Light from the Sidra


Torah:Genesis.25:19-28:9.Haftarah:Malachi 1:1-2:7.

Two brothers. Two nations. Two peoples.

Last week my brother turned fifty. Having passed that way myself some years ago, I called to commiserate with him and bought him a boxed set of The Beatles albums to cheer him up. As we talked, we discovered that, as brothers, we are pretty unique because we have never had a fight. Neither of us knows of any other pair of siblings with such a record but then, if you knew my brother, you’d know why we never fight. He’s just such a great guy.

Sadly, Jacob and Esau could not claim the same record. Both physically and temperamentally, they were poles apart. Esau, it seems, was a man’s man; his father’s own son. Jacob appears to have been a bit of a mummy’s boy. He could take care of himself when the occasion required but he was not exactly a macho man.

Later in the Torah, God instructs Israel about doubly honouring the firstborn son in their families but, in his own dealings with his people, he frequently bypasses the older for the younger. We see it in Genesis 4:4, when ‘The LORD paid heed to Abel [the younger brother] and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed.’ We see the same thing in the case of Ishmael and Isaac. God blessed Ishmael but Isaac was the ‘seed’ of promise with whom God would establish his covenant.

The Haftarah begins with a declaration of God’s love for Israel: ‘I have loved you, saith the LORD. Yet ye say: “Wherein hast Thou loved us?” Was not Esau Jacob's brother? saith the LORD; yet I loved Jacob; but Esau I hated, and made his mountains a desolation, and gave his heritage to the jackals of the wilderness...’ (Malachi 1:2,3. Jewish Publication Society translation ©1960).

The 1988 JPS translation is a little more politically correct. It says God ‘accepted’ Jacob and ‘rejected’ Esau. No doubt there is some justification in paraphrasing the verse to bring out the sense but the Hebrew word ahav does mean love and sane means ‘hate’. However we understand the verse, it is a very strong statement.

On what basis does God love/accept Jacob and hate/reject Esau? Certainly not on the basis of personal merit or lack of it. While the twins were in Rebekah’s womb, before they had done either good or evil, God told their mother the older would serve the younger (Gen 25:23). According to Rashi, the rabbis tried to prove that Esau was wicked in the womb while Jacob was righteous and refers to the Midrash on Genesis.

In explanation of the text, ‘The children struggled together within her’, The Midrash Rabbah says that when Rebekah ‘stood near the synagogues or schools [Rashi says these were the ‘Torah schools’ of Shem and Eber] Jacob struggled to come out; hence it is written, Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee (Jer, 1, 5). While when she passed the idolatrous temples, Esau eagerly struggled to come out; hence it is written, ‘The wicked are estranged from the womb’ (Ps. LVIII, 4)’ (Genesis Rabbah LXIII. 5, The Soncino Press, pp559f).

It is perfectly understandable that the Sages would want to find some moral or spiritual reason why God would accept Jacob and reject Esau and why he declared that the elder would serve the younger, this explanation is unsatisfactory. A footnote to the Midrash acknowledges that the reference to synagogues is ‘an anachronism’.

As we look at the lives of the brothers in the Parashot in coming weeks, we will see that both Jacob and Esau had serious moral and spiritual deficiencies. The translators of the 1988 JPS translation The Tanakh-The Holy Scriptures seem to have had difficulty accepting that God could ‘hate’ Esau but a much deeper question is how he could love Jacob!

Some years ago I heard a well-known  rabbi say at a public meeting that God probably ‘likes’ the Jewish people so much because he sees them as a challenge. They give him such a hard time.  

The Bible nowhere says that God likes anyone. To like someone, they have to have qualities that you respect and admire. I’m sure God doesn’t like me. Even I don’t like me. But God loves those he doesn’t like and he chooses to bless and use us for reasons best known to himself.

It is interesting that God never says he loves anybody until the seventh chapter of Devarim. And when he does declare his special love for Israel, he he ‘did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people - for ye were the fewest of all peoples - but because the LORD loved you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage…’ (Dt 7:7f, Jewish Publication Society translation ©1960).

No one deserves God’s love. He loves Israel because he loves them. And through that nation he will bless the rest of the nations, including Esau.

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