The Face of the Other: The Curious Nature of Biblical Narrative
A Jewish Theology of the Other: Humanitas Lecture 3
In February 2012, the Chief Rabbi was the Visiting Professor in Interfaith Studies at Oxford University. As part of this Humanitas Programme, the Chief Rabbi delivered a series of evening lectures on the subject of ‘Making Space: A Jewish Theology of the Other’.
Sarah, thank you so much. It did seem to help yesterday, beginning with a story. So, if you’ll permit me, may I tell another story this evening, about some of the hazards of the interfaith encounter? This is a story I’ve told before, but never mind, it’s true, and the old ones are the best. It happened in 1990 when George Carey had been chosen but not yet appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury, and I had been chosen but not yet taken office as Chief Rabbi, that somebody discovered that we had something profound in common. And that was our football team.
Both of us turned out to be, for our many sins, supporters of Arsenal. And somebody who discovered this came to both of us and asked whether we would like our first ecumenical gathering to be in his box in, as it was then, Highbury Stadium, to which I mean a midweek match for obvious ecclesiastical reasons. Both of us thought this was a wonderful idea, and we did indeed in November 1990 come together in this wonderful box at Highbury Stadium. It was an epiphany for both of us. We were taken down to meet the players. We were taken on to the sacred earth itself, the holy turf where we presented a cheque for charity and the loudspeakers around the ground announced that tonight the new Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Rabbi were there. And you could hear the buzz go around the grounds. You know, whichever way you played the theological wager that night, Arsenal had friends in high places. They couldn’t possibly lose.
That night, Arsenal went down to their worst home defeat in 63 years. They lost at home 6-2 to Manchester United. The next day, an English newspaper, I will not name it, had the following little note in its diary column. “If the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi, between them, cannot bring about a win for Arsenal, does this not finally prove that God does not exist?” The day after they printed my reply, which went as follows: “No, it actually proves that God exists. It’s just that he supports Manchester United.”
If you remember this story in an hour’s time, you will see it is not entirely unrelated to the theme of tonight’s lecture. So, Sarah has done a much better job of summarising the first two than I have, but just to say it again.
In the first lecture, I tried to show the logical structure of Genesis: 1-12, that moved from the universality of 1-9 to the particularity of Genesis 12 thereafter. And the bit between Genesis 10 and 11, the division of humanity into 70 languages, Genesis 10 and Genesis 11, the Tower of Babel. And I tried to show there as a result that the message of monotheism is that unity up there creates diversity down here. And that is God’s wish for the universe and not, as it were, our punishment.
In the second lecture, I tried to show not the logical structure, but the conceptual structure. I tried to show that what we are in the presence of, when we look at Western civilisation as a whole, is two different systems of thought.
Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winning economist, has done something slightly similar. I don’t know if you’ve read his recent book. I do recommend it, it’s got nothing to do with theology called, Thinking Fast and Slow. And he shows how the mind has these system one and system two, and they do different things. So, the distinction I made is somewhat different, but I argue that we have two systems of thought. One which works very well for things, and one which works very well for people.
And I said the Greeks were brilliant at the first and the Jews and Christians at the second. And they are two different systems of thought and they are interested in two different kinds of order. The Greek mind is very good at finding order in the natural world and the Hebraic mind at order in the human world. And there is a difference, conceptual difference, between the two kinds of order.
The order in the natural world is the order we observe. The order in the human world is the order we are called on to make. And that is why one calls for observation, but the other calls for engagement, and they are quite different.
So we’ve done the logical structure. [And during the] second lecture, we did the conceptual structure. Tonight I want to look at the narrative structure.
Biblical narrative is far more complex and subtle than we think. It is far more complex and subtle than biblical scholars think. The fact is that it really is very subtle. And beneath every narrative, especially in Genesis but also in Exodus, beneath every narrative, buried not far below the surface but still not visible from the surface is another narrative, usually radically different from the one on the surface. It is almost a counter narrative. Every narrative has another narrative buried beneath it, usually going in the opposite direction.
The Bible is a text designed to be read at multiple levels or listened to at multiple levels. And let’s begin with a very simple example, and that is the name of Moses, right? Very, very simple example.
Names are important in Genesis and this is at the beginning of Exodus. Names are important, they signal something. Sometimes names are changed. Somebody is given an added letter to their name or a slight change to their name. Sometimes somebody is given a new name and that is always consequential and significant.
So God, for instance, changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah. God gives, or via an angel, an extra name to Jacob. He is also called Israel, and names are normally given either by a parent or by God. The only example I can think of other than the case of Moses, where a human being who is not a parent, actually alters somebody’s name, and that is the case of Moses who when, just before he sends the spies, changed the name of his deputy, gives him an extra letter and turns it from Hosea to Joshua. So Hosea becomes Joshua . But there is no other case.
So, we have now, if you look at Exodus chapter two, a unique case where somebody who is not God, not a parent, they’re not a significant other, gives somebody a name. Moses’ name is given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter.
But the Bible says, if I’m not mistaken in Exodus, Chapter two, verse 10, “And she called him Moshe because – min hamayim mishitihu – “I have drawn him from the water.” She rescued him from the basket when he was floating down the Nile. And that is the only name Moses is known by.
Right, that is the story. And most of us read that story and carry on. He’s called Moses because [it means] “I drew him – mishitihu” is like Moshe and so on. And we record the fact and we move on.
However, if we were actually paying attention, we would notice that at this point the Bible is saying something deliberately wrong. There’s a mistake there. An Egyptian is giving Moses a name, so she should give Moses an Egyptian name. And indeed it is an Egyptian name.
So the Bible, by giving it a Hebrew etymology is clearly telling us something, which if we’re awake, we will recognise is actually a mistake.
This is incidentally not the only time the Bible does this. The Bible says that Noah was called Noah because “ze yenachamenu – This one will comfort us.” And, as Rashi points out, if that was the etymology of Noah, he should have been called Menachem, not Noah which has to do with rest and et cetera, et cetera.
So, that is a misleading etymology and the case of Moses is a misleading etymology because if an Egyptian gives somebody a name, they give them an Egyptian name. And the Bible has already told us that because when Joseph is made Viceroy of Egypt, he is given by Pharaoh an Egyptian name, Zaphnath-Paaneah, which any five-year-old Jewish child who knows a little bit of Bible recognises Zaphnath-Paaneah is not a Hebrew name, it’s an Egyptian name.
So if we are actually alert, we actually say, now, what does the name Moses actually mean?
The name ‘Mose’ or ‘Mes’ or ‘Mesu’ is an Egyptian word that means ‘child’.
And now the story gets terribly interesting because, according to many scholars at any rate, I know this is a fraught point historically and so on and so forth, but according to at least some scholars, the Pharaoh of the Exodus is Ramses II.
And indeed the Bible has mentioned the name Ramses, although it doesn’t attach it to the Pharaoh, but the Pharaoh makes the Hebrews build store cities and they are called Pitom v’Ramses. Pitom is the Hebraisation of Per Atum and Ramses. So the Bible mentions Pharaoh getting the Israelites to build a town called Ramses.
Now, if you listen carefully, Muses and Ramses are almost the same word, but they have one difference. Ramses has two extra letters, R-A, and what is Ra? The Egyptian Sun God. And we know all about Ra, we don’t need to have read any Egyptian literature, we know Ra from the Bible itself, because at a certain point Pharaoh says to the Egyptians, and this is a wonderful pun here. I mean, anyone… He says to Moses, “Don’t provoke me anymore – R’u ki ra neged p’naichem.“
And the translation of that is you are bent on evil because the Hebrew for evil is ra, but the Midrash and Rashi also point out that there’s a double entendre here because Ra is the name of the Egyptian Sun God. So, Pharaoh is warning the Egyptians don’t try and leave because the Sun God is against you. That’s number one. So, Ra as already been alluded to in the narrative itself.
Secondly, only understanding that the Sun God has a unique place in the Pantheon of Egyptian Gods allows us to make sense of the ninth plague.
If you go through the plagues, they begin with water turning to blood, then you get frogs, then you get lice, and they get more and more serious until plague nine, which is darkness for three days. A darkness that you can feel. In other words, the light of the sun is blotted out. Now in human terms, compared to the previous plagues, that’s a minor inconvenience. Somebody switched the lights off for three days. But clearly, as the Psalm says, God is doing just judgement not only against Egypt, but against the Egyptian Gods.
So, the ninth plague is a judgement against Egypt’s god. Now look at this confrontation. You have Ramses and you have Meses. And now look at how the narrative suddenly changes its character, because Ramses is the demi-God. That is, he is the child of the Sun God. The man who sees himself as God. I mean, that’s how Isaiah portrays him and so on and so forth. And what is against Ramses? Meses, just a child, a child of slaves. And all of a sudden, we see the human drama, or the theological drama, that is being portrayed here.
Shelley beautifully describes part of that drama because what is the Greek name for Ramses II? Ozymandias, so Shelley’s famous poem about this, what is it? “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
So, Shelley has caught one aspect of it. There’s this humiliation of the man who thinks he is the immortal, eternal demi-god, child of the Sun God, But there is also a clear other reading, another dimension. I mean, Shelley’s got it right here. Absolutely. That we are being inducted into one of the meanings of Genesis 127, that God makes every human being in his image, which means that every human child is holy, including a child of slaves. Every child is a child of God, not just the mightiest emperor of the mightiest empire the ancient world knew.
So, we begin to see this extraordinary drama between Ramses and Moses, between the one man who thinks I alone am the child of God, and Moses who represents a God who regards all human children as his children. That drama is just below the surface, but we have to uncover it. And the Bible gives us that one little hint, which if we’re awake, we notice how come it is giving a Hebrew etymology to an Egyptian word. So, the Bible is trying to give us that little hint that we have to go back and reread the narrative.
Did any of you ever read a story by Jorge Luis Borges. An analysis of the works of Herbert Quain,
It is a little short story about a man who writes a detective story, and the attentive reader realises that the detective who tells you who’s done it has got it wrong. And you then go back and reread the story and work out the correct solution? And that is exactly what the Bible is doing. You read it and you suddenly realise the Bible is telling you something wrong as a signal to you that you have to go back and read the narrative beneath the surface. So, that is what I mean by a story beneath the surface and so on and so forth.
Now, what I want to do now is go back to Genesis. Now, before we go back to Genesis, let us ask the fundamental question about violence. This is the Bible’s issue, it is our issue in the 21st century, religion leading to violence. And we have here three broad theories about the source of human violence. The first theory, the most famous, that of Sigmund Freud. That the key that unlocks the human condition is the Greek myth of Oedipus, which Freud interprets to mean, to put it bluntly, that every son wants secretly and unconsciously to murder his father. Not only does Freud take that as the key to human psychology as a whole, in his book Totem and Taboo, he argues that that is the origin of all religion. And in his book, Moses and Monotheism, he argues that that is actually what the Israelites did to Moses. They murdered him. And as you know, they then repressed the guilt and then comes the return of the repressed, and so on and so forth. I don’t think any of us can dismiss this Freudian analysis of the roots of human violence, because anyone who has read the works of Frans de Waal … Have any of you, on primate politics? I do recommend that, on the chimps and the gorillas bashing each other. Anyone who wants to understand religious politics, or party politics has to read Frans de Waal.
And he’s wonderful. It’s absolutely wonderful. There’s some wonderful stories in there about gorilla politics, about how the young males get together to attack the alpha male. And on some occasions actually kill the alpha male. So, Freud is onto something, that there is this sort of parricidal urge on the part of the next generation to displace the alpha male who monopolises access to females, and so on and so forth. So the Freudian analysis is not something you can dismiss out of court, but that is the first thing. That all human violence is a form of actual, or frustrated, or oppressed parricide.
However, number two, if you actually look at the Hebrew Bible and you look at the anthropological and archaeological evidence, you will see that what is more likely is exactly the other way round. Because, the real driver of human violence in the past was not parricide, but infanticide. And a great deal of the Bible is a polemic against child sacrifice, which if you’ve read any of the books on child sacrifice, you will find was actually very widespread in the ancient world.
There’s a Jewish book on this by Jon D Levenson, of the Harvard School of Divinity, called Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. The late Hyam Maccoby wrote a book about it. So in actual fact, more likely as an explanation of violence is not parricide, but infanticide, the desire of fathers to kill their sons. And of course the story of Oedipus begins with an attempted infanticide, because Laius actually leaves Oedipus nailed to a rock and leaves him to die.
However, if you read the Hebrew Bible and the book of Genesis in particular, you will see the Bible proposes a third alternative. The real driver of violence is not fathers and sons, or sons and fathers, it is sibling rivalry. Fratricide. That, according to the Bible is the origin of violence in the human situation. In recent times, the writer who has done most to develop this idea is in fact, René Girard, in his book Violence and the Sacred, his book The Scapegoat, and various other things hidden since the birth of the world in various other books.
That is the basic theme of Genesis, sibling rivalry. It is told four times. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. That is the Bible’s way of unpicking the urge to violence in the human situation. How am I going to read those narratives? I suggest we can read them at three levels.
Level one, let us read them as follows. That Genesis is telling us that sibling rivalry is a basic fact of human nature, that it illustrates this by four stories that are variations on the theme, and gives us a painful but necessary solution to it. In the first half of the book of Exodus, if you want brothers to stop killing one another, get them to suffer a collective fate. When the whole covenantal family becomes slaves in Egypt, then they are all cast in the same covenant of fate, and that is what bonds them as a nation.
And the result of that bonding is that by the time we get to the book of Leviticus, we get that key passage in Leviticus, chapter 19, verses 17 and 18, which begin, Lo tisnah et achicha bilvavecha“Do not hate your brother in your heart.” And end with the famous words, Ve’ahavta lereacha cemocha “Love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.” So Genesis states the problem, Exodus states the solution, and Leviticus states the lasting imperative. That is one way of reading the Bible’s solution to sibling rivalry. And that is what I call the static reading of those texts.
Let us now take a second reading, which I call the dynamic reading of those texts. And that is I said that Greeks tend to tell truth as system, Jews to tend to tell truth as story. What is the difference between a system and a story? A system does not exist in time. A system is timeless. But as a story, has to work itself out through time. The best way of understanding Genesis as a story that works its way through in time, is to look at those four stories and disregard everything except the final scene. What is the final scene in the Cain and Abel story? Abel is lying dead and Cain has been sentenced to be a restless wanderer over the face of the earth. So end of the final scene of Cain and Abel, Abel is dead.
The final scene is Isaac and Ishmael stand together at Abraham’s grave. What is the final scene in which we see Jacob and Esau? The brothers meet, embrace, kiss, and go their separate ways. What is the final scene in Joseph and his brothers? Reconciliation, forgiveness. “V’atem chashavtem alay ra’ah Elokim chashava l’tova – You planned evil against me, but God turned it into good”, and so on.
So we have actual fratricide, two brothers standing together at their father’s grave, meeting and embracing and going their separate ways, reconciliation. There’s a clear progression there, which is the lead to the denouement, which is Moses, Aaron, Miriam, leading together. Brothers and the sister able to operate together in mutual respect, with only a little hint of sibling rivalry in Numbers, chapter 12, which we won’t talk about. That’s a small episode.
So there is a dynamic story that tells us that sibling rivalry is not a permanent part of the human fate, it is something we can gradually transcend. That I call the dynamic reading. And now let us try the depth reading, which is what I’m really interested in. And that is this: As I said in my first lecture, the thing that most strikes us in the Bible is that humanity disappoints God. And the result of this is that first God exiles Adam and Eve from Eden. Then He exiles Cain from anywhere, very much a restless wanderer. And finally, in the Flood, He kind of exiles humanity from the face of the earth. And at each point, there is some sense of tragedy. Well, I said, Judaism, doesn’t recognise tragedy. There’s a sense of sadness. At any rate Cain says, “Gadol avoni minso – My guilt is more than I can bear.” And of course in the end, when the Flood happens, when everyone dies except Noah and his family, God Himself is unable to bear it and promises after the Flood, never again to destroy humankind. And as I say, God then does something very special.
He makes a covenant. But what is extraordinary, and what is fundamental to everything I’ve been saying is that in Genesis, God does not make one covenant. He makes two covenants. He makes a universal covenant with Noah in Genesis nine, and with Abraham in Genesis 15. And again, more specifically in 17, He makes a covenant with Abraham, a covenant which is not universal. It is particular. It is restricted to Abraham and his descendants.
I pointed out to you that the Bible, note marks, by using the word covenant seven times in Genesis nine, that this is the significant theme, just as goodness was significant theme of Genesis one. In Genesis nine, the word covenant appears seven times. In Genesis 17, covenant appears 13 times in Genesis 17. Another significant number in Judaism, 13 is a particular sign of special emphasis. So in Genesis 17, the word covenant appears 13 times.
Now, let me ask you a question. Why would God create two covenants? This is fundamental. You cannot understand Jewish theology without feeling the force of this question. Why would God make two covenants? One universal, one particular. One thing is clear. I argued yesterday that Judaism doesn’t recognise, in its particular field, what was fundamental to the Greek way of thinking, which is the law of contradiction. Either P or not P. Either Shakespeare did write Shakespeare, or he didn’t, but it can’t be both.
Whereas the world in which Judaism operates, there’s no law of contradiction. I can have a covenant with X and with Y, with Z, and that doesn’t contradict one another. I can have one particular covenant as a child of my parents, another as husband to my wife, yet another as parents of my children. And those are three different relationships, but they all hold and neither excludes the other. So the Bible itself makes this explicit, because the Bible itself says there are two covenants. One defines God’s relationship to humanity as a whole, and the second one defines God’s relationship to the Abrahamic family. So why? The simplest answer is that the Bible is telling us that universals are important and particulars are important. We need both.
Does that make sense? We need both the universals and the particulars. Let me recommend to you a book coming out on March the 29th by the University of Virginia psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. The one who wrote the happiness hypothesis. It’s an interesting book, it’s called The Righteous Mind. It’s one of these evolutionary psychology things. But he has an interesting thesis that liberals in the West make the mistake of thinking that the whole of morality can be reduced to two principles. Number one, avoidance of harm. You know, John Stuart Mill. The only thing that we are justified in forbidding is harm to others. And number two, the principle of fairness.
He recognises that actually there are five bases in morality. Number one, avoidance of harm. Number two, fairness. Number three, loyalty. Without loyalty, there can’t be any groups. Number four, respect for authority, because without respect for authority there can’t be any institutions. And number five, sanctity. Unless we hold certain things sacred, then we cannot protect certain elements of the moral life. Now, if you think about it, fairness and avoidance of harm are moral universals. So anyone who holds there’s one morality for everyone will restrict morality to those two principles.
Anyone who recognises moral particularity, as the late Steward Hampshire did in his book, Morality In Conflict, and Michael Waltzer did in Spheres Of Justice, and all the other moral philosophers who wrote about this stuff. Include a wider thing because the way different cultures work out, respect for authority, loyalty, and the sacred. Those are all particular. In other words, there is, in Clifford Gertz’s language, a thin morality and a thick morality. And the thin morality applies to everyone on the face of the earth, but the thick morality applies to moral particularity, which means the Japanese see morality one way and Chinese another way, and us in the West and other way,. So there is moral universality and there is moral particularity, and therefore human life is a feud between our commonalities and our differences. Or as I once put it did in the interfaith context, if we were completely different we couldn’t communicate. And if we were completely the same, we’d have nothing to say.
So that’s one way of seeing Noah and Abraham. Noah is the importance that binds us as human beings in the human situation. And Abraham stands for what makes each culture and each language different, distinct, and therefore its own unique contribution to the human enterprise.
However, let me suggest one other way of doing it. There are lots of other ways of doing it. But let me suggest the following distinction, which might help us.
And I owe this to an American jurisprudence scholar called Lon Fuller, in a book he wrote called The Morality of Law, in which distinguishes two kinds of morality. The morality of duty and the morality of aspiration. The morality of duty is what we’ve all got to do. The minimum standard, the kind of thing you enact as law. The morality of aspiration, those are ideals at which we aim. Role models of life at its highest. If we use that distinction, then we can say the covenant of Noah is the morality of duty. It’s as basic, according to the Rambam, as the covenant of Noah involves seven commandments. Read Genesis and you’ll see it includes things like don’t be cruel to animals, but above all, it says don’t murder, “He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God he created man.” Covenant with Noah is the morality of duty. The covenant with Abraham is the morality of aspiration. God doesn’t necessarily ask of every human being, “Be holy like Abraham.” But Abraham is a role model of life at its best. That’s what the Bible’s seeing, one way of seeing the difference.
Now, this coexistence of two moralities tells us that everyone is bound by the morality of duty, but not everyone is cut out for the morality of aspiration. And that raises the problem of all problems vis a vis Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, let us use the phrase, let us use this awful and fraught phrase, chosen. The trouble is, whereas the morality of duty applies to everyone, once you include the idea of a divine choice, then you have to confront the fact, let’s quote the New Testament this time, you have to confront the fact that as John 13:18 says, “Not all are chosen.” That is the point. What happens when you are not chosen? And that is the heart of sibling rivalry in Genesis. Isaac is chosen, Ishmael is not. Jacob is chosen, Esau is not. And that is the problem. This is the key theological problem that haunts us from Genesis to today.
I now want us to just notice a very, very simple narrative device. This is all I want you to do. You remember the story… Let’s just remind ourselves. Ishmael is born because Sarah can’t, as you rightly said, Sarah cannot conceive, so she has an Egyptian servant or slave called Hagar. She says to Abraham, “Maybe you’ll have a child through Hagar,” and then she gets very upset in Genesis 17 and she sends her away and God sends an angel to call her back. Then in Genesis 17, when God is making the covenant with Abraham, he tells him, “Abraham, you will have a child by Sarah, his name will be called Isaac, and he will be the bearer of the covenant.” Abraham has two responses to this. One, a sceptical response, “Are we going to have a child when were that old?” And number two, a quite different response, “Lu yishmael yichye lefanecha – Why can’t Ishmael live before you. I have a son.” God says, “Yes. You have a son. I’ll bless him and he’ll give rise to 12 princes and I’ll make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac.”
We then get the following drama in Genesis 21. In Genesis 21, Isaac is born. Sarah is overjoyed. “Kol hashomea Yitzchak li – Everyone will celebrate with me”, and she calls him Isaac or actually everyone calls him Isaac. Sarah calls him Isaac, Abraham calls him Isaac, and God calls him Isaac. It is overdetermined and so on and so forth. Now, please listen to this text.. I’m going to read to you part of Genesis 21, and I want you to envision the scene. Just see it in your mind’s eye and tell me what you feel. This is an open question. It’s not a rhetorical one. There it is.
“The child grew,” that’s Isaac, “and was weaned. And on the day Isaac was weaned, Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw the son whom Hagar, the Egyptian, had born to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, ‘Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’ The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said, ‘Now, listen to Sarah,’.Early the next morning, Abraham took some food and a skin of water and he gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy.
“She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushed. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away… She thought, ‘I cannot watch the boy die.’ And as she sat there, she began to sob. God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What’s the matter, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand for I will make him into a great nation.’ Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water, so she went and filled the skin with water and she gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up.”
Can you picture the scene? Now I just want to ask as an open question, with whom are your sympathies? With Sarah and Isaac or with Hagar and Ishmael? There is no way you can read this chapter without your sympathies being with Hagar and Ishmael. It cannot be read any other way. That is the extraordinary thing. You cannot read it any other way.
Now, I want to read you a second narrative. Remember the story, Jacob and Esau, this is much too complicated to go into detail, but as you know, the Bible says Isaac loved Esau, Rebecca loved Jacob, they were born twins. Isaac is getting old and is blind and he says to Esau, “Go and get me some venison such as I love and I’ll eat and I’ll bless you because I want to bless you before I die.” And Rebecca overhears this and says to Jacob, “You go and take the blessing,” and so on and so forth. “I’ll make the venison and you’ll give it,” and so on. Jacob says, “My brother Esau is a hairy man. I’m a smooth man. What happens if he feels me?” So she says, “Wear some of his rough clothes,”. Just to remind you of the story, this is not the key bit, but I just want you to hear this. Remember, we had a little conversation yesterday about whether the Greeks are a culture of sight and Judaism a culture of sound. We go through all the senses in this little story, except one which is sight, because Isaac is blind. Listen to this little episode.
Here is Jacob coming along with the venison. “He went to his father and he said, ‘My father.’ ‘Yes, my son,’ he answered. ‘Who is it?’ Jacob said to his father, ‘I am Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game so that you may give me your blessing.’ Isaac asked his son, ‘How did you find it so quickly, my son?’ ‘The Lord your God gave me success,’ he replied.
“Then Isaac said to Jacob, ‘Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.’ Jacob went close to his father Isaac who touched him and he said, ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, the hands the hands of Esau.’ He didn’t recognise him because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau, so he proceeded to bless him. ‘Are you really my son Esau,’ he asked. ‘I am,’ he replied. Then he said, ‘My son, bring me some of your game to eat so that I may give you my blessing.’ Jacob brought it to him and he ate. He brought some wine and he drank. Then his father Isaac said to him, ‘Come here, my son, and kiss me.’ So he went to him and kissed him, and Isaac caught the smell of his clothes. He blessed him and said, ‘The smell of my son is like of the field that God has blessed.’”
You can hear how he goes through taste, touch, smell and sound. Isaac disregards the sound and follows the other senses and gets it wrong. If he only got the sound, he would have said, “You’re Jacob. Forget about all this stuff about Esau.”
Okay. So far you’ve got the story. But now comes the scene, and again, I want you, as with Hagar, I want you to listen to this scene, see it in your mind’s eye and tell me what you think.
“After Isaac had finished blessing him and Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, ‘My father, please sit up and eat some of my game so that you my give me your blessings.’ Father Isaac asked him, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m your son,’ he answered, ‘Your firstborn, Esau.’ Isaac trembled violently and he said, ‘Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him. And indeed, he will be blessed.’ When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said, ‘Bless me, me too, my father.’ He said, ‘Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.’ Esau said, ‘Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he’s taken advantage. He took my birthright, now he’s taken my blessing.’ Then he asked, ‘Haven’t you got one blessing left for me?’ Isaac answered, ‘Esau, I made him lord over you, made him… all his relatives, his servants. I sustain him with grain and new wine, so what can I possibly do for you, my son?’ Esau said to his father, ‘Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father.’ And Esau wept aloud.”
Who are your sympathies with? Rebecca and Jacob? Or Isaac and Esau? You cannot hear that story and not sympathise with Isaac and Esau. There is no way. It is written so that you cannot read it any other way. I want you to understand how rare this is in terms of biblical style. Tell me, what did Abraham feel when God said to him, “Abraham, leave your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house and go to a land which I will show you.” What did Abraham feel? We have no idea. The Bible doesn’t mention any emotion whatsoever. What did Abraham feel, what did Isaac feel, when God said, “Abraham, take your son, your only son, the son you love, and offer him up to Me as a burnt offering”? We don’t know. There is no reference to emotion, not on Abraham’s part, not on Isaac’s part, not even a hint. You read it, it’s not there. Whereas these two scenes are overwhelmingly emotional. They are the first two scenes in the whole of Genesis, the only two scenes in the first half of Genesis, where anyone cries.
So the Bible is using a device of style that it conspicuously avoids at other times to show us this extremely fraught emotion which we cannot but identify with and empathise with. But the point of this is that we have a story that goes two different directions. Our mind is telling us one thing, and our emotions are telling us another thing. Our mind is telling us, “Yes, it had to be Isaac, not Ishmael, because he’s the guy who carried the covenant forward. Yes, it has to be Jacob, but not Esau.” We know why, Isaac is obedient and Ishmael is a wild ass of a man. Jacob is a man who lives in tents, and Esau is a hunter. We know that in terms of job description it’s got to be Isaac, it’s got to be Jacob. We know. Our mind says, “Yes.” But our emotions go in exactly the opposite way. We cannot but identify with Ishmael and with Esau, and the text is written to leave us no choice. So the narrative is forcing us in two different directions.
And what is more, God blesses them both. He blesses Ishmael. God promises, “Abraham, your son Ishmael will be a great nation and 12 princes will come from him.” The Bible then, in Genesis 25, lists the whole set of 12 princes. So just as Jacob is father of 12 tribes, so Ishmael is father of 12 tribes. But in the case of Esau, Esau too is given his own land, his own space, the land of Seir. God tells Moses, “You don’t dare to invade Seir because I’ve given it to Edom.” (That is the descendants of Esau.) And there is something extremely consequential in Genesis 36. Just before the story of Joseph begins, we have a genealogy of the children of Esau, “And these were the children of Esau who ruled, who reigned, before there was any king in Israel.” In other words, Esau’s blessings come true, but long before Jacob’s blessings ever do. So in a sense Ishmael has the same blessing as the other side of the valley, and Esau has the same blessing, but even sooner.
Secondly, we know from the fact that Isaac and Ishmael are standing together at Abraham’s grave, that there was a reconciliation between Isaac and Ishmael. I’m not going to go into Rabbinic Midrash which elaborates on this in great detail, but the Jewish tradition recognised that Ishmael became back into the fold, and the proof of this is that in the Mishnaic Age, one of the most famous Rabbis, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, he’s called Rabbi Ishmael. Ishmael is a significant figure in… He turns out at the end to be one of the good guys. There is no “Rabbi Esau.” However, there is a very significant phrase. In Deuteronomy 23:8, Moses says, “lo tetaev adomi ki achicha hu – Do not hate a descendant of Esau for he is your brother.”
Again, I just don’t have time to explicate this to you, but when it comes to Esau, things are much more complicated and profound. Of course, it all has to do with the wrestling match with Jacob and the angel, just before they meet again after 22 years of separation. You remember that Jacob wrestles and…. He’s given a the new name Israel, for you’ve wrestled with God and man, and overcome.
Don’t forget, with whom is he wrestling? “veyavek ish imo.” The Bible only calls him a man. However, Jacob says, it says, “Jacob calls the name of the place Peniel, the face of God – Ki raiti Elokim panim el panim v’tinatzel nafshi – I’ve seen God face to face and I survived.” The next day, he meets Esau and he says these words “ki raiti panecha ki rot penei Elokim vatirzeini – I have seen your face and it is like the face of God.” That is an extraordinary phrase. Nobody really does justice to the phrase. He says to his brother Esau, “I have seen your face and it is like the face of God.” In other words, Jacob learns to see the face of God in the face of the other. He has to wrestle to let go of his desire, his mimetic desire to be Esau, and he has to recognise that actually I’m just Jacob and I no longer need to desire that man’s gift and this man’s scope. Let Esau be Esau, let Jacob be Jacob, and I’ve seen you, Esau, like the face of God because I now see you are the face of the other. And that is what the Bible is telling us.
We now see, I hope, the following: We have seen two covenants, there’s the covenant of duty and a covenant of aspiration. The problem is that some are summoned to the morality of aspiration and some are not, i.e. the problem that some are chosen and some are not. That seems to be basis of all sibling rivalry. The Bible is telling us that when this happens, do not suppose that God only loves those he chooses for the morality of aspiration. He also loves the ones he doesn’t choose for that morality of aspiration because they are part of his covenant with humanity and because they are part of the covenant of the morality of duty, and God sets his image on everyone, not only the ones he chooses but the others as well. God is with Ishmael and not just with Isaac. God is with Esau and just with Jacob. And God explicitly commands the children of Jacob not to hate the children of Esau. That is to say that for anyone who believes that God is with us, we have to reckon with the fact that God is also with the other.
God doesn’t just support us. He also supports Manchester United. He’s not just on our side. He’s on the other side as well. That is the burden of Genesis 21, this whole story of the sending away of Ishmael and God comforting Hagar. That is the essence of the story of Jonah. Because the book of Jonah, God sends His Prophet to Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians. Jonah runs away. You want me to get you to forgive our enemies? Do me a favour! And God insists, “No, you go Jonah!” And God teaches Jonah a lesson. You were attached to this gourd that shades you from the heat, but I shouldn’t be attached to these 120,000 people who live in the city of Nineveh? And you would have thought these embarrassing texts would be texts that Jews tried not to pay too much attention to. And let me tell you categorically that Genesis 21, that text is the text we read on Rosh Hashanah, on our New Year; and the book of Jonah, we read at the culmination of the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur.
So Judaism takes these two angular messages, God chose us, but he also is with everyone. The Judaic tradition, took those and insisted on reciting them at the holiest day of the year. So let me end where I began, at this confrontation with Ramses and Moses. Ramses is the paradigm case of one who thinks I alone am the child of God, and Moses is a paradigm case of the truth that every child is a child of God. The Bible may be revolutionary on the surface, but dig one level down and it is more revolutionary, still. Its message is extraordinary. In this 21st century, as we witness a world in turmoil in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, this most ancient of messages, hidden just beneath the surface of the Bible was waiting to be discovered at this moment when we need it most. Let me summarise it once again. And with this, I end, God created humanity in His image to teach us that one who is not in my image whose colour, or creed or code is different from mine is, nonetheless, in God’s image. Meaning, that the religious challenge, from the dawn of humanity to today, is: Can we see the trace of God in the face of the other?