The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
The Birth of Jacob and Esau
Department of Bible
The haftarah read for parshat Toledot, Chapter 1 of Malachi, begins: "I have loved you, saith the Lord. Yet ye say: 'Wherein hast Thou loved us?' Was not Esau Jacob's brother? saith the Lord; yet I loved Jacob. But Esau I hated, and made his mountains a desolation, and gave his heritage to the jackals of the wilderness." This discriminatory attitude toward Esau, set forth with no justification, is cited as proof that the people of Israel are the chosen ones, beloved among the nations. Jacob and Esau, in Malachi's prophecy, signify not only the proper names of historic figures, the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, but also the Israelite and Edomite nations. The practice of using these historic figures as eponymous ancestors, as stand-ins for the peoples of Israel and the gentiles, was developed extensively by the Sages but can be traced back to the story of these twins in Genesis 25.
Annunciation of a barren woman bearing child
The biblical narrative of Genesis 25 describes how Rebekah bore children after a long period of barrenness. Other biblical stories about a barren woman finally having a child include those of Sarah (Gen. 17; 18:1-15; 21:1-7), Rachel (Gen. 30:1-8, 22-24), the mother of Samson (Judges 13), Hannah (I Sam. 1), and the Shunamite woman (II Kings 4:8-37). These narratives generally tell of the woman's suffering because of her childlessness, an attempt by one of the parents to overcome the problem, annunciation of the impending birth by an angel or by G-d (in the case of the Shunamite, by the prophet Elisha), and the birth of the son, often with an explanation given for his name. The underlying motif of these stories is that a child born by special grace has a special calling in life. Clearly not all the above components need appear in every story, and those that do appear may have any number of variations, thus forming a flexible, rather than rigid, genre. To understand the annunciation and special calling in each story, it is insufficient to simply identify the standard genre; the reader must examine the fine differences between the stories by a careful or close reading of the text.
A close reading of Genesis 25
The story of the birth of Jacob and Esau begins with the seemingly superfluous words, "This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac" (25:19). What is the point of informing us that Abraham begot Isaac after we have just read that Isaac was Abraham's son? Moreover, the opening words create the mistaken impression that we are going to read about Isaac, whereas Jacob and Esau are actually the focus of the text. Apparently Abraham and Isaac are mentioned to emphasize that Jacob is one of the three patriarchs of the Jewish people and that his birth was an important link in the early history of our nation.
The text proceeds to mention that Isaac took "Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean, of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife." By stressing Rebekah's provenance, which we already know, the text underscores that Abraham's instructions to take a wife for his son Isaac from Abraham's homeland (24:4) had been fulfilled. On the other hand, these details foreshadow the further development of Jacob's story, since he would later flee to his mother's brother, Laban, and become closely involved with his uncle's household.
In contrast to the stories of Sarah, Rachel and Hannah, the narrative here does not dwell on Rebekah's long years of barrenness --twenty in all, since Isaac was forty when he married Rebekah (v. 20), and sixty when Jacob and Esau were born (v. 26). Nor do we read of Rebekah demanding that her husband give her sons, as Rachel did; or that she tried to overcome being barren by giving her maidservant to her husband, as Sarah and Rachel did; or that she cried and prayed to G-d, as Hannah did. Rebekah's barrenness is only mentioned in a subordinate clause, "because she was barren"(v.21), to account for Isaac praying for his wife.
Immediately thereafter, we read of her pregnancy. It is also notable that this is the only story in which the active parent endeavoring to have a son is the man, not the woman. This is probably because Isaac, unlike Abraham, Jacob and Elkanah, did not have other wives from whom he might have heirs and apparently did not wish to take another wife. Thus, the barrenness of his sole beloved wife threatened to terminate the line of his offspring.
It is written that Isaac "entreated the Lord" and that the Lord "let Himself be entreated of him" (v. 21), repetition of the same root atar emphasizing the connection between Isaac's prayer and G-d's response to him. Only after his appeal to G-d was Isaac blessed by his wife conceiving, a special act of grace from G-d.
Unlike Sarah, Rachel and Hannah, whose misery at having no children (aggravated by the supercilious behavior of their more fertile rivals) is described by Scripture, not a word is said about Rebekah's suffering on this account. Instead, Scripture describes the hardship she suffered precisely because of her pregnancy. This is the only story in the Bible of an exceptional pregnancy causing a woman great suffering. In contrast to Rachel, who despaired of life because she was barren ("Give me children, or else I die" -- 30:1), Rebekah despairs because of her difficult pregnancy: "If it be so, wherefore do I live?" (25:22).
The reader has the benefit of being better informed, having been told what Isaac and Rebekah do not yet know: "And the children struggled together within her" (v. 22). In other words, this is no ordinary pregnancy, but one of twins. Moreover, the full significance of these twins struggling in their mother's womb becomes clear to him as it becomes understood by Rebekah, in response to her appeal to G-d. Their struggling signifies the immanent strife, independent of time and circumstance, between the two nations they will beget.
Annunciation of the birth, an element found in other birth stories, is absent here, but instead G-d explains the unusual pregnancy in a poetic couplet, each verse having two parts: "Two nations are in thy womb/ And two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels. And the one people shall be stronger than the other people/ and the elder shall serve the younger" (v. 23). The second half of each verse restates more emphatically the message of the first: not only will two nations come from Rebekah, but they will part from each other because they will not be able to tolerate being close to one another. It is interesting that the Hebrew for "shall be separated" (yipparedu) disrupts the rhythm, thus calling attention to the word. Not only is perpetual strife expected between the two nations that will grow from the twins, but ultimately the younger one will prove the victor.
Another biblical account of the birth of twins concerns Perez and Zerah, whom Tamar bore to Judah (Gen. 38). Both stories describe a contest for the status of first-born, and both end with the first-born, or at least the one thought to have been born first, losing his status to the younger twin. However in the story of Perez and Zerah the contest does not emerge until their birth, whereas in the story at hand the contest begins in their mother's womb, the first battlefield in the continuing confrontation between the two. Whereas the conflict between Perez and Zerah is immediately resolved at birth (Zerah draws back his hand, and his brother unexpectedly comes forth), the contest between Jacob and Esau is not resolved until they reach adulthood, when Jacob buys the birthright (vv. 29-34) and receives his father's blessing (ch. 27). Another difference between the stories is that Perez and Zerah both built the tribe of Judah, whereas Jacob and Esau each developed into a separate nation.
Although they were twins, Jacob and Esau were far from identical. Their differences were apparent from birth. Scriptures note two prominent physical characteristics of Esau: his red hair and hairy skin. These characteristics distinguished Esau from his twin, Jacob, and also provided the foundation for interpretations of his name associating him with the nation he fathered: Edom (like adom, red) and Seir (like sa`ir, hairy). Esau's hairy skin also becomes an important detail in the story of Jacob stealing his father's blessing (27:11-23). In addition, it hints at Esau's wild and unrefined nature.
Scriptures do not describe Jacob's physical characteristics here (although later, from his words to his mother in the story of the blessings, we learn that he was smooth-skinned whereas Esau was hairy -- 27:11). However, Scriptures do describe an action of his, indicative of his character and destiny: he emerges from his mother's womb grabbing hold of Esau's heel [Heb. akev] (v. 26). Hence his name, Ya`akov. Grabbing his brother's heel symbolizes Jacob's tenacious and prolonged struggle to win the birthright.
The birth story of Jacob and Esau stands out from other stories of barren women giving birth in that it tells of twins from whom two nations were to develop. The story revolves around the rivalry between the two, beginning in their mother's womb and destined to be passed on to their heirs, as we learn from G-d's words to Rebekah.
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