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Do West and Christianity represent Esau and Edom?

January 5, 2016

EsauBy 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[2], although a memory of such an ignoble descent certainly could have been lost[3] 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.[4]

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[5]…. this means that they (sons of Esau) have a self-worth in their life-force[6][7] (Gur Arye, Gen. 25, 24).

The following midrash typifies the personalization of Rome and the West as Esau while not sparing his hypocrisy.[8]

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?[9]

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.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2016 4:46 pm

    “In the future Esau will wrap himself in a tallis, sit down next to Yakov and say to him, “You are my brother””

    I thought that the proliferation of the so called “messianic” and Hebrew Roots groups within Christendom that literally wrap themselves in the tallit and profess brotherhood with Israel while clinging to their idolatrous dogmas that are antithetical to Judaism fits this description quite well.

  2. Jim D. permalink
    January 7, 2016 5:25 pm

    I don’t know, Gene… The connection seems a bit loose to me. The surgically excised bit you quoted does fit, and these Christian groups are, from our perspective disingenuous, but I don’t see the rest. In any case, I tend to have great difficulty with such flights of Midrashic imagination and those who, like Levin, are utterly convinced that their emphatic arguments are grounded in reality.

  3. January 7, 2016 6:21 pm

    Jim, historically speaking one can say that there’s indeed some connection (that was later expounded upon by the sages). Specifically between Herodian rulers (who were Edumeans, or Edom) who lorded over Israel during the first century and who were installed and controlled directly by Rome, which later became Christendom.

  4. January 7, 2016 6:33 pm

    Hi Gene, I love the idea and there might be a link between the two, but as per Jim, it is not that strong. I can relate to “Edom” as “chrisitianity” when I read my Tanakh, but would not be able to say that Edom is for sure Rome even if I see a lot of resemblance… Does that make sense?

  5. Jim D. permalink
    January 8, 2016 2:25 am

    “Jim, historically speaking one can say that there’s indeed some connection (that was later expounded upon by the sages). Specifically between Herodian rulers (who were Edumeans, or Edom) who lorded over Israel during the first century and who were installed and controlled directly by Rome, which later became Christendom.”

    This does not fit with my — admittedly cursory — understanding of the history of the ancient Greek and Roman Empires. Yes, the Herodian rulers were Idumeans, but Romans were not, and clearly the point of the article was to establish a direct, familial connection.

    Rome was first established by locals in the 8th century BC (although there is some evidence of settlements going back few hundred years more). There is simply no genealogical connection between the Romans and Edomites, nor is there any tradition of it among either camps. Furthermore, thousands of Idumeans, perhaps tens of thousands, fought alongside the Jewish Zealots against the Roman invasion of Jerusalem in 68 -70 CE. And by the time Christianity became the state religion of Rome, it was well into the third century CE, centuries after the Herodian Dynasty, and the vast majority of the Jews who had remained alive had been expelled. So it doesn’t even work to look at it in the way you suggest. No, I think it is sheer fantasy to imagine a significant connection between the Idumeans and Romans. Small wonder then, that Levy remarked,

    “It is somewhat unclear, though, what supports this identification. The voluminous Roman chronicles do not appear to contain any awareness of descent from Esau[2], although…”

    … But then he completely brushes off the facts and offers arguments that won’t contradict the Midrash he cites. And, he does this in the modern era, when there are tremendous resources available that he could have easily checked for facts! Oy.

    You know, this reminds me of something. About four years ago, when I first began to return to Jewish practice after having lived a secular life, my return channel was, in addition to Tanakh, a small Chabad community. I won’t mention where. I became good friends with the Rabbi there, who was only two years past his Smicha. He was, and is, a warm, caring, attentive guy — a mensch. One evening during a Torah class he was holding, we were discussing the subject of procreation and inheritance. I practically had to pick up my jaw off the floor when he said, quite matter of factly, that women receive and carry man’s seed for nine months until birth. He had never heard of egg and sperm and the combining of DNA! He truly knew nothing about human biology! Not only was I flabbergasted, but became incredulous with the thought that Chabad Yeshivot seem to still be in the Middle Ages. At least his was.

    I see the same thing in this article. I could write a lengthy list of criticism of the purported “facts” the author puts forth. And I realize he is simply parroting the party line, but the “facts” presented above are baseless — if one cares about actual history vs. imaginations.

    “The great kingdom of Rome was built by Zepho, son of Eliphaz, son of Esau.”

    — Not even close.

    “the struggle for spiritual and moral supremacy between Rome and Jerusalem.”

    — There was no such struggle. The Romans didn’t give a c*** about moral and spiritual supremacy. The Greeks and Romans allowed Jerusalem autonomy for a substantial period of time because they found this was the best way to maintain some semblance of control — unlike their other conquered nations — until Jerusalem rebelled twice. When that happened, it was all over. No, Rome was primarily interested in power and control throughout the Empire (and Israel was a small thorn in their side).

    “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…. Among such traits is the individualism and disdain for tradition and authority…”

    — This is pure bunk. Roman society was made up, during the majority of its history, of three classes: The ruling class, the poor, and the military. Although the poor were oppressed, they were also protected. The military, which could be said to be the professional middle class, was disciplined, loyal and absolutely respected authority. They were not individualistic; their lives were dedicated to the state. They were also given entrepreneurial opportunity to rise in rank and wealth. Midrashic characterization of Rome is ill-informed, fanciful and simply wrong. If anything, Greek culture was more self-absorbed, but the Greek civilization came before Roman domination. Rome absorbed much of Hellenistic culture, but it injected discipline and practicality. The Roman rulers, including their military rulers on most levels were smart and calculating. Hardly a characteristic of Esau the Brute.

    “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.”

    — Here, it’s my personal opinion against the Rabbis’: I don’t see Esau at all worried that the institution of birthright was morally incorrect. He was not preoccupied with morality. Esau is a character who, frankly, just didn’t give a damn about his inheritance (or, it could be argued that he thought Jacob was kidding about making such a trade because it was so absurd an idea — an inheritance for a bowl of lentils?). He just wanted to go hunting. He was uncouth, a blockhead, and simply unfit to carry on the Jewish legacy — and his mother knew it.

    I have no lack of appreciation that the Rabbinic traditions held our people together for centuries in exile, but there is so much in this article I feel reflects an entire paradigm of misunderstanding and an elaborate construct that is very much removed from reality. This is the kind of thing I was referring to when I said I have difficulty with the Midrashic world-view. (and I suspect CR will know exactly what I’m talking about.)

  6. January 8, 2016 9:02 am

    Oh, come on, Jim, tell us how you really feel:)

    “Esau is a character who, frankly, just didn’t give a damn about his inheritance ”

    Jim, I think you may be forgetting the part that Esau was very distraught when he found out that his father had no good blessings left for him and was filled with murderous rage about the fact that his brother tricked him out of the blessings. So he did give at least some “damn”, if only after the fact. But his “damn” was superficial, and more out of envy.

    I think that the reason that Rome (as embodied in later Christendom and in our days, by later European developments touched upon in the above article) came to be identified with Edom is because Edom serves as a fitting archetype. This is not dissimilar to the Amalekites, who may be gone as an identifiable nation, but whose spirit still re-emerges from time to time to wreak havoc on the Jewish people. Also, you mentioned that certain characteristics of Western culture don’t seem to fit Esau exactly – well, Esau had his moments too, he didn’t behave the same all the time. He even had moments of kindness toward his brother and even moments of trying to please his disappointed parents.

  7. January 8, 2016 9:26 am

    ” I can relate to “Edom” as “chrisitianity” when I read my Tanakh, but would not be able to say that Edom is for sure Rome even if I see a lot of resemblance”

    Remi, in my opinion, as I noted to Jim above, Edom is more of an archetype.

  8. Jim D. permalink
    January 8, 2016 3:43 pm

    “Oh, come on, Jim, tell us how you really feel :) ”

    No, no — you don’t want me to do that. ;)

    “So he did give at least some “damn”, if only after the fact.”

    The text makes a distinction between Esau’s birthright and his father’s blessing. They are treated separately. His regret that he lost his inheritance was secondary to losing his father’s blessing — by a long shot. We don’t see him being upset until he realized he lost the blessing. Yes, he complained about the birthright too, was simply sour grapes. Esau sold it to Jacob and also swore an oath to it , so he was not subject to trickery as in the case of the blessing. It was the loss of the blessing that he really cared about and sobbed over. Indeed, the text says that he had a grudge against Jacob on account of the blessing, and does not include mention of the birthright in giving the reason (Gen. 27:41).

    “Edom serves as a fitting archetype”

    I still disagree. If your logic is that it applies because Esau sometimes exhibited similar traits, then you could can readily apply it to others as well. I do not see a fitting archetype, anyway. And, while you see it in archetypal terms, the article most certainly sees it in more concrete terms.

  9. Concerned Reader permalink
    January 10, 2016 6:37 pm

    Jim D, well said and checkmate. Consider also the historical presence of rabbis in northern Israel who compiled the yerushalmi long after the wars with Rome. The Roman emperor Julian also, (alongside again promoting Roman spirituality) wanted to rebuild the temple after he left Christianity.

  10. January 11, 2016 11:18 am

    “checkmate”

    Checkmate??? Who said that the game was over?:)

  11. Jim D. permalink
    January 11, 2016 6:35 pm

    Alright Gene, show me what you got.

  12. Concerned Reader permalink
    January 12, 2016 12:11 pm

    lol

  13. Jim D. permalink
    January 12, 2016 7:25 pm

    Notice how quiet he became..

  14. January 12, 2016 7:41 pm

    Haha, Jim, not quiet, just very busy!

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