I have been studying the concept of honor and shame in the ancient near east and it has quite literally transformed how I see everything in the scriptures, but I think this week was the first time it actually made me laugh.
As I have been learning through this year’s Torah and Haftarah cycles with Rooted-in-Torah.com and WisdominTorah.com, the ancient near east had (and still has in some cultures) what is referred to as a “zero-sum” economy in terms of honor and shame – there is only so much honor to go around within a peer group. If I want to get more honor, I have to get it at the expense of everyone else. Now that doesn’t mean I have to get it dishonestly; it just means that if I do something epic and my honor increases, then yours decreases if we are in the same group. This is why “Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands” was such a big deal to Saul because David was being seen as having more honor than the King.
So anyway, here we have Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac. They constitute a peer group, with Esau having a higher level of honor than Isaac due to his first born status. In addition, Esau is what we would call a “man’s man” in that he is a hunter, very manly in appearance, and his father’s favorite. He was also a ladies man, having a couple of wives while Jacob still had none. Jacob systematically, through uncharitableness (is that a word?) and deception, steals the honor which was Esau’s by birth (his ascribed honor as first born). First, Jacob fails to feed his hungry brother as we are commanded to do (even according to the near eastern hospitality laws of the time), and next through deceiving his blind father (Lev 19:14). Now, all the reasons and all the failings of the other people involved aren’t an issue here because we are going to look at this from Esau’s point of view.
So this week we studied Vayishlach, which covers Gen 32-36. And here we find Jacob on his way back into the land, decades later. Jacob sends a messenger to let Esau know that he is coming and the messenger returns with word that Esau is coming with 400 men. Is he coming to fight? Oh yeah, I believe he was.
From Esau’s vantage, this meeting was a long time in coming. He is no longer living with his mother and father, possibly because he was so disgraced at that point that he just up and left – having lost face with the community three times. First when he sold his birthright, the second when Jacob stole the blessing, and the third when he realized that he was not honored in the eyes of his parents on account of his wives. So I think he went to where he was going to be honored.
So he hears now that Jacob is coming, and I don’t think the priority of the 400 men was to be an army, I think they were primarily witnesses to see Esau kick his brother’s butt to the curb and help only if required. Esau has been waiting for decades to get his peer-group honor back and this is his chance. He can crush his little brother like a bug (and if you don’t think that he looked on his twin as his younger brother, then you probably don’t have front line experience with fraternal twin boys because this is something I hear every day).
So what happens? He and his buddies are coming towards Jacob’s camp and first they see 220 goats, 220 sheep, 30 mamma camels with 30 babies, 50 head of cattle, and 20 mamma donkeys with ten babies. These are presented as a gift for “Esau my master.” I saw a very conservative estimate in a paper this morning that put the value at about $97,000. This was a tribute worthy of Solomon. Additionally, here come the wives, and all the children, and last of all Jacob. What does Jacob do? He bows down 7 times, signifying Esau as his king in near eastern tradition. And then his wives and children bow before Esau as well. To top it all off, Jacob tells Esau that the sight of his face was like seeing the face of God.
In front of 400 witnesses.
Do I think that Esau was glad to see Jacob? Oh yeah I do. Do I think that he was thrilled to be treated with such honor, given such kingly gifts? Absolutely. Do I believe that all of Esau’s honor was restored in his own eyes as he accepted his brother’s fealty, and as he got to say in front of witnesses that he was so great that he had no need of Jacob’s gifts? You betcha.
I also think that Esau’s invitation to Jacob, to come and live as his vassal was absolutely genuine,and that he was thinking that his father’s prophecy about breaking off the yoke of his brother was coming to pass; his brother was going to serve him and acknowledge him as king for the rest of his life.
I also believe that all that honor vanished into thin air when Jacob promised to follow him and then did not. Esau waited, and Jacob never came, and he realized that once again, he had been made a fool of by his brother – bought off and manipulated, that he had missed his opportunity to give Jacob the smack down he had been dreaming of for many years. And even worse — it had all played out in front of 400 witnesses.
Now why did I laugh? It really isn’t very funny because this is about real people, but it played out in my mind like a movie and the situation was just so dysfunctional that I couldn’t help myself.
I realize that this take on it is very much a departure from how many folks teach this, and I am certainly not saying that this is right and everyone else is wrong — it’s just another way of looking at it, another possibility in terms of honor and shame in the ancient near east. We all have part of the picture. The Bible is a book about real people who lived real three-dimensional lives and there is more to the situations than we see in black and white.