This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Atoning for Esau*

In our days, Yom Kippur is observed primarily as a day of fasting and synagogue prayer. In ancient times, however, what defined this holy day was the sequence of unique rituals that were performed by the High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple.

Among these rituals, surely one of the most awe-inspiring was that of the scapegoat. The High Priest would set aside two goats, and then cast lots to determine their fates. One of them was assigned "to the Lord," and sacrificed as a sin-offering. The other was designated "for Azazel." The Kohen confessed the transgressions of the entire people as he pressed his hands on this goat's head. Then the goat was sent away into the wilderness to perish, symbolically bearing with him the sins of Israel.

The sages of the Midrash examined every aspect of the scapegoat ritual in order to extract from it subtle lessons and symbols. One of their favourite methods was to seek out thematic comparisons with similar images elsewhere in the Bible.

Basing themselves on a halakhic stipulation that the two goats that were subjected to the lottery must be identical in their appearance, size and value, some of the rabbis drew an analogy to those prototypical twins, Jacob and Esau. The former, the progenitor and representative of the Jewish nation, was set aside "for the Lord," whereas his demonic sibling, the symbolic ancestor of the wicked Roman Empire, was doomed to perish in a spiritual and eschatological wasteland. In the polarized universe of rabbinic preaching, Esau bore not only his own iniquities, but also those of Israel, who was thereby totally cleansed of all moral stains.

This kind of unrestrained vilification of Esau was standard fare in midrashic discourse, and reflected the frustrations felt by ancient Jews at the relentless triumphs of their evil conqueror.

However, not all the rabbis were as willing to rejoice unconditionally at the downfall of their spiritual archenemy.

An extraordinary exposition of the scapegoat rite is found in a midrashic work known as Seder Eliahu Zuta, a work whose dates and place of composition remain uncertain.

Seder Eliahu's interpretation seems at first to be identical to the one that we have been describing so far. The midrash begins by developing the theme of how God will take away Jacob's sins and load them all upon Esau.

But the story does not end there.

In this version, Esau is permitted to plead his case before the Almighty: "Master of the universe, what strength do I possess, that you should heap upon me all of Jacob's sins?"

At this point, God is persuaded by the reasonableness of Esau's plea, and agrees to find a different destination for the unloading of Jacob's sins. Ultimately, God takes Israel's sins upon himself, causing the divine robes to be stained crimson.

This, says the Seder Eliahu midrash, is the significance of Isaiah's powerful prophecy "Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah?...Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the wine-vat?"

Although Isaiah seems to be describing how God will exact bloody vengeance upon the despised Edom/Esau, our midrashic author has completely transformed the metaphor's significance. In the new version, God is actually showing compassion to Esau by retracting his original plan to burden him with Israel's sins, and consenting to bear them upon himself.

In fact, the Seder Eliahu has added a new character to the allegorical drama. In addition to the two goats who symbolize Israel and Esau, we now have the third figure who ultimately assumes the sins of the other two. In order to fit this into the cast of biblical characters, the midrash attaches new importance to a figure who goes virtually unnoticed in the Torah's account.

According to the regulations set down in Leviticus 16:21, the scapegoat must be led into the wilderness "by the hand of a fit man." This individual has no apparent function in the story other than the technical one of making sure that the goat exits the Temple and makes it to its final, fatal destination.

However, in the Seder Eliahu the role of this obscure character has undergone a major redefinition. From a minor supporting part barely more important than a stagehand, he has been elevated to a starring role, as the representative of the Almighty himself! From an exegetical perspective, this interpretation helps clarify the Torah's enigmatic statement that the person who leads the scapegoat is required to wash his clothes after completing his mission . This makes sense if we presume that those clothes have been stained with the people's iniquities.

This midrashic shift in meaning would be remarkable if only for the uncharacteristic sympathy that it demonstrates towards the despised figure of Esau. However, from a theological perspective , it confronts us with even greater grounds for amazement: The representation of God, portrayed in human terms, taking upon himself the sins of Israel and the nations, is one that has familiar associations that we would not normally expect to find in a kosher Jewish discourse.

And in fact, we find that an interpretation on very similar lines was proposed by one of the most outstanding Christian homelists of antiquity, Origen of Caesarea. Origen identifies the figure who guides the scapegoat as Jesus who has allegorically assumed "garments" of flesh and blood.

Now, Origen was both a neighbour and a contemporary of several of the foremost Jewish talmudic sages. From his base on the Israeli coast, he respected the Jews' mastery of the Hebrew scriptures, and his commentaries make frequent references to interpretations that he had learned from Jewish teachers. Modern Judaic scholarship has come to value Origen's writings as an important source of authentic midrashic traditions, some of which were not preserved in our standard compendia.

In most of the instances of similarity between Origen and the rabbis, it seems clear that the Church Father is borrowing from a prior Jewish tradition. However, in the present instance there are powerful reasons for suggesting that the borrowing might have been in the opposite direction.

We have already alluded to the strikingly Christian theology that is implied by the theme of God assuming human sins. To this we should add the unusually sympathetic consideration that is given to the image of Esau as the scapegoat. In almost every other presentation of Esau in midrashic literature, he is painted in the most negative of colours, a figure of unqualified moral and metaphysical depravity.

The universalistic outlook conveyed by the Seder Eliahu Zuta would have seemed astonishing if it were alluding to the pagan Roman Empire. The implications would be doubly astounding if we could date it after the fourth century C. E., after Constantine had converted the empire to Christianity and initiated a systemic persecution of Judaism.

In fact, a similar sentiment is expressed explicitly in the "sister" work known as Seder 'Eliahu Rabbah. In explaining how a woman, Deborah, was able to rise to such a preeminent status as a judge and a prophet, the author of Seder 'Eliyahu Rabbah declares: "I call upon heaven and earth to witness: Whether Greek or Jew, whether male or female, whether slave or maidservant; In all cases, it is according to one's deeds that the holy spirit comes upon them."

Whether or not the midrashic preacher was conscious of the fact, his egalitarian affirmation was really a paraphrase of the words of St. Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians (3:28) in the New Testament.

The possibility therefore suggests itself that our uncommon midrashic exposition is offering us a glimpse into a different aspect of interfaith relations in the ancient world. Evidently, there were settings in which Jewish and Christian scholars dwelled together in a more open and relaxed atmosphere, treating one another with a measure of respect, and were occasionally ready to learn from each other.

Amicable social relationships may have allowed individuals to transcend their religious differences and to view the drama of divine forgiveness as a universal hope that is not restricted to a single nation or religion.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressSeptember 13, 2001, pp. 22, 24.

  • Bibliography:
    • Halperin, David J. "Origin and Seder Eliyahu: A Meeting of Midrashic Trajectories?" In Agendas for the Study of Midrash in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Marc Lee Raphael, 18-41. Williamsburg, VA: Dept. of Religion College of William and Mary, 1999.
    • Hirshman, Marc G. A Rivalry of Genius: Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation in Late Antiquity. Translated by Batya Stein Suny Series in Judaica. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.