When traditional Jews read the Torah’s accounts of Jacob’s twin brother Esau, they are more than likely to call forth sinister associations of his absolute and perverse wickedness. Nor is this stigma limited to the particular person from the book of Genesis; Esau assumed the status of a timeless prototype whose hatred that was embodied in subsequent oppressors of Israel, especially the mighty Roman empire.
The equation of Esau with Rome is so pervasive in our tradition that it can demand considerable effort to confront the actual words and stories of the Torah, and to remind ourselves that the Esau who emerges from that narrative, though perhaps not the brightest lentil in the pottage, is hardly the epitome of evil into which he was transformed by midrashic expositions. Yes, he hastily consented to “sell” his privileges as firstborn, and he threatened violence when his mother and brother conspired to trick him out of his paternal blessing. Nevertheless, in spite of the midrash’s determination to call his sincerity into question, he was ultimately reconciled with Jacob.
Presumably the vilification of Esau was a projection of later tensions that arose between his descendants and those of Jacob. The nations of Edom and Israel came into bitter conflicts throughout the era of the biblical monarchy, and Edom joined gleefully in the plunder of Judea following the Babylonian conquest. Later prophets would poetically project this hostility back on Edom’s ancestor. This tendency was particularly prominent in the oracles of the prophet Obadiah, whom later Jewish tradition identified as an Edomite convert.
It is one thing to depict Esau or the Edomites as prototypical foes of Israel and their God; however, it requires a remarkable suspension of disbelief to identify this semitic nation who resided in territory to the south of Judea with the European founders of Rome. And indeed, this now-familiar identification probably took quite a while to evolve.
Of course ancient Jews were always filtered their contemporary realities through scriptural lenses, and once Rome became a significant factor in their lives it was natural that they should seek an appropriate biblical archetype by which to relate to it. In earlier works, the nation that was appropriately chosen for this purpose was the “Kittim,” a seafaring people whose forefather, according to the genealogy in Genesis, was Javan—Greece—and who probably originated in Cyprus. This usage appears in the book of Daniel (where the Greek version translated Kittim as “Romans”) and in the Dead Sea scrolls. Early Christian writers chose Babylon to cast in the role of Rome, and they preferred to liken themselves to the younger brother Jacob, with the Jews cast in the role of the elder—but not wiser—Esau.
Some scholars have cited the apocalyptic work known as “4 Ezra,” probably composed shortly after the destruction of the second Temple, as evidence for a metaphoric final battle between God’s people and a prototypically evil Edomite nation that can only be representing Rome. However, the literary imagery and the book’s date are too vague to furnish solid historical proof.
Other scholars have called attention to Josephus Flavius’ relatively gentle treatment of Esau in his retelling of the stories from Genesis (contrasted to his uncritically admiring depiction of Jacob). Since we know that by Josephus’s time—in the late first century C.E.—the traditions about Esau’s absolute wickedness had become well entrenched in Jewish interpretation, they reason that the most plausible explanation for Josephus’ approach was that Esau was known to be a prototype for Rome, and the Jewish historian was therefore reluctant to offend his readers and protectors in the imperial court. This rather circular argument disregards the fact that Josephus’s characterization is really quite true to the biblical text; it also assumes that the Romans would have been aware of the Jewish tendency to read them into their sacred history.
A theory that enjoyed considerable popularity in modern scholarship traced the origins of the Esau / Rome equation to the figure of Herod the Great. Herod, we may recall, was the scion of Edomites (Idumeans) who had been forcibly converted to Judaism during the aggressive expansionist regime of the Hasmonean kings. Like his father Antipater, Herod was able to maintain his tyrannical hold over Judea thanks to his successful alliances with the rulers of Rome. This explanation would be more persuasive if it were actually attested at or near Herod’s time, rather than many decades later.
Still more far-fetched is the theory that focuses on Esau’s redness which earned him the name of Edom. Now red was the colour associated with the Roman god of war Mars who was the patron deity of the city and its empire, as well as the mythic father of their founders Romulus and Remus. Proponents of this theory claim that this association would have occurred naturally to any ancient Jew or Roman.
Whatever the merits of these theories, the fact remains that the earliest explicit testimony we possess of a Jewish authority who identified Esau with the Romans was Rabbi Akiva who interpreted the scriptural verse “the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau” in the sense of “the voice of Jacob cries out because of what was done to him by the hands of Esau.” Rabbinic tradition understood this as a reference to the destruction by the Roman armies of Betar, the last Jewish stronghold in the uprising led by Simeon Bar Kokhba. Indeed, Rabbi Akiva was a supporter of that fierce and tragic rebellion that lasted from 132 to 135 C.E., the last Jewish attempt to shake off the yoke of Roman oppression. In fact, it was probably Rabbi Akiva who was responsible for bestowing the epithet Bar Kokhba, meaning “son of the star,” upon the leader known previously as “Bar Koseba,” after applying to him the verse “there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel... And Edom shall be a possession.” From that point onwards, midrashic statements by Rabbi Akiva’s disciples standardly assume that all mentions of Esau or Edom in the Bible are to be read as allusions to their own implacable enemy, the despised “evil empire.”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch—while subscribing to the traditional identification of Esau with western civilization—was nonetheless deeply moved by Esau’s expression of pure human emotion when he wept sincerely at his reconciliation with his estranged sibling. In a passage that now seems tragically naive, Rabbi Hirsch interpreted it as presaging an imminent rapprochement between the Jews and modern Europe.
And yet beyond the metaphoric use of Esau as a collective metaphor for Rome there remains Esau the person who, whatever his shortcomings, can hardly be blamed for the injustices of a nation or civilization with which he had no connection whatsoever. Indeed, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra dismissed the Edom-Rome equation as worthy of “people who have not fully wakened from their their drowsy stupor.”
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