Jacob Gazed into the Distant Future

Most Jews today know Jacob and Esau as the twin sons of our ancestors Isaac and Rebecca, embroiled long ago in a nasty family drama that peaked in the gentle Jacob's somehow acceptable theft of his rough-hewn, hairy-handed brother's birthright, and culminated in the two brothers' awkward reconciliation on the far side of the Jabbok River. They know, too, that Jacob went on to become Israel, the eponymous forefather of God's chosen people, and, if they were paying attention in Hebrew school or Intro to Bible, that Esau became the ancestor of Israel's cruel neighbor, Edom. Most people don't know, however, that the rivalry between the two brothers persisted in the conflict between—initially—the real Israel and the real Edom, and—subsequently, and more importantly—between the real Israel and the supposed heirs of Edom: Rome and Christianity. In Jacob & Esau: Jewish European History Between Nation and Empire, Malachi Haim Hacohen provides a dense but lucid account of how the history of this typology of sibling rivalry unfolded, first in the later books of the Bible and then, following the invention of a linkage between Edom and the Roman Empire, in rabbinic literature, and, finally, in later Jewish and Christian writings, down to modern times. But Hacohen's book is not just the history of a literary trope; he also wants to "tell a European story that highlights traditional Jews," who understood the events of their own times in terms of it, and to do so in a way that will be of use to present-day and future Jews.

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