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The epic rivalry between Jacob and Esau, the twins born to Isaac and Rebekah, is vividly conjured in this week’s parashah. While Jacob was a simple man, content to stay inside, Esau was a hunter, a man of the outdoors. Whereas Jacob was smooth, the ruddy Esau was covered in hair. Most poignantly, the brothers were separated by their parents’ affections. With smarting candor, the parashah informs us that Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for meat, craving the game that his firstborn hunted. Rebekah–perhaps compelled to balance the scales of affection–favored the younger Jacob.
Taking a cue from Isaac’s preferences, the brothers’ rivalry unfolded around the appetites and cravings surrounding the basic human need for sustenance. In jockeying for familial power, the brothers used food as the weapon for shifting, manipulating and securing that power. And it was food–and in whose hands it was most deftly controlled–that determined their fates.
We first encounter the grown brothers as Jacob stirs a pot of lentil stew. Returning from the hunting fields, a famished Esau insists that he is “at the point of death” and begs some food from his brother. Jacob obliges, but not before extracting a vow from Esau to sell his birthright in exchange. The deal done, “Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he rose and went away” (25:29-34).
The Biblical Food Economy
While Esau walks away from this unsavory exchange, it is hard for us to do so. One cannot help but feel unsettled by Jacob’s mercenary cunning, by the ease with which he exploits his brother’s hunger. And, one cannot help but be struck by this episode’s placement in the parashah’s narrative sequence, following immediately after we learn of Isaac’s preference for Esau. The unspoken transition seems to imply that from under the shadow of his father’s disfavor, Jacob has learned the potency of food in the human economy. While Isaac may use it to traffic in love, Jacob wields it to buy prestige. Having learned this lesson, Jacob is well poised to execute his coup de grâce, to leverage his father’s appetite into a fulfillment of the purchased birthright.
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