Esau and Jacob

Tol’dot: Jacob and Esau Genesis 25:19 – 28:9


Howard Adelman

Yesterday, I distributed a movie review of Hell or High Water. Two central figures in the movie were brothers, Toby and Tanner. Toby was the younger one, very reserved, very repressed, with an enormous sense of responsibility for the future and, yet, a loser. Tanner was the older brother, a wild one, an excellent marksman and a high risk instigator of trouble. Jacob and Esau are not identical to Toby and Tanner, but there are enough similarities in character that analyzing both the bond and the tension between Jacob and Esau against the backdrop of Toby and Tanner can be revealing.

Quite aside from the particular character and connections of the two sets of brothers, there are some constants that characterize the character of older brothers and their younger siblings. In The Right Stuff (Thomas Wolfe) and in the movie of the same name, fighter pilots are characterized as confident, assertive, competitive, brash and flamboyant. And two-thirds of those who fly fighter planes are firstborns (during the second world war virtually all fighter pilots were firstborns or only children), greatly disproportionate to the number of firstborns in the population. Further, most pilots (a minority of the total), who are neither firstborns nor only children, are far less driven and competitive than the firstborn or only child pilots. Some of those non-firstborns are decidedly cautious and far less enamoured with the romance of flying.

More loose generalizations can be found. In general, firstborns are not the ones you find buried in books in a library though the two classes of males are equal in general cognitive ability. Though firstborns may have to study, most really must be active. And they are always striving to surpass themselves. They are restless. They are ill content with who they happen to be at any time. They are assertive. But they also have difficulty in emotionally connecting. What they want and seek is excitement rather than introverted self-critical analysis. They have a great sense of space, but a weak ability to formulate what they see as pictures or to grasp an overall picture. They identify areas through map coordinates rather than by way of images. Generally, they are brilliant at immediate spatial data coordination.

Firstborns must win. They are quarterbacks and political leaders (most U.S. presidents). More CEOs are firstborns. They are perfectionists and driven. They prefer the dominant position. In terms of goals, firstborns generally prefer to set their own goals; later-borns are more prone to accept goals set by others. But perhaps the biggest difference is in romantic attachments. Firstborns have a much higher propensity to separate and divorce their romantic partners while second born males, particularly middle-borns, tend to have much more stable relationships. The differences extend into studies of homosexuality. Simplified, the later your birth order, the higher the propensity to homosexuality.

Now, I am not going to speculate here about the cause, whether these differences result because the firstborn paved the way through the birth canal. It may or may not be the case that, as a result, firstborns have the highest neonatal mortality rate, the smallest mean birth weight, inflict a longer period of labor on their mothers (hence, mothers possibly love later-born sons more than firstborns), experience greater head compression or more frequently suffer from permanent neural damage because of hypoxia during delivery. On the other hand, there are studies that show that the perceived rather than actual birth order (PBO) is the significant variable. The latter claim may or may not be true.

However, I am not concerned with the biological explanation, the nature versus nurture issue – though the Torah clearly seems to favour the explanation that the differences are rooted in nature. I am concerned with the social and psychological consequences of male birth order. I am more concerned with noting that, in spite of any possible extra trauma of a firstborn in birth, contrary to expectations, firstborns exhibit better perceptual motor skill in coordinating targets at a distance, with pulling a trigger of a rifle and downing a duck. Firstborns, in general, also make better surgeons or, at least, are more likely to become surgeons than internists. In the extreme, there is a correlation between increased rates of autism, attention deficit disorder and dyslexia in firstborns (hypothetically explained by some to result from maternal immune responses and the release of androgen).

In science, there is even a tool for measuring these differences. The Frostig Development Test of Visual Perception measures the differences between firstborns and later-borns. On that test, later-borns perform significantly better, but only on specific subsets of these measurement criteria – perceptual constancy and intelligence related to global perceptual performance. To put it more graphically, firstborns are better hunters of moving targets, whether these be tigers or enemy fighter planes, while later-borns can keep their “eyes” on a specific fixed target over time. Further, later-borns identify objects within a global reference field as distinct from a finite visual field. In sum, later-borns have a higher abstract intelligence quotient. On the other hand, it should come as no surprise that firstborns have brain neurons that make the strongest axon projections to remote physical targets.

There is one other bit of scientific data I want to put on the table – the distance in time between the birth of a first born male and a later-born male sibling. In studies of sibling dyads, the more widely spaced the birth, the greater and broader the later-born experiences his intellectual and social environment. In contrast, the firstborn is better attuned to what used to be called his “instincts.” The fact that Esau and Jacob were twins, but Jacob was born immediately after Esau (biting his heels as it were) might indicate that the two boys had similar experiences. Or it might suggest that order of birth is even more important than the birth experience itself. Alternatively, it could mean that each one copes with similar experiences in very different ways. The Torah text suggests the order of birth combined with the very close timing of birth leads to the most radical differences.

However, it seems the birth order is most important as indicated in the dramatic differences in the behaviour of Toby and Tanner in the movie Hell or High Water. It is clearly the case when comparing Esau with Jacob who are fraternal twins. However, I do not want to use these differences as scientific diagnostic tools to explain the radically antithetical characters of Esau and Jacob. I am not interested in going on a scientific expedition to test the validity of the claim, for example, that these differences result from the way daughter cells in the developing infant produce particular transmission factors at the time of birth to embody memories that maintain differences based on both the time of birth and the experience of that birth. Rather, I want to use these supposedly scientific differences as a series of metaphors to highlight the characters of Esau and Jacob to help understand and grasp the significance of their relationship.

Tol’dot is about the generations of Isaac. The parshat begins with Rebekah giving birth to fraternal twins, Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25: 19-26) after 20 years of being barren. It was clearly a painful pregnancy blamed on a struggle between the fraternal twins in the womb. Set aside for the moment the prophecy that the descendants of the younger son will become more preeminent than the children of the elder fraternal twin and “the elder will serve the younger.” (25:23) The two were dramatically different in both appearance and behaviour. Esau, who emerged first, was ruddy and covered with hair. Jacob is not really described except to say that he emerged with his hand holding Esau’s heel. Esau grew up as a hunter and man of the field. Jacob grew up as a quiet homebody but one with a cunning and determined personality. Esau will give rise to the Edomites. Jacob will give rise to the Israelites.

Further, the two parents had different favourites. Isaac preferred the more manly alpha male, Esau, while Rebekah favoured her quieter, more domestic and more self-reflective child, Jacob. (25:8) What is the nature of the first significant encounter when they have grown up? Jacob is cooking and Esau comes home from being out in the field and is starving. Jacob offers to feed Esau, but only if Esau trades his birthright. So Esau, in order to eat, agrees to sell his birthright. What does this text mean when it records that “Esau despised his birthright”? (25:34)

Is this assessment self-serving? Judaism as a religion seems to favour the traits associated with later-borns over those characteristic of firstborns and only male children. It is clear that the rabbinical commentators also favoured Jacob over Esau. Rashi described Rome, and its successor, the Holy Roman Empire of Christianity, as the children of the brutality of Esau. Esau was seen as hateful and wicked. But it is Jacob that tricked Esau out of his birthright for a mess of pottage. Esau is straightforward, driven by his appetites. Jacob is the trickster with his eye on the long game rather than immediate sensual satisfaction.

So the question I pose is why is there such a clear favouritism in Judaism? Why do the choices of the mothers matter far more than those of the father? Why in social and collective life are the traits of the second-born or middle male child favoured? Why are values given priority that stress negotiations over fighting it out, peacemaking and mediation skills over the traits characteristic of a heroic warrior? Why do Jews seem to esteem what is misleadingly said to be brains over brawn?

If we take the story of Esau and Jacob as paradigmatic of a value scale of social mores, the construct of the Jew as the archetypal sabra seems to run contrary to the historical value set. Further, in spite of strenuous efforts over several generations to remake Jews as a warrior nation, they are not. They are not conquerors. The territorial goals are very boundaried, even for the right. On the other side, the products of intellectual work and of scientific research seem to garner the greatest accolades. What does this say about the social dynamics within Jewish families and about the nation as a whole? Or is all of this just an exemplar of an abuse of science and a false and misleading extrapolation? But even if the natural basis for such claims may be problematic, this evaluation bias, if there proves to be one in the text, might indicate how the people of the book survived as a community of social practices.

It also suggests a predestined relationship to the two nations that emerge from Rebekah’s womb. Or does it, for oracles are always equivocal? The text reads:

וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ
וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר: One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.

But the text may also be translated as the younger will work for the elder. There are four logical possibilities. The older may be mightier. The nation derived from the younger may be mightier. Each of these two variations has two alternatives with respect to the relationship. The younger may serve the elder. Or the elder may serve the younger.

I suggest the text and the story means that the progeny of Esau will be mightier than that of Jacob. If so, which nation will emerge as having the dominant value system? If one takes the former rivalry between Ishmael as the elder half-brother and his younger brother, Isaac as a case in point, Sarah secures the inheritance for Isaac by sending Ishmael and his mother off into the wilderness. In this story, it is Jacob who hits the road and, even when he returns, avoids a full reconciliation with his brother and moves on.

The more telling point, however, is not the two different paths the different pairs of children take, but the role the mothers play in the determination. Further, in the Jacob-Esau story, Jacob not only engages in tough bargaining, but uses trickery to deceive his father that he is really the first born. And even Rashi will endorse this trickery by insisting that the Midrash that says that Jacob was really the first born is the correct one. Jacob was not really a trickster but was merely claiming what was his by right of being the real first born. He may have been born on the heels of his brother but was conceived first. Very clever, but also a totally unconvincing apologetic for Jacob’s trickery!

יעקב נוצר מטיפה ראשונה ועשו מן השניה, צא ולמד משפופרת שפיה קצרה, תן לה שתי אבנים זו תחת זו, הנכנסת ראשונה תצא אחרונה, והנכנסת אחרונה תצא ראשונה, נמצא עשו הנוצר באחרונה יצא ראשון, ויעקב שנוצר ראשונה יצא אחרון, ויעקב בא לעכבו שיהא ראשון ללידה כראשון ליצירה, ויפטור את רחמה, ויטול את הבכורה מן הדין:
Jacob was formed from the first drop [of semen] and Esau from the second. Take, for example, a tube with a small mouth. Place two stones inside it one after the other; whichever enters first will be come out last, and whichever enters last will come out first. We see from this that Esau was formed last but came out first, and Jacob who was formed first came out last. Thus Jacob wished to stop him, so that he could be the first born just as he was first conceived, and would be the one to open [his mother’s] womb and receive the birthright legally.

I think the real issue is not who was justified by nature in gaining the inheritance, but the role of the cunning of reason in the unfolding of history. We can see this device at work as the story continues.

With the help of Alex Zisman