Parashah 63 in midrash Genesis Rabbah expounds on Genesis 25:19-32, which describes Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, her longings for and experiences during pregnancy, and the birth of Esau and Jacob, up to the point where Esau sells his birthright to Jacob. Our passage comments on verse 23, where God tells Rebecca: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23, NRSV). The passage discussed here focuses on its introductory words: “Two nations are in your womb,” presenting Israel and Rome as brotherly nations that share distinct characteristics and places in the world. Although Genesis Rabbah was compiled in the early fifth century, after the Christianization of Rome, that development does not seem to be a factor in the identification of Esau with Rome in this passage (see Yuval, Two Nations in Your Womb, p. 11; Bakhos, “Figuring (out) Esau,” p. 255; for a general survey on Esau in Genesis Rabbah, see Morgenstern, “The Image of Edom”; see also Cohen, “Esau as Symbol,” p. 19-27; Berthelot, “The Paradoxical Similarities,” p. 95-98).
Section A builds on the word “nations” (goyim) in Genesis 25:23: spelled as “g-y-y-m,” which could have two definitions: “peoples” and “those who are proud )or exalted(.” Based on this double-meaning, these twin nations are depicted boasting about their worlds and kingdoms. Significantly, this midrash presents these two entities in identical terms, without mention of moral, hierarchical or power-related differences. Neither does this text explicitly describe the tension or competition which appear subsequently, in both Genesis 25 and Parashah 63.
Section B further supports a reading of Esau and Jacob as representations of Israel and Rome rather than Israel and Christianity (or unspecified gentiles), for it names two great rulers from each nation’s past: Hadrian and Solomon (Hadas-Lebel, Jerusalem against Rome, p. 498, dates this tradition in Section B as “probably contemporary with Hadrian or a little before him,” but without offering a reason for this dating). The phrase giyey goyim denotes either “two proud nations” or “two exalted nations.” As Irit Aminoff writes: “Situating Hadrian on par with King Solomon emphasizes the equivalence between Israel’s kings and Rome’s emperors, and by this denying the political inferiority of Israel” (Esau, p. 278). Interestingly, Hadrian, who appears here as a king from the nations (’umot), is known in several other rabbinic texts as “Hadrian the wicked,” who brings destruction upon Jews in the land of Israel (see, for example, Jerusalem Talmud Peah 7:1, 20a; Ta‘anit 4:6, 69a [part two]). In our source, however, the tone differs: the emperor positioned as a peer of King Solomon, which emphasizes Israel’s former greatness. This midrash shows no indication of a contrast between these two worlds, kingdoms, or their monarchs.
Section C comments on the word “two,” drawing on the similarity between the Hebrew word “two” (shney) and the Aramaic term “hated,” whose root s-n-y is occasionally written with the letter shin (ש) rather than samekh (ס). The midrash explains that these two nations, Israel and Rome, are loathed by all other peoples. Israel Yuval dates this interpretation to the third century, noting that “At that time a strange solidarity existed between Rome and Judaea: both were hated. The preacher may have sensed a similarity between the triumphalist imperialism of Rome and the universal messianic aspirations of Judaism” (Two Nations in Your Womb, p. 12). This observation does not explicitly explain why Yuval dates this teaching to the third century except, perhaps, for an assumption that subsequent generations experienced an intensified tension with Rome, as it became Christian.
The first words of Section D—“Hated are your son/s in your belly”—are very difficult to understand, and commentators suggest various corrections. However, this section clearly concludes by highlighting the distinction between those twin sons citation from Malachi 1:2-3: “Yet Jacob I have loved; But Esau I have hated” (NKJV).
This presentation of Rome and Israel as two proud (or exalted) nations that are universally hated is very interesting, especially given their depiction as siblings. Whereas other traditions in this parashah comment on the latter portion of Gen. 25:23 and the remainder of this biblical chapter and, thus, highlight the rivalry and animus between these brothers-nations, this passage (except perhaps for Section D) emphasizes their similarities. At a time when Israel lived under Roman rule, this approach may have elevated Israel’s status while rejecting Roman superiority.
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