Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for October 2013

There are two monumental episodes in this portion of Genesis.

First there is the reconciliation of the estranged brothers Jacob and Esau. Accompanied by his wives and children, and with great trepidation, Jacob crosses the ford into Esau’s territory. He has sent a conciliatory message to Esau and now learns that Esau is coming to meet him, accompanied by four hundred men. Please remember the four hundred men, because we’ll come back to them.

The brothers meet, affectionate Esau and deferential Jacob. It is a touching scene, but midrash puts a different spin on it. The word ‘kissed’ is dotted above each letter in the Torah’s writing.

Rabbi Yannai said ‘…Why is [‘kissed’] dotted? It teaches that Esau came not to kiss [Jacob] but to bite him.’

Talk about putting the worst construction on somebody’s motives – but, in midrash, Esau came to symbolize at least two enemies: the Roman Empire and the Church. Furthermore, he was an ancestor of the Amalekites, a hostile tribe, who have to do with the four hundred men I mentioned.

Jacob offers Esau gifts of livestock, saying ‘Pray, take my blessing,’ an interesting reminder of the time when Jacob took – no, stole – Esau’s blessing, due to him from their father Isaac.
Esau is wealthy himself, refuses at first but then accepts and suggests that he and Jacob should travel together. In a fictionalized version of this episode, the German novelist Thomas Mann shows how desperately Jacob wants to fob Esau off, without giving offence. He gives a variety of excuses: the children are tired, so are the nursing animals, they all need to amble at a leisurely pace. Esau says ‘Let me at least give you some of my military staff, to accompany you,’ and Jacob, seeing possible danger in this set up, swiftly declines the offer. The brothers part and, to the best of my knowledge, they didn’t meet again.

What is it with brothers in Genesis?

Jacob settled in a piece of land he’d bought from Hamor the Canaanite. Hamor’s son Shechem desired Jacob’s daughter Dinah and abducted her. He seduced or perhaps raped her, but then fell in love with her and wanted to marry her. Dinah’s brothers were outraged and wanted revenge on Shechem and his family, but they planned it with Corleone-like care and precision. Their condition for permitting the marriage was that Schechem and his male relations should be circumcised. Shechem readily agreed. While the men were weak, following their circumcision, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi fell upon their camp and slew them with swords.

Jacob was beside himself and rebuked his sons for the disproportionate response which could lead to bloody repercussions, but they replied ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’

Jacob does not refer to the episode again until he is on his deathbed, addressing each of his sons. He rebukes the eldest, Reuben for sleeping with Jacob’s concubine and he rebukes Simeon and Levi for the Shechemite massacre. This leaves the way clear for the fourth son, Judah, to get a very special blessing, in which Jacob anticipates that the rightful Israelite monarchy will be Judah’s descendants.

In the time of the monarchy, David, Solomon and their descendants are indeed from the tribe of Judah, and their stories are connected with Jacob’s story in several ways. As with Dinah, Tamar, the daughter of David, is the victim of rape and is then avenged by one of her brothers, Absalom. Like Jacob, David has sons who arrogate power to themselves while he grows old. David’s daughter, like one of Jacob’s sons, has a coat of many colours.  Absalom and his brother Adonijah, like Reuben, seduce their father’s concubines. As with Simeon and Levi, the kingly inheritance passes to a younger, more suitable brother.

Before becoming king, David fights numerous wars and, on one occasion, attacks a camp of Amalekites, slaying the majority of them, but leaving alive four hundred men. Four hundred Amalekites. One might suppose that these are the descendants of Esau, who came with four hundred men to meet Jacob, and parted from him in peace.

The patriarchs, matriarchs and kings of our bible are flawed human beings and in the book of Genesis, relationships between siblings are problematic, from Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers. All the more reason to think that, when Esau and Jacob embrace, this is as good as it gets.

Post Freud, one can discern variants of the oedipal motif in the stories of Noah, Lot, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Saul, David and Solomon. Eyleh toledot – these are the generations. No wonder we tell our sons ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’ Those two sons of Joseph seem to have been blameless and he probably got a lot of nachas from them, whereas Jacob was sadly cheated of nachas for most of his life.

GL 28 October 2013<a href="

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