Who Were Esau and Jacob?

Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca, were engaged in a power struggle before they were even born. The younger son, Jacob, was an obedient, perfect Torah scholar, while his older brother Esau was a wild, aggressive hunter. The tension between them grew after Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentil soup, and culminated when Jacob disguised himself as his hairy brother, Jacob disguised himself as his hairy brother, and convinced his father that he was Esauconvinced his father that he was Esau, and earned his father’s blessings. Jacob went on to father the Jewish nation, and Esau became the progenitor of Se’ir, the forerunner of Rome.

Trouble From the Start

Isaac and his wife Rebecca were childless for many years. Finally, Rebecca conceived and suffered a difficult and painful pregnancy. Every time she would walk past a place of G‑d’s worship, her child would kick and try to get out, yet at the same time, every time she passed a place of idol worship, her child also tried to jump out. Fearing that there was something wrong with her or her child, she sought the advice of Shem, Noah’s son and prophet of G‑d, who informed her of the great news:

And the L‑rd said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger.”1

Rebecca was carrying twins. One had a righteous disposition while the other had an evil, idolatrous one. Each would father a great nation, a world superpower. They would fight tooth and nail, but ultimately, Shem prophesied, the younger son would triumph.

Finally, after nine difficult months, Rebecca gave birth. The first child that came out was red, hairy and fully developed. They named him Esau, which means “made” or “complete.”2 Gripping his older brother’s ankle in a bid to emerge first, the other, fair-skinned baby appeared shortly after. He was thus named Jacob, meaning “ankle.”

Jacob would later argue that he was the firstborn, because he was conceived first, making him the true first child. The Midrash gives the analogy that when one puts two balls in a narrow tube, the ball that goes in first comes out last. So, too, Jacob was “placed first in the tube,” i.e., conceived first, so he came out last.

Esau’s skin was so red that Isaac was afraid to circumcise him, deciding to wait until he was older and his complexion improved.3

Esau Was Not Born Evil

The Talmud writes that G‑d does not create anyone wicked or righteous; we all have the free choice to do good or the opposite.4 In Esau’s case, G‑d did not create him wicked, nor predetermine his life course. Yes, G‑d created him with a tendency toward idolatry and evil, but this challenge was entirely in his power to overcome. In fact, the Midrash tells us that at the beginning of his life, under the tutelage of his grandfather Abraham, Esau was actually righteous.5 As he grew older, however, he succumbed to his impulses and became a wild hunter. As we shall delve into later, Esau was given this difficult mission because he had a tremendously lofty soul, which had the power to illuminate even terrible darkness.

The Twins Grow Up

And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood trapping and hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. And Isaac loved Esau because [his] game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.6

Two polar opposites, one favored by their father and one by their mother, the boys matured into young adults. Jacob spent his time in the yeshivah of Shem and Ever, studying Torah, while Esau spent his time in the fields, hunting animals, women and gold.

Rashi explains the words “who knew trapping and hunting” to mean that Esau knew how to trap and deceive his father into believing he was righteous. He would ask him convoluted halachic question about taking tithes from salt and straw, items which by law are exempt from tithing, to give the appearance that he was going beyond the letter of the law in his observance.7

The Birthright Sale

Now, Jacob cooked a lentil soup, and Esau came from the field, and he was faint. And Esau said to Jacob, "Pour into [me] some of this red, red [pottage], for I am faint"; he was therefore named Edom. And Jacob said, "Sell me as of this day your birthright." Esau replied, "Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?" And Jacob said, "Swear to me as of this day"; so he swore to him, and he sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and a pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esau disdained the birthright.8

The Talmud teaches that on that day, Abraham, the twins’ grandfather, passed away. Jacob was in the kitchen, preparing a lentil soup, the customary mourner’s food, for his father.9 The custom was that other people would prepare a meal for the mourners after the burial, and lentil soup was the dish served. Lentils are round, like the circle of life, a message to the mourners that death is natural and inevitable. Additionally, the lentils, which are closed on all sides, are like a mourner whose mouth is closed and cannot speak due to his grief.10

Esau was faint with hunger because he had been very busy that day. The Talmud learns that the day of Abraham’s death was the same day Esau violated a young bride and committed his first murder, in addition to other sins. When Esau was younger, he was taught and inspired by his grandfather to be righteous and G‑d fearing. On that day though, Esau threw away any last vestiges of morality he retained and succumbed entirely to his evil inclination.11 That is why G‑d made Abraham pass away on that day, before he discovered what his grandson did, because his pain would have been unbearable. Abraham’s allotted years were 180, but G‑d ended his life five years early, at 175, to spare him the agony of watching his grandson go astray.12

The birthright meant the opportunity to serve as a priest for G‑d, and also to be the progenitor of their father’s legacy. Before G‑d chose the tribe of Levi to be the priests, working in G‑d’s service was the privilege of the firstborn of every family.13 Esau did not care to work for this privilege, nor to continue his father’s legacy. And even if he had cared for these these things before, on that day, when he sank to the depths of depravity, he stopped caring at all. Even the extra portion of inheritance due a firstborn did not interest him, for he knew that with the type of lifestyle he led, on the edge, he would most likely be murdered before his father died.

Where Esau Went Wrong

In the teachings of chassidus it is explained Esau and Jacob were supposed to personify two types of perfection one can achieve in this worldthat Esau and Jacob were supposed to personify two types of perfection one can achieve in this world. Jacob was the ascetic Torah scholar, removed from the world and impervious to its goings-on. His focus was on learning Torah, contemplating G‑dliness and connecting to Him. Esau on the other hand, was supposed to be a down-to-earth man of the world, involved in the physical world and the negativities contained within, yet remain steadfast in his commitment to G‑d. He would utilize his physical surroundings in his G‑dly service, and thereby influence and elevate the world around him.

Esau’s mission was more difficult than Jacob’s, and therefore he was given a more powerful soul, with the capabilities to overcome the challenges and obstacles he would face.14 He was also older, because he had this greater soul, greater potential, and greater capacity to refine the world.

However, he did not succeed. Although in his adolescence he was righteous, the task eventually proved too difficult and he succumbed. Instead of elevating the world, he was sucked into it. He started out on a mission to refine the word, but ended up getting trapped by it, unable to break free.

This is the deeper meaning behind Isaac’s love for his older son. Isaac looked at his son’s soul, viewed him in his spiritual source, and was awed by the potential. He knew that if only Esau would overcome his challenges, he would rise higher than anyone.15 Therefore, he loved and encouraged him, in an attempt to inspire him to better his ways. That is also why he wanted to give Esau the blessings, as we shall explore in a later article.

Isaac knew exactly who Esau was, and that his intricate halachic questions were just a front. Perhaps, however, the reason he played along was because he hoped that when Esau would see how much pleasure his “piety” gave his father, that would encourage him to mend his ways and truly become righteous.

Because Esau did not complete his mission, it would become necessary for Jacob to step in, buy the birthright, receive the blessings from Isaac, and take it over. Eventually, Jacob would take on both roles, and create a beautiful synthesis between the two: the fusion of abstract Torah learning with the refinement of the mundane world, a union of heaven and earth.

Perhaps that is why Jacob wanted to buy the birthright from Esau. When Jacob saw that Esau committed such terrible sins, he began to realize that the Esau was never going to fulfil his task. The task of refining the world was going to have to be accomplished by him and his descendants. Therefore he bought the birthright from Esau, taking command of destiny.

A Glimpse Ahead

A depiction of the power struggle between Jacob and Esau. Art by Yoram Ranaan
A depiction of the power struggle between Jacob and Esau. Art by Yoram Ranaan

Many years later, when Isaac had grown old, he called in his firstborn son Esau, and instructed him to go and prepare a dish for him, and then he would bless him. Rebecca overheard the conversation and when Esau left, called her younger son Jacob, and explained that he must receive the blessings. She prepared food for him to serve his father, dressed him to feel like Esau, and sent him to his father. Jacob deceived his father into believing he was Esau, and Isaac blessed him with ten wonderful blessings, establishing him as master over his brother and all nations. When Esau returned and entered his father’s room to receive his blessings, Jacob's deception was discovered, and Esau was distraught. He begged his father to bless him as well, but Isaac responded that he had given everything to Jacob, including Esau and his descendants, and that G‑d obviously desired that Jacob should receive the blessings after all. Esau wept, and implored his father to find a blessing for him too. Isaac finally blessed him as well.

Esau fumed at his brother and vowed to kill him after the death of their father. Rebecca, scared for Jacob’s life, had him escape to Haran, to her brother Laban, where he spent the next 21 years, working, marrying and establishing his family. When Jacob finally returned to Israel, Esau made plans to exact revenge. Instead of confronting his brother, Esau embraced him peacefullyHe came out “guns blazing,” accompanied by 400 men, but at the last moment was overcome with emotion, and instead of confronting his brother, embraced him peacefully. Esau offered that Jacob travel with him, however Jacob demurred, and they parted peacefully.