Genesis 36

A number of genealogies and details of clans and leaders make up the whole of this chapter, and it has interestingly been placed here between the previous transition of the Jacob cycle and the following opening to the Joseph story line. In that, this section provides another sort of natural division amongst the parts of the text; and while it consists of names and relations the fact that it is solely Esau who is being discussed has, I think, more significance than may appear at first glance.

The promise and the prophecy are of course Jacob’s; as readers we have known that since before his birth (25.22-23; see also our earlier musings on the chapter), and we are familiar as well with the treatment that the figure Esau receives in post-biblical literature and thought, wherein he becomes a symbol of the tragically many powers that have oppressed the Jewish nation and the Jewish people. Yet here preserved in the narrative framing of the Torah and placed just before the larger-than-life Joseph and the journey to Egypt that will culminate in the existential tale of the Exodus (and we may bracket the historicity of that event since whatever the empirical case may be as an identity-defining mythos it is paramount), we have all this attention given to Esau and his descendants. The very brother who has consistently been at odds with our (engagingly flawed) hero Jacob; the person from whom the nation of Edom is said to flow, extending the rivalry beyond individuals and into spheres of statehood; the character who is repeatedly condemned for his exogamic marriages (e.g. 26.34-35, 27.46, 28.6-9): these same couplings and the resulting offspring are listed in full and have been given an entire portion of the foundational back stories that make up Genesis by the later redactors and editors of this book on its journey to canonical status. Surely this is important; certainly this calls for careful consideration of possible “whys?”.

We noted when considering Chapter 27 the sympathetic treatment that Esau at times receives in the text (again, this stands at odds with how tradition was to develop in regards to him), and moreover when he and Jacob reunite in Chapter 33 Esau is the image of grace. He had once wanted to kill his own brother (27.41), but it is clear that time and the vicissitudes life visited upon him changed Esau, and for the better. Would that we each so improve. What I find this chapter to be communicating then – even these many centuries later – is a message of inclusion. Esau is the other, the passed-over-one, the left-aside, the not even could-have-been (prior to coming into the world his fate had already been sealed), yet he is accorded the great honor of literary immortality and generous accordance of space in these pages (/scrolls). If we do not take this as a literal recounting – and again bracketing whether or not there might be kernels of history herein – how may we apply the heedfulness afforded Esau to our own lives now? I suggest that we might understand this decision by the writers, redactors, and editors to indicate a message of universalism and divine care for everyone: there is the promise, but that too – lest we forget – is meant for the full peoples of the world: God/“God” to Abraham in Genesis 12.3b: “And all the families of the earth /Shall bless themselves by you.”, and again in 22.18: “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.” These statements could indicate that Abraham’s lineage (via the chosen route of Isaac, Jacob, et cetera) will become the standard by which blessings are invoked, but they could also – and justifiably, in my view – be interpreted to mean that God/“God” shall work with this specific organizing principle (people, group, comportment, way-of-being) in order to communicate and demonstrate that by which humanity might excel. On this reading Esau becomes a symbol for something else entirely: No longer the persecuting Rome or Christendom, but instead the “outsider”, the “stranger” with whom we can somehow relate and in whom we can discover a bit of ourselves, and in that extend a warmer embrace to everyone and everywhere.

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