Anxiety over Twins: Anthropological Insights into the Story of Jacob and Esau
Explaining Rebekah’s Difficult Pregnancy
The Torah describes Rebekah’s long-awaited pregnancy as difficult and painful:
בראשית כה:כב וַיִּתְרֹצֲצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת יְ-הֹוָה:
Gen 25:22 But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If it is so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of YHWH.
The reader is told the reason for the difficulty: Rebekah is carrying twins and they are fighting.
After consulting an oracle, Rebekah not only learns that she is carrying twins, but that these boys are destined to produce nations:
בראשית כה:כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הֹוָה לָהּ שְׁנֵי (גיים) [גוֹיִם] בְּבִטְנֵךְ וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ
Gen 25:23 And YHWH answered her: “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body . . .” (NJPS)
The oracle continues, describing the impending struggle between these boys and/or their future nations, ostensibly informing her who will come out on top. But the answer to this question, is, syntactically speaking, less than clear; as is typical of oracles, YHWH’s answer can be understood in more than one way.
“The Older the Younger Will Work” – What Does It Mean?
The NJPS offers a typical translation of the end of the oracle:
וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר:
One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.
Nevertheless, as Tikvah Frymer Kensky notes, the Hebrew actually says: “the older the younger will work,” which can yield more than one translation, either “the older will work (for) the younger,” or “the elder, the younger will work (for)”.
The oracle to Rebekah is reminiscent of the story in Herodotus of King Croesus of Lydia’s consultation with the oracle in Delphi. He wanted to know whether he should go to war against Cyrus of Persia and was told that if he does, “he will destroy a great kingdom” (Herodotus, Histories, 1:53). Croesus believes the answer means that Persia will fall and he attacks, only to lose and come to understand that Lydia, his own kingdom, is the one that will fall (Herodotus, Histories, 1:86). Of course, whether Lydia or Persia lost, the Delphic oracle was going to truthful by virtue of its ambiguity.
Ancient oracles are thus analogous to horoscopes and fortune cookies, which purport to offer tantalizing insights into a person’s future. They thrive on specific bits of vague wisdom, such as, “Watch out for a friend.” What does this mean? Will your friend do something good for you, or something bad for you? Does it mean you will make a new friend? Or do you need to watch out, as in protect, an existing friend?
Oracles in the ancient world were similarly vague, and just as today, people interpreted them based upon their own assumptions about how they wanted their life, or that of a loved one, to turn out. This is what Croesus does with the Delphic oracle, and the same is likely true of this biblical oracle. The narrator is assuming that Rebekah understood the oracle to favor Jacob, and this dictates how the Israelite audience understood it, but the verse remains ambiguous. Nevertheless, however the oracle is interpreted, it assumes strife between the brothers. This is illustrative of the way in which twins were perceived in the ancient Near East [ANE].
Seeking Divine Protection from Obstetric Complications
The birth of twins in the ANE was a fearful time for the mother. One practical reason for this is maternal mortality; even now, in the developing world, obstetric complications are higher with twins, leading to a mortality rate four times that of a single birth. Women in the ANE turned to the domestic cult for help in dealing with potential reproductive complications.
An Ancient Figure of a Woman Pregnant with Twins
Popular within this female-centric cult was the use of female figurines. Pertinent to Rebekah and her twins are three 13th c. BCE plaque figurines (see image above). The figurines look almost like an ancient form of the Hasbro game Operation. At first glance one sees a figure of a woman with two babies, but looking closer it becomes clear that her abdomen is presented as a sonogram; the two babies are actually embryos about to be birthed (whether they are meant to be fraternal or identical twins is unclear).
Scholars have suggested that these figurines were either a sort of mediatrix through whom a woman would pray to her god, or a protective talisman. These unique “double-pregnancy” figurines likely reflect anxiety over the prospect of having twins, and may have been commissioned by women, like Rebekah, who knew or suspected they were giving birth to twins.
Identical Twins – Double Monsters
Even after the birth, anxiety about twins would remain. Identical twins are a particularly frightening prospect for parents in many cultures. The Mesopotamian omen series šumma izbu treats every manner of imaginable anomaly (izbu). Notably, what we would consider today to be healthy and normal looking identical twins were considered “double monsters.”The existence of two people who looked exactly alike was unacceptable and one must be killed or thrust out of the family.
The Placenta as an Undeveloped Twin
Well into the early 20th century, ethnographers report various groups in Iraq that continued to feel unsettled by the birth of twins. These groups understood everyone to have a double, but the double was the placenta, which was understood as an undeveloped double of the infant, called a jāra. The Assyrian (Nestorian) peoples actually call the placenta jimma,“twin,” or ḥawarta, “female likeness/ double.”
The placenta played an important role in protecting the newborn baby. Evil beings such as Qarina, or her ancient counterpart Lamaštu, were thought to prey on newborns. The placenta, understood as a double of the newborn, was placed outside of the house in an attempt to draw malevolent forces to prey on it, instead of the baby. An actual human twin, understood as the placenta come to life, was a scary prospect.
Rebekah’s Relief: Fraternal (not Identical) Twins
According to Genesis 25:24, Rebekah did not experience difficulties during the birth of her twins, nor did she have to concern herself with identical twins:
בראשית כה:כה וַיֵּצֵא הָרִאשׁוֹן אַדְמוֹנִי כֻּלּוֹ כְּאַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר וַיִּקְרְאוּ שְׁמוֹ עֵשָׂו:
Gen 25:25 The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau.
כה:כווְאַֽחֲרֵי כֵן יָצָא אָחִיו וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב…
Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob.
Fraternal twins are not considered doppelgangers or freaks of nature, and the description of the birth makes sure to highlight the fact that Jacob and Esau are fraternal twins. Esau, the hairy and red one who prefers the outdoors, becomes the father of the Edomites, the red people. Brother Jacob, is mild mannered, preferring the comforts of an indoor tent life. Neither twin is exposed or abandoned; both go on to father a nation.
The Problem of Inheritance: Firstborn or Favorite?
As Jacob and Esau are fraternal twins, the anxiety in the biblical text focuses on the more mundane problem of inheritance. Having two boys the same age causes inheritance problems in kinship based societies, where inheritance is most often linear; the eldest son holds rank and inherits more than his younger siblings. This is true of biblical society as well, at least in theory, though in practice, we have numerous stories about the younger son supplanting the older.
This inheritance tension is central to the previous story about the brothers Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael is the older brother but Isaac is born of the primary wife; this leaves the question of inheritance murky. The primary wife Sarah steps in to protect her son’s rights when she sees Ishmael “Isaac-ing” (mitzachak) with Isaac (Gen 21:9). By sending away Ishmael, Sarah secures the line of inheritance for Isaac (Gen 21:10; 25:11).
In the story of Jacob and Esau, both sons are from the same mother, but are the same age. In kinship based societies, like ancient Israel, twins disrupt the normal order of lineage.
The biblical text in its current form solves the ambiguity problem by claiming that Esau was the firstborn, and thus primary inheritor, and that Jacob needed to acquire the right of the firstborn from Esau (Gen 25:29-34, 27:36a). Yet Jacob’s purchase of this birthright seems to play no role in the story of his stealing the blessing; neither Rebekah nor Isaac seem to know anything about it. Furthermore, Esau never reflects on how Jacob is supposed to be the firstborn and ostensibly should be receiving the blessing.
Thus, it seems likely that the firstborn element is a later element in the story, which originally suggested that the favorite son would be the primary inheritor. Herein lay the problem for the family; as the Torah emphasizes, the parents were not in agreement about which son should be favored:
בראשית כה:כח וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב.
Gen 25:28 Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob.
Thus, in the early version of the story, Rebekah must collude with her favorite son to outsmart her husband’s attempt to transfer his legacy, represented by the blessing, to his favorite.
The fact that both boys are the same age leads to family strife. The apex of this strife comes after Jacob succeeds in tricking his father and “stealing” his brother’s inheritance and Esau declares his intention to kill Jacob, prompting Jacob to flee to another land to save his life. Concern about such inevitable strife is an important factor that made the existence of even fraternal twins problematic to the ancients.
The Significance of the Younger Twin
Why does Jacob supplant Esau?
Midrashic Answer: The Younger Twin Was Conceived First
Rashi (Gen 25:26), quoting a midrash (Gen. Rab. 63:8), offers a practical explanation based on beliefs of his time concerning the conception of twins:
יעקב נוצר מטיפה ראשונה ועשו מן השניה, צא ולמד משפופרת שפיה קצרה, תן לה שתי אבנים זו תחת זו, הנכנסת ראשונה תצא אחרונה, והנכנסת אחרונה תצא ראשונה, נמצא עשו הנוצר באחרונה יצא ראשון, ויעקב שנוצר ראשונה יצא אחרון, ויעקב בא לעכבו שיהא ראשון ללידה כראשון ליצירה, ויפטור את רחמה, ויטול את הבכורה מן הדין:
Jacob was formed from the first drop [of semen] and Esau from the second. Take, for example, a tube with a small mouth. Place two stones inside it one after the other; whichever enters first will be come out last, and whichever enters last will come out first. We see from this that Esau was formed last but came out first, and Jacob who was formed first came out last. Thus Jacob wished to stop him, so that he could be the first born just as he was first conceived, and would be the one to open [his mother’s] womb and receive the birthright legally.
Rashi is here defending Jacob as the true first-born, since he was conceived first. He is thus not tricking his brother out of the birthright, but claiming what was biologically his! This ingenious explanation, however, is based only on ancient, probably Greco-Roman, scientific notions and cannot be considered as an explanation for Jacob and Rebekah’s actions in the biblical text, which never implies that Jacob is the “older twin” in any way.
Anthropological Perspective: Apotropaic Reversal
From a literary perspective, the final form of the Jacob supplanting Esau story continues the biblical motif of the younger son supplanting the elder son. Nevertheless, since Esau and Jacob are twins, and the earlier text does not seem to factor in a “birthright” for an older twin, it is worthwhile to consider an anthropological perspective.
While in ancient Israel, fraternal twins were both accepted into society and allowed to live, the double-natured-ness of their birth placed a social stigma on them. The birthright reversal in Toledot was an apotropaic strategy to address the irregularity of twins being born. To correct for the double birth and remove the social stigma, the social order had to be disrupted: the younger must inherit as the elder.
Ethnographic studies from the Nigerian Yoruba culture support this idea. They believe that the older twin has junior rank because she or he comes out of the womb first to test the waters for the younger child, who is given senior rank in society. Perhaps a similar idea lies behind the story in Genesis.
An “Unambiguous” Oracle
The innate anxiety over twins and the subconscious desire to “reverse” the process might explain why, for Rebekah, the oracle was not ambiguous. Perhaps in her world she had no alternative but to interpret the oracle as “the elder shall serve the younger.”
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
December 1, 2016
January 20, 2021
Dr. Kristine Henrikson Garroway is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Bible at the HUC-JIR. She received her doctorate in Hebrew Bible and Cognate Studies at HUC-JIR. Garroway is the author of Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series