Edom: An Unintentionally Validating Jewish Polemic

There has been some confusion regarding the prophetic phrase in Genesis 25:23 which says how “the elder shall serve the younger,” especially since such a concept would have been so foreign to ancient Near Eastern custom (though the providence of God transcends custom).[1] Some might say the reason this was stated was simply because Esau sold his birthright, thus forfeiting his authority to Jacob (though one might also observe a peculiar reference to Joseph, considering he—the younger in Jacob’s family—was eventually served by the elders when he became a leader of Egypt). However, it is particularly interesting how this passage was eventually interpreted by Jews after the rise of Christianity.

The descendants of Esau became known as the Edomites, whereas the descendants of Jacob became the Israelites, and both groups of people saw the other as an enemy.[2] It is also known that the Jews—in a polemical sense—associated Edom with Rome (and subsequently, the Church) during the Middle Ages.[3] Zeitlin writes:

The regular intercalation of the year is to add a second Adar. However the Sanhedrin could not meet on time for fear of the Roman government. However they succeeded in assembling and intercalated the year in the month of Ab. In order to inform their brethren in Babylonia of the intercalation of the year they had to employ a secret code. In this code they employed the term Edom to the Roman Church. They did it in order to conceal and disguise their real persecutor. In applying the term Edom for the Rome Church, which was hateful to them, they had in mind the prophecy of Jeremiah, 49. 17, “And Edom shall be a desolation; every one that passeth by it shall be astonished and shall hiss at all the plagues thereof.”[4]

It is not surprising that the Jews used Edom in a polemical fashion against those whom they perceived to be enemies (especially with the rise of Protestant Zionism in the 19th century),[5] but what is surprising is that a Jewish midrash interprets Genesis 25:23 to be a reference to Jesus Christ.

Ronald Brown did an analysis of the marginal notes on the Genesis Rabbah (MS Paris 149 version),[6] and he found that in reference to Genesis 25:23, the scribe writes how the future descendants of Esau “are to serve Jesus the Nazarene, who is of the descendants of Jacob, the younger.”[7] He goes on to say that because Esau’s descendants were associated with the Romans (“the one shall be stronger than the other”), when Rome embraced Christianity, certain Jews recalled the words “the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen 25:23).[8]

One cannot help but see the irony in a Jewish polemic accidentally validating the very people they sought to discredit.



[1] John Davis. Paradise to Prison. (Salem: Sheffield Publishing, 1984), p. 232.
[2] Ibid.
[3] S. Zeitlin. “The Origin of the Term Edom for Rome and the Roman Church.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 60, no.  3 (1970), p. 262.
[4] Ibid., p. 263.
[5] Warder Cresson. “Origin of Edom, Babylon, and Rome, or Christianity.” Jewish-History.com. http://www.jewish-history.com/cresson/cresson25.html (accessed July 4, 2017).
[6] Brown notes that it was written by scribe Mordechai ben Isaac, completed in Arles, France, on Feb. 10, 1291.
[7] Ronald N. Brown “‘And the elder shall serve the younger’: a midrash about Jesus.” Harvard Theological Review, vol. 87, no. 3 (1994), p. 365.
[8] Ibid., p. 366.

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