Jacob's elder brother (Gen. xxv. 25-34, and elsewhere; comp. Josh. xxiv. 4). The name alternates with "Edom," though only rarely applied to the inhabitants of the Edomitic region (Jer. xlix. 8-10; Obad. 6; Mal. i. 2 et seq.). The "sons of Esau" are mentioned as living in Seir (Deut. ii. 4, 5). The "mountain of Esau" (Obad. 8, 9, 19, 21) and the "house of Esau" (Obad. 18) are favorite expressions of Obadiah, while by others as a rule "Edom" is employed to denote the country or the people. In Genesis (xxv. 25, 30) "Edom" (red) is introduced to explain the etymology of the name. The real meaning of "Esau" is unknown, the usual explanation "densely haired" (= "wooded") being very improbable. "Usöos," in Philo of Byblos (Eusebius, "Præparatio Evangelica," i. 10, 7), has been identified with it, while Cheyne (Stade's "Zeitschrift," xvii. 189) associates it with "Usu" (Palai-Tyros).
Even before birth Esau and Jacob strove one against the other (Gen. xxv. 22), which led to the prediction that the "elder shall serve the younger" (ib. 23). The first, coming forth "red, all over like an hairy garment," was called "Esau." He grew up to be a "cunning hunter, a man of the field" (ib. 27). One day coming home from the field, Esau, hungry unto death, sells his birthright to Jacob for a mess of porridge, which event is turned to account to explain his name (ib. 30 et seq.). When forty years old Esau married Judith and Bashemath, the daughters of the Hittites Beeri and Elon (Gen. xxvi. 34, 35). The favorite of Isaac, he is called to receive the father's last blessing, but Rebekah treacherously substitutes Jacob for him (Gen. xxvii. 1-24). Discovering the fraud, Esau by much weeping induces the father to bless him also (Gen. xxvii. 38-40). Hating his brother Jacob, he vows to slay him as soon as the father shall have passed away. At his mother's advice Jacob takes refuge with Laban, his departure being explained to the father as an endeavor to prevent a repetition of marital alliance with the daughters of Heth, so great a source of grief in Esau's case (Gen. xxvii. 41-46). Esau thereupon takes a daughter of Ishmael to wife (Gen. xxviii. 9). After the return of Jacob the brothers make peace, but separate again, Esau passing on to Seir (Gen. xxxiii. 1-16, xxxvi. 6-8). No mention is made of his death.
Even while in his mother's womb Esau manifested his evil disposition, maltreating and injuring his twin brother (Gen. R. lxiii.). During the early years of their boyhood he and Jacob looked so much alike that they could not be distinguished. It was not till they were thirteen years of age that their radically different temperaments began to appear (Tan., Toledot, 2). Jacob was a student in the bet ha-midrash of Eber (Targ. Pseudo-Jonathan to Gen. xxv. 27), while Esau was a ne'er-do-well (ib.; "a true progeny of the serpent," Zohar), who insulted women and committed murder, and whose shameful conduct brought on the death of his grandfather, Abraham (Pesiḳ. R. 12). On the very day that Abraham died Esau went forth to hunt in the field, when he fell in with Nimrod, who for a long time previously had been jealous of him. Esau, lying in wait, pounced on the king, who was unaware of his proximity, and, drawing his sword, cut off the king's head. The same fate befell two attendants of Nimrod, who had, however, by their cries for help, brought the royal suite to the spot. Esau took to his heels, but carried off the garments of Nimrod—which were those of Adam (Targ. Pseudo-Jon. to Gen. xxvii. 15)—and concealed them in his father's house. It was when exhausted from running that he chanced upon Jacob, who cunningly took up a casual remark of his about the uselessness of the birthright, and trapped him into selling the latter as well as his share in the field of Machpelah, making and keeping a properly witnessed and sealed record of the transaction ("Sefer ha-Yashar," vi.).
According to Targ. Pseudo-Jon. to Gen. xxv. 29 and Pirḳe R. El. xxxv., the sale of the birthright took place while Jacob was preparing for his father the dish of lentils which was the usual meal offered to mourners, and over which words of comfort used to be said (comp. N. Brüll in Kobak's "Jeschurun,"viii. 30; B. B. 16b). Esau requested to eat thereof, and then sold his birthright; indulging in blasphemous speeches (Gen. R. lxiii.; Pes. 22b) and in denials of immortality (Targ. Pseudo-Jon. l.c.) and of God and the resurrection; so that he figures in tradition as one of the three great atheists (Tan., Toledot, 24; Sanh. 101b). Jacob's conduct toward his brother is accounted for by the fact that Esau had always refused to share his sumptuous repasts with him (Pirḳe R. El. l.c.).Is the Cause of Isaac's Blindness.
Esau had won the affection of his father by lying words (Targ. Pseudo-Jon. to Gen. xxv. 28). Hypocrite that he was, he played the good son; never ministering to his father unless tricked out in Nimrod's garments, and asking questions concerning the duty of tithing straw (Pesiḳ. 199). Crafty at home, he was equally so abroad (Gen. R. lxiii.). Outrageous vices are charged against him (Gen. R. xxxvii., lxiii.). Rebekah, reading his character aright, and knowing by mysterious foresight what degraded peoples were to descend from him (Midr. Teh. to Ps. ix. 16), resorted to justifiable strategy in order to circumvent his receiving the blessing. The detection of the true character of Esau reconciled Isaac to the fact that he had bestowed the blessing on Jacob (Gen. R. lxvii.). It was on the eve of Pesaḥ that Isaac asked his son to prepare for him a meal of his favorite venison (Pirḳe R. El. xxxii.; Targ. Pseudo-Jon. to Gen. xxvii. 1). Esau was not successful in the chase that day; he had left behind him his Nimrod cloak, wearing which a man could at will capture wild animals (Targ. Yer. to Gen. xxvii. 31). Further, whenever Esau had taken an animal, God Himself had intervened, and an angel had surreptitiously unbound it (Gen. R. lxvii.), so as to give Rebekah time to carry out her scheme. As Esau threatened to avenge the deception, Jacob had to take refuge with Eber, the son of Shem, with whom he stayed fourteen years. Esau's fury increased to such an extent at Jacob's escape that he left Hebron and went to Seir, where he took several wives, one of them being Bashemath, whom he called "Adah." After six months he returned to Hebron, bringing his godless wives with him. Eliphaz was born unto him during this time ("Sefer ha-Yashar," l.c.). Grief at the idolatrous practises of Esau's wives caused Isaac's blindness, according to Tan., Toledot, while others hold the expression ("from seeing"; Gen. xxvii. 1, Hebr.) to imply that Isaac had lost his sight previously from the effort not to see Esau's evil deeds (Pesiḳ. R. 12; Meg. 28a; Gen. R. lxv.). Esau was aware of the obnoxious character of his wives. He would not trust his garments to their care (Gen. R. l.c.); hence Rebekah was able to put them on Jacob. Esau spent most of his days visiting the shrines of idols, which vexed his father still more than his mother, who had not been reared in Abraham's family (Gen. R. lxiii.), and was thus not quite so much shocked at idol-worship.
At the end of fourteen years Jacob returns to Hebron. This inflames Esau once more, and he tries to kill him, causing Rebekah to send Jacob to Laban. Esau thereupon commissions his son Eliphaz to lie in wait for Jacob on the road and to kill him. He and ten men of his mother's clan meet Jacob, who, by giving them all he has, bribes them to spare his life. Esau is much vexed at the action of his son, but appropriates to himself all the gold and silver purloined from Jacob ("Sefer ha-Yashar," l.c.). In Gen. R. lxviii. Esau himself is said to have attacked Jacob, dispersing his escort. Having heard the parental injunction to his brother not to marry one of the daughters of Canaan, Esau, to reestablish himself in his parents' graces, now takes to wife Mahalath ("Sefer ha-Yashar," l.c.; comp. Gen. R. lxviii., a play on the name, to indicate that she eased Esau's conscience).
Increasing in wealth, Esau and his children have feuds with the inhabitants of Canaan. This induces him to locate at Seir ("Sefer ha-Yashar," l.c.). Laban, vexed at Jacob's departure, treacherously incites Esau to attack his brother on his way home. But Rebekah, apprised of Esau's intention, warns Jacob of the danger, and sends seventy-two of his father's servants to Mahanaim to his aid, with the advice that he should enter into peaceful relations with Esau. Messengers are despatched to Esau, who repulses them, vowing vengeance. Jacob beseeches God for help. Four angels are sent by God to appear each in turn before Esau "like 2,000 men, in four bands under four captains, riding on horses and armed with all sorts of weapons." Esau and his men flee and plead for mercy. He resolves to go and meet Jacob, who at his brother's approach is greatly troubled, but, noticing the greater alarm of the others, receives Esau with brotherly affection("Sefer ha-Yashar," l.c.). The kiss they exchange and the tears they shed at this meeting have been differently construed. The word (Gen. xxxiii. 4), being dotted in the Masoretic text, indicates, according to some, that Esau really repented; while others maintain that even in this scene he acted the hypocrite (comp. Judas' kiss; Sifre, Num. ix. 10; Gen. R. lxxviii.; Ab. R. N. 34; Ex. R. v.). The latter view obtains in Targ. Pseudo-Jonathan to the verse: Jacob wept on account of the pain in his neck, which had been bitten by Esau; and Esau shed tears because his teeth hurt him, Jacob's neck having been turned into smooth stone or ivory (see Rashi ad loc.; Gen. R. lxxi.). Jacob was aware of the hypocrisy of Esau (Pirḳe R. El. xxxvii.), as appears from the latter's explanation offered to God when reproved for having profaned holy things by his gifts and address to Jacob. Esau had planned to kill his brother "not with arrows and bow but by [my] mouth" (Pirḳe R. El. l.c.) "and sucking his blood"; but the fact that Jacob's neck turned into ivory thwarted his intention.
Esau had, as stated above, previously plotted against Jacob's life. Remembering the failure of his son Eliphaz on that occasion, Esau resolves to lie in wait for Jacob at a spot on the road where he can not escape. Jacob, however, having a presentiment of evil, does not take that road, but turns toward the Jordan, praying to God, who works a miracle in his behalf, and gives him a staff whereby he smites and divides the river. Seeing this, Esau pursues and gets in front of him, when God causes Jacob to enter a place ("ba'arah") that has the appearance of a bath-house (like that at Tiberias). Esau stands guard over the door so that Jacob can not leave, but will have to perish inside. Jacob takes a bath, and God saves him (see Epstein, "Mi-Ḳadmoniyyot ha-Yehudim," pp. 107, 108, Vienna, 1887). Nevertheless, Jacob and Esau meet peaceably at their father's house (Pirḳe R. El. xxxviii.), and both sons at the death of Isaac vie in showing filial piety (ib.). At the division of Isaac's property Esau claims as the first-born the right to choose. On the advice of Ishmael he appropriates all the personal property, but agrees to Jacob's taking title to the land of Israel and the cave of Machpelah. A written instrument of this cession is made, whereupon Jacob orders Esau to leave the country. Esau withdraws (Gen. xxxvi.), and is compensated by one hundred districts in Seir (Pirḳe R. El. xxxviii.).
In the "Sefer ha-Yashar" Esau returns to Canaan from Seir (whither he had emigrated) upon hearing that Isaac is dying. Jacob also repairs thither from Hebron. Jacob and Esau with their respective sons bury Isaac in Machpelah. The division of the property is made on the proposal of Jacob, who leaves Esau to determine which he will take, the personal riches or the land. Nebajoth, Ishmael's son, urges Esau to take the movable property, since the land is in the hands of the sons of Canaan. This he does, leaving "nothing unto Jacob," who writes all particulars of the transaction in a book of sale, Esau returning with his wealth to Seir. In Gen. R. lxxxii. and lxxxiv. Esau is represented as emigrating from Canaan from shame at his former conduct.Esau's Death.
Esau's death is not mentioned in the Bible. The Rabbis supply the information that it was brought about in an altercation with Jacob's sons over their right to bury their father in the cave of Machpelah (Soṭah 13a). The "Sefer ha-Yashar" gives full details of the dispute. Joseph invokes the "bill of sale" witnessed between Esau and Jacob after Isaac's death, and sends Naphtali to Egypt to fetch the document. Before quick-footed Naphtali returns, Esau unsuccessfully resorts to war, and is slain by Dan's deaf and dumb son, Hushim, who, though assigned to protect the women and children at Jacob's bier, upon seeing the commotion rushes on Esau, smites him with the sword and cuts off his head; whereupon Jacob is buried in the cave.
The Rabbis emphasize the fact that Esau's "hairy" appearance marked him a sinner (Gen. R. lxv.) and his "red" ("edom") color indicated his bloodthirsty propensities ("dam" = "blood"; Gen. R. lxiii.); they make him out to have been a misshapen dwarf (Gen. R. lxv.; Cant. R. ii. 15; Agadat Bereshit xl.) and the type of a shameless robber, displaying his booty even on the holy "bimah" (Midr. Teh. to Ps. lxxx. 6); but his filial piety is nevertheless praised by them (Tan., Ḳedoshim, 15, where his tears are referred to; ib., Toledot, 24, where the fact that he married at forty, in imitation of his father, is mentioned approvingly).
"Esau" (= Edom) later represents Rome.
Esau is assumed to be the progenitor of the Edomites. His character reflects the disposition of this warlike people. The stories in Genesis purpose to account for their relations with the Israelites (Gen. xxv. 27, xxxii. 4, xxxiii. 1 et seq.), as well as to throw light on the fact that the "younger brother"—that is, the tribe or tribes that gained a foothold in the country at a later date—crowded out the "older," and thus acquired the "birthright" (Gen. xxv. 29 et seq., xxvii. 28 et seq.). These narratives belong to both the Elohist and the Jahvist writers, as does Gen. xxxvi., which reflects, in the form of a genealogy, the historical fact of Esau's mixture with Canaanites (Hittites) and Ishmaelites. To the priestly writer is due the statement that Esau's marriage, distasteful to his parents, leads to Jacob's being sent away (Gen. xxvi. 34, 35). The same authority is partly responsible for other names connected with Esau in Gen. xxxvi. 2, 3; xxvii. 46; xxviii. 1 et seq. Esau, according to this source (P), remains with his parents (Gen. xxxv. 29), and, after Jacob's return, leaves only because of the lack of room (Gen. xxxvi. 6, 7).