of Esau, as he appears in Antiquities. [1]

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 Judea (1st century C.E.), and his writing of history reflects this historical circumstance in several ways.   His attitude towards Rome was different from that of other important figures of the times, and through his recasting of biblical history he could present his approach to his readers.

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.

  1. Josephus omitted the story of the struggle between Jacob and Esau in the womb (“the children struggled in her womb”).  Viewing this omission in the context of Josephus' relationship with the Rome, we suggest that Josephus wished to minimize the points of friction between Jacob and Esau, who were thought of as representing Israel and Rome. [2]
  2. The prophecy, “One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23), was interpreted by Josephus as follows:   “The younger one, according to his appearance, will rise over the older one,” following the rendition in the Septuagint, uperecei, i.e., be superior to him.  This change was apparently made in order to avoid the interpretation that says Esau's descendants for all generations would be servants to Jacob, as rendered by Onkelos:  yishta'avad = be subservient.   Josephus saw no point in presenting a prophecy in which Rome would be the weaker, subservient to Judea, and certainly not after Rome had vanquished Judea and put down the Great Revolt of the Jews in 66 C.E.
  3. Josephus omitted the fact that Esau was admoni (=red-haired), apparently because of the negative attitude in ancient times towards people with red hair.  Even when this detail is mentioned with respect to David (I Sam. 16:12), Josephus took care to render admoni as xanthos, meaning blond (Antiquities, 6.164).  Presenting Esau as red-haired could have been used by those Greek and Roman authors who claimed that the Jews are misanthropes and mocking of others.   A desire to avoid mocking Esau can perhaps be seen also in Josephus transferring the story of the sale of the birthright to a later stage in the history of Jacob and Esau (Antiq. 2.1-3).  This avoids creating the impression that Esau treated his birthright lightly.
  4. Josephus omitted the blessing given Jacob, “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you” (Gen. 27:29).  Such a blessing would likely have been received as a call emphasizing the inferiority of all other people to the Jews, and therefore was also likely to be interpreted as a call for revolt against Rome.
  5. The blessings that Isaac gave Esau as compensation for Jacob having stolen his blessing are expanded upon in Josephus' rewriting of the biblical story:   “He should excel in hunting and strength of body, in arms, and all such sorts of work; and should obtain glory for ever on those accounts, he and his posterity after him” (Antiquities 1.275).


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. [3]

Biblical Interpretation

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 [4] 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? [5]   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.


[1] 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.

[2]  Many sources in the works of the Sages and post-biblical literature refer to Esau as a symbol for Rome.   See J. L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible:  A Guide to the Bible as it Was at the Start of the Common Era, Cambridge, Mass. 1998, p. 358.

[3] Against Apion (Heb.), Arye Kascher ed., Jerusalem 1997, vol. 1, p. 8.

[4] 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.

[5] For greater detail, see Abarbanel’s commentary on this subject.