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B'resheet/Genesis 28:8 And Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan were evil in the eyes of Yitz'khak his father.
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Esau - the older twin brother of Ya'akov and therefore the first-born son of Yitz'khak and Rivkah - married some thirty or more years before his younger twin: "When Esau was forty years old, he took to wife Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite" (B'resheet 26:34, NJPS). For a marriage to take place in those days, it would have required the assent and, to some degree, co-operation of both sets of parents. A few generations later, when Samson sees a girl he wants to marry, he tells his parents, "I noticed one of the Philistine women in Timnah; please get her for me as a wife" (Judges 14:2, NJPS). Although his father and mother try to dissuade him from this, he insists, "get me that one, for she is the one that pleases me" (v. 3, NJPS, so "Samson and his father and mother went down to Timnah" (v. 5, NJPS) to go and made the arrangements, settle the bride price and so on. For a certainty, then, Yitz'khak and Rivkah were involved in Esau's wedding plans and arrangements. Nevertheless, the family was split over the affair: the local women "were a source of bitterness to Yitz'khak and Rivkah" (B'resheet 26:35, NJPS).
A good number of years have now passed, but the Torah tells us only the story of Ya'akov taking Esau's blessing, the blessing of the firstborn, at Rivkah's instigation and design. Esau plans revenge once their father has died - "Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Ya'akov" (27:41, NJPS) - but hearing of his intentions, Rivkah tells her favourite son to flee for a while to her brother in Haran. Sensing, perhaps, that Ya'akov isn't inclined to do that, she backs this up by telling Yitz'khak, "I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Ya'akov marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, what good will life be to me?" (v. 46, NJPS). Yitz'khak responds by summoning his younger son and telling him, "Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother's father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother's brother" (28:2, NJPS). Having now had it from both parents, Ya'akov obediently sets off to walk the 550 miles or so to Haran to look for a likely cousin to wed.
Shortly afterwards, Esau hears that Ya'akov has been sent away with his father's blessing and the specific instruction, "You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women" (v. 6, NJPS), and we arrive at out text. The verb - the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , "to see, look at, view, regard, observe" (Davidson), with a vav-conversive to signal a part narrative event, so "and he saw", here has the additional meaning of perception or understanding. The adjective used to describe the "daughters of Canaan" comes from the root , here and particularly when used with the phrase "in someone's eyes", means to be evil or worthless. The words 'Canaanite' or 'Hittite' are probably anachronistic for this time and should be read instead as anyone who is not within the clan group, who doesn't share the same history, language and values, who worships the local gods of the land, and who is 'other' connected, taking Esau away from his own family and beliefs.
We might say that "Esau finally appreciated" that his choice of wives had not been the best thing he could have done. TheSforno suggests that "[Esau] thought that this was because they opposed the will of his father", as if his wives were always encouraging him to disobey his father or to do the opposite what Yitz'khak wanted, hence the "source of bitterness" we touched on earlier. Like smoke that causes itching and soreness to the eyes, the values and behaviour of their son's wives constantly irritates Yitz'khak and Rivkah who see their son being drawn into relationships and activities that are not compatible with the calling of the One True G-d. Esau's wives are not under the discipline of covenant and have no understanding of or obligation to Torah. They are representatives of a pagan culture, offering the threats of syncretism and assimilation.
How could it be, after all that length of time, that Esau only truly understood the problem for the first time? Has he never heard the story of Avraham's servant journeying to Haran to bring his mother as a bride for his father? Whilst James McKeown would have us believe that "it seems that, for the first time, [Esau] realises that his father disapproves of Canaanite women",1 theRadak says that "he must have already realised this when he married them, for his father certainly complained about it. But Yitz'kak did not make a big point of it, since he knew that Esau was not the special son." Yitz'khak didn't put his foot down and refuse to let the marriages happen - as he certainly could have done - because he somehow knew that it wouldn't be Esau that would carry the covenant and the promise of HaShem into the following generations.
Acting on his new-found understanding, Esau takes a third wife from the family of Ishmael to try to please his father after all. Nahum Sarna explains, "realising that his marriages outside the kinship group and his alliances with the native women have contributed to his loss of the blessing, Esau now tries to repair the situation." Trying to put aside his feelings towards Ya'akov, Terence Fretheim adds, "Esau focuses on his father's concern about wives for his sons and Ya'akov's obedient response to both parents."2 Somehow not realising that taking a third wife - however well connected - will not undo the angst caused by the first two and "despite his desires to belong to and to please his father," Bruce Waltke concludes that "[Esau] lacks that spiritual perspicacity that will connect him with his family. Unbelievably, only now does he recognise that marrying Canaanite wives is not appropriate in his family."3
Walter Brueggemann points out the inherent tension between isolation and assimilation in the Avraham family. Yitz'khak and Rivkah expect their sons to marry within the kinship group, if not from among their fairly close relations. This preserves community identity and values - language, religion, custom, history - while preventing outwards assimilation and loss of identity by simply merging into the surrounding peoples. He writes of "disciplined intentional identity in the face of pagan or disbelieving cultures"4 and illustrates it by showing how the leaders of the return after the Babylonian exile had to struggle against the same assimilationist challenge: "In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but only the language of each people" (Nehemiah 13:23-24, ESV). Brueggemann continues, "it is predictably an important issue wherever a zealous minority community of faith must maintain itself against an attractive dominant cultural alternative."5
At the same time, however, as followers of Yeshua, we are called to witness to those round us, to be ambassadors for the kingdom of G-d. This can only happen as we interact with and live among other people - it is what Yeshua meant when He told His disciples, "Go therefore and make disciples ..." (Matthew 28:19). His original words would certainly have started with the imperative - from the root , to walk or go - from which the Jewish tradition derives the noun , halachah, the way of walking, and which is frequently used to talk about lifestyle and way we conduct ourselves in public as a witness to HaShem. Matthew's Greek text uses the verb , which while it can certainly mean "to go, proceed, travel" is also used in the Apostolic Writings for "to conduct oneself, live, walk", as a parallel to : "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of G-d" (Colossians 1:10, ESV), for example describing Zecharias and Elizabeth, who were "both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord" (Luke 1:6, ESV).
Holding the balance between Yeshua's "in the world" (John 17:11) but not "of the world" (v. 16) - thus requiring a level of mutual discipline and adherence to the truth of Scripture, calling out syncretism and accommodation with the ways and standards of the world - and His assertion that "by their fruits" (Matthew 7:20) and "by your love for one another" (John 13:35) will you be known, is a challenge for us all in these days. How will people see our fruit and recognise our love if we are too isolated in order to avoid assimilation? We don't want to alienate people, but a half-truth softened to avoid offending them isn't what they need to hear. The time has come, like Esau, to realise that our actions and choices are not always pleasing in the eyes of our Father - that we have gone too far in one direction or the other. We need to repent of those things that are wrong and seek ways to please our Father, calling on the Spirit to guide us into His ways of truth and righteousness.
1. - James McKeown, Genesis, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), page 138.
2. - Terence Fretheim, "Genesis" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 185.
3. - Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 383.
4. - Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), page 239.
Further Study: 1 Corinthians 7:14-16; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18
Application: Are you too isolated from the world to bear an effective witness or too assimilated to have a witness at all? We need to find the middle ground where we remain "pure and undefiled" (James 1:27), yet live close enough to be a good neighbour and to be seen by the world. Ask the Chief Cartographer to draw you a map of where He wants your life to go.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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