“Sell me your birthright” versus “Feed me with your red stew”: Talking Over and Against Siblings in Genesis

May 2024

Genesis is a book of families, but it takes quite a while before the various siblings found within speak to each other. Husbands and wives speak to one another right off the bat, people fairly regularly talk to angels, and mothers and fathers address their children, but dozens of generations come and go before brothers and sisters speak so much as a single word together. 

In chapter four we are told that Cain “talked with Abel his brother,” but there is no attempt to recreate their dialogue; the sentence continues with, “and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” If they discuss anything beforehand, we do not hear about it, and whether Abel tweaked or dismissed or tried to moderate Cain’s wroth we are not given to know. Cain kills Abel without first quarreling with him. There are two brothers in a field together, and then there is only Cain in a field, without much in the way of interval. 

It’s a remarkably economic story of brotherhood, even by biblical standards. Abel is born in the first verse of the chapter and dead by the eighth. It’s only after dying that he begins to speak, although even then only indirectly, when God tells Cain that “the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.” 

When little children quarrel with one another, they pretty quickly exhaust their already-slender resources for maintaining emotional equilibrium. At such a point it is fairly common for one of them to say to the other something like, “I’m not talking to you.” So it is that Abel’s blood, apparently, does not want to cry out to Cain. After all, one’s little brother is often the first person one has to talk to and when one’s family is the whole world, it’s only after death that the obligation is lifted. It’s true that one similarly has to talk to one’s parents, but one also needs to talk to them, since they’re the ones with access to money and food and toys, and so on. Siblinghood is one of life’s earliest lateral and involuntary relationships, and brings with it the first taste of bargaining, the shoring of alliances, and campaigns of prosecution and defense. After violence, the silent treatment is usually the first negotiating tactic one learns in dealing with a brother or sister. Abel cedes the right of negotiation over to God, and Cain moves away; they have no further dealings with one another.  

While there is nowhere to go but up from fratricide, I’m afraid the first sentences exchanged between siblings that Genesis does record is not a very promising one. In chapter nineteen verse thirty-one, Lot’s unnamed daughters believe the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah has extended to the rest of the earth, and the elder says to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth: Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve the seed of our father.” The younger sister’s response is not recorded, although since the two of them proceed to carry out the plan, we might safely assume she agreed with it. 

Lot’s family has at this point distinguished itself as unlucky, even among the already-unfortunate families of Genesis. All the ties that ought to unite them have been severed or distorted. Their mother has been turned into a pillar of salt, their husbands-to-be were lost in the destruction of Sodom, and their own father had offered them up to a violent mob in order to protect a pair of recently arrived houseguests. The first example in Genesis of sisters working cooperatively, but in what monstrous service that cooperation comes — At this point their only loyalty is to the future and to expedience. Why bother distinguishing between what is within the family and without, between what is normal and what is deranged, between a good idea and a bad one? Husbands are destroyed overnight by fire from heaven, cities vanish, mothers become salt. The world has already turned over; why not turn it on its head again? The compliant silence of a sibling can shore up a terrible idea; two or more children united against a parent can often carry the day. 

This is not the only occasion in Genesis where children are held responsible for father-child incest. A similar episode in chapter nine divides Noah’s sons against one another. “Noah drank of the wine and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham…saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father.”

The sex is here implied in the phrase “saw the nakedness,” rather than stated outright as in “Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father”; indirect euphemisms for sexual contact and vulnerability are common throughout the Bible, where “thighs” and “feet” often serve as stand-ins for genitals, and where “seeing” and “knowing” refer to sex acts. None of Noah’s sons speak either to one another or to their father; they only act, and act out, little pantomimes of disavowal and conspicuous aversion of their gaze. It’s very much like when one child implicitly condemns the bad behavior of a sibling during mealtime by suddenly becoming a near-parody of perfect manners, sitting up ramrod straight, over-emphasizing pleases and thank yous, chewing in exaggerated quiet and poise. 

Such disturbing, fantastic interludes — what are we to make of them? When fathers get drunk, they become as weak and vulnerable as kittens, and apocalyptic fears turn their children into monsters. But even in these anxious fantasies about abusive offspring, it is only sisters who are capable of uniting against a parent; no group of brothers in Genesis ever reach consensus or act unanimously. 

In Genesis chapter twenty-five verse nine, Isaac and Ishmael bury their father Abraham together, but whether they worked together happily, or begrudgingly, we do not know; whatever they might have said to one another, or even if they spoke at all, is not recorded. They do their duty by him, but no more. Theirs is a polite estrangement, which does not require words to support it.

It’s only in the next generation, with Jacob and Esau, that we see the first recorded fraternal reconciliation. Things go badly between them from the beginning: their mother Rebekah feels them fighting in her womb, and asks God to explain the cause of her suffering. Her question has been translated in the following ways: 

Why is this happening to me? 

If all is well, why am I like this? 

If it is to be this way, why do I live? 

If it be so, why am I thus? 

God’s response is to acknowledge her suffering without attempting to explain it: “Two nations are in your womb, two people shall be separated from your body; One people shall be stronger than the other.” The answer to Why is this happening to me is Yes, this is happening to you. The answer to Why am I like this, Why do I live, is There will be more suffering to come, later on, and everything will be out of order. This reply is sufficient; this reply works; she stops asking questions. Rebekah gives birth, and Rebekah lives. Esau, we are told, is born red and covered in hair. Jacob is born clutching Esau’s heel, with no color given. They are unlike one another, but they are nevertheless born touching, and their future estrangement is similarly foreshadowed in close quarters: they jostle, they wrestle, they bump up against one another. Cain and Abel have a single violent rupture, Ham’s brothers repudiate him in a silent tableau, Isaac and Ishmael live most of their lives in distant parallels — Genesis makes us wait for Jacob and Esau to show us the first proper, brotherly biblical squabble

Esau grows up “a skillful hunter, a man of the field,” while Jacob becomes a “mild man [who] dwell[s] in tents,” and accordingly Isaac prefers Esau while Rebekah loves Jacob. No one tries to force unity or shared interests on them; neither parent ever says, “Jacob, why don’t you try joining Esau in the fields for once?” or “Esau, why not spend a day or two in a tent with your brother?” It’s an intuitive rift that no one has any interest in bridging: You take the outdoors one. I’ll take the indoors one. It’s more convenient for everyone that way. There’s a certain kind of fairness to it, too: The family runs along contentedly enough on parallel tracks where nobody is being asked to change to accommodate anybody else, and everyone gets to be somebody’s favorite. 

The estrangement part of the story is well-known. Jacob cooks a stew, a red stew, a stew the redness of which is linguistically significant, a stew the color of his brother, and Esau, field-fatigued, says, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.” Jacob withholds the stew, and will only trade it for Esau’s birthright as the eldest son. Esau gives in. 

What happens next is a sad and shabby little parody of their mother Rebekah’s generosity, Rebekah having been specially chosen on the strength of that generosity years before. When Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a partner for Isaac, Eliezer goes to a well and prays, “Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels also’ — let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.” Rebekah offers Eliezer a drink, then pledges to water his camels also, and by this act of liberality she is joined to Abraham’s family. Once Jacob has convinced Esau to trade away his birthright, he gives him not only red stew, but also bread, and something to drink, the same display of openhandedness, but this time in the service of a decidedly unequal exchange. “Thus Esau despised his birthright,” Genesis says, but there is a remarkable degree of contempt in Jacob’s gesture: Here you go, and just to show you there’s no hard feelings, I threw in a little something extra for you

This is the last time Esau will receive anything in surplus; later, when Jacob siphons away his paternal blessing as well as his birthright, Esau cries out, “Bless me, even me also, my father! Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me? Hast thou but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” But Isaac has held nothing in reserve. Only Rebekah and Jacob anticipate the future and develop a strategy for it; Isaac and Esau lose, forget, misunderstand, and fail to see. They do not hear prophecies, they do not consider contingencies, they do not develop backup plans. Isaac wants to maintain the conditions of his placid ignorance, Rebekah wants to undermine her husband on behalf of her favorite child, and in that sense they are both able to help one another make a success of parenting. 

All Isaac can say is that Esau will continue to live as he always had, in the fields under the open sky, and that Jacob will not have the upper hand forever. All Rebekah can promise Jacob is that Esau will not be angry forever, “Until thy brother’s anger turns away from you, and he forgets that which thou hast done to him, then I will send for you.” She counts on Esau losing and forgetting again, and she has good reason for thinking he will. The brother who fails to kill you, will one day forget to hate you. 

Rebekah is correct on this point, as in all others: Both Jacob and Esau leave their family home and find the world is quite big enough for both of them. When they meet again, years later at Peniel, Esau has four hundred men with him, and Jacob offers him hundreds of goats, dozens of camels, and ten foals, by way of apology. Esau can now say, “I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself.” Jacob urges the gift again. Now he can really afford to be generous, since neither he nor Esau have to share their parents’ home, and they have discovered the world really is big enough for the two of them. 

“Take it, I pray thee,” Jacob says, “because I have enough” (emphasis mine). There is perhaps more than a hint of boasting in this, of course; “I’m so rich I don’t need your presents” against “I’m so rich I won’t even notice when my gifts are gone,” in a rare instance of people disagreeing to agree. But Jacob and Esau have improved the tenor and quality of their quarrels. This is a courteous, gentle kind of boasting that serves as a necessary precondition for peace, a peace that is all the more important for being entirely new. Jacob and Esau are not restored to an earlier harmony in this moment, since they have been at odds with one another since before they were born; they get along for the first time in either of their lives. It is peace without precedent, and graciousness untaught. 

It also cannot last. They exchange gifts and words of forgiveness before parting for good; the only subsequent time Genesis records their meeting is when they bury Isaac together in chapter thirty-five. Their peace depends upon the size of the world. It does not exist up close. 

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