|公 法 评 论||惟愿公平如大水滚滚，使公义如江河滔滔
et revelabitur quasi aqua iudicium et iustitia quasi torrens fortis
is full of hard choices between less than perfect alternatives. According to the
Bible, even God is faced with such choices. It is part of the greatness of the
Bible that it poses the problem that God, as well as humans, faces in choosing
between less than perfect alternatives, even in connection with those whom it
presents unequivocally as God's special people. The Bible does so even at the
risk of exposing the ancient Israelites and hence the Jewish people to unjust
criticism, based upon showing them, as Oliver Cromwell once said to his portrait
painter, "warts and all." That may be a situation less than pleasant
for Jews to face and indeed in previous generations as well as the present there
were those Jews who either ignored those critical parts or reinterpreted them to
show that the Jewish forefathers were always God-fearing models of what the
Almighty expected. In this respect the Bible is far more honest than some of its
the Bible presents characters whose personalities and roles confront those of
other characters in order to make its point. This part of the biblical message
reaches its apogee in the parallel cases of Joseph and Moses who are presented
as binary opposites, Joseph because of his assimilation into Egypt and his
unrestrained service to the pharaoh in subordinating the Egyptians and bringing
his brother Israelites down to Egypt, is not counted among the patriarchs and
indeed represents the end of the patriarchal line, while Moses, who represents
the new leadership that inherits the mantle of the patriarchs, liberates his
people not only from Egypt but, insofar as possible, from Egyptian culture,
after starting at the very heart of that culture in the pharaoh's palace and
we examine a different confrontation, not so stark as that between Joseph and
Moses but more direct between Jacob and Esau, two brothers, the sons of Isaac
and the grandsons of Abraham, at least one of whom is destined to carry on the
patriarchal tradition. They ultimately give birth to the Jewish people as a
covenanted people, invested with the task of doing God's will through their
polity and society.
story of the two brothers, Jacob and Esau, is a classic example of that dilemma
and how God faces it in determining who shall carry on the Abrahamic line that
will serve His purposes in the development of a societal model for the world.
Jacob and Esau share both good and bad traits upon which to try to build
leadership for the future. God is faced with having to choose between two
combinations of traits and to select what would be better for leadership of his
people. The Bible leaves us with the problem of trying to understand the choice
between two flawed individuals and what that means for us, the readers and
students of the Bible in every generation.
portrait is all that flattering and it is too easy to move quickly from them to
negative assessments of the individuals portrayed without fully understanding
their complexities as individuals. We must remember that the Bible starts from
the assumption that all human beings are flawed in one way or another by the
very nature of things and that its purpose is not to demonstrate the flawed
character of individuals but to suggest some lessons about the problems by
choosing among human weaknesses by focusing on human strengths, to be prudent in
our choices yet to maintain our moral vision.
and Jacob are introduced as struggling (vayitrotzetzu) with each other
from the womb (Genesis 25:22). The homiletic treatment of this has been
extensive, considering the way each has come to symbolize conflicting dimensions
of power and authority. The common element uniting both is their tremendous
energy which must be directed and harnessed. Jacob is to become Israel
(literally: one who struggles with God) whose energy is to be directed by the
covenant with God, while Esau will struggle with men and animals (nature) to
become, in the eyes of the Midrash, the exemplar of a non-Jewish imperial ruler.
future of the two struggling fetuses is foretold by God and is stated in
ethno-political terms. The fathers of the two nations -- goiim and leumim
are the terms used -- are struggling. Jacob emerges as he is to live the first
half of his life, struggling for personal advantage, as Yaakov, one who grasps
at the heel of his brother, trying to get out first.
twins grow up as very different people. The description of Esau as a hunter and
man of the field fits with the description of his appearance at birth, but that
of Jacob as a quiet man, dwelling in tents, contradicts the first description of
him. Given what follows immediately, one senses an irony in this description,
although it may indicate the other dimension of Jacob's personality which also
stays with him, namely the desire for a calm existence that remains his strong
arm through all his struggles.
the second recorded confrontation between the two, Jacob takes advantage of
Esau's weakness, namely an unthinking impulsiveness, to press his advantage in a
most unbrotherly way, first acquiring Esau's b'khora (birthright) for a
bowl of lentils and then his father's blessing. The birthright has to do with
inheritance of goods and position both. The tale is typically biblical. The
"bottom line" is that by his actions, Esau demonstrates that he does
not deserve to be the one who continues Abraham's responsibilities and rewards
under God's covenant, since he does not have the steady, thoughtful qualities
which are required. Rather than getting his own food -- after all, he was not
really starving to death and Jacob was not the only kitchen in the encampment --
he responds impulsively to a good smell and, in the words of 25:34,
"despises his birthright."
shows his wiliness as well as his greater intelligence and forethought. Jacob's
eye is always on the main chance; he sees his advantage and takes it, perhaps
not believing the foolishness of his despised -- and despising -- rival. What he
does is not quite honorable, though not illegal. The title he gains is at least
partially valid, although he is insecure enough about it to conspire later with
his mother to deceive his father so as to gain the blessing for the first-born
as well (Chapter 27). In short, he is what nineteenth century Americans would
call "sharp," a characteristic associated with the products of
covenantal cultures -- the term was invented to describe the New England Yankee
descendants of the Puritans -- ever since.
later, Esau marries two wives, both Hittite women, that is, locals, in violation
of Abraham's (and God's) injunction not to take wives from among the Canaanite
population. Again, one gets the sense of a headstrong person who acts
impulsively, without sufficient thought (26:34-35). His marriage is described as
a vexation to both Rebekah and Isaac. Even his father, who has strong affection
for him, is hurt by his act. This action alone forever rules out Esau as the
bearer of patriarchal continuity. Esau could have overcome the sale of his
birthright; as we see in the next chapter, Isaac was still prepared to give him
the blessing due the firstborn. But acquiring foreign wives meant the detachment
of his children from the Abrahamic line.
the personal and psychological and the public and national dimensions of the
rivalry between the two brothers are noteworthy. Despite the dreadful deception
on the part of Jacob and his mother to gain Isaac's patriarchal blessing,
Jacob's vocation as Isaac's legitimate heir in the continued founding of the
Jewish people is reaffirmed. In essence, the Bible tells us that a bright,
calculating person who, at times, is less than honest, is preferable as a
founder over a bluff, impulsive one who cannot make discriminating choices.
Jacob continues to display characteristics which are later to become part of the
non-Jewish stereotype of Jews (although they are only prominent, not typical --
witness the very different characters of Abraham and Isaac), while Esau
continues to display characteristics which are later to become part of the
Jewish stereotype of non-Jews ("goyim").
public and national purposes of this story are, by now, self-evident -- that the
Esaus of the world, however attractive they may be in some ways, cannot assume
the mantle of Abraham because of their personal deficiencies -- is already
brought to our attention. At the very least, the Jacobs are the lesser evil
because they can be chastened, educated, and redirected. In subsequent chapters
God is to test and temper Jacob to turn his intelligence and cunning to moral
essence, what we have here is the climax of a struggle between natural man
(Esau) and covenantal (or, in sixteenth and seventeenth century terminology,
federal) man (Jacob). Both are presented realistically -- "warts and
all" -- in the Bible's way. Thus it is not a confrontation between good and
evil, but a choice between two limited and flawed human beings. Esau has the
good and bad qualities of natural man -- principal among them, generosity and
impulsiveness, the characteristics of natural liberty. Jacob's character is at
least equally mixed, joining intelligence with guile. Isaac, passive and
insecure, is easily drawn to Esau, but God chooses Jacob since He can bind him
by covenant and hopes to restrain his sharpness through the constraints of
federal liberty -- liberty in accordance with the terms of the covenant -- while
natural man simply cannot be restrained except by force.
again, God's choices are limited by the realities of human frailty. He makes the
best choice that He can but we need not exaggerate the goodness of one or the
badness of the other.
Jacob steals his father's blessing and enrages Esau, Isaac responds to Rebekah's
request by sending off Jacob with a second blessing, actually commanding him not
to take a Canaanite wife and to go to the family hearth for one instead (Chap.
27). The Bible conveys the sense of Isaac as a not-very-strong person, much
influenced by his wife, attempting to play a role of strength by issuing
commands (27:1 -- vayetzavehu), something which even God does not
ordinarily do. The reader knows how absurd it is for him to be commanding Jacob
to do what Rebekah set him up to do in the first place to save Jacob's life.
transmits Abraham's promise to Jacob for the first time. His blessing includes
both personal fertility and national promise. Up to this point, whatever
legitimation Jacob has obtained has been obtained by deceit. Here, for the first
time, he obtains a blessing more or less on his own. Whatever the source of the
suggestion and the reasons behind it, Isaac knows it is a valid one. Perhaps it
also brings with it recognition that, with Esau's marriage to a Hittite woman,
only Jacob can be the bearer of the berakhah. Isaac gives it fully.
by his father blessing Jacob, Esau suddenly realizes what his Canaanite wife has
meant to Isaac. He makes one last attempt to remedy the situation by also
marrying a first cousin, the daughter of Ishmael. The effort to parallel Jacob
is both clear and insufficient. Ishmael's is not the favored side of the family.
leaves home to avoid Esau's wrath and his transformation into a man suitable to
carry on God's enterprise begins (Chapter 28). While Esau is left trying
desperately to please his father, Jacob confronts God for the first time on the
road, at Beth El. God proffers His covenant to Jacob, who, lacking more than
sharpness, immediately turns it into a contractual arrangement. The careful
reader cannot fail to perceive that a new dimension needs to be developed by the
clever, often devious, younger brother. He has begun his testing.
first encounter with God (28:10-22) in a Divinely-inspired vision is perfectly
appropriate: a ladder set up on the earth and reaching to heaven. No one is more
of this world than devious, scheming, jealous, ambitious Jacob who is here
called to raise himself heavenward. God could hardly appear to him directly;
first He had to get his attention. Hence the device of the ladder and the
heavenly beings going up and down, bringing Jacob's gaze and thoughts toward
then becomes very personal in His guarantees and promises to Jacob, knowing His
customer, as it were. God's revelation to Jacob is a reaffirmation of the
promise to Abraham in even more practical and earthy terms suitably attractive
to Jacob, given his character. The promises of territory and kith are repeated,
along with the statement that all the people of the earth will be blessed, that
is legitimized through Jacob's descendants.
response is equally in character. He is awed by God's presence but still tries
to make a deal with Him by vowing that if God keeps His promise in four
specifically personal ways (protection on his way, food, clothing, and a safe
return home), he will acknowledge Him and even reward Him by tithing -- to
"sweeten the pot" for God, as it were, a sure sign of Jacob's
contractual approach to the matter. Jacob understands that God is not Esau, to
be taken advantage of in a bargain. Nor is He Isaac, to be deceived. God is a
real power, hence the deal should be a good one for Him. God does not respond to
all of this. What is most notable at the end of the chapter is God's silence.
foregoing chain of events is not a covenant and is not described as such but it
clearly is presented as having all the elements of a pact. It is, indeed, a
reaffirmation of the covenant with Abraham on God's part which is turned into a
kind of contractual arrangement by Jacob. Jacob is not morally ready for a
covenantal relationship. His transformation may have begun but it has just
begun. God offers him a great promise for the future and Jacob concentrates on
the details of his present well-being. (Notice that he makes no reference
whatsoever to the covenantal future in his vow.) Significantly, God,
understanding Jacob, offers both possibilities. He needs Jacob to continue the
unfolding of His plan, hence must educate him and bring him along.
whole incident teaches us about the similarities and differences between
covenant and contract, how they can be confused with one another because of
their common emphasis on the freedom and integrity of the partners, their roots
in negotiation, and the resultant mutual obligation, yet how they differ in
their scope, in the basis of the obligation incurred, and, perhaps most
important, in the spirit which surrounds and informs them. This relationship
between the two species of pact is an enduring one, encountered in every
situation where one or the other is used. There is place for both in our
imperfect world, not only by using a contractual relationship as a way station
toward a covenantal one but also for each in its own place and situation, but,
as much as their relationship to one another should be understood, they should
not be confused.
goes on to meet a greater artist at deception than he, his uncle Laban (Chapter
29). First, he is deceived in his marriages, thereby acquiring two wives, Leah
and Rachel, and their handmaidens who are to mother the tribes of Israel, and in
his work relationships. Jacob's hatred for Leah is not explained. One is led to
deduce that her very presence is a constant reminder to Jacob of how he, the
deceiver, was deceived in turn, forced into an unwanted marriage and seven
years' additional free service to his uncle, in order to claim his beloved
Rachel. Given what we know about Jacob's concern for his personal well-being,
this was a deception that hurt greatly. Hence there is nothing that Leah can do
to win her husband's love.
we have another example of Jacob's callousness toward other human beings. Leah
is caught in a tragic web no less than Esau, and Jacob, while not the weaver of
either, is very much involved in heightening the pain of their respective
tragedies. In the end, each is somewhat compensated by God; Esau becomes wealthy
and powerful in his own right (Chapter 36), Leah (and her concubine) provide
most of Jacob's sons, and Jacob loses Rachel (Chapter 35), lives for years in
the belief that Joseph, his favorite son, is dead (Chapter 37), and finally is
forced to end his days in Egypt (Chapter 46). It is through Jacob's tempering by
life that he is transformed to become Israel.
twenty years, Jacob and Laban reach the parting of ways, not without bitterness,
fear, and further deception, causing God to intervene to protect Jacob and his
household. The end result is a covenant between the two men, defining their
future relationship by separating them one from the other. Up to this point,
covenants have only been used to bind; here we learn that they can be used to
separate as well. There are certain relationships that are best preserved from a
distance and this is certainly one of them. In a sense, the covenant is a sign
of the good sense of the two principals who are both crafty and prudent.
moves out of one dangerous situation toward another, both with members of his
family -- Laban and Esau -- and, on the way, decisively confronts God (Chapter
32). Through that very mysterious confrontation, crafty, self-centered Jacob
becomes one who strives or wrestles with God (yisrael), thereby
establishing his destiny and that of his heirs forever. This destiny is to be
embodied in the name of the people who inherit him. A new relationship is
thereby established, one of striving with God.
are those who, like Abraham, hearken to God and those, like Isaac, who passively
accept God's dictates. Jacob has none of the characteristics appropriate for
either role; witness how he has tried to contract with God for protection. But
he can be brought to at least strive with God, wrestle with Him in the spirit of
his heritage. Thus, Jacob's wrestling with God completes the patriarchal cycle
of relationships with the Almighty, from Abraham's powerful and dignified
service to Isaac's submissiveness to Jacob's ambivalence. Earlier covenant
negotiations give way to wrestling and bargaining for a blessing.
story is constructed as follows: Jacob completes his arrangement with Laban only
to learn of Esau's approach with a large body of men at his side, frightening
Jacob, who takes steps to save as much of his people and property as he can if
there is trouble, without resorting to force of arms. Jacob has no military
resources at his disposal so he can only maneuver, another paradigm of the
Jewish condition throughout much of Jewish history.
then turns to God in a very carefully phrased prayer (as we would expect -- his
every move and word reflects forethought) which:
a. invokes his fathers (v. 10);
b. reminds God that he is returning to his land and kith at God's request (v. 10);
c. emphasizes his unworthiness (certainly true in this case) to be one of God's hassidim (v. 11);
d. indicates that he had taken what steps he could to protect his camp (v. 11);
e. asks God to save him, and especially his sons (v.12), from Esau because of His promise to multiply Jacob's descendants (v. 13).
element is appropriate in a petition which is, at the same time, the opening of
a negotiation. Jacob terms God's response to His servants the patriarchs, hasadim
or loving expressions of covenant obligation and emet or true
manifestations of covenant loyalty.
third element in Jacob's preparations is the assembly of gifts for Esau on a
grand scale and the arrangement for their presentation in the most effective
way, prior to their meeting and in waves, to soften him up for the actual
encounter. What we have before us is vintage Jacob in a defensive posture --
prudent, crafty, careful, covering all his bets. He divides his camp so that at
least half of his wealth is likely to be preserved, he asks God's help in a
carefully constructed prayer, he not only arranges to present Esau with abundant
gifts but takes care to arrange the manner of their delivery, and then he
secretly transfers his immediate family to safety, just in case.
alone by his own doing, Jacob is now open to the climax of his life, the
encounter with the mysterious stranger who speaks in the name of God. In the
wrestling that follows, Jacob displays two of his strongest characteristics --
tenacity and the ability to make it pay. Jacob wrestles the stranger to the
point where he can ask for a blessing.
his blessing, Jacob's name is changed, to Yisrael. Unlike the firm faith of
Abraham and the accepting faith of Isaac, Jacob wrestles with God all his life,
doing His will only after that wrestling. This becomes his people's destiny
until the end of days. Thus it is the unique destiny of the Jews -- Israel -- to
wrestle with God as well as be witness to His covenant. Israel's future is not
one of blind faith and obedience to God's will but one of difficult covenant
partnership, of wrestling with their own inclinations and doubts in the face of
a mystery which will not fully reveal itself. Covenants do not necessarily end
strife; they contain it within a framework or, better, within certain bonds. In
that sense, the imagery of the conflict between Jacob and the stranger is
paradigmatic. The Jews are still holding the mystery in their arms and will not
let go without a blessing, while it grasps the hollow of their thighs.
perceives what has happened to him -- that he has seen the face of God and that
his destiny is now changed. At the same time, he has acquired a permanent limp
because of his wounded thigh. One does not emerge from such a conflict without
now Israel, is ready for his confrontation with Esau -- prudently prepared by
his own agency and properly chastised yet blessed by Divine agency. The
confrontation continues the saga of the complex relationship between the two
brothers and sharpens the biblical description of natural versus federal man.
Esau remains as open and impulsive as Jacob is prudent and crafty. Jacob
determines to make peace between them but to keep their relationship at arm's
length. After his three confrontations, Jacob reaches Canaan and begins to
settle into a new set of tribulations.