ESAU (Heb. עֵשָׂו; meaning uncertain; see below), the firstborn son of *Isaac and *Rebekah, the twin brother of *Jacob (Gen. 25:24–26). Esau is also called Edom (25:30) and is the ancestor of the Edomites (Gen. 36; Mal. 1:2–3; see *Edom). The Bible does not describe Esau at great length; but he is featured as a hairy man, "a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors," and the favored son of Isaac, in sharp contrast to Jacob, a mild man, "smooth-skinned," and the favored son of Rebekah (Gen. 25:25, 27–28; 27:11). According to the biblical narrative, while Rebekah was pregnant with the twins, "the children struggled in her womb" and in her anxiety Rebekah "went to inquire of the Lord." The oracle she received in reply describes, in fact, not so much the relationship between Jacob and Esau as that between the Israelites and the Edomites: each of the boys would become the progenitor of a nation, and "One people [would] be mightier than the other, and the older would serve the younger." In a sense, the prophecy began to be fulfilled in the lifetime of the two ancestors, through two episodes in which Jacob gains the upper hand. First a starving Esau took an oath whereby he agreed to relinquish his birthright to his brother in exchange for a meal (25:29–34). The oath, it should be noted, was as binding as a written document. The narrative at this point contrasts with pentateuchal law, which guarantees certain privileges to the firstborn (Deut. 21:15–17), and reflects an earlier state of affairs in which the transfer of the birthright was possible. The socio-legal situation behind this incident is clarified in the finds of *Nuzi (see *Patriarchs). The second event which gives the struggle between the two brothers special significance is the loss by Esau of the patriarchal blessing (Gen. 27). Jacob, following the advice of his mother, disguised himself as Esau and received the blessing promised by Isaac to his brother. When Esau discovered the deception and implored his father for a blessing, he was told, "See, your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above. Yet by your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restive, you shall break his yoke from your neck." This "blessing" contains echoes of the oracle which Rebekah had received, the supremacy of the younger brother over the firstborn being emphasized in both cases. However, at the end of Isaac's blessing there is a hint of Edom's recovery of her independence in the days of Solomon (I Kings 11:21–22, 25) and Jehoram (II Kings 8:20–22). Incensed by Jacob's deception, Esau intended to kill Jacob once Isaac was dead (Gen. 27:41). When Rebekah became aware of this, she advised Jacob to flee to her brother *Laban in *Haran, where he stayed for 20 years. Meanwhile Esau, having taken two wives from among the indigenous peoples of Canaan and a third from among the daughters of his uncle, Ishmael (regarding their names, and the parentages of the Canaanite ones, there are two different traditions: Gen. 26:34; 28:9; and Gen. 36:2), and having begotten children, migrated with all his household and his belongings "to another land because of his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too many and the land where they sojourned could not support them because of their livestock" (Gen. 36:6–7). Esau settled in the land of Seir, alongside the descendants of Seir the Horite, who were already living there (36:20). When Jacob, on his way home from Haran, had advanced into *Gilead as far south as *Penuel, he decided to try to appease his brother by sending messengers with greetings. Esau set out to meet him with a band of 400 stalwarts; and when his messengers returned and made this known to Jacob, he was frightened and sent ahead some herds of livestock as gifts (32:4–22; 33:1–2). As it turned out, however, Jacob's fears proved to be unfounded; for Esau came with 400 of his men to welcome his brother just south of the *Jabbok, greeted him with every sign of affection, and refused to accept the gifts. He wished to escort Jacob and his company southward through Transjordan to his home in Seir where he would no doubt act the older, if not unkind, brother; but Jacob persuaded him to go ahead, and then proceeded westward to the land of Canaan (33:4–16). In this incident as in the sale of the birthright Esau is a good but simple fellow, easily manipulated by his wily brother.
Three popular etymologies are connected with Esau. In the description given of him at his birth – "red, like a hairy mantle all over" (Gen. 25:25) – at most only the second part can have anything to do with the name Esau (Heb. Esav, ʿEsaw), which may be related to the Arabic root ġšw, "to cover." The redness, in contrast, can only explain his other name, Edom (Heb. 'Edom), connected with the word ʾ adom ("red"). In verse 30, the same name is explained by his impatient plea, when he came home hungry, for some of the "red stuff" (i.e., lentils) that Jacob was cooking. The red down ("hairy mantle," Heb. ʾ adderet se ʿ ar) with which he is said to have been covered at birth may originally have served to explain the name Seir (Heb. se ʿ ir).
C.H. Gordon, in: BA, 3 (1940), 5; R. de Vaux, in: RB, 56 (1949), 22ff.; E.A. Speiser, in: JBL, 74 (1955), 252–56; idem, in: IEJ, 17 (1957), 212–13; idem, Genesis (1964), 193–213, 258–61; V. Maag in: Theologische Zeitschrift, 13 (1957), 418–29; H.L. Ginsberg, in: JBL, 80 (1961), 342; N.M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (1966), 181–88; Y. Heinemann, Darkhei ha-Aggadah (19542), index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: N. Sarna, Genesis (JPS; 1989), 177–82.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.