The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Vayishlach 5758-1997
Jacob's Encounter with Esau:
A Lesson in Diplomatic Etiquette
Dr. David Algavish
Department of Bible
The dramatic meeting between Jacob and Esau, described in this week's reading, includes several gestures on Jacob's part which fit in with accepted diplomatic etiquette in the ancient East during the Patriarchal period, that is, in the middle of the second millennium B.C.E.
In this week's parasha we read of a meeting between the two brothers, Jacob and Esau, after an extended separation, during which time Jacob lived in Laban's household in Haran. In anticipation of the reunion, Jacob sends two delegations to his brother Esau. In the message which he sends with the first delegation (Gen. 32:4-6), Jacob refers to himself as "servant" and Esau as "lord." His messengers return and tell Jacob that Esau is coming towards him escorted by four hundred men (v. 7), indicating that Esau is getting ready for battle. The text does not say whether the delegation was received by Esau, or whether perhaps they were so impressed by his size and might and direction of advance, that they turn on their heels and report back to Jacob. Be that as it may, their message causes Jacob great anxiety. He then proceeds to make several preparations for his encounter with Esau and dispatches another delegation, which brings to Esau a considerable gift offering (vv. 14-22).
When the brothers meet, Esau behaves as brothers do when they see each other after a long period of separation. He runs towards Jacob and hugs and kisses him, dispelling the tension Jacob had felt in anticipation of their reunion. Esau does not say that he forgives Jacob, and makes no mention of the blessings. Jacob, however, meets his brother as a vassal would a sovereign, with ceremonies originating from court practices: he prostrates himself from afar and sends him gifts. Esau's warm reception of his brother stands in stark contrast to the misgivings of Jacob and his camp. Esau addresses Jacob as "brother" (33:9), but Jacob continues to call him "lord" (v. 13).
Midrash Lekah Tov comments on Jacob's actions: "R. Jonathan said, 'whoever wishes to curry the favor of a king or government, and is not familiar with their customs and ways, should look at this reading and learn from it the tactics for appeasing and finding favor.'" Indeed, Jacob behaved with astute diplomacy in appeasing Esau, by treating Esau as a subject relates to his king. Jacob sent "malakhim," meaning messengers but denoting more elevated status than "servants." Orders were given to these messengers verbally, as follows: "Thus shall you say, 'To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob...; and I send this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor'" (Gen. 32:5-6). The message is formulated according to accepted diplomatic protocol and is comprised of three parts: instructions to the messenger, the formulation of address the messenger is to use, and the body of the message.
A similar, but by no means identical, formulation can be found in the verse, "From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: 'Thus says your brother Israel'" (Num. 20:14), and in Accadian sources from Ugaritic: "To Naqmafa my brother say, 'Thus says Naqmadu your brother'" (RS 17, 315:1-3). In contrast to these two examples, however, taken from correspondence between rulers of equal rank where the writers use the word "brother", Jacob addresses Esau as a subordinate would his superior, calling himself "servant." He also defines the purpose of the embassy, "in the hope of gaining your favor," another indication of his subservience.
Jacob dispatches an offering to his brother Esau (32:14-21), and the details of the gifts indicate their importance. Jacob sent Esau flocks, cattle, and camels, as in the offering of the vassals mentioned in Isaiah 50:6-7. Many other scriptural passages refer to offerings sent by subordinates (II Kings 17:3; Hosea 10:6; Ps. 72:10). Jacob said to Esau, "kah na et birkhati", which could be rendered as "Please accept my present" (Gen. 33:11); in Assyrian an offering is also called a blessing, ikribu. However the Hebrew could also be rendered as "Please take my blessing"; and indeed it is difficult not to hear in these words an echo of the blessings which sparked the hatred between the brothers. Indeed, Pesikta Rabbati 13 makes this explicit:
"Please accept my gift/Please take my blessing" (33:11). When Esau became hateful towards Jacob, it is written, 'Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob' (Gen. 27:41). But Jacob did not treat him thus, rather he said, 'On account of that blessing you harbor me a grudge; behold the very same blessing is given to you: Please take my blessing which is brought to you.' Nevertheless, he continued to harbor hatred in his heart.
The rare use of "blessing" to mean "gift" indicates that Jacob gave up the blessings. Further evidence of this is provided by the phrase, "If I propitiate him" (32:21), which apparently means winning his favor by appeasing him with gifts.
These gifts, given prior to the meeting, are like the offerings made when one appears before the Lord on the festivals, called in the Mishnah olat re'iyah. The root of re'iyah means "to see". So too the biblical word teshura (I Sam. 9:7), meaning present or gift, comes from the root sh-u-r, meaning to appear, be seen. In Accadian such gifts are called tamartu, from the root amaru, to see. The purpose of these presentations is to set a positive atmosphere for the meeting, as Scriptures says, "If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor" (32:21). Nasa panim, "show favor," in Accadian panu wabalu, indicates the kindness shown by a king or minister to those he receives in audience, as in "Just offer it to your governor: Will he accept you? Will he show you favor?" (Malachi 1:8).
At the meeting itself Jacob prostrated himself before Esau seven times (33:3). Seven-fold prostration from afar expresses submission to a king. Likewise, in the Bible we read, "Then He said to Moses, 'Come up to the Lord, with Aaron, ... and bow low from afar" (Ex. 24:1); and with a different number, "David emerged from his concealment at the Negeb. He flung himself face down on the ground and bowed low three times" (I Sam. 20:41). In the latter quote the typological number seven is replaced by three.
Ancient Near Eastern documents attest a similar etiquette. The prince of Katna wrote to the king of Egypt, "Thus says your servant: 'Seven times I cast myself at the feet of my master'"; likewise, the officer of the Ugarit king wrote to his master, "Twice at the feet of my master, seven times I flung myself down from afar." Egyptian drawings of delegations from Syria and the Land of Israel bearing offerings to the king bring to life the depiction of Jacob passing in front of his family and prostrating himself. Such drawings show the first person in the line of gift-bearers falling to the ground and prostrating himself as those behind him, including children, kneel, bearing their hands on high.
Why did Jacob behave in this subservient manner to Esau? His objective was to appear before Esau as one for whom no blessings had been fulfilled. This idea is emphasized and elaborated by R. Raphael Birdugo, a Moroccan rabbi who wrote a commentary on the entire Bible and Talmud. According to him, Jacob prostrated himself before Esau seven times in order to purge Esau's heart of the anger he harbored over his father's blessing, "Let your mother's sons bow to you" (Gen. 27:29). With his actions, Jacob proved that the blessings had not been fulfilled with respect to him; quite the contrary, Jacob was prostrating himself before Esau. Moreover, R. Birdugo notes, Esau ran towards him when he saw that the blessing had not been fulfilled becaquse he now thought that the blessings had actually been intended for him. Of Jacob's fawning behavior towards Esau, R. Birdugo remarks that Jacob was acting as if he desired Esau's patronage and protection, and therefore Esau said to Jacob, "Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace" (33:12); "Let me assign to you some of the men who are with me" (v. 15), but Jacob insisted that the tutelage would only begin when he arrived at Seir.
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