Toledot is “the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.” (Gen. 25:19) — yet it turns out to be the story of Esau and Jacob, even Rebekah, moving the story forward, while Isaac, old and blind, sits helplessly in his tent.
After taking Rebekah to wife following the death of his mother, Isaac pleads with the Lord on her behalf “because she was barren.” When she conceives, the children struggle in her womb. G-d tells her two separate peoples will issue from her body, one mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.
In Toledot, much of what we learn about Esau, the older of the twins born to Rebekah, is through contrast with his younger twin, Jacob.
Esau emerges “red, like a hairy mantle all over.” Here, red may refer to his ruddy complexion. In any case, “red” is a constant theme of the story. The detail about the “hairy mantle” presages the remainder of the story and Jacob’s trickery. It suggests something else as well, though.
We remember that Gen. 3:1 describes the serpent as the most arum of all the wild beasts the Lord G-d had made. In this context, with reference to the serpent, the Hebrew arum translates to “shrewd.” The same word, arum, translates to “naked” with reference to Adam and Eve’s awareness after they eat from the tree. In other biblical contexts, arum generally translates “prudent.”
A Hebrew speaker hearing arum would associate all these meanings and nuances: shrewd, cunning, naked, prudent — and would sense, even recognize, the parallel between serpent and human, elevating the snake to be more like the human, characteristically “naked,” without fur or a “hairy mantle.” Through this description, Esau, not “naked” even as an infant but rather born with a “hairy mantle,” is more like the beasts of the field whom he hunts as an adult.
This verbal parallel between Esau and the animals he hunts reminds us of a biblical subtext, that humans are animals and but for the grace of G-d may, like their fellow creatures, become prey (Num. 14:3). In his hairiness, his consequent closer similarity to the beasts of the field and his preference for the outdoors, Esau contrasts with his younger twin, Jacob, a “mild man who stayed in camp,” favored by his mother, Rebekah.
Dr. Nahum Sarna points out in the JTS Torah Commentary to Bereishit/Genesis that hunting was frowned upon in Israel, and “no Israelite or Judean king or hero is ever mentioned as indulging in the sport.” Nonetheless, since certain biblical passages describe how to prepare for food an animal caught in the hunt and include some wild animals in the list of animals that can be eaten, clearly there was some hunting due to economic necessity.
The fact that Esau was a hunter, though, sets him apart from normative Israelite society, as does the fact that he chooses his own wives from among the Hittite women rather than allow his parents to arrange a marriage for him as was the custom. When he overhears his parents talking of their dissatisfaction with his wives, he once again chooses wives, this time from the Ishmaelites.
Again, the details of the story highlight Esau’s character in contrast with Jacob’s: his closer kinship to the creatures he hunts accord with his independence from civilization, from the community of Israelites, from convention. Esau is associated with a more instinctive lifestyle, even a more impulsive lifestyle. Not only does he marry whom he wishes without parental consultation and seemingly without much consideration — but he thoughtlessly sells his birthright for short term gain, some red, red stuff (lentil stew) to “gulp down.” As Sarna points out, the Hebrew for “gulp down,” l-‘-t (ha-l’iteni), usually refers to feeding animals. Here it also associates Esau with his fellow creatures, beasts of the field, more than with his Israelite community.
In contrast, we have his mother, Rebekah, and his brother, Jacob, whose focus is on the future, who plan and strategize even to the extent of trickery. We might even say they are arum, “prudent,” unlike impulsive Esau, who spurns his birthright, then bursts into “wild and bitter sobbing” when he learns he lost his father’s blessing. (Gen. 27:33)
One final detail further highlights the contrast between Esau and his brother, Jacob, and that is the “red, red stuff” Jacob cooks up one day for no particular reason, at least not one the text provides: “Once when Jacob was cooking a stew…” Esau arrives on the scene, coming in “from the open, famished.” (Gen. 25:29) Esau is an emotional man, driven by his instincts and short term needs; Jacob is more complex, a mild man who stays in camp, who cooks … what? apparently a vegan meal, bread and lentil stew.
And so the story returns us to the Garden narrative in yet another way, choosing as the progenitor of G-d’s people a man who is arum, prudent, who makes conscious choices, who is not driven by instinct and desire but is, instead, thoughtful, considering consequences (Gen. 27:12). It is a man who does not hunt, who does not “smell of the fields” but prefers to stay in the camp, in his community, and left to his own devices, cook up a simple and delicious vegan repast of bread and lentils.