History Crash Course #6: Isaac and His Sons
History repeats: The groove that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob carve will be for their descendants.
We will not take the time here to go through stories of Isaac's life. What we want to focus on is the patterns that are set for the rest of Jewish history, because as we noted earlier, "the actions of the fathers are assigned to the children."
One of the great patterns we see with Isaac is a re-run of a situation that Abraham also confronted. The Book of Genesis (chapters 20 and 21) relates that Abraham went to the land of the Philistines and he lived among them for a while. But he had some problems -- for example, they tried to take his wife, Sarah.
A few years later, (Genesis, chapter 26) Isaac faces the same situation. He's living amongst the Philistines somewhere on the coastal area of Israel, they try to take his wife, Rebecca. Also his servants start to have problems with the servants of Abimelech, the King of the Philistines.
And what happens eventually? The Philistines become jealous of Isaac's success and throw him out, even though he's done nothing to deserve it as far as the Bible tells us. In addition, they plug up all the wells that Isaac has dug(1) -- an illogical act given the value of water in the arid climate of the Middle East and the difficulty of digging wells. (This demonstrates an oft-repeated pattern of the anti-Semite who hurts himself in an effort to obliterate Jewish presence. There are numerous examples of European cities expelling the Jewish and then, realizing the loss, inviting them back again! The city of Speyer, in Germany, did so at least three times in the 15th century!)
But then something interesting happens -- Abimelech comes after Isaac and he says, "I see that we prospered because of you." Because once Isaac leaves, things go downhill for the Philistines. Their economy declines. Nothing's going well, and the Philistines come to realize it's because of the Jews. So the king offers a treaty and asks Isaac to return.
This is the great pattern of Jewish interaction with non-Jews in history. The Jews are often invited in. The country does incredibly well because of their contribution (see God's blessing to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3). Then for no reason -- I'm aware of virtually no example in history of Jews ever doing anything that caused them to be hated the way we've been hated -- the country decides to throw the Jews out, undermining its own economy in the process. So the Jews are thrown out, the country suffers. This is what's going to happen over and over again. It's so irrational yet such an oft repeated pattern. It's probably the greatest love/hate relationship in history where the non-Jewish world vacillates between "can't live with 'em and can't live without 'em."
Isaac is married to Rebecca. Rebecca is pregnant with twins, and the twins are fighting in the womb already -- it's a difficult pregnancy for Rebecca. When they're born there is a rivalry between them. And what are the twins' names? Jacob and Esau.
Although they are twins, Jacob and Esau have totally different personalities and they are also physically very different. The Bible describes Esau as hairy and Jacob as smooth-skinned. Esau is a hunter, a man of action. Jacob is a scholar; he's more a man of thought than of action.
It's also clear from the narrative that Isaac is favoring Esau who is the first-born of the twins. He's a couple of minutes older but that's significant when it comes to who will be the one to inherit the family mantle. Isaac probably realizes that Esau is a man of action-a do-er and to change the world requires such a personality. Jacob, on the other hand, is described as being pure and spiritual. Much less a man of action and much more an intellectual.
Rebecca is clearly favoring Jacob. The Bible says that women have binah yeserah, an added intuitive intelligence. She no doubt loves Esau, but also sees that there is something off in his personality. Esau may have "the gift of the gab" (he's a great talker) and may be able to fool his father, but his mother sees through his smooth talking. (2)
If we jump ahead in the narrative we come to the story of when Isaac is old and blind, he decides to give each of his sons a blessing, and, of course, he wants to give an extra-special blessing to the first-born, Esau.
When a great spiritually connected person like an Isaac gives someone a blessing, that blessing has tremendous power of potentiality that can have a huge impact not only on the recipient of the blessing but also on history itself.
Although Esau doesn't really want the position of the first-born with all the responsibility to carry on his father's mission, he does want the blessing of wealth and power which goes along with it. But Rebecca realizes that the blessing has to go to Jacob as he is the one who is willing and able to change the world in the manner of Abraham.
So while Esau is off hunting to catch something for his father's dinner so he'll bless him, what does Rebecca do? She covers Jacob's arms with a goat skin so they will feel hairy like Esau's. And Isaac, who is blind, is fooled.
It's a mistake to read the Bible stories only on a simplistic, first-grade Sunday school level. This is not simply the story of some old, blind man who's confused by his wife and son. There are very profound things going on here.
When Isaac encounters Jacob pretending to be Esau, he remarks:
"The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau." (Genesis 27:22)
What does "the voice" symbolize? Speech is ly human. Animals may communicate, but they cannot speak or communicate abstract ideas. Speech is therefore representative of spirituality and intellect. Later in our story, Jacob will have his name changed to Israel (Genesis 32:29) and his children will create e the Jewish nation. The voice is therefore symbolic of the real power of the Jewish people-their spirituality and intellect.
Golda Meir once said that she was angry at God for making the Jews wander in the desert for 40 years and then bringing them to only place in the Middle East with no oil. That is precisely the point-the Land of Israel is weak in natural resources. The people of Israel are its greatest natural resource. Their intellect, drive and spirituality have given them an edge that not only enabled them to outlast the greatest empires in history, but to impact the world far out of proportion to the smallness of their number. Jacob's voice represents the spiritual power of the Jewish people.
The hand symbolizes the power of action, of might and of sword. (It's interesting to note that the human hand is also . Other primates do not have the same kind of thumb and therefore lack human dexterity.)
Esau, who embodies the power of might and sword, will, through his descendants, give rise to the Roman Empire or "Edom" as the Bible calls it. The power of Rome clearly lays in its ability to conquer, dominate, and build an Empire. Even after the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the spirit and power of Rome will perpetuate itself through the rise of the West and the Empires of Europe. And, of course, it is the Romans (as in Roman Catholic Church) that converted the world to Christianity, the other great monotheistic faith.
So, in Esau, we see yet another example of an offshoot of the children of Abraham, who, like Ishmael, does not carry on the mission, yet becomes a great power, both physically and spiritually.
As intense as the rivalry is between Isaac and Ishmael (the Jews and the Arabs) they are only half brothers. Jacob and Esau are twins with the same genetic material. This rivalry (Israel and Rome/The West) is understood to be the ultimate rivalry in history. This is nothing less than a cosmic struggle. These two -- Jacob and Esau -- started fighting in utero, and they're going to be fighting throughout history. The battle continues until today and does not end until the final showdown during the messianic era. It's not an even battle ever. Esau will always be stronger in the physical sense, but the Jewish people have inner strengths, resources and a destiny that will ultimately lead to their triumph and humanity's return to God.
The descendants of Abraham can't help but be great; even if they don't become Jews they become people who have a huge impact on the world. Indeed, the greatest enemies of the Jews come from within the family.
Who is the ultimate enemy of the Jewish people in history? The nation of Amalek. This is the people that epitomize evil and rebellion against God. There is a commandment in the Bible to wipe them off the face of the earth. With Amalek there is no compromise. It's a fight to the finish. This is a nation whose pathological hatred for Jews is so great that they will show no mercy. Given the have a chance they will wipe the Jews off the face of the earth.
Amalek is Esau's grandson through his son Eliphaz. (See Genesis 36:1-15) From this individual named Amalek will ultimately emerge the Amalekite nation-the arch-nemesis of the Jewish people. (We will talk about Amalek many more times in this book as his descendants emerge throughout history to do battle with the Jews)
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who wrote the chief work of the Kabbalah, the Zohar, some 2,000 years, said that "It's a know law that Esau hates Jacob(3)." These are the spiritual laws of reality, so to speak, that describe the interaction between the Jews and descendants of Esau. This deep-seated hatred is deeply embedded in the collective conscience of the descendants of Esau and especially concentrated in the descendants of Amalek. As we will see later, the nation of Amalek is no longer identifiable, but his spirit lives on. To understand the relationship and rivalry between Jacob and Esau is understand the deeply-rooted anti-Semitism of those nations that emerged from Rome. No matter what happens, the descendants of Esau are going to hate the Jews.(4)
So we have a confrontation between Esau and Jacob. Jacob steals the blessing and then Esau shows up and finds out what happened. And patriarch Isaac realizes that he's been tricked. He's not angry, however, because he sees now that Jacob is capable of action and can carry on the mission.
Now Rebecca, overhearing that Esau's plans to kill his brother, sends Jacob away. She tells him to quickly go to her brother, who lives in Haran. (today located in Turkey)
In Haran lives Laban -- Lavan, in Hebrew, meaning "white" -- Rebecca's ne'er-do-well brother. Never trust anyone named Mr White as he turns out to be anything but -- Mr. White is one of the biggest crooks in the Bible. The first member of his family that he encounters is his cousin and from his first encounter with her he realizes that she is his soul mate. Next He wants to marry Rachel but he has arrived penniless on his uncle's doorstep. Jacob offers to work seven years for her hand. At the end of the seven years, Laban substitutes Rachel's older sister Leah and demands Jacob work another seven years to get Rachel. In the end, Jacob winds up with four wives -- Leah, Rachel, and their handmaidens Zilpah and Bilhah. From these women will come 13 children, 12 sons and 1 daughter.
Unlike previous generations where a child went off in a different direction and did not follow in the foot steps of Abraham, all of Jacob's sons are going to be totally dedicated to the mission. They are the core group -- an extended family that is going to make the nation that is going to change the world.
Despite Laban's attempts to keep him dependent and working for peanuts, Jacob manages to accumulate a big fortune. It is fascinating to watch Jacob's metamorphosis. He starts out totally straight and pure (Sort of like the worst kind of guy for a poker game). He is forced to interact with the most deceptive characters in the Bible. In the end, he successfully develops the skills necessary to overcome the challenges presented by both his brother and his uncle/father-in-law. This is yet another great pattern in Jewish history. During the long Diaspora the Jew constantly found himself at a disadvantage, economically and politically marginalized, with his hands tied behind his back. In order to survive, the Jew has had to learn to be very resourceful and creative. History has proven that despite having the odds constantly stacked against him, when given the slightest opportunity the Jews has done remarkably well, even in a very hostile environment.
Next God tells Jacob that he must return to the Land of Israel because he has a mission. Just as Abraham knew that Israel was the only place where Jewish potential could be actualized, so too Jacob realizes that this is the only place to be. Despite his lingering fear of Esau's revenge (even though 20 years has passed) he gathers up all his family and his belongings and heads home.
And this brings us to another scene which becomes a powerful pattern in Jewish history. The re-uniting of Jacob and Esau.
As he makes his way home, Jacob hears that Esau is coming out to meet him with an army of 400 men. In response, always using his brains, he pursues a multi-pronged strategy to protect himself against any eventuality: First, he prepares for war by dividing his family into two parts in case one is attacked the other half will survive. Next he pursues the diplomatic track by sending elaborate gifts to his Esau. Finally, he prays realizing that ultimately the outcome of the coming encounter is in God's hands.
We know that the Rabbis believed strongly in the concept of the actions of the fathers are a sign to the children. Two thousand years ago when they would have to interact with Roman officials they would first study the story of Jacob's meeting with Esau. They knew that Jacob's strategy toward Esau was the key to successful Jewish interaction with Rome.
They meet. Esau doesn't try and kill Jacob although it's very clear that he still hates him.(5) Esau invites Jacob to travel together with him, which is no doubt an offer to ultimately live together. (It's interesting to speculate on what would have been had the spiritual/intellectual power of Jacob united with the physical power of Esau). Jacob is not interested in the offer, no doubt aware that Esau still harbors deep enmity toward him.
He tells Esau, "You go ahead of me. I'll catch up later." Now we know from the narrative Jacob never goes to Har Sa'ir to live with Esau. What is the deeper meaning behind the statement?
The great biblical commentator Rashi (6) asks " and when will Jacob go to Esau. Rashi quotes the Prophet Ovadiah who says: "A redeemer will go forth from Zion to judge the mountain of Esau." This is a clear allusion to the Messianic Era when even Esau's descendants will return to God and recognize the Jewish people's role in history. In effect, Jacob, representing the great intellectual, spiritual force in human history, is saying to Esau, the great physical force: "I give you permission to go on ahead and dominate human history physically. But at the end of days, when the 'lion lies down with the lamb,' then we'll get together. Then the Jews will be "on top." (7)
This "end of days" refers to the Messianic era when the whole world will follow the Jewish lead and come to recognize one God and live with one standard of morality in peace and brotherhood. The Jewish mission will be fulfilled then, but in the meantime, Esau is going to be on top.
The ultimate struggle in history will be between Jewish ideas and the ideas of Esau and the culture that Esau is going to create. Jewish sources depict this as a cosmic battle and a major theme in Jewish history. The Talmud uses the analogy of Caesaria (Roman administrative capital of Israel, built on the coast of Israel over 2,000 years ago by Herod the Great.) and Jerusalem to illustrate this rivalry:
Caesarea and Jerusalem: If someone will tell you, "Both are destroyed," do not believe it. If someone will tell you, "Both are settled," do not believe it. But if they tell you, "Caesarea is destroyed and Jerusalem is settled," or "Jerusalem is destroyed and Caesarea is settled" -- you may believe it. (Talmud, Megillah 6a)
1) The Biblical commentators allude to the deeper meaning behind the well story. Wells and water are a symbol for Torah and spirituality. Stuffing them up is symbolic of the historic Gentile rejection of the spiritual/moral mission of the Jews.
2) For a deeper understanding of this story as-well-as Isaac's perception of his two sons, see: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary on Genesis chap.27.
3) See: Rashi on Genesis 33:4
4) This of course helps us understand why the enlightened Europe of the mid 20th century could explode into such deep and violent antisemtism during the Holocaust. This doesn't mean that everyone who comes from a Western country is an antisemite. Clearly this is not the case. Most people today are a mish mash of many ancient races.
5) See: Rashi on Genesis 33:4
6) See Rashi, Genesis 33:14
7)See: Talmud, Avoda Zara 8b