The narratives recorded in Parsha VaYishlach expand on the life of Jacob after he fled from Laban. As he started the final leg of a long journey through often hostile terrain, he became pre-occupied by the thought of meeting his brother Esau. He was unsure whether, in the about thirty-five years that had passed since he had escaped his brother’s wrath, Esau’s anger had dissipated. He was anxious. He was fearful. He assumed the worst.
Jacob accumulated great wealth while in exile and he had proven the most fecund of the Patriarchs. He did what he could to protect his large family and stood ready to give away a fortune for safe passage. However, he was wrong. Esau demonstrated no animus. Quite the opposite he was very warm and hospitable toward his brothers, sister in laws, and nephews and niece. Jacob though, continued to retain doubts about Esau’s sincerity and his intentions. He sidestepped Esau’s’ kind invitation to join his encampment. Eventually Jacob found his way to Shechem (Nablus). There he purchased some land and settled down.
Esau was not a major player in the grand narrative of Sefer Bereshit, which records the lives of the Patriarchs and depicts the story of Joseph. Much like Ishmael, his presence appears as a foil for the ascent of Jacob. The Torah did not depict Esau in dark tones, rather as a big oaf. His persona was “that of a big, athletic, not –too-discerning young man”. True, Esau had threatened Jacob after being cheated of his father’s blessing; but, other then his outburst it doesn’t appear he took any steps to avenge his humiliation. Yet, in Jewish lore, Esau was vilified. It records an angry Esau bent on destroying Jacob, or, more correctly, trying to kill Israel (In an early narrative in the Parsha, Jacob had been renamed Israel).
Esau was nicknamed Edom, red. His descendants were called the Edomites, a tribe which became a long time foe of Israel. Amalek, a grandson of Esau, was the founder of the tribe that attacked the Children of Israel. His descendants included Haman. During the Israelites final dash to the promised Lands, the Edomite people refused them safe passage.
In the books of the Prophets Amos and Ezekiel, Edom was identified as the eternal enemy of Israel. They oppressed the descendants of Jacob and took advantage of the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple, to seize control of parts of the Kingdom of Judah. There are also some allusions to Edom having participated in the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. In the Mishnaic period, especially after the devastation of Israel and its people in the wake of the unsuccessful revolt spear-headed by the enigmatic figure Bar Kochba, Rome became identified with Edom. Perhaps then, because of the conduct of his descendants, his persona as recorded in the Torah was reframed. He was recast as being “utterly wicked, a crafty, bloodthirsty embodiment of evil”. Esau became the archetype anti-Semite. Later Torah commentators adopted and extended this theme.
The Torah records that on the eve of the much anticipated meeting with Esau, Jacob had contact with a mysterious entity. They struggled throughout the night to a stalemate. As sudden as the entity appeared, with the breaking of dawn, he disappeared. This encounter is considered one the most crucial incident in Jacob’s life, yet the identity of the foe is never revealed. The reader is left to imagine who Jacob encountered. Rashi, however, was certain. Rashi cited rabbinical literature to identify the “man” as “the ministering angel of Esau”. Jacob’s encounter with the divine being became only the first act “in the eternal struggle between good and evil, between man’s capacity to perfect himself and Satan’s determination to destroy him spiritually”. In a later commentary, Sforno explained that Jacob’s encounter with this angel was “symbolic of the constant conflict between the forces of Israel and Esau, which will harm and damage Israel over the centuries”.
The events that succeeded Esau were used retroactively to vilify Esau, who thus became one of the greatest villains of the Torah. The sins of the children were thus visited upon the father.