The Jewish Legends of Jacob vs. Esau: The Birthright and the Blessing

I have had a crazy week, so all I have to offer on this week’s Old Testament Lesson 10 (“Birthright Blessings; Marriage in the Covenant) is two excerpts from Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews. Now I realize that this work is not the best resource for reliable or primary-source material, but it is very interesting and entertaining; and it preserves (in an indirect fashion) some important ancient Jewish traditions regarding the biblical texts.

Note especially how the legends seek to defensively portray Isaac’s decision to bless Jacob — Isaac is not deceived, but comes to the inspired realization that Jacob is the correct son to bless. And that conclusion is reached by many other parties as well — not just Rebekah (who is depicted as adding her own blessing), but also Abraham blesses Jacob before his death. The text makes a point to demonstrate that this is all done with the clear approval of God and his angels.  The narrative also plays up the idea that Esau really was a bad guy, more so than is depicted in the biblical story.

Among the many interesting “extras” in this story, also note the two separate descriptions of special “garments” possessed by Esau.  In the first account, Esau gains a special garment by killing Nimrod the king and stealing them. This garment of Nimrod is the royal/priestly garment give by God to Adam in the Garden of Eden (Pseudo-Jon. to Gen. xxvii. 15), and is what made him such a mighty hunter– the garment bearing such power and authority that all men and animals subjected themselves to its wearer.  Esau kills Nimrod to get this garment.  The next account says that Esau had a high priestly garment that was passed down from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Shem (Melchizedek) and from Shem to Abraham. From Abraham they went to Isaac, and Isaac gave them to his firstborn, Esau. However, in this account, Rebekah takes them and gives them to Jacob, who is the more worthy son–to whom the birthright and the blessing went.  Now these legends about the garment are greatly condensed in Ginzberg’s narrative, and a whole post could be written on this material alone. The narrative here does not tell us how the garments were both in Nimrod’s hands and also passed down the line of patriarchal priesthood to Esau.  These are two different lines of Jewish tradition that get combined here. In one tradition, Nimrod inherits the garment of Adam illegitimately, they having been stolen from Noah by Ham.  The other tradition has the garments staying in the line of Shem (Shem recovers them from Ham, or perhaps there was a new priestly garment made after the original garment was stolen by Ham).  Either way, here the priestly garments end up in the hands of Jacob, who apparently is their rightful possessor in the eyes of God as well. In some traditions, this is the “coat of many colors (or pieces)” that Jacob gives to his favorite son, Joseph.

One more note: on the topic of “marriage in the covenant,” note how the story blames Isaac’s blindness on Esau’s marriage to Canaanite women!  Note also how Esau’s sins are the cause of Abraham’s death. This was obviously a very serious issue, but one into which I will not go further. Enjoy the text of Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews:

THE SALE OF THE BIRTHRIGHT

Though Abraham reached a good old age, beyond the limit of years vouchsafed later generations, he yet died five years before his allotted time. The intention was to let him live to be one hundred and eighty years old, the same age as Isaac’s at his death, but on account of Esau God brought his life to an abrupt close. For some time Esau had been pursuing his evil inclinations in secret. Finally he dropped his mask, and on the day of Abraham’s death he was guilty of five crimes: he ravished a betrothed maiden, committed murder, doubted the resurrection of the dead, scorned the birthright, and denied God. Then the Lord said: “I promised Abraham that he should go to his fathers in peace. Can I now permit him to be a witness of his grandson’s rebellion against God, his violation of the laws of chastity, and his shedding of blood? It is better for him to die now in peace.”

The men slain by Esau on this day were Nimrod and two of his adjutants. A long-standing feud had existed between Esau and Nimrod, because the mighty hunter before the Lord was jealous of Esau, who also devoted himself assiduously to the chase. Once when he was hunting it happened that Nimrod was separated from his people, only two men were with him. Esau, who lay in ambush, noticed his isolation, and waited until he should pass his covert. Then he threw himself upon Nimrod suddenly, and felled him and his two companions, who hastened to his succor. The outcries of the latter brought the attendants of Nimrod to the spot where he lay dead, but not before Esau had stripped him of his garments, and fled to the city with them.

These garments of Nimrod had an extraordinary effect upon cattle, beasts, and birds. Of their own accord they would come and prostrate themselves before him who was arrayed in them. Thus Nimrod and Esau after him were able to rule over men and beasts.

After slaying Nimrod, Esau hastened cityward in great fear of his victim’s followers. Tired and exhausted he arrived at home to find Jacob busy preparing a dish of lentils. Numerous male and female slaves were in Isaac’s household. Nevertheless Jacob was so simple and modest in his demeanor that, if he came home late from the Bet ha-Midrash, he would disturb none to prepare his meal, but would do it himself. On this occasion he was cooking lentils for his father, to serve to him as his mourner’s meal after the death of Abraham. Adam and Eve had eaten lentils after the murder of Abel, and so had the parents of Haran, when he perished in the fiery furnace. The reason they are used for the mourner’s meal is that the round lentil symbolizes death: as the lentil rolls, so death, sorrow, and mourning constantly roll about among men, from one to the other.

Esau accosted Jacob thus, “Why art thou preparing lentils?”

Jacob: “Because our grandfather passed away; they shall be a sign of my grief and mourning, that he may love me in the days to come.”

Esau: “Thou fool! Dost thou really think it possible that man should come to life again after he has been dead and has mouldered in the grave?”42 He continued to taunt Jacob. “Why dost thou give thyself so much trouble?” he said. “Lift up thine eyes, and thou wilt see that all men eat whatever comes to hand—fish, creeping and crawling creatures, swine’s flesh, and all sorts of things like these, and thou vexest thyself about a dish of lentils.”

Jacob: “If we act like other men, what shall we do on the day of the Lord, the day on which the pious will receive their reward, when a herald will proclaim: Where is He that weigheth the deeds of men, where is He that counteth?”

Esau: “Is there a future world? Or will the dead be called back to life? If it were so, why hath not Adam returned? Hast thou heard that Noah, through whom the world was raised anew, hath reappeared? Yea, Abraham, the friend of God, more beloved of Him than any man, hath he come to life again?”

Jacob: “If thou art of opinion that there is no future world, and that the dead do not rise to new life, then why dost thou want thy birthright? Sell it to me, now, while it is yet possible to do so. Once the Torah is revealed, it cannot be done. Verily, there is a future world, in which the righteous receive their reward. I tell thee this, lest thou say later I deceived thee.”

Jacob was little concerned about the double share of the inheritance that went with the birthright. What he thought of was the priestly service, which was the prerogative of the first-born in ancient times, and Jacob was loth to have his impious brother Esau play the priest, he who despised all Divine service.

The scorn manifested by Esau for the resurrection of the dead he felt also for the promise of God to give the Holy Land to the seed of Abraham. He did not believe in it, and therefore he was willing to cede his birthright and the blessing attached thereto in exchange for a mess of pottage. In addition, Jacob paid him in coin, and, besides, he gave him what was more than money, the wonderful sword of Methuselah, which Isaac had inherited from Abraham and bestowed upon Jacob.

Esau made game of Jacob. He invited his associates to feast at his brother’s table, saying, “Know ye what I did to this Jacob? I ate his lentils, drank his wine, amused myself at his expense, and sold my birthright to him.” All that Jacob replied was, “Eat and may it do thee good!” But the Lord said, “Thou despisest the birthright, therefore I shall make thee despised in all generations.” And by way of punishment for denying God and the resurrection of the dead, the descendants of Esau were cut off from the world.

As naught was holy to Esau, Jacob made him swear, concerning the birthright, by the life of their father, for he knew Esau’s love for Isaac, that it was strong. Nor did he fail to have a document made out, duly signed by witnesses, setting forth that Esau had sold him the birthright together with his claim upon a place in the Cave of Machpelah.50

Though no blame can attach to Jacob for all this, yet he secured the birthright from him by cunning, and therefore the descendants of Jacob had to serve the descendants of Esau.1

ISAAC BLESSES JACOB

Esau’s marriage with the daughters of the Canaanites was an abomination not only in the eyes of his mother, but also in the eyes of his father. He suffered even more than Rebekah through the idolatrous practices of his daughters-in-law. It is the nature of man to oppose less resistance than woman to disagreeable circumstances. A bone is not harmed by a collision that would shiver an earthen pot in pieces. Man, who is created out of the dust of the ground, has not the endurance of woman formed out of bone. Isaac was made prematurely old by the conduct of his daughters-in-law, and he lost the sight of his eyes. Rebekah had been accustomed in the home of her childhood to the incense burnt before idols, and she could therefore bear it under her own roof-tree. Unlike her, Isaac had never had any such experience while he abode with his parents, and he was stung by the smoke arising from the sacrifices offered to their idols by his daughters-in-law in his own house. Isaac’s eyes had suffered earlier in life, too. When he lay bound upon the altar, about to be sacrificed by his father, the angels wept, and their tears fell upon his eyes, and there they remained and weakened his sight.
At the same time he had brought the scourge of blindness down upon himself by his love for Esau. He justified the wicked for a bribe, the bribe of Esau’s filial love, and loss of vision is the punishment that follows the taking of bribes. “A gift,” it is said, “blinds the eyes of the wise.”
Nevertheless his blindness proved a benefit for Isaac as well as Jacob. In consequence of his physical ailments, Isaac had to keep at home, and so he was spared the pain of being pointed out by the people as the father of the wicked Esau. And, again, if his power of vision had been unimpaired, he would not have blessed Jacob. As it was, God treated him as a physician treats a sick man who is forbidden to drink wine, for which, however, he has a strong desire. To placate him, the physician orders that warm water be given him in the dark, and he be told that it is wine.
When Isaac reached the age of one hundred and twenty-three, and was thus approaching the years attained by his mother, he began to meditate upon his end. It is proper that a man should prepare for death when he comes close to the age at which either of his parents passed out of life. Isaac reflected that he did not know whether the age allotted to him was his mother’s or his father’s, and he therefore resolved to bestow his blessing upon his older son, Esau, before death should overtake him. He summoned Esau, and he said, “My son,” and Esau replied, “Here am I,” but the holy spirit interposed: “Though he disguises his voice and makes it sound sweet, put no confidence in him. There are seven abominations in his heart. He will destroy seven holy places—the Tabernacle, the sanctuaries at Gilgal, Shiloh, Nob, and Gibeon, and the first and the second Temple.”
Gently though Esau continued to speak to his father, he yet longed for his end to come.  But Isaac was stricken with spiritual as well as physical blindness. The holy spirit deserted him, and he could not discern the wickedness of his older son. He bade him sharpen his slaughtering knives and beware of bringing him the flesh of an animal that had died of itself, or had been torn by a beast, and he was to guard also against putting an animal before Isaac that had been stolen from its rightful owner. “Then,” continued Isaac, “will I bless him who is worthy of being blessed.”
This charge was laid upon Esau on the eve of the Passover, and Isaac said to him: “To-night the whole world will sing the Hallel unto God. It is the night when the store-houses of dew are unlocked. Therefore prepare dainties for me, that my soul may bless thee before I die.” But the holy spirit interposed, “Eat not the bread of him that hath an evil eye.” Isaac’s longing for tidbits was due to his blindness. As the sightless cannot behold the food they eat, they do not enjoy it with full relish, and their appetite must be tempted with particularly palatable morsels.
Esau sallied forth to procure what his father desired, little recking the whence or how, whether by robbery or theft.80 To hinder the quick execution of his father’s order, God sent Satan on the chase with Esau. He was to delay him as long as possible. Esau would catch a deer and leave him lying bound, while he pursued other game. Immediately Satan would come and liberate the deer, and when Esau returned to the spot, his victim was not to be found. This was repeated several times. Again and again the quarry was run down, and bound, and liberated, so that Jacob was able meanwhile to carry out the plan of Rebekah whereby he would be blessed instead of Esau.
Though Rebekah had not heard the words that had passed between Isaac and Esau, they nevertheless were revealed to her through the holy spirit, and she resolved to restrain her husband from taking a false step. She was not actuated by love for Jacob, but by the wish of keeping Isaac from committing a detestable act. Rebekah said to Jacob: “This night the storehouses of dew are unlocked; it is the night during which the celestial beings chant the Hallel unto God, the night set apart for the deliverance of thy children from Egypt, on which they, too, will sing the Hallel. Go now and prepare savory meat for thy father, that he may bless thee before his death. Do as I bid thee, obey me as thou art wont, for thou art my son whose children, every one, will be good and God-fearing—not one shall be graceless.”
In spite of his great respect for his mother, Jacob refused at first to heed her command. He feared he might commit a sin,85 especially as he might thus bring his father’s curse down upon him. As it was, Isaac might still have a blessing for him, after giving Esau his. But Rebekah allayed his anxieties, with the words: “When Adam was cursed, the malediction fell upon his mother, the earth, and so shall I, thy mother, bear the imprecation, if thy father curses thee. Moreover, if the worst comes to the worst, I am prepared to step before thy father and tell him, ‘Esau is a villain, and Jacob is a righteous man.’ ”
Thus constrained by his mother, Jacob, in tears and with body bowed, went off to execute the plan made by Rebekah. As he was to provide a Passover meal, she bade him get two kids, one for the Passover sacrifice and one for the festival sacrifice. To soothe Jacob’s conscience, she added that her marriage contract entitled her to two kids daily. “And,” she continued, “these two kids will bring good unto thee, the blessing of thy father, and they will bring good unto thy children, for two kids will be the atoning sacrifice offered on the Day of Atonement.”
Jacob’s hesitation was not yet removed. His father, he feared, would touch him and convince himself that he was not hairy, and therefore not his son Esau. Accordingly, Rebekah tore the skins of the two kids into strips and sewed them together, for Jacob was so tall a giant that otherwise they would not have sufficed to cover his hands.  To make Jacob’s disguise complete, Rebekah felt justified in putting Esau’s wonderful garments on him. They were the high-priestly raiment in which God had clothed Adam, “the first-born of the world,” for in the days before the erection of the Tabernacle all the first-born males officiated as priest. From Adam these garments descended to Noah, who transmitted them to Shem, and Shem bequeathed them to Abraham, and Abraham to his son Isaac, from whom they reached Esau as the older of his two sons. It was the opinion of Rebekah that as Jacob had bought the birthright from his brother, he had thereby come into possession of the garments as well.  There was no need for her to go and fetch them from the house of Esau. He knew his wives far too well to entrust so precious a treasure to them; they were in the safe-keeping of his mother. Besides, he used them most frequently in the house of his parents. As a rule, he did not lay much stress upon decent apparel. He was willing to appear on the street clad in rags, but he considered it his duty to wait upon his father arrayed in his best. “My father,” Esau was in the habit of saying, “is a king in my sight, and it would ill become me to serve before him in anything but royal apparel.” To the great respect he manifested toward his father, the descendants of Esau owe all their good fortune on earth. Thus doth God reward a good deed.
Rebekah led Jacob equipped and arrayed in this way to the door of Isaac’s chamber. There she parted from him with the words, “Henceforward may thy Creator assist thee.” Jacob entered, addressing Isaac with “Father,” and receiving the response, “Here am I! Who art thou, my son?” he replied equivocally, “It is I, thy first-born son is Esau.” He sought to avoid a falsehood, and yet not betray that he was Jacob.91 Isaac then said: “Thou art greatly in haste to secure thy blessing. Thy father Abraham was seventy-five years old when he was blessed, and thou art but sixty-three.” Jacob replied awkwardly, “Because the Lord thy God sent me good speed.” Isaac concluded at once that this was not Esau, for he would not have mentioned the name of God, and he made up his mind to feel the son before him and make sure who he was. Terror seized upon Jacob at the words of Isaac, “Come near, I pray thee, that I may feel thee, my son.” A cold sweat covered his body, and his heart melted like wax. Then God caused the archangels Michael and Gabriel to descend. The one seized his right hand, the other his left hand, while the Lord God Himself supported him, that his courage might not fail him. Isaac felt him, and, finding his hands hairy, he said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau,” words in which he conveyed the prophecy that so long as the voice of Jacob is heard in the houses of prayer and of learning, the hands of Esau will not be able to prevail against him. “Yes,” he continued, “it is the voice of Jacob, the voice that imposes silence upon those on earth and in heaven,” for even the angels may not raise their voices in praise of God until Israel has finished his prayers.
Isaac’s scruples about blessing the son before him were not yet removed, for with his prophetical eye he foresaw that this one would have descendants who would vex the Lord. At the same time, it was revealed to him that even the sinners in Israel would turn penitents, and then he was ready to bless Jacob. He bade him come near and kiss him, to indicate that it would be Jacob who would imprint the last kiss upon Isaac before he was consigned to the grave—he and none other. When Jacob stood close to him, he discerned the fragrance of Paradise clinging to him, and he exclaimed, “See, the smell of my son is as the smell of the field which the Lord hath blessed.”
The fragrance emanating from Jacob was not the only thing about him derived from Paradise. The archangel Michael had fetched thence the wine which Jacob gave his father to drink, that an exalted mood might descend upon him, for only when a man is joyously excited the Shekinah rests upon him.  The holy spirit filled Isaac, and he gave Jacob his tenfold blessing: “God give thee of the dew of heaven,” the celestial dew wherewith God will awaken the pious to new life in days to come; “and of the fatness of the earth,” the goods of this world; “and plenty of corn and wine,” the Torah and the commandments which bestow the same joy upon man as abundant harvests; “peoples shall serve thee,” the Japhethites and the Hamites; “nations shall bow down to thee,” the Shemite nations; “thou wilt be lord over thy brethren,” the Ishmaelites and the descendants of Keturah; “thy mother’s sons will bow down to thee,” Esau and his princes; “cursed be every one that curseth thee,” like Balaam; “and blessed be every one that blesseth thee,” like Moses.
For each blessing invoked upon Jacob by his father Isaac, a similar blessing was bestowed upon him by God Himself in the same words. As Isaac blessed him with dew, so also God: “And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples as dew from the Lord.” Isaac blessed him with the fatness of the earth, so also God: “And he shall give the rain of thy seed, that thou shalt sow the ground withal; and bread of the increase of the ground, and it shall be fat and plenteous.” Isaac blessed him with plenty of corn and wine, so also God: “I will send you corn and wine.” Isaac said, “Peoples shall serve thee,” so also God: “Kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers; they shall bow down to thee with their faces to the earth, and lick the dust of thy feet.” Isaac said, “Nations shall bow down to thee,” so also God: “And He will make thee high above all nations which He hath made, in praise, and in name, and in honor.”
To this double blessing his mother Rebekah joined hers: “For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy feet against a stone. Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder; the young lion and the serpent shalt thou trample under feet. Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him; I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.”
The holy spirit added in turn: “He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him, and show him my salvation.”
Jacob left the presence of his father crowned like a bridegroom, adorned like a bride, and bathed in celestial dew, which filled his bones with marrow, and transformed him into a hero and a giant.
Of a miracle done for him at that very moment Jacob himself was not aware. Had he tarried with his father an instant longer, Esau would have met him there, and would surely have slain him. It happened that exactly as Jacob was on the point of leaving the tent of his father, carrying in his hands the plates off which Isaac had eaten, he noticed Esau approaching, and he concealed himself behind the door. Fortunately, it was a revolving door, so that though he could see Esau, he could not be seen by him.2
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  1. Louis Ginzberg et al., Legends of the Jews (2nd ed.; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 257–258. []
  2. Louis Ginzberg et al., Legends of the Jews (2nd ed.; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 263–267. []

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2 Comments

  1. Posted March 4, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    David, thanks. I don’t have Ginzberg, and so there were some things I didn’t have. I’ve completed my Lesson 10, tried to do it first before reading yours, so as to try and do my own thing. Funny how there is some overlap, but differences, as well. However, I’ve linked to your site from my lesson at Joel’s Monastery.
    The story of the garment and Nimrod/Esau is found in the Book of Jasher. Isn’t it amazing how these additional points from tradition expand out and give understanding to the story line?

    http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com/2010/03/gospel-doctrine-ot-lesson-10.html

    • David Larsen
      Posted March 6, 2010 at 5:25 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Gerald!
      I read your post and it is great! I highly recommend it! I don’t know how you find time to cover so much material.
      You have really put together some great material and focus on all the right points. Keep up the good work!

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