Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yishlah

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Edom (Esau) and Israel in the Prophets

Dr. Amihai Nahshon

Center for Basic Jewish Studies and Ashkelon College

The first part of this week’s reading opens with Esau's supposed threat to Jacob’s welfare after Jacob returns from Haran; Jacob prepares for the possibility that his brother Esau will actually attack him, but in fact the two brothers meet and make a peaceful reconciliation (Gen. 32:3, 33:17).   Although Jacob and Esau had made peace with each other in the parasha, each then going his own way (Gen. 33:12-16), nevertheless in historical perspective Esau continues to pursue Jacob and the hostilities of Edom towards Israel are depicted as eternal. [1]   The haftarah for this week’s reading is taken from Obadiah’s vision about Edom; recall that the Torah reading says “Esau is Edom” (Gen. 36:1). In a similar vein, the prophet Amos says, “For three transgression of Edom, for four, I will not revoke it; because he pursued his brother with the sword and repressed all pity, because his anger raged unceasing and his fury stormed unchecked” (Amos 1:11).

The prophet Amos emphasizes that Esau is Jacob’s brother, a relationship which is mentioned elsewhere frequently. [2]   After all, Esau and Jacob were twins (Gen. 25:23-26); calling them brothers attests to the positive relations that were expected of them in the various prophecies.  But, as the prophecies about Edom indicate, this expectation was belied time and again, invoking G-d's wrath as described in various eschatological prophecies, including the haftarah for this week’s reading:  “And no survivor shall be left of the House of Esau” (Ob. 1:18). [3]

Many of the prophecies for the end of days that describe the demise of Edom were delivered by the prophets of the Restoration period, the return to Zion after the Babylonian exile. Hence the anger at Edom may be understood in the context of the geo-political conditions of the times. The prevalent view in current scholarship [4] is that the prophets’ claims regarding the Edomites express their protest against Edomite attacks on the returnees to Judah, and against the Nabateans, also considered to be of Edomite origin, who settled on the land of Israel during the period of its desolation after the destruction of the Temple.   This idea is supported by the prophecies of Obadiah, Ezekiel and Malachi.  Obadiah’s prophecy blames the Edomites for taking part in destroying Jerusalem:   “When foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were as one of them” (Ob. 1:11). [5]   According to Obadiah, the liberators who will come to wreak judgment on Mount Esau (Ob. 1:21) will be sent to take over the places where the Edomites settled:   “Thus they shall possess the Negeb and Mount Esau as well, the Shephelah and Philistia.  They shall possess the Ephraimite country and the district of Samaria, and Benjamin along with Gilead…” (Ob. 1:19-20).  The conquest of the Edomites by the Israelites is measure for measure, as Obadiah says:  “As you did so shall it be done to you; your conduct shall be requited” (Ob. 1:15).

Ezekiel calls the Edomites’ claim to possess the land of Israel 'ne’atzot'   or taunts, [6] arrogance, [7] and a lot of words: [8]   “You shall know that I the Lord have heard all the taunts you uttered against the hills of Israel:   ‘They have been laid waste; they have been given to us as a prey.’  And you spoke arrogantly against Me and multiplied your words against Me:   I have heard it” (Ezek. 35:12-13).   This reproach is said with respect to the plan of the Edomites:  “Because you thought ‘The two nations and the two lands shall be mine and we shall possess them’ – although the Lord was there” (Ezek. 35:10).  In other words, the Edomites thought that because the Israelites had been exiled and the land laid waste, they could take possession of the land of Israel.  The prophet Ezekiel responds with an opposing view – “the Lord was there” – G-d was still present in the land of Israel.   As G. Brin explains, [9] “the land is G-d’s land; it was He who gave it to the people of Israel, therefore, it must not be stolen from them.” [10]   This is similar to Malachi’s prophecy that the territorial claims of the Edomites, “we can build the ruins again” (Mal. 1:4), are to no avail since the Lord has a presence within the borders of the land of Israel:  “Great is the Lord beyond the borders of Israel!” (Mal. 1:5).   Aside from this, Edom will be punished when the Lord makes their own land desolate (Ezek. 35:3; Malachi 1:3).   The idea which Obadiah brings up, that the retribution of Edom will follow the principle of measure for measure, also finds expression in the prophecies of Ezekiel and Malachi.

The prophet Malachi describes a vision of the end of days in which the punishment by G-d will be overpoweringly fearsome.   His words however also relate to the initial conflict between Esau and Jacob in our parasha:   “Esau is Jacob’s brother; yet I have accepted Jacob” (Mal. 1:2).  In this way the connection between the historical attitude towards Edom in the biblical period and the weekly portion of Va-Yishlah is brought out.      

[1] See Yisrael Yuval, Two Nations in Your Womb, Berkeley:  California University Press, 2006.

[2] In the stories of Jacob and Esau, Esau is frequently called “brother” ( eg., Gen. 27:6, 41, 44; 32:3, 6).   In the narrative about the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness it says, “From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom:   ‘Thus says your brother Israel’” (Num. 20:14), and in the laws of Deuteronomy, it says:   “You shall not abhor and Edomite, for he is your kinsman” (Deut. 23:8).  Esau is referred to as Jacob’s brother in three prophecies – the one in Amos (above), in Obadiah:  “For the outrage to your brother Jacob, … How could you gaze with glee on your brother that day” (Ob. 1:10, 12), and in Malachi:  “After all, Esau is Jacob’s brother” (Mal. 1:2).

[3] See Isaiah 34, esp. verse 8; Isaiah 63:1-6; Jeremiah 49:7-22, and elsewhere.

[4] For a detailed overview of such studies, see my doctoral dissertation, p. 67,   note 375; other aspects are covered in Eli Assis, “Why Edom?  On the Hostility towards Jacob’s Brother in Prophetic Sources,” VT 51 (2006), pp. 1-20.

[5] A similar accusation appears in Psalms:  “Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall; how they cried, ‘Strip her, strip her to her very foundations” (Ps 137:7).  This is alluded to in Lamentations:  “Rejoice and exult, Fair Edom, who dwell in the land of Uz!   To you, too, the cup shall pass, you shall get drunk and expose your nakedness… Your iniquity, Fair Edom, He will note; He will uncover your sins” (Lament. 4:21-22).  The Edomites’ participation in ravaging the land and destroying the Temple is described in Ezekiel as an act of revenge against Judah:  “Because Edom acted vengefully against the House of Judah and incurred guilt by wreaking revenge upon it” (Ezek. 25:12).

[6] The Hebrew word ni’utz means to hold in contempt, to scorn.   The root n-’ – tz is used in similar fashion to the Akkadian nāşû.   In Psalms, scorning is ascribed to the wicked (Ps. 10:13; 74:10, 18).  In some scriptural passages it is applied to those who rebel against G-d; for example, Num. 11:11, 23; Num. 16:30; Deut. 31:20; I Sam. 2:17.   Hence, the harsh contempt that is placed in the words of the enemy regarding the Lord is tantamount to rebellion against Him.

[7] Arrogance attests to an attempt to insult G-d with words.   This is similar to the words of the Psalmist, “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, every tongue that speaks arrogance.  The say, ‘By our tongues we shall prevail; with lips such as ours, who can be our master?’” (Ps. 12:4-5).

[8] This expression means use of many words.  Similar uses of ribu’i   (meaning many, much) are the expressions ribu’i ashan, rendered as a “thick cloud of smoke” (Ezek. 8:11), and ribu’i neshikot, rendered as “profuse kisses” (Prov. 27:6).

[9] Olam ha-Tanakh, Ezekiel, Tel Aviv 1997, p. 180.

[10] M. Greenberg, Ezekiel, 21-37, A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, (AB), New York 1996, p. 715.   Greenberg draws a connection between this passage and the name given to Jerusalem in Ezekiel’s prophecy:   “The Lord Is There” (Ezek. 48:35).   The implication of both passages is that the Lord is present in Jerusalem and in the land of Israel.  The Lord’s presence in the land of Israel provides the foundation for the notion of the sanctity of the land: “the Holy Land” (Zech. 2:16).