Do West and Christianity represent Esau and Edom?
By Meir Levin
The rabbinic identification of Rome with the Biblical figure of Esau is basic to the traditional understanding of much of the relevant sections of Chumash Bareishis [Genesis]. Esau’s faults and shortcomings as well as his complex and tortured relationship with his brother Yakov was seen by the Rabbis through the prism of this identification, so much so that the conflict of these two brothers typifies the struggle for spiritual and moral supremacy between Rome and Jerusalem.
It is somewhat unclear, though, what supports this identification. The voluminous Roman chronicles do not appear to contain any awareness of descent from Esau, although a memory of such an ignoble descent certainly could have been lost or suppressed. Our tradition does preserve the particulars of Roman descent from Esau.
“The great kingdom of Rome was built by Zepho, son of Eliphaz, son of Esau. Tirtat of the land of Elisha attacked him and killed him (Yelamdeinu, Batei Midrashos 160).”
The Malbim in his commentary to Obadia 1,1 suggests that in addition to genealogical descent, the identification of Rome and Esau is also based on the “founding of their faith by children of Edom, as R. Isaac Abarbanel wrote to Isaiah 34, with proofs.”
This comment of the Malbim may lead us the supposition that identification of Rome as Esau rests on the very visible traits that Roman, and subsequently Western civilization, shares with the character traits of Esau as he is described in the Chumash. In fact, it is my impression that midrashic collections seem to highlight especially these cultural qualities when they discuss Esau. The limitations of space do not allow a full treatment of this subject, which in truth deserves a book length treatment; we can, however, manage to briefly focus on two or three of them.
Among such traits is the individualism and disdain for tradition and authority that is such an obvious feature of Western civilization and also of Esau who was a “self-made man”. Esau willingly gave up his birthright in order to build his future with his own toil and effort. “Esau showed to others that (in his opinion) the institution of birthright is not morally correct. Rather one who is more talented, of his own right should be honored above others. Many great leaders of the nations of the worlds followed Esau ‘s opinion and disparaged the status of birth; rather, (they held) everything depends on the natural abilities of each individual (Netsiv, Haemek Davar to Genesis 23,34).
One trait of Esau that few will fail to recognize in the civilization and culture of the West is the emphasis on the image over substance, leavened with a good measure of hypocrisy.
He (Esau) was a hypocrite (Shocher Tov 14,3).
Esau would hunt him (Yitshak) and deceive him with words (Genesis Rabbah 63,10).
Nevertheless, the emphasis on the appearances brings a certain measure of outward nobility and aristocratic bearing which is evident in the outside trappings of Esau’s civilization, his architecture, art, music – the brilliance of classical Western culture. The Maharal writes: ” The verse “two proud ones in your belly” alludes to the wide view of Israel and Edom, not just Rebbi and Antoninus alone (see our Midrash Toldos for a technical discussion of this statement) – that they possess a specific substance. They have a live force of substance and they comport themselves with worth in their eating. This means that there is one who eats like an animal, without raising himself in it but Israel and Esau do not conduct themselves so. They prepare a proper environment to make their eating more important. So also Esau comports himself in his clothing to this day to honor himself in his dress and to raise his self respect above that of other nations, also through great buildings. Not so Ishmael – they do not care about their clothing, cuisine, bathhouses…. this means that they (sons of Esau) have a self-worth in their life-force (Gur Arye, Gen. 25, 24).
The following midrash typifies the personalization of Rome and the West as Esau while not sparing his hypocrisy.
In the future Esau will wrap himself in a tallis, sit down next to Yakov and say to him, “You are my brother”….Yakov will say to him, “My brother, you will not be like me. “I will lead you to death, I will be the pestilence that leads you to Sheol (Hoshea 13,14). Had I upheld decrees that you promulgated against me, I would have been guilty at the eyes of Heaven. Had I violated them, you would have killed me? (Yalkut Shimoni, Yirmiahu 333)
“That was Esau’s intention when he told Yakov, “Let us travel together and I will go before you (Genesis 33,12). He wanted them to join together in both this world and the world to come, to meet each other halfway, with each modifying his conduct until they were alike (Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 133). Indeed, Esau will even adopt certain tenets of Judaism-such as monotheism, the Divinity of the Torah, and reward and punishment-but only if Israel will give up some of its heritage. Similarly, according to Tanna D’Bei Eliahu Zuta(19), Esau proposed. “Give up some of the mitzvos that divide us. You will thereby enjoy this world and still have half the world to come. Isn’t that enough? (Bais Halevy, Vayishlach).
Can one see relevance in these ancient writings for the world of today? Do we not see the pinnacle of Esau’s civilization, the country that is the utmost embodiment of his values of individualism and superficiality/ image, offering this bargain to sons of Yakov, and most of them have taken it. In return, Esau has placed his political and military might in service of common goals, in support of the so-called “Judeo-Christian” values. Will this friendship continue when Esau sees that Yakov returns to his Law and rejects his extended hand and his conditions of friendship?
To summarize, the Chazal [Sages] were keen observers of human nature and the political and social cultures that surrounded them. They unerringly ferreted out the personality traits of Biblical figures that they were then able to match with national characters and identify one with the other. In this way, aided by received traditions, they were able to predict how these nations are likely to behave down even to our time.
1 PRD”R Eliezer 38
2 I recall that Maor Einaim of R. Azariah D’Rossi does quote a source to this effect (the so-called pseudo Barusso); however, this source is now widely thought to have been a later forgery. I unfortunately do not currently have access to this work and am unable to cite a reference.
3 The Talmud does record such an awareness among the contemporary Romans. “…once in 70 years they bring a normal person and make him ride a lame person….and they say: Woe is to this one when this one arises (A”Z 11b).
4 See a discussion of the difference between Esau and Ishmael in Kol Dodi Dofek, A.D.Goldberg, Ohel, Wycliffe Ohio, p. 73-76. R. Goldberg points out on the basis of various sources that Esau is good on the outside but evil inside. Ishmael, on the other hand, commits all kinds of unspeakable atrocities outside but on the inside possesses fear of G-d.
5 See A”Z 2b regarding Esau’s (Roman) building activities. See also Shocher Tov 14,3
6 I translate nefesh as life-force in this context but other translations are certainly possible.
7 Eating and clothing are recurrent themes in descriptions of Esau in the Chumash. A number of midrashim narrow down on these themes.
8 See Beis Halevy , Vayishlach.
9 Esau had many descendants and they undoubtedly differed in regard to the “Jewish question”. Some, like Eliphaz, would not hurt Yakov even under pressure (His father commanded him to fight the sons of Yakov but because he grew up with Job, he did not fight them, Lekach Tov, Shemos 17,8). Others, like Amalek, are inveterate Jew-haters. So also in our day, many different attitudes and approaches can be seen among the descendants of Esau.
Originally posted here.