Comparing Jacob and Esau

ImageThe fateful deal between the paternal twins Jacob and Esau – the birthright sold for a bowl of pottage – has provoked many an uncomfortable commentary[1]. Unfair as they are, their interpretations are not the focus of my commentary. Instead, I would like to have another look the texts surrounding the sons of Isaac and discover that these views, in reality, hold no water.

25.24 Her days to deliver were fulfilled and behold! Twins were in her womb.
25.25 Out came the first: Red, all of him, like a hairy robe. So they called his name Esau.
25.26 And afterward, his brother came out with his hand gripping Esau’s heel. And his name was called Jacob. And Isaac was a son in his sixtieth year when she bore them.

First of all, we are given information on the birth of the boys.  The older is called “adomi kulo ke’aderet se’ar,” which is often translated, “red all over, hairy like a robe.” The term used for David haMelech is “admoni” which most versions of the Tanach translate as “ruddy,” but it, likewise, means, “he is red,” much like my hair before stress and bad diet took the color away. “Adomi” is a wordplay on “Edom,” a nation that comes from Esau, and “Se’ar” is a play on “Seir,” a mountain range SE of the Dead Sea which lies within Edomi territory. In contrast, Jacob [a play on ekev] was smooth, plump, and childlike but had a firm grip on his brother’s heel.

These features are not accidental, serving instead to clearly herald the future of the twins. This same significance is found in their names; according to our sages of old, the name of a person captures the fundamental nature of a person. When a child is born, they are a blank slate, but they possess an innate ability to assimilate information and ideas. From the birth canal onward [or even sooner], the child is constantly learning something new, acquiring wisdom, and gaining intelligence. This genetically instilled proclivity impels the child onward; the longer this propensity lasts, the more the child develops.

In the Tabernacle [Mishkan] and in the First Temple [Beit Hamikdash], the Aron [the Arc of the Covenant] had two childlike cherubim figures on the cover. This is to indicate that if we are to progress in our relationship with Hashem, we most model ourselves on children and emulate their thirst for advancement and growth.  They never stop learning and we, likewise, must be constantly open for guidance and growth. When the Torah speaks of Joshua in Exodus 33:11, it uses the term “na’ar,” [boy, lad, young man]. This was not intended to be an insult, but it’s intent is to show that Joshua, who was a middle-aged man at the time, never lost his youthful zeal for improvement. This quality foreshadowed his future status as Moshe’s successor. In like manner, Jacob, whose name is derived from ekev [heel], which is the lowest part of the human body, represents inadequacy. Feeling that his spiritual walk with Hashem was still on its first step, this drove Jacob to strive forward. Therefore, he was called Ish Tam [a perfect man]. This makes Jacob’s character active and vibrant.

Perhaps this is why Messiah says “Unless you change and become like children, you cannot enter the World to Come[2].” As a supportive note, check out John’s first letter where he speaks of his audience as “little children.”

In contrast, Esau was born with a different spirit and temperament. He came into the world with as much hair as Sean Connery or Robin Williams. His physical appearance portrays the attitude of someone who feels complete or accomplished, not only physically, but also within his opinionated worldview. This arrogance is found even in his name, for Esau is derived from the word esui, which gives the sense of completed, done, or finished[3]. He didn’t need to seek self-improvement, and this attitude eroded his soul. It seems fitting that Amalek [the sniping stinging insect that killed our stragglers during our journey through the wilderness] was a descendant of Esau. In contrast to Jacob’s vibrancy and active personality, Esau is static – what you see is all you get. R’ Pinchas Roberts suggests that Jacob was trying to teach his brother humility by holding onto Esau’s heel. If so, the lesson fell on deaf ears.

Verse 26 makes an interesting declaration and we gain insight into a common structure within Torah in the process. The verse states, “Isaac was a son in his sixtieth year.” Among other things, this verse gives us a clue on the timing of a short and sad passage from last week’s parashah. Last week we read, “Abraham expired and died at a good old age, mature and content, and he was gathered to his people.” It’s easy for us to read this verse in Genesis 25:8 and automatically think Abraham never saw his grandchildren who are born 16 verses later. However, verse 26 reminds us that Yitzhak is still under the authority of his living father. In fact the Talmud lets us know Abraham lived until the twins were 15 or 16 years of age, but more on that later.

25.27 The boys grew up. And Esau became a man knowing hunting – a man of the field. Jacob was a complete man who remained with the tents.
25.28 And Isaac loved Esau because his game was in his mouth, and Rebecca loves Jacob.

Earlier, I compared Jacob’s active personality and contrasted it to Esau’s static character. Well, verse 27 appears to turn that theory on its ear when it tells us that Esau was a man of the field. Commentaries discuss whether he was a hunter or a trapper[4], but in either case, he was a child who probably got up at the crack of dawn with the deer and probably didn’t return until the fish stopped biting. Jacob, on the other hand, is portrayed as a complacent man who stays with the tents. The physical passivity of Jacob, again, is in sharp contrast to Esau’s robust activity. However, this is again reversed later on in our text.

Jacob’s and Esau’s personalities has a direct effect on their parents, and the text in verse 28 gives what appear to be a glaring grammatical error to prove this. Point. Unfortunately, most translations gloss over the slip and fix the awkwardness of the text to make sense of the passage. The verse reads, “And Isaac loved Esau because his [Esau’s] game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loves Jacob.”

I think it’s important to take the Hebrew text at face value and not make attempts to fix it in translation. The text makes it clear that Isaac’s love for Esau is given in the past tense while Rebecca’s love for Jacob is given in the present tense. The gulf between the twins is found in every aspect of their lives. Now, we see that the love Isaac has for Esau is as fleeting as the game in his mouth. Once the game is swallowed, the love vanishes as well. The love of Rebecca, on the other hand, is unconditional and forever functioning. Pirkei Avot 5:19 affirms this truth about love. “Any love that depends upon a specific cause is gone when the cause is gone; but if it does not depend upon a specific cause, it will never cease.”

25.29 And Jacob was boiling a stew and Esau came from the field and he was weary.

Jacob, now the active one, boils a stew. The Rabbis indicate this stew will be served at his grandfather’s funeral. Thus, we can date this accurately relative to other events of Scripture. Abraham who is now dead was 175, Ishmael is 89, and Isaac is 75 years old[5]. So, while performing the deeds of the firstborn, Jacob is cooking the food to serve those who were remembering the life of Abraham.

The Talmud, using two gezirah shavah arguments, comes to a strong conclusion regarding Esau’s whereabouts on this fateful day[6]. Following the passages of equivalent terms, the Rabbis compare the passage “for he found her in the field,[7]” with Esau coming in from the field they discovered that Esau had relation with a betrothed bride prior to his arrival at his grandfather’s funeral. Comparing “Woe to me for my soul is weary of those who murder,” with “and he was weary,” alerted the R’ Yochanan that Esau had murdered.  Additionally, since Abraham died at a good age, old and happy[8], the Gemara[9] determined that Esau did not rebel during the lifetime of Abraham.

25.30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me a swallow of  [let me devour] that red, red stuff for I am famished!’ (Therefore his name is called Edom).

The text tells us that this is when Esau collected a nickname for himself, Edom, which means “red.” For those who wonder why Torah chooses Edom as his alternate ego instead of Nezid, [pottage], Hazeh [stuff], or Haleiteni [devour], I think it’s based upon the words used by Esau as he describes that which he desires: “min ha adam ha adam,” literally “from the red red.” The Food Channel talking heads, when I had cable, spent a lot of time oohing and aahing over the colors of the food, but the color is the most superficial of a food’s attributes; there are far more important qualities that should draw our concern. This fixation on superficiality is what defines Esau’s character; therefore, his emotive response is triggered by the red red pottage and he says, “let me devour,” or “let me swallow,” intimating a need for instant gratification. Therefore, to match his insatiable passions, Esau is nicknamed Edom, fitting nomenclature for the ravenous contrasting brother of Jacob.

25.31 And Jacob said, “Sell to me, today, your birthright.”
25.32 And Esau said, “Behold I am in peril and what good is this birthright to me [what benefit will this birthright bring to me]?”
25.33 And Jacob said, “Swear to me today,” and he swore to him, thus selling his birthright to Jacob.

Jacob, playing on Esau’s tendencies, asks, “Michrah chayom et bechoratecha li,” “Sell me, today, the right of firstborn.” Esau’s needs are to be filled today, while, Jacob reached for the future and desired, like his grandfather Abraham, a city with an eternal foundation[10]. Therefore, Jacob’s apparent passivity while dwelling near the tents was a means to an end. It is a method by which he reached for the future instead of seeking to sate his pleasures, as does his brother. The main difference in their actions can be summed in their way: Esau basically is reflex, while Jacob is reflective. Want more proof? Look at the episode where Rebecca complains about Esau’s wives. What does Esau do to solve the problem? He gets a wife from his uncle Ishmael’s family in addition to his other wives[11]!

In Chapter 27, Jacob, under orders from Rebecca, brings a savory meat meal to Isaac who is nearly blind. When Isaac asks who is there, Jacob replies, “I am your son, the firstborn, Esau.” Remembering that the right of firstborn was sold, everything that came from his mouth was fine until he said the name, “Esau.”

25.34 Now Jacob had given Esau some bread and pottage of lentils and he ate and he drank, and he rose and went. And Esau despised the birthright.

Torah describes Esau’s actions as if no forethought went into them. With machine gun rapidity, Esau ate, drank, rose, and left. With his brazen attitude toward the value of his birthright, no wonder the text tells us that Esau despised his birthright:

However, we appear to have a troubling problem in our text. How can Jacob be so immoral as to take advantage of his brother who, according to the text, was near death? How can a father of the Jewish people wrest the right of firstborn from the brother who actually earned the position? Is this the brotherly love that Torah so aggressively demands from its disciples, after all, aren’t we told not to place a trip hazard in front of the blind[12]? Lastly, from a strictly legal perspective, is a coerced sale binding?

I’ve spoken to several people this week and I noticed that there was a common theme in these discussions. I, we, or they have failed to see the forest through the trees. Often our familiarity with an object or item hones our minds so precisely that we round our perceptions and we can no longer fit into a square peg.  This may apply here, but I think it’s more the fault of the translation when we use when we study Torah.

Before we delve deeper into our text, I must introduce you to a few others in order to help set the stage.

  1. When Jacob wrestles with a stranger one night[13], the stranger says, “No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and you have overcome.” The passage, by using the past participle[14], sarisa, the text tells us that the “striving” referred in the text is a past event. In other words, he was named Israel for deeds accomplished in the past, not on deeds he will do in the future.
  2. In a twist of events, Torah states, “Veha’Adam yada et Chavah ishto,” “And Adam had known Chavah his wife.[15]” As noted in Rashi’s commentary on Parashah Bereshit, the births happened in Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, prior to the expulsion.
  3. As Jacob was escaping the oppression over Laban, Laban chased him down because some of his property was stolen. When Laban catches up with the troupe, Rachel, it says, lakcha et hatraphim, [16], had stolen the teraphim. Before they left Laban’s territory, she stole the items.

There are countless other examples I’m sure, but these three help explain the text surrounding the sale of the Right of Firstborn.

25.34 Now Jacob had given Esau some bread and pottage of lentils and he ate and he drank, and he rose and went. And Esau despised the birthright.

Now go back to your text. Look at it again in light of this tiny discovery. Before the negotiations over the Rights of the Firstborn, Jacob had given Esau some bread, some pottage, and something to drink. The food items were not even part of the sale! What else can we use to prove this? The text says, “And Jacob had given.” The birthright was sold using something else. Perhaps it was sold for gold or even the phone number of some hot babe down the street. The sale price is never revealed. We only see that he deemed his birthright to be of no value.

Therefore, Jacob is not the vicious, conniving, deceiver his brother and two thousand years of commentaries portray him to be. In fact, he is the Na’ar who is concerned only for the future holdings that Hashem promised to his father and grandfather.

In Hosea the prophet writes about Israel in chapter 11. He compares us to a na’ar, and it is that quality that causes Hashem to love us. Hosea says, “When Israel was a lad, a na’ar, I loved him, and since Mitzrayim, Egypt, I have been calling out to My son.” Hosea continued in the next verse, “They [the commandments], called to them [they being Israel],” so we must also listen to the commandments of Hashem. We proclaim it with every Torah Service: “For I have given you good teaching, do not forsake my Torah. It is a tree of life for those who grasp it and it supporters are praiseworthy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” So we, in like manner, need to stop, take stock in our walk, and return to a childlike curiosity for wisdom like our father Jacob. “V’chol nesivotecha shalom.”


[1] For instance, one commentary sees “Yaakov,” Jacob’s name in Hebrew, is a play on the term “overreach,” indicating that Hashem blessed Jacob in spite of the birthright theft.

[2] Matthew 18:1-4; cf. Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17

[3] Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary, ©1995 Kernerman Publishing LTD and Lonnie Kahn Publishing Ltd, Jerusalem, IS.

[4] For those curious as to why this discussion is valid, hunted game is generally considered nonkosher due to cruelty and blood-draining issues, and while Isaac had a taste of Esau’s game, he would not have eaten treif.

[5] b.Megillah 17a,

[6] b.Bava Batra 16b

[7] Deuteronomy 22:27

[8] Genesis 25:8

[9] The Gemara is the “commentary” portion of the Talmud.

[10] Hebrews 11:16

[11] Genesis 28:9

[12] Leviticus 19:14

[13] Genesis 32:29

[14] Hebrew does not have past participles, but it attains the effect by reversing the verb-subject order.

[15] Genesis 4:1-2

[16] Genesis 31:34

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