The Legends of the Jews— Volume 1: From the Creation to Jacob

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Author: Louis Ginzberg

The Sale of the Birthright

Though Abraham reached a good old age, beyond the limit of years vouchsafed later generations, he yet died five years before his allotted time. The intention was to let him live to be one hundred and eighty years old, the same age as Isaac’s at his death, but on account of Esau God brought his life to an abrupt close. For some time Esau had been pursuing his evil inclinations in secret. Finally he dropped his mask, and on the day of Abraham’s death he was guilty of five crimes: he ravished a betrothed maiden, committed murder, doubted the resurrection of the dead, scorned the birthright, and denied God. Then the Lord said: "I promised Abraham that he should go to his fathers in peace. Can I now permit him to be a witness of his grandson’s rebellion against God, his violation of the laws of chastity, and his shedding of blood? It is better for him to die now in peace."[37]

The men slain by Esau on this day were Nimrod and two of his adjutants. A long-standing feud had existed between Esau and Nimrod, because the mighty hunter before the Lord was jealous of Esau, who also devoted himself assiduously to the chase. Once when he was hunting it happened that Nimrod was separated from his people, only two men were with him. Esau, who lay in ambush, noticed his isolation, and waited until he should pass his covert. Then he threw himself upon Nimrod suddenly, and felled him and his two companions, who hastened to his succor. The outcries of the latter brought the attendants of Nimrod to the spot where he lay dead, but not before Esau had stripped him of his garments, and fled to the city with them.[38]

These garments of Nimrod had an extraordinary effect upon cattle, beasts, and birds. Of their own accord they would come and prostrate themselves before him who was arrayed in them. Thus Nimrod and Esau after him were able to rule over men and beasts.[39]

After slaying Nimrod, Esau hastened cityward in great fear of his victim’s followers. Tired and exhausted he arrived at home to find Jacob busy preparing a dish of lentils. Numerous male and female slaves were in Isaac’s household. Nevertheless Jacob was so simple and modest in his demeanor that, if he came home late from the Bet ha-Midrash, he would disturb none to prepare his meal, but would do it himself.[40] On this occasion he was cooking lentils for his father, to serve to him as his mourner’s meal after the death of Abraham. Adam and Eve had eaten lentils after the murder of Abel, and so had the parents of Haran, when he perished in the fiery furnace. The reason they are used for the mourner’s meal is that the round lentil symbolizes death: as the lentil rolls, so death, sorrow, and mourning constantly roll about among men, from one to the other.[41]

Esau accosted Jacob thus, "Why art thou preparing lentils?"

Jacob: "Because our grandfather passed away; they shall be a sign of my grief and mourning, that he may love me in the days to come."

Esau: "Thou fool! Dost thou really think it possible that man should come to life again after he has been dead and has mouldered in the grave?"[42] He continued to taunt Jacob. "Why dost thou give thyself so much trouble?" he said. "Lift up thine eyes, and thou wilt see that all men eat whatever comes to hand—fish, creeping and crawling creatures, swine’s flesh, and all sorts of things like these, and thou vexest thyself about a dish of lentils."

Jacob: "If we act like other men, what shall we do on the day of the Lord, the day on which the pious will receive their reward, when a herald will proclaim: Where is He that weigheth the deeds of men, where is He that counteth?"

Esau: "Is there a future world? Or will the dead be called back to life? If it were so, why hath not Adam returned? Hast thou heard that Noah, through whom the world was raised anew, hath reappeared? Yea, Abraham, the friend of God, more beloved of Him than any man, hath he come to life again?"

Jacob: "If thou art of opinion that there is no future world, and that the dead do not rise to new life, then why dost thou want thy birthright? Sell it to me, now, while it is yet possible to do so. Once the Torah is revealed, it cannot be done. Verily, there is a future world, in which the righteous receive their reward. I tell thee this, lest thou say later I deceived thee."[43]

Jacob was little concerned about the double share of the inheritance that went with the birthright. What he thought of was the priestly service, which was the prerogative of the first-born in ancient times, and Jacob was loth to have his impious brother Esau play the priest, he who despised all Divine service.[44]

The scorn manifested by Esau for the resurrection of the dead he felt also for the promise of God to give the Holy Land to the seed of Abraham. He did not believe in it, and therefore he was willing to cede his birthright and the blessing attached thereto in exchange for a mess of pottage.[45] In addition, Jacob paid him in coin,[46] and, besides, he gave him what was more than money, the wonderful sword of Methuselah, which Isaac had inherited from Abraham and bestowed upon Jacob.[47]

Esau made game of Jacob. He invited his associates to feast at his brother’s table, saying, "Know ye what I did to this Jacob? I ate his lentils, drank his wine, amused myself at his expense, and sold my birthright to him." All that Jacob replied was, "Eat and may it do thee good!" But the Lord said, "Thou despisest the birthright, therefore I shall make thee despised in all generations." And by way of punishment for denying God and the resurrection of the dead, the descendants of Esau were cut off from the world.[48]

As naught was holy to Esau, Jacob made him swear, concerning the birthright, by the life of their father, for he knew Esau’s love for Isaac, that it was strong.[49] Nor did he fail to have a document made out, duly signed by witnesses, setting forth that Esau had sold him the birthright together with his claim upon a place in the Cave of Machpelah.[50]

Though no blame can attach to Jacob for all this, yet he secured the birthright from him by cunning, and therefore the descendants of Jacob had to serve the descendants of Esau.[51]

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Chicago: Louis Ginzberg, "The Sale of the Birthright," The Legends of the Jews— Volume 1: From the Creation to Jacob, trans. Rodwell, J. M. in The Legends of the Jews—Volume 1: From the Creation to Jacob Original Sources, accessed January 26, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8MLAQMLLFU7REIE.

MLA: Ginzberg, Louis. "The Sale of the Birthright." The Legends of the Jews— Volume 1: From the Creation to Jacob, translted by Rodwell, J. M., in The Legends of the Jews—Volume 1: From the Creation to Jacob, Original Sources. 26 Jan. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8MLAQMLLFU7REIE.

Harvard: Ginzberg, L, 'The Sale of the Birthright' in The Legends of the Jews— Volume 1: From the Creation to Jacob, trans. . cited in , The Legends of the Jews—Volume 1: From the Creation to Jacob. Original Sources, retrieved 26 January 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8MLAQMLLFU7REIE.