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The biblical story of Jacob and Esau, Rebecca's twin sons, is often interpreted as a symbol of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.

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Jacob and Esau: Rebecca's Children

by Frederic Manns, O.F.M.

In the Vatican II document —Relationship to Non-Christian Religions— the church acknowledges Christianity—s debt to the Jews: —We have received divine revelation from the Jews. They are the ones chosen by God, the ones to whom God offered mercy and the ancient covenant. As Christians we are rooted in Judaism, and we believe that in Christ, Jew and Gentile are reconciled once and for all.—

From the middle of the second century until the present, there has been a dichotomy between these two religions, which has resulted in a great deal of suffering. The origins of this can be found in Scripture in the story of the children of Rebecca.

A Story of Two Brothers

For twenty years after her marriage Rebecca was thought to be barren. Her husband prayed to the Lord on her behalf and she conceived twins. When she had been pregnant for seven months she began to wish that the curse of childlessness had not been removed from her. She suffered great pains, because her twin sons began their lifelong quarrel in her womb. She consulted the Lord who told her: —Two nations are in your womb. Two peoples are quarrelling while still within you. But one shall surpass the other and the older shall serve the younger— (Gn 25:23).

Esau (which means ruddy and hairy) was the first-born. The second, who grabbed his brother—s heel, was called Jacob. In the Bible and in the Semitic world the name given to a person is very important for it contains his vocation. To —grab his heel— figuratively means —to deceive.— Jacob would be known as the deceiver because he stole the birthright from his brother and deceived his father who bestowed on him the promise made to Abraham which should have gone to the first born. Jacob became the inheritor of the covenant.

Esau hated his younger brother Jacob on account of the blessing that his father had given him. Thinking that this might result in murder, Jacob was sent away to find a wife among their kinsmen in Haran where he accumulated a fortune. Esau also became a wealthy man. The two sons followed different paths of life.

Jacob—s Connection With the Covenant

Jacob, afraid of his brother Esau, fled from the house of his father and finally from the Holy Land. But his journey to Haran was a succession of miracles, according to the Aramaic version of the Bible known as the Targum. This version was known by the writers of the Gospels.

The first of the five miracles that befell for his sake was that the sun sank while Jacob was passing Mount Moriah, though it was high noon at the time. He was following the spring that appeared wherever the Patriarchs went or settled.

When Jacob saw that the sun was about to sink, he prepared his bed. It was the divine purpose not to let Jacob pass the site of the future Temple without stopping; he was to tarry there at least one night. Next morning, Jacob took twelve stones from the altar on which his father Isaac had laid bound, prepared to be sacrificed.

He said: —If these twelve stones join together and become only one big stone, I shall know that twelve tribes shall come out from me.— That night he had a dream and the world—s history was unfolded to him. On a ladder set up on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven he saw angels coming up and down. The Gospel of John shall propose a christological interpretation of the scene: the ladder of Jacob was a prefiguration of the cross of Jesus (see John 1:51).

God showed him the Temple in its glory and Mount Sinai. From that dream Jacob awoke with a start of fright and he cried: —How dreadful is this place!— He took the stone made out of the twelve stones and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on top of it. God sank this stone unto the abyss to serve as the center of the earth.

The name Moriah would be later transferred to the mount on which Solomon built his Temple. The experience of God that Jacob had was linked to the Temple. Some see in this a prefiguring of the temptation of Jesus on the Temple pinnacle.

As soon as Jacob arrived in Haran, by his meritorious deeds, the water spring was blessed and the city had enough water for its needs. Tradition, again from the Targum, has it that water rose from the depths of the well to the very top. There was no need to draw it up. This miracle prefigures the one Jesus promised sitting on Jacob—s well: Living water shall spring up for the believers.

The Deceiver Deceived

Rachel—s coming to the well at the very moment when Jacob reached the territory was an auspicious omen. It is known that young girls used to come to the wells to water the cattle. Many marriages were settled at the wells. To meet young maidens on entering a city was a sign that fortune was favorable.

Jacob fell in love with Rachel but her father Laban insisted that Jacob would have to serve him for seven years to get the girl in marriage. After Jacob had served Laban for seven years he was deceived. Laban gave him his elder daughter, Leah, for he knew that Jacob would consent to serve him a second period of seven years for love of Rachel. Laban dealt treacherously with Jacob who was himself a deceiver. The logic of the Bible turns out properly.

But God—s ways are different from human ways. Leah was hated by Jacob, but God visited her in his mercy. She gave birth to many children. When finally Jacob married Rachel, she was barren. She besought Jacob: —pray unto God for me, that he grant me children, else my life is no life.— God opened her womb and she gave birth to Joseph.

Jacob had been waiting for his son Joseph to be born to begin the preparations for his journey home after his fourteen years of service had come to an end. He decided to go away with all his riches without as much as acquainting Laban with his intention.

Brothers Reconciled

On his way home, Jacob sent a message ahead to his brother Esau, of whom he was afraid. He tried to appease him with presents of his flocks so that he would be received kindly by him.

One night he had a dream in which he struggled all night with an angel and he was victorious. This encounter is significant for it was after this that his name was changed to Israel.

Jacob had wrestled with God and was victorious. It is only after this fight with God that he could meet his brother Esau and find reconciliation after many years of dispute because he had taken his blessing.

Interpretations by Jews and Christians

The story of these twin boys would later be interpreted to represent the disputes between Judaism and Christianity. For the first one hundred years of its existence, Christianity was a sect within Judaism.

But after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 a.d. Judaism, as it had been, came to an end and a new form of Judaism came into being. This new form of Judaism, known as Rabbinic Judaism, revolved around the synagogue and the scriptures rather than the Temple and sacrifice. And Christianity became a religion on its own.

Both religions took the prophecy made to Rebecca (—Two nations are in your womb. Two peoples are quarrelling while still within you. But one shall surpass the other and the older shall serve the younger— [Gn 25:23]) to further their competing claims to divine favor.

Both considered themselves as the heirs to the biblical promises. Jews claimed to be sons of Jacob, and regarded Esau as the father of Rome (eventually Christianity) whose sons would serve Jacob—s (Israel—s) sons.

At the same time, Christians proposed a reading of the Scriptures, orientated towards Christ, the Messiah of Israel, and saw themselves as descendants of Jacob, the new Israel.

St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans 9:8-13 uses the account of Jacob and Esau to stress the primacy of belief over physical descent. Paul writes: —...not all who are of Israel are Israel,... it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.—

Early Church Fathers took the account in a new and even more polemical direction. Origen proposed that Jews knew that one people, the Church (Jacob), was stronger than the other, the Synagogue (Esau). Justin of Naplouse, in his book —Dialogue with Trypho— written in the early second century a.d., doesn—t hesitate to define Jacob as a symbol of the Church. His polemic writing had a great success in the Early Church.

The rabbis rejected Origen—s interpretation. In the Midrash Genesis Rabbah 65:20-22 they proposed to read the antagonism between Jacob and Esau as a symbol of the opposition between Christianity and Judaism. It was because Isaac did not distinguish the hands of Jacob and those of Esau that the blessing was given his younger son Jacob. In biblical tradition the hands are symbol of power or of service. The Midrash continues: if Jacob-Israel is faithful to its blessing, its hands will dominate over those of Esau. If Jacob forgets its blessing, the power (the hands) of the Christian will be stronger then their own.

A Family Affair

Conflict was characteristic of Jewish Christian relations from the very beginning but the argument was a family affair. It was after Christianity had separated from Judaism that the polemical passages in the New Testament were read as testimonies of hatred between two separate religions, when they should have been read as a strife between two currents of the same religion.

Early Christianity, like Judaism, was characterised by a great variety of tendencies. Samaritan, Pharisaic and Baptist styles of interpretation appear in the writings of early Christianity. Many Jews were attracted by the new way of interpretation of the Bible proposed by Jesus and his disciples.

Rabbinic Judaism claims that it preserved the traditions of Jacob who wrestled with God and was called Israel. Jewish Christianity conserves the prophets and maintains that it is part of Israel.

Like Jacob Israel remains mysterious, that is the reason why it is admired and sometimes hated and persecuted. Like Jacob, Israel is fighting with God. Israel cannot escape to God, it remains marked by Him. That is the reason Israel is hurt, but also blessed.

In the same way Israel will discover fraternity with other peoples only after his fight with God. Christianity too maintains that it is part of Israel. Neither religion claims Esau.

But neither religion can be understood in isolation from the other. The witness of each is needed to show the truth of the other. Every Christian finds in the Jewish people and in its monotheistic faith, his roots. It is the Jews who have given us the Bible and with it the firm conviction regarding the unique dignity of each and every human person, created in the image of God.

Every human life, like Jacob—s experience, is —a struggle with God.— The whole saga of Jacob teaches the believers that God never abandons his faithful, even in the difficult situations. He is the God of the ancestors. For the merits of the fathers he saves their sons.

In his visit to Israel in March 2000, Pope John Paul II formally apologized to the Jews for the atrocities perpetrated on their race by Christians over the centuries. The hand held out was grasped. Today, these descendants of Abraham come together in peace.

Frederic Manns, O.F.M., serves on the faculty of the Studium Biblicum in Jerusalem. He has written several books and articles on Scripture.

Next: Judith, Esther and Tobit (by Virginia Smith)


Talking About Scripture

Read the story of Jacob's deception in Gn 27. Although he was the deceiver and the lesser of the two brothers, God's favor rested on him. Now read the story of the prodigal son in Lk 15. God often chooses the least likely to be his spokesman. What relevance does this have for us today?



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