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Esau, Blessings and Judaism
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

If Jacob tricked Isaac by pretending he was Esau, why wasn't Esau considered more righteous and therefore a Father of Judaism?  We always hear about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

All we have is the story as it comes to us, and that question is not addressed in the story.  In fact, that question is irrelevant.  The story is not about righteousness, it is about blessing.  The story likewise does not claim that Jacob is righteous, or that his blessing was based on his righteousness.

In fact, there is no apology for the trickery of Jacob, whose name, if the text had been properly translated, would clearly tell us his role in this story: Conman.  And this is even more poignant, since we have this story from Jacob's descendants, so that is the obvious focus.  Esau's descendants did not write their equivalent story.

But the story is talking about the concept of Blessing, not Reward.  The story is not about abstract historical information, like modern westerners are taught to focus on.  This story is organized around the powerful mystical concept of blessing, as an active performance.  A blessing is a spiritual power.  Energy goes out in performance when the words are pronounced.  A change is made in the actual structure of the universe.

A Story of Power
This is not a value in the modern materialistc worldview.  (This spiritual value has regained a place in the focus of the Postmodern generation, in reaction against materialism, to reclaim spiritual values.)  In ancient Semitic culture (there was no Hebrew culture yet) a blessing was not revocable.  Once pronounced the power had gone forth and become a reality in the world at large.

A person's word meant something, even if coerced or obtained by defeat.  (The story is clear, at least in its own cultural context, that what Jacob did was wrong.  After all, his name in the story is Conman.  No wonder his descendants preferred to use his adopted name, Israel.)  That's how stories work, and these Hebrew scripture stories are powerful and deep.

So Isaac had to do what he could to produce another word, but had no power to reclaim the now-existent word he had already declared over his clever younger son, the trickster or con-man.

The Word Lives
The concept here is that a word spoken has its own existence and power, so a blessing once given was a power already implemented.  (That is why the Bible has such strong warnings and sanctions about the use of words, the making of oaths and declarations.  A person is responsible for the consequences of their words, whether intended or not.  We humans live in a connected community, not as isolated individuals whose acts and words affect no one else.)

So when the father gave the blessing, that was the one blessing he had power to give.  Thus a different second blessing had to be pronounced upon Esau.

Divine Promise
The decisive factor, however, in the Bible story, is the longterm result for the Jacobite (Israelite) tribes, the concept of divine promise.  The blessing was incidental to the choice of Jacob to be the line for the new nation.  Or more correctly, it was irrelevant.  But it could be seen as a supportive event.  And Isaac's declarative blessing was a power that confirmed it, intended or not.

God had already promised that Jacob was "the son of promise," which makes it even more stupid for Jacob to have acted deviously to steal the birthright.

Esau's Nation
Esau also became the father of a great nation, called Edom, a nickname for Esau, which may mean "red."  There is a lot of fun playing on this word in the story of Esau (Edom, the red man) selling his future for a bowl of red (adom) stew (Genesis 25:30).

Esau settled in the land of Seir, around a mountain of the same neame, and his family merged with Seir (see Gen 32:3, 33:12-14) and the Bible provides a list of "rulers" (leaders) of the people (Gen 36:20ff and 40ff), first those of Seir, then the successor list of Esau (Gen 36:1-8).)  Both names, Seir and Edom, are used in later history to refer to the area and the people.

Esau moved east across the Jordan to live among the descendants of Seir (Gen 36:1-8).  We are told the people of Seir were Hurrians (Horites) (Gen 3620).  The land was still called Seir in the Genesis story at the time when Jacob returned to Canaan from Haran, where he worked for his wives' father, Uncle Laban, for 20 years, to be reconciled to his brother.

You can read about Edom again at the time of the entry of Jacob's descendants into Canaan, after the Exodus and 40 years in the wilderness, and the land still existed by that name in the time of the Roman Empire, in the Latin/Greek phonetic form of Idumea.

Esau's family lived peacefully with the people of Seir, gradually gaining ascendance.  The descendents of Edom (Esau) who led in that era are listed in Genesis 36 (Gen 36:20ff and 40ff).

Hebrews and Jews
Incidentally, the question of Jacob and Esau does not involve Judaism.  The term Judaism refers to a particular religious expression, which developed about 1300 years later.  Judaism and the name Jew derive from Judah, the name of the tribe and Yehuda, the form of that name for the land of the "southern tribes."  The descendants of Jacob were called Israel (children of Israel), which was another name of Jacob.

The descendants of Abraham were not called Jews, and the term Hebrew was originally the word for "wanderer," or "nomad."  Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt (descendants of Jacob as well as, apparently, other slaves who joined them).

The term Judaism more specifically refers to the forms of religious observance that developed after the return from the Babylonian captivity to restore Jerusalem, in the 5th century BC.  You can read about the new regulations and worship approaches, as well as the exclusivism of race that developed at that time in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The Origin of the Jews
The term Jew and Judaism came from the tribe of Judah and region of Judea, where Jerusalem was located.  During the divided kingdom, the southern area/tribes of Judah and Benjamin came to be called Judah.  This also included Simeon, south of Judah to the Negev.

But we see in the book of Judges indications that the tribe of Simeon was absorbed into Judah in early years.  The nine other tribes are mentioned in the areas that seceded from the joint kingdom after Solomon's death.

After the northern tribes were dispersed into oblivion by Assyria, the remaining people continued to be known as Judah and the area as Judea.  The Assyrian name of the province was Yehuda.  This continued to be the name under the Medo-Persian, who took over the neo-Babylonian Empire, which had overthrown the Assyrian Empire, and ultimately taken Judeans into exile.

The Form of the Name
Note that the J in Western European languages comes from the letter in Latin which represented the Y sound.  Yehuda/Judea continued to be the name after the restoration in about 485 BC.  The people were called Judean or Yudan under the Romans.

The Greek form was the equivalent in their alphabet, phonetically Yudeos (spelled Yudaios).  Through changes  in letter forms and sound over the centuries, the word form became the modern English word Jew.  The religion of this people, from the Greek Yudaismos came the English form "Judaism."


First comments written 16 November 2000 on an Internet discussion group
Expanded and finalized 24 November 2004
Revised and expanded 7 December 2013

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 2004
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.
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