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The Bible is not immoral

Thoughts on parashat Toldot

Menachem Mirski

Some people accuse the Hebrew Bible of containing fiction or idealizing certain events or phenomena, especially when it speaks of incredible or miraculous events. The main problem with this critique is that the Bible contains testimonies that are to a large extent non-falsifiable. The proposed “methods of verification” of the biblical stories often consist in confronting their factual layer with the knowledge about the world we have today, with our contemporary, often well-founded, but still beliefs, about what is possible in the world, what is impossible, what is probable and what is not. This is one of the reasons that this process always fails and that the Bible cannot be fact-checked and approved or disapproved and put in the archive. This is also one of the reasons why the most important question regarding biblical narratives is not whether something really happened or not, but what is the message of the story.

Certainly, the Hebrew Bible does not idealize its human characters: they are often eminent people, with unique qualities, but at the same time are “painfully human”. Our biblical characters are not “idealized heroes”: even the greatest, the most righteous and pious of them, like Moses, had their human flaws: impatience, tendency to anger etc.

This week Torah portion tells the famous story of how Jacob, our forefather, took the birthright of his brother Esau:

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”—which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am about to die, so of what use is my birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.(Gen 25:29-34)

There are some additional details to this story provided by our biblical commentators. Ibn Ezra, for example, tells us that Esau lived a very hazardous life as a hunter and believed that he might very well die before his father and never enjoy the portion of the first born. That’s why he said I am about to die (hebr. ani holech lamut /Ibn Ezra on Gen 25:32). In another commentary he claims that Esau saw that his father had become poor in his old age and that there was little for him to inherit. Thus he didn’t care about it. (Ibn Ezra on Gen 25:34)

We do not know exactly how much time passed between these events and the actual “taking” of the birthright by Jacob, but from the way the Bible tells this story, as well as many others, it can be inferred that both situations were quite distant in time. After the events described above (Gen 25:29-35), the entire next chapter (Gen 26) tells a story of the famine in Isaac’s land, his journey to Gerar (which was a city or region probably located in the Negev Desert) and his alliance with Abimelech. Isaac settled in Gerara and it seems that he stayed there for at least a few years, if not more. The story ends with the mention that Esau, reaching the age of 40, married two women, Yehudit and Bosmat, and they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah. (Gen 26:34-35). Then, the Torah, going back to our birthright story says: When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” He answered, “Here I am.” (Gen 27:1) Therefore, we can confidently assume that many years have passed between the reckless consent of Esau to give away his birthright and the plot by Rebecca and Jacob to actually take it over.

What does it mean? This means that the question of the birthright was probably a bone of contention between the brothers and Jacob had been planning this takeover for years, waiting only for the right moment to happen. Especially that they were conceived at the same time and were born the same day, one after another. In biblical times the birthright son was entitled to a double portion (that is, twice as much as any other son) of the father’s inheritance: one portion as a son, the second portion as the new head responsible for the whole family including the care of his mother and unmarried sisters (Gen 48:22, Deut. 21:17). This sheds some additional light on Rebecca and Jacob’s deceptive actions to take Esau away from his birthright: they probably believed that Esau, given his personality and lifestyle, was not fit to be a birthright son. However, the law was the law and there wasn’t a way around it other than cheating.

Thus, Jacob’s and Rebecca’s decision might have been completely reasonable and right, especially in the long run. This does not, however, exonerate them and doesn’t change the fact that their behavior violated ethical standards, at many levels. Yes, Jacob actually got Esau’s consent in this matter, but it was given recklessly and casually, probably many years earlier. But what is absolutely ethically indefensible is plotting against the disabled father and deceiving him to obtain the birthright. The result of these actions was as follows:

Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him, and Esau said to himself, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob. (Gen 27:41)

Why does the Bible tell us these kinds of “embarrassing family stories” and why does tradition pass them on from generation to generation? There are many reasons for it. One of them is that both the Bible and our tradition want to show us a real life of our ancestors, with all its ups and downs, without sweeping anything under the rug. This, in turn, is aimed to guide us to conduct rightly, even through our embarrassment or maybe exactly through it. This is to teach us many things: to critically analyze ethical situations, to sensitize us to the harm of those we have hurt, to remind us of our own imperfections, our own faults, sins, lies, manipulations and deceptions. Perhaps the Bible tells us all these embarrassing stories so that we would feel uncomfortable and accept it with humility. There is nothing wrong about it: we do similar things in our life; our successes contain sometimes some dishonesty and manipulation deep in the background that has never been revealed. Our parasha gives us a radical example of it that we may not forget, to motivate us to correct our behavior in the future.

The Hebrew Bible is not immoral. This confusion often comes from the belief that the Bible allegedly promotes the imitation of its characters. This belief is incorrect: the ethics of the Hebrew Bible is not a role model ethics (as is the case with the Christian New Testament). It is primarily a normative ethics in which moral norms and standards are codified into law. Nevertheless, not all the ethical standards expressed in the Hebrew Bible have been codified, for a simple reason: many of the ethical situations in our lives are too complex and too situational to be codified into law, into a clear set of rules. The Torah is aware of that and thus it also contains general ethical demands, like: And you shall do the right and the good (Deut. 6:18) urging us to use our conscience and to act beyond the letter of the (ethical) law. For this reason we also need biblical stories, which often show us examples of what are the outcomes of unethical behavior, a prime example of which is the story of our parasha.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA