Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Genesis Notes: My Soft Spot for Esau

When you are reading slowly through a book the way we are through Genesis, you can never tell what might strike you.

In my case, reading Robert Alter's translation of Genesis what hits me are the details we're given about Esau. He's slow and simple, as we are shown, but darn it, he tries so hard to do what his parents want. And then he's always done down by his own mother as well as his twin.

I already was feeling this, pondering Jacob's theft of the birthright while knowing that at the end of their "twin" saga it is Esau who welcomes his brother home generously. It's one of the unexpected bits of the story that I love most — Esau's welcome home.

Then reading about Jacob going off to find a wife, I noticed for the first time that little insertion of Esau overhearing his mother's dislike of Hittite wives (which he's got two of) and how he went and got a wife from the tribe of Abraham.
And Esau was forty years old and he took as wife Judith the daughter of beeri the Hittite and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite. And they were a provocation to Isaac and to Rebekah. ...

And Rebekah said to Isaac, "I loathe my life because of the Hittite women! If Jacob takes a wife from Hittite women like these, from the native girls, what good to me is life?" ...

And Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and had sent him off to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there when he blessed him and commanded him, sayng, "You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan." ... And Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan were evil in the eyes of Isaac his father. And Esau went to Ishmael and he took Mahalath daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, in addition to his wives, as a wife.
Genesis 26:34-35; 27:46; 28:6, 8-9, Robert Alter transl.
Darn it. Just made me feel worse for him.

It is proof that there is always more in Scripture than we can absorb in just a reading or two. Slow reading allows time to ponder and for it to come truly alive. I have a real fondness for Esau that I'd never have thought possible before.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, 1624.
This series first ran in 2004 and 2005. I'm refreshing it as I go. For links to the whole study, go to the Genesis Index. For more about the resources used, go here.


  1. Is this from The Five Books of Moses? I've always felt sorry for Esau, particularly when he mourns the loss of his father's blessing.

  2. Actually from his translation of Genesis, which I am sure is included in The Five Books of Moses ... which I think came later.

    Somehow it just never hit me until now. I guess I accepted Jacob's valuation of Esau.

  3. Tante Leonie1/11/10, 2:34 PM

    Fascinating reflection, Julie.

    I've been long interested in getting Alter's translations. But, as I am now in the middle of unpacking more than 50 cartons of books, and trying to find space for them in our new place, the thought of buying any more makes me feel positively nauseated.

    (BTW: *Loved* today's horoscope!)

  4. FIFTY CARTONS! You are a Tante after my own heart obviously. :-D

    That horoscope always makes me laugh a bit more than most.

  5. Jacob gets his though when he is tricked into marrying the woman who should have been his sister-in-law after working for the father for 7 years. The father says to Jacob, "Here, the eldest has priority." A slap to Jacob who stole his elder brother's inheritance. Jacob then has to toil another seven years to get his true love, while taking care of the first wife, whom he doesn't love. What goes around, comes around, no?

  6. Very true.

    However, that doesn't make Esau's desire for his parents' love any better. I don't care that Jacob "gets his" except as a point that shows how we all grow and mature and learn that we are not as smart as we thought we were. That we all need God in our lives since we are not in as much control as we think.

    This is the very sort of situation that proves the adage "two wrongs don't make a right." Esau seems to be pure of heart, albeit simple, and that makes the wrongs done to him even more grievous, regardless of what happens to any of the others in the story.