Origins of the Jacob-Esau Narrative

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by Neil Godfrey

Part 2 on Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò‘s chapter, “The Abraham and Esau-Jacob Stories in the Context of the Maccabean Period”, in Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.

The title of this and the previous post may read as declarative but my intent is to share thought-provoking explorations rather than state dogmatic conclusions.

. . .

The Genesis portrayal of Jacob is unlike other biblical narratives in which a heroic figure chosen by God momentarily falls from favour among his peers only to rise again to a more highly exalted status (e.g. Joseph, Gideon, David). In Genesis, Jacob is the second born and cheats his way to take the position of the older sibling.The second part of Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò’s [NS] chapter focuses on the Jacob-Esau narrative in Genesis. It does so by comparison with the parallel account in the Book of Jubilees, a book generally dated to the late second century BCE. The Genesis story of the two brothers, we well know, ends with their unexpected reconciliation. In Jubilees (chapters 3738), though, Jacob kills Esau. Jacob’s sons then attack and subdue Esau’s people making the Edomites tribute-paying subjects of Israel “until this day”. How could such opposite narratives come about?

Jacob depicted in Genesis is not the hero who falls, and loses, to rise to a triumphal victory. He is rather described as the lucky dodger. The stories about Jacob struggling with an angel, staying at Laban’s house and especially competing with his brother do not represent the typical plot of the falling-and-rising hero. (p. 55)

NS suggests that the author of this Genesis tale was inviting his audience to appreciate Esau and not to think poorly of him even though they identify with Jacob.

Readers obviously sympathise with Jacob, yet it might have been Esau who was intended to be the central figure of this part of the story. Therefore, the story allows the interplay of the protagonists’ successes and failures. In this way, the narrative’s attractiveness and the intellectual value of the story are proportionally higher since the story is less straightforward. The demanding reader needed more sophisticated accounts. (p. 55)

But what are we to make of the Jubilees’ version with its conclusion so opposing the drama in Genesis? In Genesis we are reading an adventure that presumably explains a friendly relationship between peoples, the Jews and the Edomites, while in Jubilees we find an etiological explanation for Jewish conquest of Edom. Genesis dialogue leaves no question that the story is etiological: God explains to Rebekah at the moment she was giving birth to the twins,

The LORD said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb . . .  one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.’ – Genesis 25:23

The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, c. 1624, Peter Paul Rubens (https://institutopoimenica.com/2012/07/28/a-reconciliao-de-jac-e-esa-rubens/)

In NS’s view, the Jubilees story with its violent conclusion has a simpler and “more natural” coherence. In Genesis, Jacob’s fear for the safety of his family and his placing his most loved ones in the farthermost positions for their comparative safety,

The version in Jubilees seems to be better-constructed in regard to the narrative’s dynamics: Jacob’s fears, leading him to protect the most beloved ones by placing them at the end of the caravan (Gen. 33:1-3), does not find a logical culmination in Genesis. The canonical version, in which two brothers hug one another (Gen. 33:4), is dramaturgically less natural than the version in Jubilees, where the tension ends with war as the narrative climax . . . (p. 56)

Perhaps. I do like the sophistication of the literary structure here and see in it a masterful buildup of suspense and fear that makes the reconciliation all the more dramatically overwhelming. NS had already spoken of the sophistication of the Genesis narrative in the context of the complex position and character of Jacob and his fall from grace.

One thing is surely evident, as NS points out: At the time of the writing of Jubilees, apparently in the late second century BCE, the status of the Genesis stories had not had time to become canonical. There was still room for debate.

NS’s thesis accordingly posits a Genesis author creating a drama with a peaceful resolution to meet the political or social needs of his time, while a Jubilees author rejected the Genesis theme and adhered or re-emphasized what may have been an earlier plot of conquest that was overwritten by both authors.

NS posits different historical periods for consideration in seeking an explanation for the Genesis narrative that evidently honours Esau and seeks a happy time of peace with the descendants of Jacob. The time NS favours also accounts for a faction that rejected amicable relations between Jews and Idumeans.

  • The period of the monarchy (7th-6th C BCE)
    • Possible but not likely, assuming the state preferred a military-based relationship over hopes to appeal to brotherly bonding;
  • The period of Jerusalem’s fall to the Chaldeans (6th C BCE)
    • Books of Lamentations and Obadiah place Edom in league with the Chaldeans; surely no thoughts of reconciliation were entertained at this time;
  • After Jerusalem’s fall with Chaldeans (Babylonians) ruling Jews remaining in the land of Judah
    • NS suggests the possibility that Jews at this time viewed Edomites as allies but it is not likely that the same Jews identified themselves with Jacob, especially not with the “artful dodger” Jacob in Genesis;
  • The Persian period (5th C BCE)
    • Persian authorities surely sought various means to ensure peaceful relations among neighbouring communities, especially those close to the Egyptian border, so pressure from Persia to promote unifying propaganda is a plausible scenario; however, the only evidence we have of relations between Jews and neighbours, the Book of Nehemiah, points to hostile relations between Jews and their neighbours;
  • Hellenistic era into the 3rd C BCE
    • We lack evidence concerning relations between Jews and neighbours
  • Late Maccabean era, when Hasmonaeans, under John Hyrcanus, expanded their state southward into Idumea (Edomites) – Josephus informs us of conversions of Edomites to Judaism
    • It is not difficult to imagine the importance and relevance of the probability of friendly relations between these two peoples, especially in the context of these military events during their preparation and planning before as well as after the conquest. The propagandistic and political value of the biblical story would thus be very apparent.

      I am inclined to say that the military expansion under John Hyrcanus provides the most plausible historical context for the possibility of improvement in the relations between the Jews and the Idumaeans, turned into literary form in the story of Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation. . .
      (p. 59)

This period — 130-80 BCE — is the same, of course, that NS posits for the context of the “international and ecumenical Abraham” story, as we saw in the last blog post.

The changes in ritual and the new position claimed by the Scriptures provide an adequate context for that deep theological reflection.

In both cases, the changes in the Jacob-Esau story, from military conflict to friendly peaceful reconciliation, as well as the new figure of Abraham, father of all nations, fit well into the political situation of this period.

The turn of the second century and the beginning of the first century BCE was the time when politics mixed heavily with theology, of which the latter considerably influenced the rewriting of the Hebrew Bible. This was the period when Judaism was reshaped considerably. (p. 60, my formatting)

It’s time to go back over other discussions I have read on these Genesis narratives and to compare them with NS’s views. Do some have to fall by the wayside or will any of them complement others?

Niesiolowski-Spanò, Łukasz. 2020. “The Abraham and Esau-Jacob Stories in the Context of the Maccabean Period.” In Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson, edited by Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò and Emanuel Pfoh, 49–61. Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies. New York: T&T Clark.


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19 thoughts on “Origins of the Jacob-Esau Narrative”

  1. Not having read the entire essay perhaps I shouldn’t comment but on the basis of your outline, Niesiolowski-Spanò’s treatment of the Jubilees version of the Jacob-Esau story doesn’t convince me particularly.

    I cannot at all see that it is “surely evident” that “At the time of the writing of Jubilees… the status of the Genesis stories had not had time to become canonical. There was still room for debate.” This might be arguable if Jubilees knew nothing of a reconciliation with Esau, went straight to the killing of Esau by Jacob and therefore really did give an “opposed story.” But Jubilees 29:13 refers (albeit succinctly) to the reconciliation, and later goes on to reassert this truce in chapter 36, which narrates how Esau acknowledges that he sold his birthright and that Isaac’s preferential blessing of Jacob was therefore justified. Only after this, in chapters 37 & 38, do we hear how Esau’s sons goad him into action against Jacob – which he undertakes reluctantly, and pays with his life. So (a) the overall arc may be simpler (is it ?), but the route taken covers everything narrated in the canonical isn’t and (b) this isn’t an alternative to the biblical story. Chapters 36 & 37 constitute a sequel, added to Genesis in the classic midrashic style, which expands but importantly does not contradict the canonical story. I therefore don’t see how Jubilees can be used to show that there really was an earlier, suppressed stratum of Genesis that concluded the way Jubilees does.

    It also seems to me to be perverse to suggest that the Genesis version, which effectively leaves Edom as an independent political entity, is the later post-Maccabean conquest narrative, whereas the Jubilees version, which expressly dramatises the conquest of Edom (“Jacob … placed the yoke of servitude upon them, so that they paid tribute to Jacob and to his sons always…. and … have not got quit of the yoke of servitude … until this day.” (Jubilees 38:12-14) is the earlier, pre-Maccabean conquest story.

    This issue is clearly significant in respect of the dating of both the biblical and Jubilees narratives. Curiously, Niesiolowski-Spanò argues that, for the biblical happy-ending version, the monarchic period is “not likely, assuming the state preferred a military-based relationship over hopes to appeal to brotherly bonding”. But if that’s true of the Monarchic period, why shouldn’t it be true of the Maccabean period, when a “military-based relationship” had very certainly established itself? In truth, neither of these periods seem appropriate for the happy biblical version, and for the very same reason.

    As regards some of the other dating options, Niesiolowski-Spanò’s arguments are, I think, a little shaky:

    (1) It’s clear from II Kings, that the Edomites were not initially implicated in the Babylonian offensive against Jerusalem and that they were not scapegoated until a later date, in the prophetic books which he cites, when Edom had effectively moved into the southern Negev, and only retrospectively were accused of profiting from and/or colluding with the Babylonian invasion. So a window of opportunity for the biblical Esau-Jacob story could perhaps be opened in this period.

    (2) As regards the Persian period, Niesiolowski-Spanò acknowledges that unifying propaganda would be very plausible for the time, but counters this by saying that “the only evidence we have of relations between Jews and neighbours, the Book of Nehemiah, points to hostile relations between Jews and their neighbours.” However much modern scholarship dates a large part of the canonical book of Ezra-Nehemiah to the later Hellenistic period (overlaying an earlier Persian core), so that this objection is robbed of any force. And there actually is some evidence – in the form of the Elephantine letters (and consideration of the largely identical Jewish and Samaritan Pentateuch) that the relationship between Jerusalem and Samaria was not at all hostile, unlike the picture Ezra-Nehemiah paints, and there is no reason to think that the xenophobic ideology of that book represents the Persian period at all. So perhaps the most plausible period for the production of the happy-ending Jacob-Esau story is indeed the Persian period after all.

    (PS: Please forgive me for not responding to your reply to my comments on Russell Gmirkin some month(s) back. The times being as they are, and other issues seeming more pressing in these crazy times, I have not yet been able to fashion a succinct outline of my many criticisms of his thesis… but I will try and do that ASAP)

    1. I therefore don’t see how Jubilees can be used to show that there really was an earlier, suppressed stratum of Genesis that concluded the way Jubilees does.

      I did not mean that NS was proposing Jubilees knew of an earlier Genesis version with the same violent ending as in Jubilees.

      As for the other points you make — thanks for noting them here. I look forward to thinking through the different ideas. As you infer, NS’s points raise several questions, and there is so much published on related texts and archaeological finds that I think it would be a mammoth task to get on top of all of the relevant literature before wanting to become too confident about the historical place of these narratives.

    2. RE: “(1) It’s clear from II Kings, that the Edomites were not initially implicated in the Babylonian offensive against Jerusalem and that they were not scapegoated until a later date”

      Some say Qos and Yahweh were originally identical. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qos_(deity) The name means “bow” with allusions also to rainbows (bringing to mind Noah’s rainbow).

      James S. Anderson. (2015 ). Monotheism and Yahweh’s Appropriation of Baal, p.101.

        1. Is this one on your reading list? https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300243512/becoming-diaspora-jews [though a shame Gmirkin and Wajdenbaum are not mentioned within it].

          This last winter in a comment someone had a link to this very interesting paper: http://www.ricerchefilosofiche.it/files/God-fearers%20sabians%20timlj.pdf [though the formatting is off in this English translation with a larger font than in the 48 page Italian original {of which nearly half is footnotes and bibliography} making it appear to be a much longer read than it actually is] http://www.ricerchefilosofiche.it/

              1. Yes, added it July 2017 🙂

                Unfortunately there is simply too much stuff that I would like to be more widely known but I don’t have enough capacity to read more than one book or type on more than one keyboard at a time and suspect my life-span will not outpace my interests.

        2. “By considering the ‘one god’ inscriptions that are found in the Near East in pagan, Jewish, Samaritan and Christian traditions, Markschies shows how fluid the lived reality of ancient religion was, between polytheism and monotheism. He appears to see monotheism as a means for each group to define its identity as superior to other groups, rather than as necessarily exclusive of other gods.” https://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2011/2011.08.12

          Qos = Yahweh http://arabianprophets.com/?page_id=2081

        3. Compare Qos/Qaus to the still prevalent term for rainbow in Hijazi Arabic: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D9%82%D9%88%D8%B3_%D9%82%D8%B2%D8%AD#Hijazi_Arabic

          A stele dedicated to Qos-Allah ‘Qos is Allah’ or ‘Qos the god’, by Qosmilk (melech – king) is found at Petra. Qos is identifiable with Kaush (Qaush) the God of the older Edomites. There is continuing debate about the nature of Qos (qaus – bow) who has been identified both with a hunting bow (hunting god) and a rainbow (weather god) although the crescent above the stele is also a bow.

          Alternately see the Qos entry beginning on p. 714 of this 1001 page pdf of van der Toorn’s Deity Dictionary: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2gg0n-udc2dN2U2MzhmYTYtZTg4OS00ODBmLWI3NDItNjJkMTllMzlkN2Mz/view?hl=en&resourcekey=0-tkPKC5QtDk26LIi1jKj2Gg (takes a good long minute to load)

  2. Interesting though Łukasz’s article was, there are some technical problems with respect to dating. I would question his unfootnoted statement that “General scholarly consensus points to the late second century BCE as the date of Jubilees.” This is not supported even by Wintermute (Charlesworth [ed.], Old Testament Pseudepigrapha = OTP 2.43-44), whose translation Łukasz used, but who notes VanderKam’s analysis that concludes the very latest historical allusions in Jubilees are to events of 161 BCE; Wintermute tentatively assigns a date of 161-140 BCE. But Jubilees is a composite document, early portions written prior to the events of 175 CE and the brewing Hellenistic Crisis, and the final portions arguably written in the period 175-161 BCE.

    Additionally, Fragment 2 of Demetrius the Chronographer, who wrote under Ptolemy IV (221-204 BCE), has an episode in which Gen. 27.41-28.5 features prominently: “Demetrius says that Jacob was 75 [Hanson emends to 77] years old when he fled to Haran in Mesopotamia, having been sent away by his parents on account of the secret enmity of Esau towards his brother (which was due to the fact that his father had blessed him thinking he was Esau)” (OTP 2.848). This appears to put the main plot line of the Genesis story of Jacob and Esau no later than that late third century BCE (and on evidence of the LXX translation, arguably earlier; note also that Demetrius used the LXX, which contained the complete Esau story in Genesis). It would have been nice to see Łukasz discuss Demetrius and the LXX.

    1. Thanks, Russell, especially for that note about the dating and composition of Jubilees. Yes, I was looking for a footnote to NS’s comment, too, wondering how secure the late second C view is.

      Another point that I wonder about: if the narrative of Jacob-Esau appears to be a product of sophisticated theological and literary thought then is it necessary to also interpret it as political propaganda? Who is meant to be the audience for political propaganda of the kind NS is discussing? (I admit my background knowledge of the culture of the literary elites here is very limited.)

      1. Indeed, surely the basic methodological flaw is to assume that because a text could be used as propaganda for a dateable event, it was written at that time for that purpose.
        There is a scholarly thread which is sceptical of Josephus’ account of the forced conversion of the Idumeans. Drawing on Strabo, it posits a more-or-less voluntary ‘alliance of the circumcision’, based on common practices and a common cult (not necessarily monolatrous) of Yahweh. Were you to hold that view, you ‘could’ then propose the Genesis version of Jacob/Esau as propaganda for that happy arrangement. Jubilees (which is in truth very hard to date as late as NS wishes) is then C3/C2 wishful thinking about the ‘Edomite problem’, later taken up by Josephus’ source as ‘what should have happened ‘.
        Per contra, if you accept the forced conversions narrative, Jubilees, or at least Esau’s repudiation of the truce and consequent defeat, is very late and a witness to a political fait accompli; the Genesis version is an option suggested in some previous generation, or, as NS, a positive spin on a difficult situation, and so also late.
        In each scenario, a text is being adduced as supporting evidence for a theory of ‘what happened on the ground ‘, and in turn ‘what happened’ is used to date the text. Methinks there is some circularity here…
        So back to my initial point : whatever actually ‘happened on the ground’, there was likely a text already available which could be used to justify it; that does not entail that the text had to be written to order contemporaneously.

      1. Wow-ee. I suspect that proposer of deletion is a regular Wikipedia self-appointed police who regularly keeps ideas offensive to him/her out of the site. “Self-promotion”? — now what do we make of Bart Ehrman, of James McGrath, of Candida Moss, of any scholar with a personal blog and who engages — shudder, horror — with the public in online forums!?

  3. Reminds me of drama a few years ago over this: https://web.archive.org/web/20190127000537/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Root_analogue_dental_implant Was never “merged” rather deleted with no mention to be found anywhere in the Wiki of what one would think would be a welcomed advancement in healthcare.

    Three months ago someone uploaded it again: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Root_analogue_dental_implant And some random night at 3am one of the self appointed gatekeepers will likely just make it disappear again.

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