Monday, January 2, 2012

Esau a.k.a “Red” (Genesis 25:30)

What was Esau’s other name? Edom

Isaac’s son, Esau, was a hairy redhead. The Bible tells us that he was born that way (Genesis 25:25). As a fellow hairy redhead, I have always viewed him as the Bible’s most handsome character which is clearly evidenced in this quilt created by Marilyn Belford (b. 1935) entitled “For a Mess of Pottage”...

At birth, Esau was given his name. John C.L. Gibson (1930-2008) informs, “Its real meaning is unknown, though presumably the Hebrews were aware of it. (Gibson, Genesis (Daily Study Bible), 140).”

Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. (Genesis 25:25 NASB)
Based upon context clues, it can be inferred that Esau’s name was in some way associated with his physical appearance but its precise meaning is uncertain. Isaac’s son is the only Bible character with the name.

During the first story told of Esau, the character is endowed with another name when his younger twin, Jacob, convinces him to trade his birthright for a pot of “red stuff” (Genesis 25:27-34). With that Esau became synonymous with Edom, which means “red” (Genesis 25:30, 36:1, 8, 19, 43).

and Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.” Therefore his name was called Edom. (Genesis 25:30 NASB)
This verse marks the first time the word “red” is used in the Bible but hardly the last. Edom will become the name of the nation of Esau’s descendants. Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971) notes “that not all Jacob-Esau stories equate Esau with Edom, but that this identification is rooted in ch. 25.” (Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 275).”

Though contextually the name does not relate only to his hair, in this story, Esau becomes the first in a long line of redheads who used “Red” as a proper name. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1941) expounds:

Esau’s name was first explained in Genesis 25:30 — he was called “ruddy” (’admônî) all over, like a “hairy garment” they named him “Esau”...Genesis 25:30 expands that explanation...Running through these two verses is an emphasis on redness or some shade thereof...Esau is one of two individuals in the Old Testament whose natural appearance is described as red. Both he and David are called ’admônî (Genesis 25:20; I Samuel 16:12, 17:42) C.H. Gordon had provided evidence from Egypt, Crete, Ugarit, and Homer showing that men (but never women) are colored red or reddish brown when they assumed heroic or ceremonial purposes.” (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 183)
Being redheaded is distinctive. People with other hair colors are not known by their hair hue, only redheads. Anthropologist Grant McCracken (b. 1951) explains, “Of course, part of the ‘problem’ with redheads is that there aren’t enough of them. They make up just two percent of the population. So they’re pretty extraordinary. Redheads are too numerous to be ignored, too rare to be accepted (McCracken, Big Hair: A Journey Into the Transformation of Self, 102).”

Do you have more than one name? If you were a color, what color would you be? How many people named “Red” can you think of? What do you associate with the color red?

It is natural to compare Jacob and Esau. They were the Bible’s first twin brothers and are juxtaposed many times in Scripture (Genesis 25:27, 28, 27:22; Joshua 24:4; Obadiah 1:18; Malachi 1:2; Romans 9:13). The twins’ names also make for an interesting comparison. Both have two names (Jacob/Israel, Esau/Edom), the second of which was given later and the name the nations they spawned adopted (Genesis 25:26, 32:28, 35:10).

Jacob’s names relate to his character and his adopted name, Israel, refers to one of the most profound moments of his life (Genesis 32:24-32). In contrast, Esau’s names refer to his physical appearance and his adopted name refers to one of his greatest failures (Genesis 25:27-34).

Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) writes:

The parenthetical aside that connects the name “Edom” (’ědôm) with the “red” (’ādōm) concoction reinforces the link between the progenitor and his offspring. The play on the name is not complimentary, since it brings to mind Esau’s ineptness in dealing with the artful Jacob. It also recalls the birth conflict where he was described there as “red” (Genesis 25:25). By the convergence of the wordplays, the author shows that these events by which Jacob gets the better of Esau proved the veracity of the oracle (Genesis 25:23). (Mathews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 11:27-50:26), 392)
Harvey J. Fields (b. 1935) adds, “Before and after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., the rabbis used the name ‘Edom’ as a code name for Rome. They believed that, one day, Esau-Edom-Rome, would be defeated and that Jacob-Israel would be victorious. They predicted that ‘God will throw Edom-Rome out of heaven...Edom-Rome will be slaughtered...Edom-Rome will be destroyed by fire.’ (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 4:9) (Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times: Genesis, 62)”

Would you rather be named for a physical feature or a character trait? Is the text, written by Jacob’s descendants, fair to Esau? If you were named for your greatest triumph or most heart wrenching failure, what would your name be?

“When red headed people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.” - Mark Twain (1835-1910), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, p. 152

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