B. A. Anderson, Brotherhood and Inheritance: A Canonical Reading of the Esau and Edom Traditions

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Anderson, Bradford A., Brotherhood and Inheritance: A Canonical Reading of the Esau and Edom Traditions (LHBOTS, 556; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2011). Pp. vii + 264. Hardcover. US$140.00. ISBN 978-0-567-03473-1.

In recent times, new archaeological discoveries (along with some epigraphic evidence) in the Faynan copper district of southern Jordan as well as in southern Israel have triggered a burst of scholarly interest for Edom and the Edomites. These finds provide a new background for interpreting the many biblical references to historical Edom, and have generated a stream of research with competing views on the dating, nature, and position of the Edomite polity in the ancient Near Eastern world. These historical debates, however, should not cause us to forget that if the biblical (and post-biblical) traditions about Edom are plentiful, the biblical authors' interest in Edom was largely governed by theological concerns, and such concerns usually inform to a significant degree biblical references to their Transjordanian neighbors. Bradford Anderson's Brotherhood and Inheritance: A Canonical Reading of the Esau and Edom Traditions—a revised version of the author's doctoral thesis submitted to Durham University (Department of Theology and Religion)—is a study of the biblical depictions of Edom and Esau in their theological and textual dimensions, rather than from the viewpoint of history.

In the author's words, “[t]his is done by offering a canonical reading of the Esau and Edom traditions within the Hebrew Bible, using the theological concept of ‘election’ as a framework for the discussion” (p. 2). This canonical reading is accomplished through meticulous textual research on the biblical narrative and the post-biblical traditions (both Jewish and Christian) related to Esau/Edom.

The book is divided into twelve chapters, which are arranged according to the order of the relevant biblical texts. Chapter 1 provides the Introduction, chapter 2 presents a history of biblical interpretation on the Esau/Edom narratives, chapters 3–7 deal with the appropriate passages in Genesis, chapter 8 focuses on Deuteronomy, chapters 9–11 address the question of Edom in the prophetic corpus, and chapter 12 presents the main conclusions achieved by this study. The book ends with a bibliography as well as indices of biblical passages and authors.

Chapter 1, the Introduction, sketches the book's main argument, making a case for a canonical reading of the Esau and Edom traditions. It shows that the concept of election goes across Genesis as well as Deuteronomy and the prophetic materials, even though the portrayal of Edom in these text is extremely diverse, ranging from a positive treatment in Genesis to a very negative one in the Prophets. The reader is warned from the beginning that “substantial elements” relating to the Edom traditions will be left unaddressed in the study, particularly as regards the historical and poetic/wisdom literature. Chapter 2 is devoted to the history of the postbiblical interpretation of the biblical folklore on Esau/Edom, ranging from the ancient Jewish and Christian traditions to modern scholarship. While Anderson takes note of the modern religious-historical and source-critical readings (Gunkel, Maag, Bartlett, Dicou),[1] he draws attention to those readings highlighting the theological dimensions of the Esau/Edom traditions, such as especially Assis' and Spina's focus on the election motif.[2]

Chapter 3 opens the study of the Jacob and Esau cycle in Genesis by looking at the pre-birth, birth, and birthright stories (Gen 25:19–34); chapter 4 examines the blessing of Jacob and Esau (Gen 27); chapter 5 focuses on the reunion of the two brothers (Gen 32–33); chapter 6 studies the famous genealogy of Esau in Gen 36; and chapter 7 summarizes the Esau cycle in Genesis. The author reviews all possible interpretations of the Genesis narratives, presenting an excellent status quaestionis of a history of interpretation that spans over several centuries. While most ancient and modern commentators have understood the Genesis texts as casting Esau in a negative light, and have focused on various possible historical-critical explanations for this phenomenon (such as, e.g., the hunter/shepherd opposition, or the political antagonism between Israel and Edom), Anderson argues that these readings have overlooked the complexity and subtlety of the text. Reading the Genesis narratives from the perspective of the theological concept of election, he argues that “the idea of that election is a mystery and a scandal” (p. 154). While Esau does not fulfill the promise in the line of Abraham, he is nonetheless depicted in a positive light. The elevation of Jacob over Esau is not related to the respective worth of either sibling; indeed Esau's replacement does not require that he be cursed, nor does it dismiss him from the divine economy. Despite the fact that he is not chosen, Esau nonetheless benefits from the divine blessing (albeit admittedly in a lesser form than Jacob), and is also given a land and a people of his own. On some occasions, Anderson argues, the text goes to great lengths in order to illustrate Esau's gracious behavior, such as especially when depicting his genuine brotherly welcome of Jacob. Even the pre-birth and birth stories should not be read as defining the permanent nature of the relationship between the two brothers, and although Esau's actions are sometimes not what one would expect in the given circumstances, Jacob's behavior cannot be seen as ideal either.

In chapter 8, Anderson—in opposition to several mainstream readings—argues that Deuteronomy's portrayal of Esau's descendants should be viewed as being consistent with the largely positive description of Genesis; the main innovation consists of the emphasis on the motif of Edom's “right to the land” (Deut 2:5). Edomites are not only seen as a parent group which, even though not “elected” by YHWH, was nonetheless blessed by him; they are also viewed as a group to which the land of Seir was given as possession.

In the prophetic material—studied in chapter 9 (Obadiah and the prophets), chapter 10 (Malachi) and chapter 11 (Summary)—Esau and Edom are consistently cast in a very negative light. With regard to this phenomenon, Anderson observes that many of the motifs already found in the Pentateuchal material now resurface as elements of the severe prophetic critique against Edom. In particular, Edomites are consistently accused of breaking their once privileged relationship with Israel, disregarding their kin connection (e.g., Obad 10, 12; Amos 1:9, 11; Mal 1:2), and refusing to confine themselves to the territory that was conferred to them by YHWH (e.g., Obad 17, 19–21; Ezek 35:10; 36:5b; Mal 1:3). Due to these affronts, the prophetic discourse emphasizes that Edomites should be dispossessed of their inheritance.

Brotherhood and Inheritance is a commendable and original theological study on the interpretations surrounding the tradition of Esau and Edom; in various ways, it also goes beyond that, asking valid questions concerning literary motifs—such as election, possession, land, and blessing—that permeate an important part of the literature of the ancient Near East. Despite these positive comments, some aspects of the analysis should have been given more attention. Especially unsatisfactory, in this reviewer's opinion, is the general lack of historical and comparative perspective. To name just one basic example, the topic addressed by this study would have greatly benefitted from situating such motifs as Esau's (non-)election or Edom's territorial endowment against their larger Ancient Near Eastern background. Anderson himself occasionally notes Ancient Near Eastern parallels to various themes—e.g., in the description of brotherly love (pp. 216–17), or the use of diplomatic terminology (p. 200)—but he does not provide such comparative evidence for key motifs such as election and land possession, and thus fails to locate these motifs in their broader Ancient Near Eastern background. A related point can be raised with respect to the historical conditions behind the formation and transmission of the Esau/Edom folklore. Granted, it is very difficult to date most Pentateuchal and prophetic texts, and previous scholarship might have put too much emphasis on direct correlations between some historical events (particularly the fall of Jerusalem in 586 b.c.e.) and the harsh “nationalistic” readings proclaimed by the Prophets. However, I believe there are good reasons to assume—as some recent studies have shown—that behind the strong theological messages present in the Pentateuch and the Prophets there are historical facts that should be elucidated.[3] These questions, however, do not diminish the book's value. The author should be credited for the amount of scholarship involved, as well as for providing readers with a thorough textual study. Finally, as is usually the case with volumes in the LHBOTS series, the book has been meticulously and satisfactorily edited.

Juan Manuel Tebes, Argentine Catholic University, University of Buenos Aires, National Research Council

[1] H. Gunkel, Genesis (Mercer Library of Biblical Studies; Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997); V. Maag, “Jakob-Esau-Edom,” TZ 13 (1957), 418–29; J. Bartlett, Edom and the Edomites (JSOTSup, 77; Sheffield: JSOT, 1989); B. Dicou, Edom, Israel's Brother and Antagonist: The Role of Edom in Biblical Prophecy and Story (JSOTSup, 169; Sheffield: JSOT, 1994). reference

[2] E. Assis, “Why Edom? On the Hostility Towards Jacob's Brother in Prophetic Sources,” VT 56 (2006), 1–20 (14–15); F. A. Spina, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical History (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005). reference

[3] E.g., E. Assis, “Why Edom?”; J. M. Tebes, “The Edomite Involvement in the Destruction of the First Temple: A Case of Stab-in-the-Back Tradition?” JSOT 36 (2011), 219–55. reference