Isaac Tries to Give an Agricultural Blessing to Esau the Hunter
While Jacob and Esau are identified as twins, they could not be more different. Even in their mother’s womb, they struggle with each other.
בראשית כה:כב וַיִּתְרֹצֲצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת יְ־הוָה.
Gen 25:22 The children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of YHWH
YHWH’s explanation of this conflict highlights the degree to which these two sons of Isaac and Rebecca represent two different peoples and to which the conflict continues through the centuries.
בראשית כה:כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה לָהּ שְׁנֵי (גיים) [גוֹיִם] בְּבִטְנֵךְ וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר.
Gen 25:23 and YHWH answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”
The difference between them is encapsulated in the Torah’s characteristic terse way: Jacob is sedentary, while Esau is a hunter.
בראשית כה:כז וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים.
Gen 25:27 When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.
Stealing the Blessing
The conflict between the twins—as we are told of it—centers on Jacob’s attempts to usurp the rights of the firstborn from his brother, an idea already planted in our minds by the divine oracle quoted above. This culminates in Rebecca’s plan to subvert Isaac’s intent to bless Esau. The text informs us that Isaac is old and blind, therefore primed for this ruse. This blessing represents a kind of divine inheritance.
The story implicitly assumes that Isaac can only bless one of his sons: the other son will get nothing. That one son inherits everything is not new to this story. Already with Abraham, Ishmael, the sons of Keturah, and the sons of his concubines were pushed out of inheritance in favor of Isaac (Gen 21:9–14, 25:5–6), who, in turn, seems to be taking the same approach.
Rebecca overhears Isaac’s announced plan to bless Esau, and she has Jacob show up in Esau’s clothes with cooked goat, according to Isaac’s favorite recipe, so that Isaac will be tricked into offering her favorite son the blessing instead.
An Agricultural Blessing
Isaac begins by noting that Esau, the hunter, is an outdoorsman, as described earlier (Gen 25:27 quoted above):
בראשית כז:כז ...וַיֹּאמֶר רְאֵה רֵיחַ בְּנִי כְּרֵיחַ שָׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר בֵּרֲכוֹ יְ־הוָה.
27:27 …Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that YHWH has blessed.
What follows, however, is a blessing in three parts: Agricultural fertility, sovereignty, and blessing/protection:
כז:כח וְיִתֶּן לְךָ הָאֱלֹהִים מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן וְתִירֹשׁ. כז:כט יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים (וישתחו) [וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ] לְךָ לְאֻמִּים הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ וְיִשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ אֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר וּמְבָרֲכֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ.
27:28 May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine. 27:29 Let people serve you, and nations bow to you; be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be those who curse you, blessed they who bless you.
The first part of the blessing is odd: Esau is viewed as a farmer; only an agricultural lifestyle can lead to the surpluses and relative leisure implied by the “abundance of new grain and wine.” And yet, Esau has been consistently described as a hunter. Why give Esau a farmer’s blessing?
Farmers and Hunters
For several thousand years after the development of agriculture and the domestication of grain, animals were still undomesticated and meat was acquired by hunting. In many parts of the world, this symbiosis continues: Farmers are sedentary while hunters are nomadic or semi-nomadic. The former produces carbohydrates, the latter, proteins.
Both strategies for providing food are subject to forces beyond human control. Agricultural success is a product not only of human effort but also weather, and an absence of armies marauding through the fields. Hunting is also dependent on weather and climate, animal population strength, and the vagaries of animal movements.
When agriculture is successful for an extended period of time, and that community’s strength grows, it can often extend its control over neighboring populations. While nomadic peoples do sometimes rule over sedentary ones—Genghis Khan and Tamerlane are classic examples—it is rare; it is more common for settled agricultural societies to rule over the territories where nomadic peoples live. This is especially the case for those who have developed a secure enough economy to extract resources to support not only a ruler but also his army, and to secure tribute and control over the neighboring, non-sedentary peoples.
Thus, we have our quandary: why is Isaac offering a blessing that seems so incompatible with the lifestyle of the son he thinks he is blessing? Esau is a hunter, and Isaac loves this about him. Perhaps, Isaac hopes that Esau’s descendants will take up farming, so that they may grow to be dominant over their neighbors, including Israel. Alternatively, perhaps Isaac knows that he is really talking to Jacob in this scene, as this agricultural blessing is really fit for Jacob.
What Does Esau Receive in His Blessing?
As the story continues, Jacob leaves his father’s presence, and Esau arrives, only to learn that his brother has stolen his blessing. Isaac tells Esau that there is nothing remaining for him, but Esau begs and Isaac relents and gives him a blessing too. It begins with language reminiscent of the blessing he gave Jacob, which can be translated in two opposite ways (note the brackets):
בראשית כז:לט הִנֵּה מִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ יִהְיֶה מוֹשָׁבֶךָ וּמִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם מֵעָל. לט:מ וְעַל חַרְבְּךָ תִחְיֶה וְאֶת אָחִיךָ תַּעֲבֹד וְהָיָה כַּאֲשֶׁר תָּרִיד וּפָרַקְתָּ עֻלּוֹ מֵעַל צַוָּארֶךָ.
Gen 27:39 See, your abode shall be [away] from the fat of the earth and [away] from the dew of heaven above. 39:40 And by your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restive, you shall break his yoke from your neck.
The granting of political power to Jacob in the latter part of the blessing is clearly negative: instead of dominating his brother, Esau will be dominated. This is why he responds in fury. The beginning, however, is ambiguous, because the preposition מ- “from” can either indicate that Esau’s abode will depend upon those resources or that it will be away from them.
The most common understanding is that it parallels Jacob’s blessing. R. Joseph Bekhor Shor, for instance, glosses the line with ארץ טובה תנחל “you will inherit a good land,” and the NJPS reads “See, your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above.” And yet, there are strong reasons to reject this translation.
Jacob Already Received the Fertile Land
When Esau first asks Isaac to give him a blessing, Isaac responds that this is impossible since he has already given it away:
בראשית כז:לז וַיַּעַן יִצְחָק וַיֹּאמֶר לְעֵשָׂו הֵן גְּבִיר שַׂמְתִּיו לָךְ וְאֶת כָּל אֶחָיו נָתַתִּי לוֹ לַעֲבָדִים וְדָגָן וְתִירֹשׁ סְמַכְתִּיו וּלְכָה אֵפוֹא מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה בְּנִי.
Gen 27:37 Isaac answered Esau, “I have already made him your lord, and I have given him all his brothers as servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?”
Thus, it seems, that when Esau, nonetheless, begs for a blessing, Isaac knows that it cannot include agricultural land, which was promised to Jacob. This is the Greek LXX understands the verse (ἀπὸ τῆς “away from”) and how the NRSVue translates the verse: “See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be and away from the dew of heaven on high.”
D.Z. Hoffmann: Edom Is Arid
In his commentary, R. David Zvi Hoffmann (1843–1921) defends this translation, noting that it is the preferred translation of contemporary scholars:
הופמן בראשית כז:כט משמני וגו׳ – לפי רש״י, רמב״ן ואחרים הרי זו ברכה או נבואה של ברכה ואושר. אולם לנו נראה, יחד עם פרשנים חדשים רבים, שהוראת מי״ם השימוש ב״משמני״ וב״ומטל״ היא במובן ההעדר, שלילית (privative), כלומר בלא שמן ובלא טל, והרי הטעמים העיקריים לדעה זו:
Hoffmann Gen 27:29 “From the fat, etc.”—according to Rashi, Ramban, and others, this is a blessing or a prophecy of blessing and abundance. Nevertheless, to us, in keeping with many contemporary commentators, it seems that the mem here in mi-shemanei and in mi-tal should be understood as lack, absence, meaning without fat and without dew. Here are the main reasons for this reading:
א) עובדה היא שאדום היא ארץ צחיחה ובלתי פוריה. אמנם יש שם גם ואדיות פוריים, אשר בגינם בקשו אחדים להבין את מי״ם השימוש כאן בהוראת קצת או חלק מן משהו (partitive);
a) It is a fact that Edom is a wilderness climate and not fertile. Certainly, there are fertile wadis there as well, which is why some have understood the mem here in the sense of “some” or “part of something.”
ב) לפי פסוק ל״ז אי אפשר להניח שיצחק נתן לעשו אותה ברכה שנתן ליעקב.
b) According to verse 37, it is impossible for Isaac to give Esau the same blessing he gave Jacob.
ג) ״ועל חרבך תחיה״ מראה שאין בארץ זו כדי לפרנס את תושביה.
c) “You will live by the sword” demonstrates that this land does not have enough to support its inhabitants (=without war and plunder).
How Is This a Blessing?
But if this is Isaac’s meaning, how are we to understand this as a second blessing or at least as a concession to his beloved older son? Again, the answer goes back to the division with which the brothers’ story begins between the hunter and the sedentary farmer: In an environment where there are farmers and hunters, the farmers take the good planting land, and the hunters live on the less fertile land. The people can gather enough vegetal foodstuffs, and the game animals have enough to eat, and also are not scared away by the denser human populations.
This is exactly what Isaac offers to Esau. Given that Jacob and Esau were already different in lifestyle, Isaac’s attempt to assign the agricultural blessing to Esau was wrong-headed from the start. The settled tent-dweller needs to control the fertile land, while the nomadic hunter can dominate the semi-arid lands.
A Wider Lens on an Etiological Story
In this story, Jacob and Esau are eponymous ancestors of two peoples: Israelites and Edomites. In other words, these blessings explain the origins of the different lifestyles of these peoples. Jacob’s offspring, the Israelites, succeed in becoming the masters of the agricultural lands of Canaan—albeit through trickery—and Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, end up hunting game in the mountains of Seir.
Of course, the story is written from an Israelite perspective, and thus it is obvious to the author and his audience which lifestyle is preferable. It is possible that the semi-nomadic Edomites would have seen their lifestyle as the more desirable, and looked down upon sedentary farmers. We wouldn’t know, since historiography—including legends about ancestors—is written by the victors.
In a TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist, talks about how she learned the value of multiple narratives. She cites the work of Chinua Achebe, who tells a story of the contact between Europeans and Africans in Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s themes and foci are very different from most Europeans, especially Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. When the only version of the story we see is that of the victors, we are blind to any other perspectives and any other realities.
The Bible is Israel’s story; Esau’s story is not told here. What it contains about others is only what is relevant to Israel. That is to be expected, but we cannot confuse biblical descriptions of others, such as Esau/Edom/Seir, either with how those groups would have seen themselves, or even with an impartial perspective.
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November 16, 2023
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Dr. Ely Levine holds a PhD in biblical studies and archaeology from Harvard University. He has taught at Villanova University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Luther College. He has participated in archaeological excavations in Italy and Israel, and is a member of the staff of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavation Project. Currently, Dr. Levine is Scholar-in-Residence and Ritual Coordinator at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania.
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