The reconciliation story between Jacob and Esau is also variously told in Genesis 32, as we saw with the Jacob and Laban story (#55-56). In one version (J) Jacob’s return to the land of Canaan is presented under the ominous fear and threat that Esau will dispense his revenge and strike him (see #48-49 for the story). Compounded by the account of his messenger claiming that Esau is approaching him with 400 men, Jacob fears for his and his descendants’ lives. For this reason Jacob “divided the people who were with him, and the sheep and the oxen and the camels into two camps. And he said, ‘If Esau comes to one camp and strikes it, then the camp that is left will survive’” (32:8-9).
Nevertheless, this scene is presented anew starting at verse 14b, and makes no reference to Jacob’s anguish at meeting up with his brother or fear of being wiped out by him. Instead, much like what was seen in E’s version of the speckled and spotted flocks scene—where E’s Jacob was morally and divinely justified contrary to J’s Jacob the scoundrel and trickster (#55-56)—E presents Jacob as a suppliant to Esau and their relationship as cordial and non-hostile. In fact, there is no splitting of the camp into two camps in the E account, but rather a splitting it up into various components, each one sent on in advance as an offering: “Let me appease his face with the offering that’s going in front of me” (32:21). In the Elohist version, Jacob is once again presented as a pious and morally irreproachable suppliant.
As scholars and close readers have long noted, these traditions reflect the often fragile relationship between Israel and its southeastern neighbor Edom in the late 9th and 8th centuries BC. This is especially so for the Yahwist since Edom was Judah’s bordering neighbor. In other words, the rivalry and animosity that existed between Israel and Edom in the 8th century BC was retrojected into the past as a means to explain the present geopolitical world of the author. As archaeologists Finkelstein and Silberman put it:
The biblical stories of the two brothers Jacob and Esau provide an even clearer case of 7th century perceptions presented in ancient costume… Hence the description of the two brothers, the fathers of Edom and Israel, serves as a divine legitimation for the political relationship between the two nations in late monarchic times.1
This is nowhere more apparent than in the Yahwist story of the birth of the twins and the story of how Jacob swindles the birthright and blessing from his older brother Esau.
Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be dispersed from your insides, and one people will be mightier than the other people, and the older the younger will serve. (Gen 25:23)
Presented in the guise of divine prophecy, the political relationship between Israel and Edom is described in terms of kinship. In fact, the prophecy functions to legitimate the dominance and conquest of Edom by the Israelites which allegedly occurred under David’s rule in the 10th century BC (2 Sam 8:14). Later in the Yahwist narrative, we are introduced to the default blessing that Esau receives since Jacob had already stolen his rightful blessing (#46-47):
Here away from the fat of the earth will be your home, and from the dew of the skies from above. And you’ll live by your sword. And you’ll serve your brother. And it will be that when you get dominion you’ll break his yoke from your neck. (Gen 27:39-40)
Isaac’s blessing to Esau, like the above prophecy, depicts the political world of the early monarchy, specifically the realities of the 9th and 8th centuries BC when in fact Edom did rebel against Israel’s rule and broke free (2 Kings 8:20-22). Thus, the prophetic announcement of Jacob and Esau’s discord and the latter’s servitude to and liberation from the former is a way of describing, explaining, and legitimizing the political realities of Israel and Edom known to a later historical period. In other words, the brotherly rivalry depicted in Genesis with its divine justification for Jacob/Israel’s supremacy over Esau/Edom is none other than political propaganda meant to legitimate and justify, by evoking divine precedence, Israel’s supremacy over her ethnic rival Edom. This is exactly how political narratives of subjugation were devised and written in the ancient Near East.
- The Bible Unearthed, 40.↵