Legends of Old Testament Characters/Chapter 27



THERE are few Oriental traditions, whether Rabbinic or Mussulman, concerning Isaac's life after he was married and his father died. Those touching his birth, early life, and marriage, have been given in the article on Abraham.

We proceed, therefore, to his history as connected with Esau and Jacob.

Isaac, says Tabari, lived a hundred years after Ishmael. God granted him the gift of prophecy, and sent him to the inhabitants of Syria, in the country of Canaan, for he could not change his place of abode on account of his blindness; for Abimelech had wished him to be dim of sight, because Abraham had deceived him by saying, "Sarah is my sister;" and, say the Rabbis, Isaac's eyes were made dim by the tears of the angels falling into them as he was stretched upon the altar by his father; or because he had then looked upon the Throne of God, and had been dazzled thereby.

But others say he went blind through grief and tears at his son Esau having taken four Canaanitish women to wife.

Isaac had two sons, twins, by Rebekah his wife—Esau and Jacob.

The Cabbalists say that the soul of Esau, whom the Arabs call Aïs, passed into the body of Jesus Christ by metempsychosis, and that Jesus and Esau are one; and this they attempt to prove by showing that the Hebrew letters composing the name Jesus are the same as those of which Esau is compounded.[1]

The following curious story is told of the brothers by the Rabbi Eliezer:—"It is said that when Jacob and Esau were in their mother's womb, Jacob said to Esau, 'My brother, there are two worlds before us, this world and the world to come. In this world, men eat, and drink, and traffic, and marry, and bring up sons and daughters; but all this does not take place in the world to come. If you like, take this world, and I will take the other.' And Esau denied that there was a resurrection of the dead, and said, Behold I am at the point to die; and what profit shall this birthright do to me?' And he gave over to Jacob in that hour his right to the other world."[2] Therefore Esau and his descendants have no part or lot in Paradise, and none are admitted there.[3]

It is also said that the religious predilections of the children were developed before they were born. On the words of Genesis, "The children struggled together within her,"[4] a Rabbinic commentator says that when Rebekah passed before a synagogue, then Jacob made great efforts to escape into the world, that he might attend the synagogue, and this is the meaning of the words of the prophet Jeremiah, when God says of Jacob, "Before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee;"[5] but whenever she went before an idol temple, Esau became excited, and desired to come forth.[6]

When Esau was born, he had on his heel the likeness of a serpent, and his name indicates that he was closely connected with Satan (Sammael); for, says the Rabbi Isaiah, if you write the name Sammael in Hebrew characters, you will find it to be identical with that of Esau; for the four letters of Esau turned one way make Sammael, and turned another way make Edom.[7] Esau had also a serpent in his inside coiled in his bowels.[8]

Esau was called Edom, or Red, because, say some, he sucked his mother's blood before he was born; or, say others, because he was to shed blood; or again, because he was born under the ruddy planet Mars; or again, because he liked to eat his meat underdone and red;[9] but the Targumim say that Esau had red hair over his body like a garment; therefore he was called Esau.[10]

The lads grew; and Esau was a man of idleness to catch birds and beasts, a man going forth into the field to kill, as Nimrod had killed, and Anak, his son. But Jacob was a man peaceful in his works, a minister of the school of Eber, seeking instruction before the Lord. And Isaac loved Esau, for words of deceit were in his mouth; but Rebekah loved Jacob.[11]

On the day that Abraham died, Jacob dressed pottage of lentiles, and was going to comfort his father. And Esau came from the wilderness, exhausted; for in that day he had committed five transgressions—he had worshipped with strange worship, he had shed innocent blood, he had pursued a betrothed damsel, he had denied the life of the world to come, and he had despised his birthright.[12]

And Esau said to Jacob, "Let me now taste that red pottage, for I am faint." Therefore he called his name Edom.

And Jacob said, "Sell to me to-day what thou wouldst hereafter appropriate—thy birthright."

And Esau said, "Behold, I am going to die, and in another world I shall have no life; and what then to me is the birthright, or the portion in the world of which thou speakest?"

And Jacob said, "Swear to me to-day that so it shall be."

And he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave to Esau bread, and pottage of lentiles. And he ate and drank, and arose and went. And Esau scorned the birthright, and the portion of the world that cometh, and denied the resurrection of the dead.[13]

But according to certain Rabbinic authorities Esau sold his birthright not only for the mess of lentiles, but also for a sword that Jacob had—to wit, the sword of Methuselah, wherewith he had slain a thousand devils.[14]

Esau had the garment which God had made for Adam,[15] on which were embroidered the forms of all the wild beasts and birds that were on the face of the earth, in their proper colours. This garment had been stolen by Ham from Noah in the ark, and had been given by him to Cush, who gave it to Nimrod. Esau killed Nimrod, and took from him his painted dress, and thenceforth all the success in hunting which had attended Nimrod devolved upon Esau.[16]

The story of the blessing of Jacob and Esau has not become surrounded with many fables. The following are the most remarkable. Esau on that occasion went forth in such haste to catch the venison, that he forgot to take with him Nimrod's garment, and therefore was not successful in hunting, as on former occasions, and Jacob took advantage of this forgetfulness to assume the embroidered coat.[17]

And when the meat was ready, and Isaac began to eat thereof, he was thirsty, and there was no wine for him in the house. So an angel was sent to him out of Paradise, and brought him the juice of the grape that grows there on the vine that was created before the foundations of the earth were laid.[18]

Isaac was so angry at having been deceived by Jacob, that he was about to doom him to Gehinnom, after he said, "Where is he that hath taken venison, and brought it me, and I have eaten of all before thou camest, and have blessed him?" But he paused to prepare his curse.

Then God suddenly opened hell to him beneath his feet, and he looked into it, and saw the abyss of fire and darkness, and his horror rendered him speechless; but when he recovered his voice, he resolved that no child of his should descend there; therefore he added, "Yea, and he shall be blessed."[19]

The Mussulmans relate the history of Esau and Jacob much as it stands in the Book of Genesis. They add that the benediction of Esau was fulfilled in his having a son named Roum, from whom sprang the Greek and Roman empires.

This is also a Rabbinical tradition, for the Talmudists say that Esau had a son named Eliphaz, who had a son, Zepho, from whom Vespasian and his son Titus were descended, and thus they attribute the destruction of Jerusalem to the struggle of Esau to break the yoke of Jacob from off his neck.

Esau is said by the Rabbis to have had four wives, in imitation of Satan, or Sammael, as has been already related.

Abulfaraj says that Esau made war with Jacob, and was killed by him with an arrow.

Jacob feared Esau, for Esau said in his heart, "I will not do as Cain did, who slew his brother Abel in the lifetime of his father, after which his father begat Seth; but I will wait till the days of mourning for my father are accomplished, and then I will kill Jacob, and so I shall be the sole heir."[20]

Therefore Jacob went out only at night; during the day he hid himself away. Thus several years passed, and his life became intolerable to him. So his mother said, "Thy uncle Laban, the son of Bethuel, has great possessions, and is very old. Go, and ask him to give thee his daughter; and if he consents, then tarry with him till thy brother's anger turn away." Jacob listened to the advice of his mother, and he fled away without letting Esau know.

Five miracles were wrought for the patriarch Jacob, at the time when he went forth from Beer-sheba. First, the hours of the day were shortened, and the sun went down before its time, because the Word desired to speak with him; secondly, the four stones, which Jacob had set for his pillow, he found in the morning had coagulated into one stone; thirdly, the stone which, when all the flocks were assembled, the shepherds rolled from the mouth of the well, he rolled away with one of his arms; fourthly, the well overflowed, and the water continued to flow all the days he was in Haran. The fifth sign—the country was shortened before him, so that in one day he went forth and came to Haran.[21]

And he prayed in the place where he rested, and took four stones of that place, and set them for a pillow, and went asleep. Of these stones this is the history. They were twelve in number, and Adam had set them up as an altar. On them Abel had offered his sacrifice. The Deluge had thrown them down, but Noah reared them once more. They had been again overthrown, but Abraham set them in their places, and of them built the altar on which to sacrifice Isaac. These twelve stones Jacob now found, and he placed them under his head as a pillow. But a great wonder was wrought, and in the morning the twelve stones had melted together into one stone.[22]

Finally, this stone, so ancient and with such a history, was carried to Scotland, by whom I do not know, where it was placed at Scone, and was used for the consecration of the Scottish kings. Edward I. of England brought it to London, and it was set beneath the chair of the Confessor, as the following lines, inscribed on a tablet, announced:

"Si quid habent veri, vel chronica cana, fidesve,
Clauditur hac cathedra nobilis, ecce, lapis.
Ad caput eximius Jacob quondam patriarcha
Quem posuit cernens numina mira poli.
Quem tulit ex Scottis, spolians quasi victor honoris,
Edwardus primus, Mars velut omnipotens.
Scottorum domitor, noster validissimus Hector,
Anglorum decus, et gloria militiæ."[23]

The stone may now be seen in Westminster Abbey.

When Jacob—to return to our narrative—slept with his head on the pillow of stones, he dreamed, and beheld a ladder fixed in the earth, and the summit of it reached to the height of heaven. And, behold! the angels who had accompanied him from the house of his father, ascended to make known to the angels on high, saying, "Come, see Jacob the pious, whose likeness is in the throne of glory, and whom you have been desirous to see!" These were the two angels who had been sent to Sodom to destroy it, and who had been forbidden to rise up to the throne of God again, because, say some, they had revealed the secrets of the Lord of the whole earth, or because, say others, they had threatened in their own name to destroy the cities of the plain.

Then the rest of the angels of God came down, at the call of these twain, to look upon Jacob.

And the Glory of the Lord stood above him, and He said to him, "I am the Lord God of Abraham, thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land on which thou art lying I will give to thee and thy sons. And thy sons shall be many as the dust of the earth, and shall become strong in the west and in the east, and in the north and in the south; and all the kindreds of the earth shall be blessed through thy righteousness and the righteousness of thy sons."

When Jacob arrived at Haran, he saw a well in a field, and three flocks lying near it—because from that well they watered the flocks—and a great stone was laid upon the mouth of the well.

And Jacob said to the shepherds, "My brethren, whence are ye?"

They said, "From Haran are we."

And he said, "Know you Laban, son of Nahor?" They answered, "We know him."

And he said, "Hath he peace?"

They said, "Peace; and behold, Rachel, his daughter, cometh with the sheep."

And he said, "Behold, the time of the day is great; it is not time to gather home the cattle; water the sheep."

But they said, "We cannot, until all the shepherds be gathered, and then we can altogether roll away the stone."

While they were speaking with him, Rachel came with her father's sheep; for she was a shepherdess at that time, because there had been a plague among the sheep of Laban, and but few of them were left; and he had dismissed his shepherds, and had put the remaining flock before Rachel, his daughter.

Then Jacob went nigh, and rolled the stone which all the shepherds together could scarce lift, with one of his hands, and the well uprose, and the waters flowed, and he watered the sheep of Laban, his mother's brother; and it uprose for twenty years.

And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice and wept.

And Jacob told Rachel that he was come to be with her father, to take one of his daughters. Then Rachel answered him: "Thou canst not dwell with him, for he is a man of cunning."

But Jacob said, "I am more cunning than he."

And when she knew that he was the son of Rebekah, she ran, and made it known to her father. And when Laban heard the account of the strength of Jacob, his sister's son, and how he had taken the birthright and the order of blessing from the hand of his brother, and how the Lord had revealed Himself to him in the way, and how the stone had been removed, and how the well had upflowed and risen to the brink,—he ran and kissed him, and led him into his house.

Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger, Rachel. And the eyes of Leah were moist and running, from weeping and praying before the Lord, that He would not destine her for Esau the wicked.

Jacob served Laban seven years, and was given Leah to wife; and he served seven years more, and he was given Rachel to wife; and he served six years for cattle that Laban gave him; and then, seeing that Laban's face was set against him, he fled away secretly from Laban's house, and Rachel stole the image that Laban worshipped. And this image was the head of a man, a first-born, that Laban had slain, and he had salted it with salt and balsams, and had written incantations on a plate of gold for it, and this head spake to him and told him oracles, and Laban bowed himself down before it.[24]

Jacob drew near to the land of Esau, and he feared that his enmity was not abated; therefore he sent a message before him to his brother, and he tarried all night at Mahanaim. And he sent a present before him to Esau to abate his anger.

The Book of Jasher gives some curious details on the meeting of the brothers.

Jacob, trusting to the support of the Most High, besought Him to stand by him, and deliver him from the wrath of his brother. And God sent four angels to protect him; these angels went before him. The first who met Esau presented himself at the head of a thousand horsemen, armed at all points, who fell upon the troop that accompanied Esau, and dispersed it. As this body of men swept along, they shouted, "We are the servants of Jacob; who can resist us?"

A second body followed, under the second angel; then a third phalanx, under the third angel.

Esau, trembling, exclaimed, "I am the brother of Jacob. It is twenty years since I saw him, and you maltreat me as I am on my way to meet him!"

One of the angels answered, "If Jacob, the servant of God, had not been thy brother, we would have destroyed thee and all thy men."

The fourth body passing, under the command of the fourth angel, completed the humiliation of Esau.

However, Jacob, who knew not what assistance had been rendered him by Heaven, prepared for Esau, to appease him, rich presents. He sent him four hundred and forty sheep, thirty asses, thirty camels, fifty oxen, in ten troops, each conducted by a faithful servant charged to deliver his troop as a gift from Jacob to his brother Esau.

This consoled and pleased Esau, who, as soon as he saw Jacob again, was, by the grace of God, placed in a better mind, and the brethren met, and parted with fraternal love.[25]

Now let us take another version of the story of this meeting.

It came to pass that Jacob spent one night alone beyond Jabbok, and an angel contended with him, having taken on him the body and likeness of a man. This angel was Michael, and the subject of their contention was this:—The angel said to Jacob, "Hast thou not promised to give the tenth of all that is thine to the Lord?" And Jacob said, "I have promised."

Then the angel said, "Behold thou hast ten sons and one daughter; nevertheless thou hast not tithed them."

Immediately Jacob set apart the four first-born of the four mothers, and there remained eight. And he began to number from Simeon, and Levi came up for the tenth.

Then Michael answered and said, "Lord of the world, this is Thy lot." So Levi became the consecrated one to the Lord.

On account of this ready compliance with his oath, Michael was unable to hurt him, but he remained striving with Jacob, till the first ray of sunlight rose above the eastern hills.

And he said, "Let me go, for the column of the morning ascendeth, and the hour cometh when the angels on high offer praise to the Lord of the world: and I am one of the angels of praise; but from the day that the world was created, my time to praise hath not come till now."

And he said, "I will not let thee go, until thou bless me."

Now Michael had received commandment not to leave Jacob till the patriarch suffered him; and as it began to dawn, the hosts of heaven, who desired to begin their morning hymn, came down to Michael and bade him rise up to the throne of God and lead the chant; but he said, "I cannot, unless Jacob suffer me to depart."[26]

Thus did God prove Jacob, as He had proved Abraham, whether he would give to Him his son, when He asked him of the patriarch.

But, according to certain Rabbinic authorities, it was not Michael who wrestled with Jacob, but it was Sammael the Evil One, or Satan. For Sammael is the angel of Edom, as Michael is the angel of Israel; and Sammael went before Esau, hoping to destroy Jacob in the night. Sammael, says the Jalkut Rubeni, met Jacob, who had the stature of the first man, and strove with him; but he could not do him an injury, for Abraham stood on his right hand, and Isaac on his left. And when Sammael would part from him, Jacob would not suffer it, till the Evil One had given him the blessing which Jacob had purchased from Esau. And from that day Sammael took from Jacob his great strength, and made him to halt upon his thigh."[27]

But when Michael appeared before God—we must now suppose the man who strove with Jacob to have been the angel—God said to him in anger, "Thou hast injured My priest!"

Michael answered, "I am Thy priest."

"Yea," said the Most High, "thou art My priest in heaven, but Jacob is My priest on earth. Why hast thou lamed him?"

Then Michael answered, "I wrestled with him, and let him overcome me, to Thy honour, O Lord; that, seeing he had overcome an angel of God, he might have courage to go boldly to meet Esau."

But this was no excuse for having lamed him. Therefore Michael said to Raphael, "Oh, angel of healing! come to my aid." So Raphael descended to earth, and touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh, and it was restored as before.

But God said to Michael, "For this that thou hast done, thou shalt be the guardian of Israel as long as the world lasteth."[28]

Jacob called the name of the place Peniel; for he said, "I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face, and my soul is saved." And the sun rose upon him before its time, as, when he went out from Beer-sheba, it had set before its time.[29]

And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men of war. And he divided the children unto Leah, and to Rachel, and to the two concubines, and placed the concubines and their sons foremost; for he said, "If Esau come to destroy the children, and ill-treat the women, he will do it with them, and meanwhile we can prepare to fight; and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph after them."[30] And he himself went over before them, praying and asking mercy before the Lord; and he bowed upon the earth seven times, until he met with his brother; but it was not to Esau that he bowed, though Esau supposed he did, but to the Lord God Most High.[31]

And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell upon his neck and bit him, but by the mercy of God the neck of Jacob became marble, and Esau broke his teeth upon it; therefore it is said in the Book of Genesis that he fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.[32] But the Targumim apparently do not acknowledge that the neck of Jacob became marble, for the Targum of Palestine explains their weeping thus: "Esau wept on account of the pain of his teeth, which were shaken; but Jacob wept because of the pain of his neck;" and the Targum of Jerusalem, "Esau wept for the crushing of his teeth, and Jacob wept for the tenderness of his neck."

"The Lord God prospered Jacob," and he had one hundred and two times ten thousand and seven thousand (i.e. a thousand times a thousand, seven thousand and two hundred) sheep, and six hundred thousand dogs; but some Rabbis say the sheep were quite innumerable, but when Jacob counted his sheepdogs he found that he had twelve hundred thousand of them; others, however, reduce the number one-half. They say, one dog went with each flock, but those who say that there were twelve hundred thousand dogs, count two to each flock.[33]

Jacob, says the Rabbi Samuel, could recite the whole of the Psalter.[34] Of course this must have been in the spirit of prophecy, as the Psalms were not written, with the exception of Psalm civ., which had been composed by Adam.

Adam, after his fall, had been given by God six commandments, but Noah was given a seventh—to this effect, that he was not to eat a limb or portion of any living animal. Abraham was given an eighth, the commandment of circumcision; and Jacob was communicated a ninth, through the mouth of an adder, that he was not to eat the serpent.[35]

If we may trust the Book of Jasher, the affair of Shechem, the son of Hamor, was as follows:—The men of the city were not all circumcised, only some of them, so as to blind the eyes of the sons of Jacob, and throw them off their guard; and Shechem and Hamor had privately concerted to fall upon Jacob and his sons and butcher them; but Simeon and Levi were warned of their intention by a servant of Dinah, and took the initiative.[36] But this is a clumsy attempt to throw the blame off the shoulders of the ancestors of the Jewish nation upon those of their Gentile enemies.

Jacob, say the Rabbis, would have had no daughters at all in his family, but only sons, had he not called himself El-elohe-Israel (Israel is God).[37] Therefore God was angry with him, for making himself equal with God, and in punishment he afflicted him with a giddy daughter.[38]

Esau, say the Mussulmans, had no prophets in his family except Job. All the prophets rose from the family of Jacob; and when Esau saw that the gift of prophecy was not in his family, he went out of the land, for he would not live near his brother.[39]

The father of the Israelites, from the land of Canaan which he inhabited, could smell the clothes of Joseph when he was in Egypt, being a prophet; and thus he knew that his son was alive. He was asked how it was that he divined nothing when his beloved son was cast into the pit by his brothers, and sold to the Ishmaelites. He replied that the prophetic power is sudden, like a lightning flash, piercing sometimes to the height of heaven; it is not permanent in its intensity, but leaves at times those favoured with it in such darkness that they do not know what is at their feet.[40]

The Arabs say that Jacob, much afflicted with sciatica, was healed by abstaining from the meat he most loved, and that was the flesh of the camel. At Jerusalem, say the Arabs, is preserved the stone on which Jacob laid his head when he slept on his way to Haran.

The custom of saying "God bless you!" when a person sneezes, dates from Jacob. The Rabbis say that, before the time that Jacob lived, men sneezed once, and that was the end of them—the shock slew them; but the patriarch, by his intercession, obtained a relaxation of this law, subject to the condition that, in all nations, a sneeze should be consecrated by a sacred aspiration.

  1. Maschmia Jeschua, fol. 19, col. 4.
  2. Nezach Israel, fol. 25, col. 3.
  3. Eisenmenger, ii. pp. 260, 304.
  4. Gen. xxv. 22.
  5. Jer. i. 5.
  6. Bereschith Rabba, fol. 56, col. 2.
  7. Eisenmenger, i. 646.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., pp. 650-1.
  10. Targums. ed. Etheridge, i. p. 240.
  11. Ibid., p. 241.
  12. Ibid., also R. Bechai's Comment. on the Five Books of Moses, fol. 35, col. i.
  13. Targum of Palestine and Jerusalem; Etheridge, i. 241, 242. The book Yaschar says the deed of transfer was written by Jacob on a leaf, and that he and Esau sealed it, p. 1151.
  14. Eisenmenger, i. p. 651.
  15. Gen. iii. 21.
  16. Yaschar, p. 1150, where is the story of the assassination of Nimrod by Esau.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Eisenmenger, ii. p. 879.
  19. Eisenmenger, ii. p. 262.
  20. Targums, i. p. 250.
  21. Targums, i. p. 252.
  22. Pirke R. Eliezer, c. 35.
  23. William Sanderson, Vita Mariæ, reg. Scot., et Jacobi, reg. Anglorum; also Beckmann, Notitiar. dignit. Dissert. 3, c. i. § 7.
  24. The whole of the above is from the Targumim.
  25. Jalkut Cadasch, fol. 81, col. I; Yaschar, p. 1161 et seq.
  26. Eisenmenger, i. p. 486.
  27. Jalkut Rubeni, fol. 61, col. 3.
  28. Jalkut Cadasch, fol. 91, col. 4.
  29. Targum of Palestine, i. p. 272.
  30. Jacob prepared three things against Esau—War, Gifts, and Prayer—as a token to all men that they must overcome evil by Resistance, by Alms, and by Supplication. (R. Bechai, Comm. on the Five Books of Moses, fol. 42, col. 4.)
  31. Jalkut Rubeni, fol. 62, col. 2.
  32. Bereschith rabba, fol. 71, col. 1 (70th Parascha).
  33. Bereschith rabba, fol. 67, col. 1.
  34. Jalkut Cadasch, fol. 90, col. 3.
  35. Eisenmenger, i. p. 325.
  36. Tabari, i. p. 206.
  37. Gen. xxxiii. 20.
  38. Jalkut Cadasch, fol. 91, col. 3.
  39. Yaschar, pp. 1167, 1168.
  40. D'Herbelot, Bibliothéque Orientale, s. v. Ais, i. p. 142.