Abraham's Premature Obituary
Was Abraham the sandek at the bris of his grandchildren Esau and Jacob? Did Abraham teach his grandchildren about God? What advice did he give his son during the 20 years Isaac and Rebecca remained without children?
We will never know. The Torah never tells us anything about Abraham’s relationship with Isaac (after his marriage to Rebecca) or with his grandsons.
But isn’t that because Abraham died before Isaac had children? Abraham’s death is recorded in Genesis 25:8 and the birth of Jacob and Esau is recorded only later on in the same chapter. However, matters are more complicated than that.
According to Genesis 25:7, Abraham lived to the age of 175 and according to Genesis 21:5 Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born, which means that Isaac was 75 years old when his father died. Since Isaac was forty years old when he got married and sixty when his twin sons were born, Abraham had 35 years to spend with his married son and daughter-in-law, and fifteen years to spend with his grandsons. Considering this, it seems more than a little odd that Abraham’s death notice should appear before the account of the birth of his grandsons, as if once Isaac got married Abraham and his 35 more years of life made no difference at all.
Despite the lack of any explicit connection between Abraham and his grandsons in the Torah, the midrash tries to fill this out. Specifically, the Rabbis focus on the day of Abraham’s death, which they identify as the day Jacob forced Esau to sell him the birthright. Jacob was cooking lentils—a traditional meal for Jewish mourners—to feed to his father (Isaac) who was beginning the mourning period for his own father (Abraham).
The Rabbis go even further in connecting the narratives and suggest that the blessing Abraham received in his old age (Gen. 24:1) was that Esau did not rebel in his lifetime (t. Kiddusun 5:18; b. Baba Batra 16b). What do the Rabbis mean by this? One interpretation suggests that Abraham’s love of his grandsons was the reason for his “early” death. Glossing the verse that describes Jacob cooking lentils, Rashi writes:
ואותו היום מת אברהם שלא יראה את עשו בן בנו יוצא לתרבות רעה, ואין זו שיבה טובה שהבטיחו הקדוש ברוך הוא, לפיכך קצר הקדוש ברוך הוא חמש שנים משנותיו, שיצחק חי מאה ושמונים שנה וזה מאה שבעים וחמש שנה.
And on that day, Abraham died, lest he see Esau, his grandson, falling into bad ways, for that would not be the “good old age” that the Holy One, blessed be He, had promised him. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, shortened his life by five years, for Isaac lived one hundred and eighty years, and this one (Abraham) [lived] to one hundred seventy five.
A different interpretation, also emphasizing the connection between Abraham’s death and the birthright story, sees the cause and effect working in the opposite direction. In Genesis Rabbah (63:12), Rabbi Simon states that on the very day Abraham died, Esau committed two sins: murder and rape of a married woman; Rabbi Berechiah adds robbery to the list.
In his transcribed lecture, The Personality of Esav, Rabbi Yisrael Chait suggests that this was no coincidence, rather it was Abraham’s death that brought about Esau’s sinful behavior.
Esau had displayed a strong affection and respect for Abraham. During Abraham’s life Esau did not stray onto the path of the wicked. Abraham was a super-ego figure, a true Tzaddik. Esau had strong instinctual proclivities but he saw Abraham as an image of immortality because Abraham was righteous. This image of Abraham prevented him from sinning. Esau projected upon Abraham, because he was a truly righteous individual, the image of immortality… This fantasy of immortality prevented Esau from living the life of a wicked person. Upon Abraham’s death his fantasy of immortality was shattered. Esau wrongfully concluded that there was no concept of reward, since he only viewed reward in terms of the physical… After Abraham’s death, he committed the sins because he was overwhelmed by the physical desires. Abraham’s death had removed all impediments from sinning.
As inspiring and creative as these interpretation are, they don’t really explain why the death notice of Abraham precedes the account of the birth of Esau and Jacob. In fact, in the Sefer Ha-Yashar, a rewriting of the biblical narratives, the death of Abraham is narrated after the birth of Ishmael’s sons and after the birth of Jacob and Esau, and immediately before the account of the lentils—exactly where Rabbinic literature seems to believe it should have been placed. Yet that is not where it appears in the Torah.
Moreover, Sefer Ha-Yashar touches up the apparent absence of a relationship between Abraham and his son and daughter-in-law by making Abraham be one of the prophets with whom Rebecca consults about her difficult pregnancy and by adding a lengthy death-bed speech from Abraham to Isaac. Yet none of this appears in the Torah.
Some academic Bible scholars offer a suggestion that obviates the entire problem . The verses describing Abraham’s death and long life come from the P source. One of the main concerns of P is to describe details such as birth, death, age and progeny. The J source, which records much of the story of Isaac and his sons, does not discuss Abraham’s death or his exceptionally long life, 175 years. Hence it is very possible that in the J source Abraham did not live to see the birth of his grandchildren. It is only once the Torah was redacted by combining the various sources that the problem the Sages try to deal with—his unusual absence from the narrative—arises.
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October 24, 2013
May 6, 2021
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