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SBL e-journal

Marvin A. Sweeney





Israel’s History as a Family Narrative



APA e-journal

Marvin A. Sweeney





Israel’s History as a Family Narrative






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Israel’s History as a Family Narrative

Behind the story of Jacob’s struggle with his older twin Esau, stands a political allegory, reflecting how Israel (=Jacob) first dominated Edom (=Esau) in the 10th-9th centuries and then lost control over it in the late 8th century.


Israel’s History as a Family Narrative

The Reconciliation of Jacob and EsauPeter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)

A Story of Dysfunctional Brothers

Genesis 25 recounts the early years of our patriarchal ancestor, Jacob, and his dysfunctional relationship with his older fraternal twin brother, Esau. The narrative begins in vv. 19–26 with the account of their struggle for dominance during the course of Rebekah’s pregnancy and childbirth. It continues in vv. 27–34 with a brief narrative concerning Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentils.

After a detour (ch. 26),[1] it returns in Gen 27:1–40 by telling how Rebekah prompted Jacob to deceive Isaac into granting him the blessing of the firstborn. It concludes in Gen 27:41–28:9 with an account of how Rebekah convinced Jacob to flee to her family in Paddan Aram to escape the wrath of his brother and to find a suitable bride.[2]

Biblical Characters as Representative Figures

Although the story is ostensibly about two brothers, biblical characters are often designed to represent. This is the case in the Jacob account.[3]

Esau as Edom/Seir

Several aspects of the description of Esau in Gen 25:25 as אדמוני כלו כאדרת שער “red, all of him like a mantle of hair,” point to the region of Edom, and Esau’s position as the Edomites’ eponymous ancestor:

  • אדמוני “red,” is a pun on the name ‘Edom, and the reference to a mantle of “hair.”
  • שער, śe`ar, is a pun on the name śe`ir (Se`ir), which is the regional name for the territory in which Edom was located.
  • Esau’s willingness to trade his birthright for Jacob’s lentils, which Esau describes as “some of that red stuff,” Hebrew, ‘adom, in Gen 25:30, explains why he was called Edom.

Jacob as Israel/Judah

In response to his mother’s suggestion that Jacob pretend to be Esau before his blind father, Isaac, so that Jacob will receive the blessing of the firstborn, he responds (Gen 27:11):

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֔ב אֶל־רִבְקָ֖ה אִמּ֑וֹ הֵ֣ן עֵשָׂ֤ו אָחִי֙ אִ֣ישׁ שָׂעִ֔ר וְאָנֹכִ֖י אִ֥ישׁ חָלָֽק:
Jacob answered his mother Rebekah, “But my brother Esau is a hairy (śa`ir) man and I am smooth-skinned (ḥalaq).”

Jacob describes himself in as ḥalaq (“smooth”) in contrast to his śa`ir (hairy) brother. This likely reflects the border between Judah and and Seir (Edom) that was marked by Mount Halaq (Josh 11:17; מִן־הָהָ֤ר הֶֽחָלָק֙ הָעוֹלֶ֣ה שֵׂעִ֔יר). Thus, this verse is probably a clever play on the geographical divide between the two nations Edom and Judah.

The Southern Connection

Julius Wellhausen, the key figure in the development of modern pentateuchal source criticism, assigned most of the Jacob material to his J source of the Pentateuch.[4] In Wellhausen’s view, J was the earliest of the four sources of the Pentateuch and dated to the early years of the monarchy in the ninth century BCE. Gerhard Von Rad pushed the date of J back to the tenth century BCE. to coincide with the founding of the Davidic monarchy,[5] but most modern scholars date it to the seventh century or even the exilic period.[6]

J was characterized by its use of the divine name, YHWH (German, JHWH), its folkloric character; its anthropomorphic portrayal of God; its lack of concern with ethical issues; and its setting in the southern kingdom of Judah where it gave expression to a primitive and yet pristine relationship between human beings and God.

The Jacob narratives had to be part of J, in Wellhausen’s view, since the foundational narrative of the Pentateuch had to have a complete story line, and the Jacob narratives helped to ensure the integrity of the earliest source. The subsequent northern Israelite E source, identified by its use of Elohim, the generic name for “God,” was set in the eighth century B.C.E. and, many believed, may have been a supplement or appendix to J.

Jacob as an Early Northern Kingdom of Israel (E) Story

In recent years, however, some scholars—myself among them—have suggested that the core of the story of Jacob and Esau comes from the northern Israelite source, E, that can be tentatively dated to the eighth century BCE.[7] Jacob is a northern Israelite patriarch, associated primarily with northern Israelite sites:[8]

  • Shechem – the ancient capital of the north (Gen 33:18-20, 34).
  • Beth El – a northern shrine (Gen 28:10-22).
  • The Tranjordanian Cities of Penuel (Gen 32:31-32), Sukkot (Gen 33:17), and Mahanaim (Gen 32:3), all important administrative centers of Northern Israel.

Israel’s subjugation to Aram: Jacob and Laban

Jacob’s sojourn in Aram with his Uncle Laban, whom he served for twenty years to marry Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, is not meant to be taken literally. It instead reflects Israel’s subjugation to Aram during the early years of the Jehu dynasty following the overthrow of the House of Omri in the late ninth century BCE. Indeed, it was only during the reigns of the later Jehu dynasty Kings, Joash/Jehoash ben Jehoahaz and Jeroboam ben Joash, that Israel restored its hold over the Transjordan and settled its borders with Aram in the eight century BCE.[9]

The Judahite Connection: Edomites in a Northern Story?

One problem with identifying the Jacob story as northern “political mythology” is its focus on Esau and Edom, to the south of Moab and to the southeast of Judah, across the Aravah, which extends from the southern basin of the Dead Sea.[10] The kingdom of Edom does not share a border with the northern kingdom of Israel, but, as noted above, shares a border with the latter kingdom, the Judahite Mount Halaq. Initially, this seems to suggest that the story cannot be northern, and that Judah, not Israel, is allegorizing its relationship with Edom by picturing two brothers struggling in the ancient past. How then can this story be read as deriving from northern Israel, which had Jacob as its ancestor figure?

Judah as Israel’s Vassal: The History of the Merger of the Two Identities

Kingdoms around Israel 830

This problem has an easy solution. Judah was a dependent of northern Israel during the ninth through eighth centuries BCE, when this text was probably written. Although the period of the divided monarchy, depicted in the Bible after the reign of Kings Solomon, is often depicted as a time of two independent kingdoms, Judah to the south and Israel to the North, this is not the case—for much of this period Judah was a vassal of Israel.

A Brief History of the Nations

A careful reading of the Book of Kings suggests that at least from the beginning of the ninth century, Judah was joined at the hip with Israel:.

  • Conquest – During the reign of the House of Omri, Judah became a vassal to Israel.
  • Allies in Battle – King Jehoshaphat of Judah accompanied King Ahab of Israel in battle against the Arameans, where Ahab was killed (1 Kings 22). He again accompanied Ahab’s son, King Jehoram of Israel, during the latter’s campaign against King Mesha of Moab (2 Kings 3). In these depictions, the northern king is depicted as the leader.
  • Royal Marriage Alliance – Jehoshaphat’s son, King Jehoram of Judah, was married to a daughter of Ahab (2 Kings 8:18), though in another passage she is identified as Athaliah bat Omri (2 Kings 18:26). Either way, such a royal marriage is the typical way of sealing an alliance between two kingdoms.
  • Attempted revolt – Later in the eighth century, Ahaziah’s grandson King Amaziah of Judah attempted to revolt against King Joash/Jehoash of Israel, Joash defeated Amaziah at Beth Shemesh and then marched upon Jerusalem, destroying a portion of its wall and thereby compelling Amaziah to submit once again to northern Israelite suzerainty (2 Kgs 14:1–20).

Thus, Judah was a vassal to northern Israel from the late ninth through the late eighth century; Judah only gained independence with the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722.

Judah as Part of Israel

From the northern Israelite perspective, it would appear that Judah was considered more than just a vassal, but as Israelite. Already in the northern source, E, Judah is pictured as one of Jacob’s sons, i.e., part of Israel, not a separate nation. Thus, in a sense Edom shared a border with Israel, Judah’s suzerain or “father” nation.

The Vassal of my Vassal is my Vassal

In the ninth centuries, Edom was controlled by Judah, and, Judah, in turn, was controlled by Israel. Since Israel viewed Judah as its own territory, Judah’s vassal, Edom was ultimately Israel’s vassal as well. Thus, a northern Israelite story can express its relationship with Edom as that of brother nations, and even develop wordplays about their shared border.

The Loss of Edom and the Hope of Re-conquest

Toledot is a part of the larger Jacob narrative in Genesis 25–35, which appears to have been written as a northern Israelite reflection on its experience with Edom and Aram during the Aramean wars of the ninth through eighth centuries BCE.[11] Under the leadership of a succession of dynasties, identified in biblical sources as the Israelite House of Saul, the Judean/Israelite House of David, the Israelite House of Omri, and the Israelite House of Jehu, northern Israel came to dominate the region and established its rule over Judah, Edom, Moab, and Ammon. This lasted until Israel’s rule was challenged by Aram (late ninth through early eighth centuries), during which time Edom broke free of Israelite/Judahite control (2 Kgs 8:20–24).

Translating the political allegory, Israel (Jacob) is destined to dominate Edom (Esau) and does so for a short time. At some point, Israel is attacked and subjugated by Aram (=Laban), and as a result, lost control of the Transjordan and Edom in particular. Eventually, Israel escapes Aramean domination, but does not regain dominance over Edom.

Making Sense of the Relationship with Edom

The Torah employs the ancestral figure of Jacob and his dysfunctional relationship with his older, fraternal twin brother, Esau, to give expression to its relationship with its escaped vassal, Edom. The relationship is acrimonious, but it is also multifaceted. Esau shows that he is not worthy of the birthright by selling his status for a bowl of lentils. Jacob is clearly the more capable of the two, but he wins the blessing of the firstborn by deceiving his nearly-blind father, Isaac, and he is forced to flee his homeland to escape Esau’s wrath. When Jacob returns in Parashat Vayishlach, Esau will already have become an independent power located in Seir.

The stages in the relationship between Israel and Edom are presaged in Isaac’s blessing to Esau (Gen 27:40):

וְעַל־חַרְבְּךָ֣ תִֽחְיֶ֔ה וְאֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ תַּעֲבֹ֑ד וְהָיָה֙ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר תָּרִ֔יד וּפָרַקְתָּ֥ עֻלּ֖וֹ מֵעַ֥ל צַוָּארֶֽךָ:
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.”

Indeed Esau did free himself from Jacob’s yoke, and gained independence, never again to be subservient to its “brother” Israel/Judah. Various sources, such as Psalm 137; Obadiah; Jer 49:7–22; and Ezek 25:12–14 indicate that centuries later, Edom joined the Babylonians and participated in the desecration and destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE.

Jacob’s Flaws in Historical Context

What is reflected in Toledot, once we understand that states stand behind the individuals depicted in the narrative? The Jacob and Esau stories in Toledot are self-reflective. The flaws in Jacob’s character in this account explain Israel’s relationship with Esau. Jacob is the chosen son but he will suffer hardships and loss of control and dominance—namely, the Israel, the northern kingdom, will lose its political dominance over Edom. The narrator implies that this is because Esau is a flawed character and perhaps unworthy of fully realizing his destiny.

Perhaps by turning the nations into individuals and painting the founding father as a human with great potential but serious flaws, the Torah gives us the opportunity to recognize self-critically our own strengths and faults in character as individuals and as a nation, and to seek to find a better way to establish and conduct our relationships with others.


November 10, 2015


Last Updated

October 3, 2021


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Prof. Marvin A. Sweeney is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. His Ph.D. is from Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of sixteen volumes, such as Tanak: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Jewish BibleReading the Hebrew Bible after the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology; and Jewish Mysticism: From Ancient Times through Today.