“Who Was Esau?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, reaches a crescendo with the dramatic encounter between Jacob and Esau. Jacob has been away from home for 36 years (according to the Midrash), and he and his large family are finally coming back to Canaan to meet or to confront his brother Esau who has threatened to kill Jacob because of the stolen birthright and blessings. Jacob does not know whether Esau has forgiven him or will attack him, so he prepares for all eventualities–tribute, prayer, and battle.

Esau, of course, plays a primary role in this parasha, not only in the confrontation scene with Jacob, but unexpectedly, we find that the entire final chapter of the parasha, Genesis 36, records a lengthy chronicle of Esau and his family. Genesis 36:1 reads: “V’ay’leh tol’dot Ay’sahv, hoo Eh’dom,” These are the descendants of Esau, he is Edom.

For what reason does the Torah dwell on Esau and his children at this point of the parasha? As long as there was a relationship between Jacob and Esau, we needed to know about Esau. But now that Isaac has died (Genesis 35:29) the relationship between the brothers has ceased. They have already distanced themselves from each other in their lifestyles and in their places of dwelling. It’s not that they move to nearby neighborhoods, or even to different cities within the same land. Esau leaves the land of Canaan entirely and goes to live in Mt. Seir (Genesis 36:6-8), while Jacob remains in Cannan.

So why does the Torah stop the story of Jacob and his sons at this point and devote an entire chapter to Esau? After all, it could have just noted that Esau had left the land and that the relationship between the brothers has ended. That would have surely been sufficient.

The Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeishev, 1, asks this very question in a rather caustic fashion. Asks the Tanchuma: Why did scripture have to write their [Esau’s] family relationships? “V’chee lo ha’yah lo l’Hah’kadosh Baruch Hu mah sheh’yich’tov?” Didn’t the Al-mighty have anything else to write?!

This is not the first time that the Torah interrupts a narrative, and provides a seemingly unnecessary genealogy. In parashat Noach, Genesis 10, the Torah provides the detailed origins of the nations for a second time. Again, at the end of parashat Chayei Sara (Genesis 25:12-18) the genealogy of Ishmael is listed. And of course, at the very end of our parasha, the chronicles of Esau are recorded.

There seems to be a pattern to these interruptions. In all three instances scripture quickly disposes of the chronicles of the characters that are not part of the main story, and continues immediately with a far more important issue. After the origins of the nations are listed in Genesis 10, the origins of Abraham follow, in chapter 11. After the progeny of Ishmael are listed in chapter 25, we learn in the very next parasha about the children of Isaac, (Genesis 25:19-27). And following on the heels of the descendants of Esau listed in Genesis 36, we learn of the chronicles of Joseph and his brethren (Genesis 37).

Perhaps there is a more significant reason for the extensive survey of Esau’s family than simply a literary device that builds the tension for the dramatic story of Joseph that follows. Perhaps the detailed excursion into Esau’s family is justified because the descendants of Esau play a critical role in Jewish history, far beyond the merely confrontational relationship between Esau and his brother Jacob.

Could it be that once again we have encountered a fulfillment of the principle of “Ma’asay avot siman l’vanim,” that the deeds of the fathers are a signpost for the children?

If we examine the life of Esau and compare it with the deeds of his progeny, we will find that the future roles that the descendants of Esau play are virtually mapped out in the life of Esau himself. In Genesis 36:2, Esau takes wives from the daughters of Canaan, despite the well-known Abrahamitic decree not to take wives from the daughters of Canaan (Genesis 24:3). Esau’s wives are a source of great consternation to Isaac and to Rebecca (Genesis 26:35). It is Esau’s connection with the people (read: women) of Canaan that is one of the starkest indications that Esau’s destiny is to be distant from the covenant of the patriarchs. And so we see (Genesis 34:30) that while Jacob’s sons are prepared to do battle with all the people of the land for the sake of the sanctity of their sister Dinah who was raped by Shechem, Esau and his sons freely marry the daughters of the Canaanites (Genesis 36:12, 20, 22).

A careful examination of chapter 36 also suggests that there were many instances of incest and forbidden sexual relationships practiced within Esau’s family. We learn, furthermore, that the Canaanite women introduced idolatry into the household. The rabbis even suggest (Genesis 27:1) that Isaac’s eyes were weakened from the idolatrous incense that Esau’s wives would offer up in the home.

The Midrash Rabbah Vayikra 4:6 maintains that when the verse in Genesis 36:6 says that “Esau took his wives and his sons and his daughters and all the souls of his house to Seir,” that the use of the plural word “souls” (rather than “soul” as is used when describing Jacob’s home), indicates that Esau’s family members worshiped many gods. As far as his connection to the land of Israel goes–Esau clearly abandons the land, as the verse in Genesis 36:6 states: “Va’yay’lech el eretz mip’nay Yaakov ah’chiv,” Esau leaves the land because of Jacob his brother. He departs from Canaan to find a more suitable dwelling place.

So let us return to the Tanchuma’s rhetorical question. Didn’t the Al-mighty have anything else to write?

Clearly the history of Esau’s family as recorded in chapter 36 provides important information, informing us who were the descendants of Esau, what kind of people they were, what kind of families they nurtured and what kind of commitment or lack of commitment they had toward the land of Canaan. Genesis 36 is not only informative, it is determinative. Because it clearly spells out what the future role of Esau will be, and underscores the worthiness of Jacob and his family to inherit the Abrahamitic covenant.

All of this is derived from Genesis 36, the chapter that the Al-mighty included, because He had nothing better to write!

May you be blessed.