Esau’s Lost “Death-right”

Today’s Western Christian culture has a habit of using Bible stories to justify rules and traditions humans have created. This is ironic, as Scripture describes how God Himself habitually violates societies’ expectations in the advancement of His Kingdom. One tradition He frequently ignores (especially in the Old Testament), is our law of primogeniture (the idea that the firstborn inherits all or most of his father’s estate). God has a habit of exalting and favoring younger brothers (whether or not we think they deserved such special treatment!).

The Cenotaph of Jacob at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

In Genesis 25, twin brothers Esau and Jacob are born to Rebekah. Esau enters the world first, but under the prophecy that “the older shall serve the younger” (v. 23). What follows are stories of how Esau sells his inheritance to Jacob for a bowl of lentils (v. 29-34) and then misses his father’s deathbed blessing when Jacob and his mother conspire to steal it (Gen. 27).

We can’t help but feel sorry for the twice-duped Esau, the firstborn who was the favorite of his father, Isaac. He wasn’t perfectly innocent–he had married two Canaanite wives (which would have mortified his dead grandfather, Abraham)–but the way he is outwitted by his mother and “weaker” brother feels unfair, mostly because it is easy to miss that he and Isaac had conspired to do the exact same thing to Jacob.

In the Old Testament, fathers on their deathbeds called all of their sons to their sides for blessings, but Isaac only called Esau (27:1-4). Isaac seems to be playing favorites, attempting to circumvent the prophecy, and cutting Jacob out of any blessing. Esau goes along with Isaac’s plan enthusiastically! It is only because Rebekah overheard Isaac’s plan (27:5) and outwitted him that Esau was left with nothing.

A deep exegetical study of these stories reveals that not one of these four family members is perfect or heroic, and no one escapes the negative effects of his or her actions. It also shows how God–once again–overturned human convention to exalt Jacob no matter where he came from or when he was born. The stories aren’t in Genesis to exemplify justice but to explain why the prophecy of 25:23 was necessary.

Esau did okay for himself. He married a third woman (a daughter of Ishmael of whom Abraham would have approved), and he made peace with Jacob (Gen. 33). He became the father of the Edomites (Gen 36), a sometimes-friend sometimes-foe of Israel. Then he disappeared from Scripture–but not tradition.

The cenotaph honoring either Joseph or Esau.

According to Jewish tradition, Esau’s frustration with Jacob did not end in Genesis 33. In a midrash (which is ancient, revered Jewish rabbis’ commentary about Scripture), Esau challenged the sale of his birthright as Jacob’s body was being interred in the Cave of Machpelah with his parents’. Read the story in Sotah 13a:7-10:

Once [Jacob's sons] reached the Cave of Machpelah, Esau came and was preventing them from burying Jacob there. He said to them, "It says: 'And Jacob came unto Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiryat Arba, the same is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac sojourned.'" . . . Esau said, "Jacob buried Leah in his spot, and the spot that is remaining is mine."
     The children of Jacob said to Esau, "You sold your rights to Jacob."
     Esau said to them, "Though I sold the birthright, did I also sell my rights to the burial site as an ordinary brother?" 
     The brothers said to him, "Yes, you also sold to Jacob those rights, as it is written that Joseph stated: 'My father made me swear, saying: "Behold, I die; in my grave that I have dug for me in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.”'"
     Esau said to them, "Bring the bill of sale to me" [i.e., you can’t prove your claims]. 
     They said to him, "The bill of sale is in the land of Egypt, and who will go to bring it? Naphtali will go, for he is as fast as a doe, as it is written: 'Naphtali is a doe let loose, he gives goodly words.'”
     Hushim, the son of Dan, was there and his ears were heavy [i.e., he was hard of hearing]. He said to them, "What is this that is delaying the burial?"
     And they said to him, "This one, Esau, is preventing us from burying Jacob until Naphtali comes back from the land of Egypt with the bill of sale."
     He said to them, "And until Naphtali comes back from the land of Egypt will our father’s father lie in degradation?" He took a club and hit Esau on the head, and Esau’s eyes fell out, and they fell on the legs of Jacob. 
     Jacob opened his eyes and smiled. And this is that which is written: “The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.”

This gruesome story (and subsequent slightly different versions of it) began the legend that Esau’s head–and only his head–rests in the Cave of Machpelah with his brother and ancestors. It is honored with a cenotaph on the synagogue-side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

However, the very Muslims who constructed that cenotaph in the late 14th century disagree about who it memorializes. Islamic traditions hold that Joseph’s body was removed from Shechem and reburied in Hebron’s Cave of Machpelah.

Learn more about the Tomb of the Patriarchs by listening to S2E9 of my podcast!

Leveling Temples and Tels in Gaza

In 2004, five volunteers from the Ashkelon dig rented a car to go tour some archaeological sites in the Negev. We were barely outside Ashkelon’s city limits when we made a wrong turn and found ourselves approaching a heavily militarized crossing between Israel and the Palestinian territory called the Gaza Strip. Needless to say, we turned around and got out of the area as quickly as possible.

Today Gaza is frequently in our news feeds because of its clashes with the modern state of Israel, but it also appears in the Bible several times. It was a Canaanite stronghold before it became one of the Philistines’ five capital cities, but it is probably most famous as the site of Samson’s demise.

During the Late Bronze Age, Israel had been under Philistine oppression for a generation when their newest judge, Samson, arose. He was supposed to be a Nazirite, meaning he should never drink wine, cut his hair, or touch anything unclean (such as foreign women and dead things). But Samson married a Philistine, abandoned her, got mad when she remarried, and then killed 1,000 Philistines with nothing but a dead donkey’s jawbone (Judges 14-15).

At some point and for some unknown reason, Samson was in Gaza one day and decided to visit a brothel. The Philistine men plotted to murder him, but Samson slipped out of the brothel at midnight, picked up their city gate, and moved it from the edge of the city where it had been of use to the very center of the city. The Philistines knew he was a tough guy, but now they had witnessed his superhuman strength (Judges 16:1-3).

One last time, Samson “touched” a foreign woman. This time it was Delilah from the Valley of Sorek (the border between Israel’s tribe of Dan and Philistia). Philistines bribed her to find out the source of Samson’s strength–which was his uncut hair that resulted from his Nazirite vows–so they could capture him, torture him, and take him down to Gaza. The Philistines celebrated his capture at the temple of their god, Dagon, where Samson then killed them all (Judges 16:6-30).

No tumbled columns, collapsed Bronze-Age temples, or ill-placed gates have been found in Gaza yet. There are no well-funded, university-led archaeological expeditions to the area, as you will find in the other 4 cities of the ancient Philistine Pentapolis. Any artifacts that have been uncovered (too often by bulldozers) find their way onto the black market or are stored by history-loving Gazans who hope for a day when they can be properly studied and displayed. Archaeologists can’t even get the excavating tools they need through Israeli security and into Gaza for fear that militants would turn them into weapons.

The lack of archaeological excavation in Gaza is a result of complex and emotionally-charged political conflicts that have persisted for centuries. In brief, the 1994 Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority, which was intended to govern both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as one Palestinian nation. But the territories are physically separated by Israeli land, and the PA did not exercise its political power or serve its citizens in remote Gaza as it did in the West Bank where it is headquartered. A power vacuum developed in Gaza, where over 1.8 million people live in an area that is only 130 square miles. (That’s like taking the entire population of Phoenix and cramming everyone into one-quarter of the city limits.) As Gazans struggled with failing or absent infrastructure that the PA was not addressing, Hamas seized political power by doing the civic projects the PA had ignored. In 2007, Hamas was officially elected to power in the Gaza Strip. Today there is concern that they might win wider elections in the West Bank and gain control of the entire PA.

In addition to being cramped and poverty-ridden, the Gaza Strip is physically and militarily blocked off from the rest of the world. Situated only 13 kilometers south of Ashkelon, Hamas’s rockets can (and frequently do) hit the Israeli city, but Gaza’s citizens cannot so easily go to Ashkelon themselves to shop, work, vacation, or worship.

Today Gaza is rich in archaeological artifacts but poor in livable space, so the city leaders and developers continue to level tels in favor of new construction. Preserving and improving the lives of the living takes precedence (as it should), but valuable information and historical context about the Canaanites, Philistines, Israelites, and later inhabitants are being permanently lost so long as Gaza is isolated.

Where “Indiana Jones” Gets Archaeology Wrong

When you imagine an archaeological site, do you see white tents, pith helmets, and sand dunes? Is the dig director a middle-aged man with a thick British accent, bossing around his local workers and charging into newly opened tombs with abandon? That image isn’t too far from the truth of the late-19th- and early-20th-century excavations that sought to find ancient, beautiful objects for national museums and personal collections.

Those first archaeologists were romanticized by writers and inspired some great film characters (Boris Karloff’s The Mummy and Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones leap to mind). They popularized the field, inspired Halloween costumes, and had children like me answering “archaeologist” when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Unfortunately, the linen-clad men and women were mere treasure hunters. Their methods of extraction disconnected their finds from the historical calendar and left spectators to marvel at the items instead of understand who had created them and why.

Archaeology means “the study of ancient history.” It is a branch of anthropology that attempts to reconstruct the lives of ancient people based on what they left behind. The further one goes back in time, the fewer written records remain, so archaeologists study mundane objects and architectural ruins to discover who people were, how they lived, and why they died.

Archaeology has become increasingly scientific in the last century. In the 1930s, William F. Albright invented the first method of dating ancient sites based on the shapes and colors of the ceramics excavated. He found that cities throughout a region could be connected to one another in time based on their styles of pottery. Today archaeologists still do their primary dating based on the pottery, but they can learn even more about artifacts with technological tools such as radiocarbon dating, DNA testing, GPS location, and microbiology.

Within the field of archaeology is biblical archaeology, which was also “created” by William F. Albright. It exists to contextualize Scripture—to come alongside God’s Word and help us better understand it.

Read this description of the water-basin stands that Hiram created for Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 7:27-30:

And he made ten bases of brass; four cubits was the length of one base, and four cubits the breadth thereof, and three cubits the height of it. And the work of the bases was on this manner: they had borders, and the borders were between the ledges: And on the borders that were between the ledges were lions, oxen, and cherubims: and upon the ledges there was a base above: and beneath the lions and oxen were certain additions made of thin work. And every base had four brasen wheels, and plates of brass: and the four corners thereof had undersetters: under the laver were undersetters molten, at the side of every addition (KJV).

Based on those words, artists and theologians and Sunday School children would draw wildly different versions of the stands because that description is unintelligible unless the object has been seen in real life. But in the 1980s, such a stand was found in Ekron. Informed by that discovery, read how a more recent Bible translation describes the stands:

Each water stand was 6 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 4½ feet high. The stands had side panels and panels between the crossbars. On the panels between the crossbars there were lions, oxen, and winged creatures. There was a pedestal over the crossbars that would support the basin, and there were garlands of ornaments below the lions and oxen. There were 4 bronze wheels and 4 bronze axles for each stand. The 4 legs of each stand also had 4 bases. There were bases with garlands on all sides below the basin (The Voice).

What Trude Dothan and her team found at Ekron helps us to envision what Scripture is describing. Her find may not be exciting, but it helps us to imagine ourselves worshiping at Solomon’s Temple among God’s other followers.

Neither Albright nor Dothan were adventure-seeking, artifact-stealing rogues wearing leather jackets and escaping rivals (or authorities) on motorcycle. They didn’t find the ark of the covenant, but they and their successors have helped Bible readers understand God’s Word just a bit better.

Originally published on the Harvest House Publishers Blog.