Proper 10(A): No “Us” Versus “Them”
By: Colin Cushman
This passage involving Jacob and Esau, and the birthright traded for pottage, is one of the famous stories of the Genesis tradition. However, while this is quite familiar passage for those of us steeped in the Bible, there are definitely parts of it that we pay attention to and parts that we gloss over. I would like to poke around those murky areas to see what they can teach us, specifically about our relationship with the Other.
From the very beginning of this passage, we see that we are talking about how groups of people relate. Notice, for example, verse 20. Twice within the course of one sentence, the author here reiterates that Rebekah, a major matriarch of The Chosen People, is a foreigner. She’s an immigrant who married into the family. We cannot tell the story of our sacred history without including the story of immigration and inter-racial marriage. The passage insists that we must recognize the role of the foreigner in making us who we are today. Adopting this perspective then opens up a significant theme in our passage: foreigners and relationships between peoples.
Take, for example, the oracle given by God in verse 23. God makes it clear that this story is not just an anecdote about two individual people. It about nations and their relationship with one another. We are talking about groups of people and how they interact with one another.
And what group of people are we talking about? Well, obviously Jacob is Israel (as his later name change makes clear). In verse 30, we learn, in a rather ungainly construction, that Esau here really is referring to Edom (the neighbor to ancient Israel). So the author tells us that there are two people groups: Israel and Edom. Except, in reality, there might not be. The thing is, as we learn more and more about the region from archaeology, we are learning that, as a matter of fact, Israelites and Edomites were not all that different from one another. As much as the powers that be wanted a clear-cut, nonporous line demarcating who is really an Edomite or an Israelite, in reality, there were a bunch of different families and tribes, all of whom were operating more or less independently, and they may or may not have wanted to be lumped into that label of “Edomite” or “Israelite.”
The story serves an etiological function: it explains why things are the way they are. What is the situation that it is explaining? It’s not immediately clear. Were the “modern day” (at the time of writing) serving under Israel? Did Israel see them as inferior to themselves? If so, this story would give justification for this ethnocentric view.
Interestingly, though, scholars think that the name and nation “Edom” did not actually originate from Esau, as claimed here, but was pre-existent. However, right around the time that this story was being written down, the nation of Edom was consolidating and becoming an actual nation, so it was very important for the Israelites to clarify who was and wasn’t actually an Israelite. Thus, we have a story that is actively and intentionally involved in the process of boundary-defining and community-constructing, specifically designed to explain who “we” are and why we’re better than “them.”
Even if this story is telling about the inferiority of the Edomites, though, it certainly does not appear to be the standard criticism leveled against Esau. He seems much less of an evil person who rejects all that is of value, and more of a bumbling, idiotic drama queen who makes stupid decisions.
Take for example this anecdote with the food in verses 29-34. Esau comes home from the field hungry. Presumably, dinner would be served soon enough—he belongs to a rich enough family. However, this is not good enough for him. In a fit of melodrama, he claims that he is starving to death. Jacob seizes on his hyperbolic state to con his brother out of a massive amount of money and the spiritual blessings due to the favored child.
Esau came in starving. He saw a pot of red food. What would he have assumed other than that this was a rich, protein-filled meat stew? What other foods are red? But instead of at least getting a fancy meal for his birthright, he learned too late that it’s simply red lentils.
And yet it doesn’t particularly seem to matter to him! Examine verse 34. The writing style is much different. We’re just given a rapid-fire list of actions, as if Esau were rushing through them as fast as possible. He doesn’t even understand the import of what he just did. He doesn’t have regrets. He’s just hungry and will do whatever he needs to satiate that hunger.
We learn that Esau is not good at weighing options and that Jacob is a con man. And yet, somehow, out of all of this, we are apparently supposed to choose Jacob (=Israel) as the good guy, whereas Esau (=Edom) is deserving of our wrath. (That is certainly what the Hebrew prophets choose, as they direct a disproportionate measure of God’s wrath toward Edom.) Even this anecdote, which is supposed to be another brick in the pedestal elevating Israel as the superior nation, fails to do so and simply muddies the ethical water.
These kinds of stories are the kinds of tales that groups throughout the ages have told to prop up one group above another. These stories function to try to create firmer and firmer boundaries between the self and the Other. They try to erase the existing similarities, which muddy the boundaries between “in” and “out.”
In our current historical moment, in which we experiencing the blossoming of xenophobia and nationalism, it is worthwhile noting that, even in the sacred stories we create about “us”—who we are, where we came from, why things are the way they are—these stories are inextricably linked to the presence of “them.” As much as we try to define ourselves as a self-contained entity, the inherent interconnected nature of the very identities that we are constructing betrays our project. As many non-western folks throughout the ages have insisted (against the values held sacred by western individualism), we are inextricably bound together in a network of mutuality (to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr.). No matter how much we think that ”we” as a people are better than “them,” we can never lose sight of the fact that our very nature is intertwined with theirs.
Colin Cushman currently is the camp director at Camp Indianola in the Seattle area. He has previously worked as a pastor at local churches. He loves teaching the Bible and helping people to find meaning from even the most obscure parts of the Bible.