Did Jacob Kill Esau?

Esau meets Jacob, by Charles Foster (1897)

In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, the Torah records the final encounter between the twins Jacob and Esau. This takes place when their father, Isaac, passes away and “is buried by his sons, Esau and Jacob.” (Genesis 35:29) Following this, the Torah presents a detailed genealogy of Esau and the various future chiefs of Edom. Nothing more is said of Esau. It is the Talmud (Sotah 13a) that describes how his life came to an end.

When Jacob died in Egypt, his family took him back to the Holy Land to be buried at the Cave of the Patriarchs. When they arrived, they found Esau standing with his men, blocking their way. Esau argued that the final resting place in the cave belonged to him. (As an aside, the Talmud explains that the Cave of the Patriarchs is in Hebron, also called Kiryat Arba because four couples are buried there: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah.) While this dispute was going on, the deaf son of Dan, named Hushim, didn’t understand what was going on and couldn’t stand the dishonour to his grandfather Jacob. He promptly struck Esau with a club, killing him.

The Talmud concludes that “At that moment the prophecy of Rebecca was fulfilled, as it is written, ‘Why should I be bereaved of you both in one day?’ (Genesis 27:45) And although their deaths were not on the same day, their burials were on the same day.” Long before, Rebecca had foreseen (or, at least, hoped to prevent) losing Jacob and Esau on the same day. Her fear was realized in that they were buried at the same time.

We know that Jacob was 147 years old at his death. He spent the last seventeen years of his life in Egypt. We also know that Isaac died at the age of 180 and, since he had Jacob and Esau at the age of 60, his sons were 120 years old when they buried him. This means there were ten years between Isaac’s passing and Jacob’s descent to Egypt. According to the apocryphal Book of Jubilees, it was during that time that something far more dramatic took place between Jacob and Esau.

Jacob and Esau at War

The Book of Jubilees fills in a lot of the missing details from the Torah. First, we learn that Rebecca died at the age of 155 (Jubilees 35:6). We then see how Isaac realizes that his previous supreme love for Esau was misguided, and he now loves Jacob more (35:13). Esau himself gives a speech declaring his true love for his brother Jacob. Following this, Isaac relays his last words on his deathbed. He divides up his possessions between his sons, giving Jacob a double portion as befits the firstborn. Esau does not protest this, and agrees that Jacob should receive the double portion (36:12). We then read of the death of Leah. Jacob apparently had something of a change of heart of his own, and we see that he really did love Leah “with all his heart and soul” (36:23). While the Torah only tells us how much he loved Rachel, Jubilees points out that he later recognized the true value of Leah, and how perfect she was.

Meanwhile, as Jacob is mourning the passing of Leah, Esau is confronted by his sons (ch. 37). They do not accept Isaac’s apportioning of the inheritance, and insist Esau should be the firstborn. They threaten to kill their own father if he does not take action, and coerce him into instigating a war. The sons make an alliance with the Philistines, Arameans, Ammonites, and Moabites, as well as the Horites and Kittites. Esau finally relents, remembering all those times his brother tricked him, and agrees to go fight. He leads a confederation of 4000 warriors.

After all those decades of avoiding confrontation, Jacob musters up his own forces (ch. 38). He divides up his sons into four camps: Judah, Naftali, and Gad lead fifty troops from one side; Levi, Dan, and Asher lead another fifty from the other side; Reuben, Issachar, and Zevulun at the helm of fifty more; and a final group of fifty with Shimon, Benjamin, and Enoch (Reuben’s son, since Joseph is still in Egypt at this point, unbeknownst to them). Judah hands his father a bow and arrows, and blesses him to be strong, and “do the honours” of slaying his own wicked brother. Jacob sends forth an arrow and strikes Esau right in the chest. He then sends one more arrow and kills the general of the Arameans. The sons attack and slay hundreds of enemy forces. The rest of them promptly retreat. Jacob and his sons are victorious, and continue their campaign to conquer all of Edom. They subdue that nation, and impose a tribute upon them.

Interestingly, Jubilees says that the Edomite pay that tribute “to this day”. This is one of the clues that confirms the Book of Jubilees was written in the late Second Temple era, since we know that in that time the post-Maccabean Jewish kingdom conquered Idumea (ie. Edom) and imposed a tribute upon them. (King Herod would emerge out of those subjugated Idumeans, as explored in the past here.)

So, which version of events is more accurate? Did Jacob kill Esau in battle? Or was Esau killed by Hushim during Jacob’s funeral?

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Beresheet 133) presents a solution. It, too, records a very similar account of the war between Jacob and Esau. It says how Jacob first shot an arrow and killed Aduram, the leader of the Edomites. Then he shot an arrow and struck Esau. Esau wasn’t mortally wounded. The Midrash says his sons took him back to town on a chariot. According to one opinion, he died of his wound there. However, another opinion is that he did not die, and recuperated. The latter seems to be the most accurate account. So, the war between Jacob and Esau did indeed happen, and Jacob did strike Esau with an arrow. Esau was soundly defeated, but not killed.

Thus, years later, when Jacob was brought back to the Holy Land to be buried, Esau was ready for vengeance. His plan didn’t succeed, though, and Hushim ended his life for good. The Talmud adds that when this happened, a smile appeared on the face of Jacob’s corpse. The long and difficult saga of the brawling brothers—struggling with each other since their mother’s womb—finally came to an end.