Esau and Jacob are twin brothers, but because of their personality differences they can never build a real partnership—any more than a goat can partner with a snake.
The Torah identifies the twins with these two animals when they are born in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”):
The first emerged red [and] completely like a robe of sei-ar, so they called his name Eisav. And after that his brother emerged, and his hand was holding fast to the heel of Eisav, so he called his name Ya-akov … (Genesis/Bereishit 25:25-26)
Eisav (עֵשָׂו) = (Esau in English) Doer, Made. (From the root verb asah, עָשָׂה = do, make.)
sei-ar (שֵׂעָר) = goat hair, bristling hair. (From the same root as sa-ir, שָׂעִיר = he-goat.)
Ya-akov (יַעֲקֹב) = (Jacob in English) Heel-grabber, Sneak. (From the same root as akeiv, עָקֵב = heel, which derives from the verb akav, עָקַב= came from behind.)
The Torah explains why Jacob and Rebekah, the parents of the twins, named the second one Ya-akov: he emerged hanging onto his brother’s heel. But why did they name the first one Eisav? Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yiztchaki) wrote that because he was covered with hair, he looked like an adult, completely “made”.
At birth, Esau is hairy like a goat. Goats are also known for being “horny” beasts, which fits Esau’s personality when he grows up. He brings home not one, but two Hittite wives against his parents’ objections.1
Jacob’s grip on his twin’s heel is a reminder of the snake in the garden of Eden, whom God cursed to crawl on his belly and bite humans on the heel.2 The Torah describes the heel-biting snake as arum (עָרוּם) = naked; clever, cunning.3 Jacob is hairless, and therefore naked compared to Esau; and when he grows up he is the clever one. We first see this when Esau comes home famished and Jacob talks him into trading his birthright for a bowl of stew.4
In the next scene about Esau and Jacob, their blind father, Isaac, wants to give his firstborn son a blessing. But first he tells Esau to go hunt game and make it into the delicacy he loves. Rebecca, the twins’ mother, overhears. She is certain that Jacob should get the blessing instead. So she orders Jacob:
“Please go to the flock and take for me two good goat kids, and I will make them a delicacy for your father like [those] he loves.” (Genesis 27:9)
Rebecca’s favorite son can bring her goats from the flock faster than Esau can hunt, and she knows how to make them taste like the game Esau often cooks for his father. On another level, Rebecca may be implying that Jacob should overpower his hairy he-goat of a brother.
And why does she need two goats for one old man’s meal? Is she subconsciously sacrificing both of her sons to make sure the right one gets Isaac’s blessing?
Hey, my brother Esau is a sa-ir man, and I am a smooth man! (Genesis 27:11)
sa-ir (שָׂעִר) = hairy. (Also from the same root as sa-ir, שָׂעִיר = he-goat.)
Physically, Jacob is still as smooth as a snake. So Rebecca fixes it. After dressing Jacob in Esau’s clothes, she covers his hands and neck “with skins of goat kids” (Genesis 27:16). When he brings in the dish of meat, his blind father is not sure which son he is. He speaks like Jacob, so Isaac asks him to come closer, and touches his son’s hands.
And he did not recognize him because his hands were like the hands of his brother, se-irot. And he blessed him. (Genesis 27:23)
se-irot (שְׂעִרֹת) = hairy. (The plural of sa-ir above.)
Isaac gives Jacob the blessing he intended for Esau. Enraged by the “theft” of his blessing, Esau rashly swears he will murder his brother, and Jacob quickly slips away and heads for his uncle Lavan’s house in Aram.
In the next Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he went”), Jacob marries his uncle Lavan’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, and serves Lavan for fourteen years in lieu of bride-prices for them. When his time is up, his employer/uncle/father-in-law does not want to let him go.
And Lavan said to him: “If, please, I have found favor in your eyes! Nichashti, and God has blessed me on account of you.” And he [Lavan] said: “Designate your wage to me, and I will give it.” (Genesis 30:27-28)
nichashti (נִחַשְׁתִּי) = I received an omen. (From the same root as nachash, נָחָשׁ = snake. Snakes were associated with omens and magic in the ancient Near East.)
Lavan comes close to saying, “I sought a snake, and God has blessed me on account of you.”
The serpentine Jacob makes a clever bargain with Lavan and works for another six years in exchange for far more livestock than his employer expected. Then twenty years after Jacob fled to avoid being murdered by his brother, he finally heads back toward Canaan with his family, servants, and flocks.
The next Torah portion begins:
And Jacob sent messengers ahead of himself to his brother Esau, to the land of Sei-ir, the country of Edom. (Genesis 32:4)
sei-ir (שֵׂעִר) = hairy goat.
Esau has become the chieftain of “The Land of the Hairy Goat”, also called Edom. Jacob’s messengers return with the news that Esau is already marching to meet him—with 400 men.
This time, instead of bargaining with his twin brother, Jacob sends him extravagant gifts of livestock. (See my post Vayishlach: Two Camps.) In the morning, after Jacob has wrestled with a “man” who turns out to be a messenger of God, the estranged brothers meet. They embrace one another and weep out loud. Esau offers to return Jacob’s gifts, and Jacob insists that he keep everything.
“Because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me.” (Genesis 33:10)
Then Esau offers to travel with Jacob as far as Sei-ir. But Jacob politely says his group has to go more slowly, so Esau and his men should go ahead, and he will catch up later. As soon Esau and his warriors are out of sight, Jacob heads in another direction. The two brothers do not see one another again until their father’s funeral.5
Esau and Jacob do better than Cain and Abel; they do manage two peaceful reunions, and nobody dies. Yet a goat and a snake cannot become close friends and go home together. They have separate destinies.
May each of us be blessed, like Jacob, to see God’s face in people who are fundamentally different from us. And may we learn to greet them in peace, and part from them in peace.
- Genesis 26:34, 27:46.
- Genesis 3:15.
- Genesis 3:1.
- Genesis 29:25-34.
- Genesis 35:29.