Brothers: Conflict and Rapprochement
Then Jacob lifted his eyes and saw… Esau coming, and with him four hundred men….
The relationships between "brothers" plays an important role throughout Genesis, beginning with the conflict between Cain and Abel that resulted in Abel's violent death and Cain's banishment. While conflict continues to define these relationships, we also find another element later in Genesis: reconciliation or rapprochement.
For example, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father (25:9), even though Ishmael's descendants, according to one translation, "lived in hostility toward all their brothers" (25:18, NIV); cf. Robert Alter's translation, "in defiance of all his brothers he went down." A passage in the Talmud indirectly credits Ishmael for their reconciliation: "Ishmael repented in the lifetime of his father, as it is written, And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him.... That the text places Isaac first shows that Ishmael made way for him, and from the fact that he made way for him we infer that he repented in Abraham's lifetime." (Baba Batra 16b, adapted from the Soncino edition)
Likewise, both conflict and rapprochement occur in the accounts of Abram and Lot ("brothers" in a loose sense, see Gen. 13:8), Jacob and Esau (27:41 and 33:4), and, most dramatically, Joseph and his brothers (37:18-20, 45:15, and 50:14f). Thus, amid the realism of Genesis (conflict happens and recurs) there is an element of optimism, a message of hope for peace to be restored between brothers.
Jacob and Esau provide an example worth further examination. After years of living in exile, estranged from Esau, Jacob sends a message to his brother as he returns to Canaan. The messengers return with news of Esau coming to meet him with a large force. Jacob’s first reaction is fear. His second reaction is to seek atonement through lavish gifts. But when their meeting takes place, what happens next must have taken Jacob by surprise.
And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.
As straightforward as this show of affection and acceptance may seem, the question remains: how sincere and how complete was this reunion of brothers? Jacob was greeted by Laban in a very similar way: “he ran to meet him, and embraced him, and kissed him…” (Gen. 29:13) Yet their relationship was far from brotherly love. They barely managed to part in peace, with a covenant between them. But perhaps Esau should be compared to Joseph when he greeted his father: “he fell on his neck and wept…” (Gen. 46:29)
The apparent reconciliation of Jacob and Esau reflects an ambiguous relationship between the nations they represent. If “Esau is Edom” as Gen. 36:8 says, then Jacob is Israel, as his name change (Gen. 35:10) illustrates. They are brothers, and so the story of their seemingly happy reunion paves the way for the remarkable openness of Deut. 23:7-8 to Edomites: “You shall not detest an Edomite, for he is your brother…. The sons of the third generation who are born to them may enter the assembly of the Lord.” That is, the descendants of an Edomite who resided in Israel (as a ger toshav) could be admitted into full citizenship (and intermarry) by the third generation. On the other hand, Edom stubbornly refused passage through their territory to Israel (Num. 20:14-21; cf. Judges 11:17-18), which was one of the grounds used to exclude any Ammonite or Moabite from “the assembly of the Lord.” (Deut. 23:3-4a) Why the distinction?
The distinction may reflect a difference between Lot, who represents Ammon and Moab, and Esau, who represents Edom:
1. Even though Lot was a “brother” (i.e., kin) to Abraham, he did not remain in Abraham’s household or, we may suppose, partake in the covenant of circumcision. Esau, on the other hand, could claim Abraham and Isaac as his forbears, and like Ishmael, remain within the covenant boundaries set by circumcision, even though he forfeited the promised land to his brother.
2. As Esau was the twin brother of Jacob, so Edom held a closer relationship to Israel than any other nation.
In later Jewish tradition Edom came to be identified with another “brother” of Israel, a rival claimant to the inheritance of Abraham, namely Christian Rome. Jacob Neusner describes this surprising interpretation of history, and I will conclude with his words at some length:
“Rabbinic Judaism lays heavy emphasis on a metaphor of genealogy, involving family and marriage…. Specifically, by claiming that Israel constituted the actual, living, present family of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, the sages met head-on the Christian claim that there was—or could ever be—some other Israel…. Using the metaphor of a family beginning with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Israel could best sort out its relationship with the nations, meaning Christian Rome in particular, by drawing into the [extended] family other social entities with which it found it had to relate. So [Christian] Rome became a brother…. The metaphor of the family dealt with the facts of the situation: Christian Rome shared with Israel the common patrimony of Scripture—and said so….
“While Abraham founded Israel, Isaac and Jacob carried forth the birthright and blessing. This they did through the process of selection, ending in the assignment of the birthright to Jacob alone. The importance of that fact for the definition of Israel hardly requires explication. The lives of the three patriarchs flowed together, each being identified with the other as a single long life. This immediately produced the proposition that the historical life of Israel, the nation, continued the individual lives of the patriarchs. The theory of who is Israel, therefore, is seen once more to have rested on genealogy: Israel is one extended family, all being children of the same fathers and mothers, the patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis….
“Esau, in the sages’ typology, always stands for [Christian] Rome. Esau is not an outsider… but also not Israel…. Israel and Rome—these two contend for the world…. Rome does have a legitimate claim, and that claim demands recognition—an amazing, if grudging concession on the part of the sages that Christian Rome at least is Esau, different from the gentiles, but also not Israel.” (Jacob Neusner, Children of the Flesh, Children of the Promise: A Rabbi Talks with Paul, pp. 43, 44, 51-52)