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Malka Z. Simkovich





Jacob’s Funeral and Esau’s Last Stand





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Malka Z. Simkovich





Jacob’s Funeral and Esau’s Last Stand








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Jacob’s Funeral and Esau’s Last Stand

Esau’s attempt to block Jacob’s burial at the Cave of Machpelah ends in his gruesome death.


Jacob’s Funeral and Esau’s Last Stand

Joseph and his brothers carry Jacob's body back to the land of Canaan. Illustrators of the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster. Wikimedia

Jacob dies in Egypt, but asks to be buried in Israel; Joseph and the brothers comply. As Joseph is the viceroy, a large entourage of Egyptians accompany them to Jacob’s final resting place.

Before arriving at the Cave of Machpelah in the vicinity of Hebron, the entourage makes an unexplained seven-day stop at an obscure place called Goren Ha-Atad, which literally means “the threshing floor of the thornbush.”

בראשית נ:י וַיָּבֹ֜אוּ עַד־גֹּ֣רֶן הָאָטָ֗ד אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן וַיִּ֨סְפְּדוּ־שָׁ֔ם מִסְפֵּ֛ד גָּד֥וֹל וְכָבֵ֖ד מְאֹ֑ד וַיַּ֧עַשׂ לְאָבִ֛יו אֵ֖בֶל שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃
Gen 50:10 When they came to Goren ha-Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they held there a very great and solemn lamentation; and he observed a mourning period of seven days for his father.

The Canaanites are so impressed by the mourning of this Egyptian entourage that they rename the site “the Mourning of Egypt”:

בראשית נ:יב וַיַּ֡רְא יוֹשֵׁב֩ הָאָ֨רֶץ הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֜י אֶת־הָאֵ֗בֶל בְּגֹ֙רֶן֙ הָֽאָטָ֔ד וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵֽבֶל־כָּבֵ֥ד זֶ֖ה לְמִצְרָ֑יִם עַל־כֵּ֞ן קָרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ אָבֵ֣ל מִצְרַ֔יִם אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֥בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּֽן׃
Gen 50:11 And when the Canaanite inhabitants of the land saw the mourning at Goren ha-Atad, they said, “This is a solemn mourning on the part of the Egyptians.” That is why it was named Abel-mizraim, which is beyond the Jordan.[1]

After this, the story continues with the burial of Jacob in the Cave of Machpelah.

Canaanites at the Threshing Floor of the Thornbush: Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud)

Early rabbinic interpreters were perplexed by the positive depiction of Canaanites: Aren’t these the same people from whom Israel will wrest control of the land? Aren’t the Israelites commanded to avoid ever behaving like them (Lev 18:2, 28), and indeed to slaughter them all (Deut 20:16–18)?

A midrash found in the Yerushalmi—and many other texts from the land of Israel (from the mid-first millennium C.E.)—expands upon the Canaanite reaction by tying it to the strange toponym Goren ha-Atad, literally “threshing floor of the thornbush” (j. Sotah 1:10):[2]

וכי יש גורן לאטד? אמר ר' שמואל בר נחמן: חיזרנו בכל המקרא ולא מצינו מקום ששמו אטד.
Does a thornbush have a threshing floor?! Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman said: “We have looked throughout scripture and we did not find a place called Atad.”

So the toponym cannot mean “the threshing floor of the thornbush” or “the threshing floor of the town of Atad.” Therefore, the text argues, we need to find a deeper meaning in this name:

אלא מהו אטד? אילו הכנענים שהיו ראויין לידוש כאטד.
So what is Atad? This refers to the Canaanites who were fit to have been crushed like a thornbush.

Like thornbushes, the text claims, Canaanites should be crushed underfoot, as was the practice with thornbushes.[3] But this did not happen:

ובאי־זו זכות ניצולו? בזכות [שם יא] וירא יושב הארץ הכנעני את האבל בגורן האטד.
What merit did they have that saved them? “The Canaanite inhabitants of the land saw the mourning at Goren ha-Atad…” (Gen 50:11)

The text offers multiple possibilities of what the Canaanites did that was so meritorious:

ומה חסד עשו עמו?
What kindness did they do with him?
רבי אלעזר אמר: איזוריהם התירו.
Rabbi Elazar said: “They loosened their belts [as a sign of mourning].”
רבי שמעון בן לקיש אמר: קישרי כתפיהן התירו.
Rabbi Simon ben Lakish said: “The loosened their shoulder knots [as a sign of mourning].”
רבנן אמרין: זקפו קומתן.
The rabbis said: “The straightened their stances [as a sign of respect].”
אמר רבי יודן בר שלום: הראו באצבע ואמרו [שם יא] אבל כבד זה למצרים.
Rabbi Yudin bar Shalom said: “They pointed with their fingers and said: ‘This is heavy mourning for Egypt.’”[4]

These different traditions suggest that the Canaanites expressed signs of mourning or respect for Jacob, and thus are treated as welcome by the Joseph and his entourage. Despite their sinfulness, their behavior at Jacob’s funeral saves them from any harm.

Removing their Crowns: The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) Version

A similar midrash appears in b. Sotah (13a), but with a different explanation for the toponym. Moreover, the text turns the Canaanites into other groups (bold):

...ויבואו עד גרן האטד. וכי גרן יש לו לאטד? אמר ר' אבהו: מלמד שהיקיפו כתרים לארונו של יעקב כגורן זה שמוקף לו אטד—שבאו בני עשו ובני ישמעאל ובני קטורה. תנא: כולם למלחמה באו, כיון שראו כתרו של יוסף תלוי בארונו של יעקב, נטלו כתריהם ותלאום בארונו של יעקב. [5]
…(Gen 50:10): “And they game to the threshing floor of the thornbush.” Does a thornbush really get a threshing floor? Rabbi Abahu said: “This teaches that they surrounded Jacob’s casket with crowns,[6] like any given threshing floor may be surrounded by thornbushes”—for the sons of Esau, the sons of Ishmael, and the sons of Keturah all came. It was taught: All of them originally came to make war, but when they saw Joseph’s crown hanging upon Jacob’s casket, they took off their crowns and hung them on Jacob’s casket.[7]

Instead of mourning rituals or gestures of respect, the Bavli describes the symbolic removal of crowns, which indicates that they are recognizing the greatness, strength and authority of Jacob; they subjugate themselves to Jacob, even in his death.

Switching Canaanites for Sons of Esau, Ishmael, and Keturah

This midrash exchanges Canaanites for Abraham and Isaac’s other offspring. The phrase “for the sons of Esau, the sons of Ishmael, and the sons of Keturah all came” was added by the editors of the Bavli; it does not appear to be part of R. Abahu’s midrash.[8] This is supported by a look at the parallel to this midrash in Genesis Rabbah (97.29, Theodor-Albeck), which retains Canaanites:

מה כתיב: ויבאו עד גורן האטד? וכי יש גרן לאטד שהוא אומר ויבאו עד גרן האטד?! אלא אלו כנענים שנטלו את כתריהן והקיפו ארונו שליעקב כגרן זה שמקיפין אתו באטד.
What does the verse mean “They came to Goren ha-Atad”? Does a thornbush really have a threshing floor such that the verse says “they came to the threshing floor of the thornbush”?! Rather, these are the Canaanites, who took off their crowns, and surrounded Jacob’s casket like a threshing floor that is surrounded by thornbushes.[9]

Esau Tries to Stop the Burial (Continuation of the Bavli)

This positive depiction of the sons of Esau, Ishmael, and Keturah sharply contrasts with the behavior of Esau himself in the continuation of the story in the Bavli.

וכיון שהיגיעו למערת המכפלה אתא עשו וקא מיעכב. אמר להו: ממרא קרית ארבע היא חברון... [10] איהו קברה ללאה כי דידיה, האי דפייש דידי הוא.
When they arrived at the Machpelah cave, Esau arrived and blocked them. He said to them (Gen 35:27): “‘Mamre, Kiryat Ha-Arba [=the city of the four], which is Hebron’… He buried Leah in his spot, and the remaining spot is mine!”

Esau’s point is that place is named “city of the four” because there are only four burial plots in the cave,[11] and that Jacob used up the penultimate one for his wife Leah. Given that both he and Jacob are sons of Isaac, the final plot should be his. Jacob’s sons push back, reminding Esau that he sold their father his birthright when they were lads:

אמרו ליה: זבינתיה.
They said to him: “You sold it.”
אמר להו: נהי דזבינתי בכורתי פשיט[תי] מי זבינתי?
He said to them: “Admittedly, I sold my firstborn birthright, but did I sell my simple rights [as Isaac’s son]?”
אמרו ליה: אין, שכך אמר לנו אבא: אשר כריתי [לי].
They said to him: “Yes, for our father said to us (Gen 50:5): ‘That I dug/bought.’”

The brothers here claim that along with the birthright, Jacob literally bought Esau’s burial plot in the cave.[12] Assuming this is true, Esau must know this, but he stands his ground:

אמר להו: הבו איגרתא.
He said to them: “Bring me the contract.”
אמרו ליה: איגרתא במצרים.
They said to him: “The contract is in Egypt.”

The brothers know Esau is trying to fool them, but they are stuck until they can produce the contract. Thus, they decide to send someone racing back to Egypt to get it:

ומאן [ניזול]? ניזיל נפתלי דקליל כאיילתא, דכתיב נפתלי אילה שלוחה...
Who should go? Naphtali should go, for he is quick like a doe, for it says (Gen 49:21): “Naphtali is a doe let loose…”[13]

The stalemate ends before Naphtali can return, however, because of the actions of a different descendant of Jacob:

חושים בן דן הוו יקרן ליה אודניה. אמר להו: מאי האי? אמרו ליה: קא מעכב עד דאתי נפתלי מארעא דמצרים. אמר להו: ועד דאתי נפתלי מארעא דמצרים יהא אבי אבא מוטל בביזיון?!
Ḥushim, the son of Dan, was hard of hearing (lit. “had heavy ears”).[14] He said to them: “What is going on?” They said to him: “He is stopping us until Naphtali returns from Egypt.” He said to them: “Should my father’s father be left in disgrace until Naphtali returns from Egpyt?!”
שקל קולפא מחייה ארישיה נתו[ר]ן עינוהי נפול אכרעיה דיעקב פתחינהי יעקב לעיניה ואחוך והיינו דכתיב ישמח צדיק חזה נקם פעמיו ירחץ בדם רשע.
[Ḥushim] picked up a club and slammed [Esau’s] head. [Esau’s] eyes popped out and fell on Jacob’s legs. Jacob opened his eyes and smiled. This is what is written (Ps 58:11): “The righteous man will rejoice when he sees revenge; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.”[15]

While Esau is belligerent and obtuse in this legend, the rabbinic writers also surely noticed that his argument had some merit. Not only was Esau the elder son of Isaac who was deceitfully denied his ancestral legacy, but Esau actually lived in the land of Canaan, the land promised to the family of Abraham, whereas Jacob and his sons lived in Egypt, outside of the promised territory.

As a response to a purely legal challenge, Ḥushim’s violent reaction, killing Esau on the spot, seems excessive, even undeserved. When Jacob’s dead face smiles, the midrash reassures us that this was justified, by framing what took place as a fulfillment of Psalm 58.

Jacob’s Dead Smile and Psalm 58

Psalm 58 is an appeal to God to smite the wicked, who are described as:

תהלים נח:ד זֹ֣רוּ רְשָׁעִ֣ים מֵרָ֑חֶם תָּע֥וּ מִ֜בֶּ֗טֶן דֹּבְרֵ֥י כָזָֽב׃
Ps 58:4 The wicked are defiant from birth; the liars go astray from the womb.

Midrash Shocher Tov (=Midrash Tehillim), a rabbinic homiletic commentary on Psalms, connects this with the story of Esau and Jacob struggling in the womb (ad loc.):

מרחם ומבטן הרשעים ניכרים, וכן אתה מוצא בעשו הרשע, עד דהוי במעוי דאימיה הוה מגיח עם יעקב אחוי, שנאמר ויתרוצצו הבנים בקרבה (בראשית כה כב), שהיה מרצץ עם אחיו במעי אמו,
The wicked are distinguishable already from the womb, so one finds with Esau the Wicked, when he was still in his mother’s womb, he would fight with his brother Jacob, as it says (Gen 25:22) “and the boys struggled inside her,” that he would struggle with his brother in his mother’s womb.

More specifically, the verse immediately preceding the one cited in the Bavli’s midrash states:

תהלים נח:י ‎בְּטֶ֤רֶם יָבִ֣ינוּ סִּֽירֹתֵיכֶ֣ם אָטָ֑ד כְּמוֹ־חַ֥י כְּמוֹ־חָ֜ר֗וֹן יִשְׂעָרֶֽנּוּ׃
Ps 58:10 Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns (atad), whether green or ablaze, may He sweep (se’ir) them away.[16]

Atad is a rare word, appearing in only one other place (Judg 9) outside of this Psalm and in the story of the mourning over Jacob. Moreover, the root of the verb “to sweep away” ש.ע.ר is the same as the toponym where Esau lives, Seir. This, too, suggested a connection between the burial of Jacob and the death of Esau.

Rebecca’s Prophecy

The text of the Bavli concludes with a further defense of the inevitability of Esau’s death here:

באותה שעה נתקיימה נבואת רבקה דכתיב למה אשכל גם שני[כם] יום אחד, ואף [על] גב דמיתתן לא ביום אחד קבורתן ביום אחד מיהא הואי.
At that moment, Rebecca’s prophecy came true. For it is written (Gen 27:45): “Let me not lose you both [Jacob and Esau] in one day.” Even though their death did not take place in one day, their burial, at least, took place on the same day.

Genesis presents Rebecca’s statement as an expression of concern—if Esau were to kill Jacob, Rebecca would, in a sense, be losing both sons. Nevertheless, the rabbis believed that when a righteous person declared that something might happen, it necessarily had to happen, eventually, and in that sense, she is uttering a prophecy. Thus, Esau was fated to die in this confrontation.[17]

Thus, unlike Esau’s own descendants, and those of Ishmael and Keturah, who show Jacob respect by surrounding his casket with crowns, Esau is described here as a wicked antagonist, wishing to take Jacob’s place as a patriarch buried in the Cave of Machpelah.

Esau’s War: Targum Pseudo-Jonathan

In the Bavli, Esau uses legal argumentation, rather than force, to stop the funeral. In the version of this legend found in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (late 1st mill. C.E.), however, Esau appears with an army (Gen 50:12):[18]

וּנְטָלוּ יָתֵיהּ בְּנוֹי לְאַרְעָא דִכְנָעַן וּשְׁמִיעַ פִּתְגָמָא לְעֵשָו רַשִׁיעָא וּנְטַל מִן טוּרָא דְגַבְלָא בְּלִגְיוֹנִין סַגִיאִין וְאָתָא לְחֶבְרוֹן וְלָא הֲוָה שָׁבִיק לְיוֹסֵף לְמִיקְבּוֹר יַת אָבוּי בִּמְעָרַת כְּפֵילְתָּא.
When his sons had brought him into the land of Canaan, and the matter became known to Esau the Wicked, he journeyed from the mountain of Gebala (=Seir) with many legions, and came to Hebron, and would not suffer Joseph to bury his father in the Double Cave.

Pseudo-Jonathan does not explicitly mention Esau’s legal claim, though the continuation of his translation makes clear that he had one in mind (ibid):

מִן יַד אָזַל נַפְתָּלִי וְרָהַט וּנְחַת לְמִצְרַיִם וְאָתָא בְּהַהוּא יוֹמָא וְאַיְיתִי אוּנִיתָא דְכָתַב עֵשָו לְיַעֲקב אָחוּי עַל פַּלְגוּת מְעָרַת כָּפֵילְתָּא.
Immediately, Naphtali went forth and ran down to Egypt, and returned that very day, bringing with him the deed that Esau wrote out for Jacob regarding his share in the Double Cave.

Apparently, Naphtali realizes that the deed was insufficient since he next urges Ḥushim to attack Esau:

וּמִן יַד רָמַז לְחוּשִׁים בַּר דָן וְנָטַל סַיְיפָא וְקָטַע רֵישֵׁיהּ דְעֵשָו רַשִׁיעָא.
And immediately he beckoned to Ḥushim the son of Dan, who unsheathed the sword and struck off the head of the Wicked Esau.

In the Bavli version, the attack comes while the brothers are waiting for Naphtali. Here, Naphtali has returned, and the brothers have proven to Esau that the plot belonged to their father. Moreover, Ḥushim here is neither deaf nor precipitant, and the killing is not described in a bizarrely gruesome manner, nor does dead Jacob respond with a smile.

Thus far, all the adjustments paint the brothers in an entirely sympathetic manner, while the death of Esau seems like something deserved and inevitable. And yet, Pseudo-Jonathan’s portrayal of Esau is not entirely negative either.

Esau’s Head in Isaac’s Lap

Pseudo-Jonathan ends with a sympathetic, sad image:

וַהֲוָה רֵישֵׁיהּ דְעֵשָו מִתְגַלְגַל עַד דְעַל לְגוֹ מְעַרְתָּא וְאַתְנַח בְּגוֹ עִיטְפֵיהּ דְיִצְחָק אָבוֹי.
Esau’s head rolled into the midst of the cave, and rested upon the bosom of his father, Isaac.

The Torah emphasizes Isaac’s love for his son Esau (Gen 25:28),[19] and thus, the midrash has Isaac take Esau into his bosom for one last caress from the grave.[20] While the love shared between Esau and his father will not be enough to secure him a place in the cave, the story does end with a rapprochement of sorts between the sons of Esau and the sons of Jacob:

וְגוּפֵיהּ קְבָרוּ בְּנוֹ דְעֵשָו בַּחֲקַל כְּפֵילְתָּא וּבָתַר כֵּן קְבָרוּ יָתֵיהּ בְּנוֹי לְיַעֲקב בִּמְעָרַת חֲקַל כָּפֵילְתָּא...
Esau’s sons buried his body in the double field, and afterward the sons of Jacob buried him in the cave of the double field…

Thus, even Pseudo-Jonathan, who begins by declaring Esau as wicked, expresses some sympathy for his plight, and ends the story on a positive note of partial reconciliation.

Rabbinic Ambivalence about Canaanites and Esau

The Canaanites are Israel’s sworn enemies, whom they are commanded to destroy. Nevertheless, the rabbis in the Yerushalmi tradition and Pseudo-Jonathan were willing to give them a lot of credit for the respect they show Jacob. In contrast, the Bavli erases their meritorious act entirely, transferring it to closer relatives—the sons of Esau, Ishmael, and Keturah.

But, while the Bavli is not ambivalent about Canaanites, it expresses ambivalence about Esau himself.[21] Even in Pseudo-Jonathan, which depicts Esau behaving more menacingly, and depicts his killing as deserved, we see the glimmers of sympathy in the depiction of the final resting spot of Esau’s head in Isaac’s lap, and his body in the field next to his brother and parents.


December 30, 2020


Last Updated

February 18, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).