This passage should be read in the context of the Christian transformation of Rome. Since Christianity shares the biblical values that emphasize care for the poor with Judaism, the view that the poor deserve special attention spread throughout the Roman world with its rise. Christian clergy, particularly bishops, held key roles in supporting the indigent. Several scholars have analyzed the centrality of Christian clergy, particularly bishops, in the collection and distribution of alms, especially from the fourth century onward. Among them, Richard Finn, Almsgiving in the Later Roman Empire, p. 88, who writes: “Alms were the responsibility and gift of the bishop, whose eloquence was essential to their successful collection and whose moral authority was enhanced, but also opened up to criticism, through their distribution. The bishop usually retained a personal hand in this distribution which formed a bond of patronage or leadership with the principal beneficiaries.” And, Peter Brown argues for a “general consensus in all regions of the Roman and the post-Roman world of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, that the primary duty of the bishop was the care of the poor” (Poverty and Leadership, p. 45). Brown stresses that bishops gained power by supporting the impoverished, thereby expanding their “networks of patronage and protection” (Brown, Poverty and Leadership, p. 78-79).
Within this framework, our passage posits that, despite being lauded for ostensibly caring for the indigent, Esau actually robs the rural poor only to distribute his plunder as alms for the urban poor. In amoraic texts, the name Esau often refers to the Roman Empire (after its Christianization) and sometimes Christianity itself (see Carol Bakhos, ‘Figuring (out) Esau: The Rabbis and their Others’, JJS 58 (2007), p. 250-262, on this subject and the need to exercise caution when interpreting the symbolism implied by the name Esau, which may refer to Rome and, later, to Christian Rome). Nevertheless, the identification of Esau with Christian Rome in this midrash seems sound. By parceling out alms in public, Esau builds his reputation as “one who is generous to the poor.” Disapproval of giving out charity at public assemblies as a means for garnering praise appears in the New Testament: “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others” (Matthew 6:2, NRSV). Whereas Matthew criticizes Jewish methods of publicly distributing charity, our midrash criticizes Esau for making a show of his distribution of alms and, furthermore, for a practice that “oppresses the poor.” That is to say, despite being enacted in the guise of charity, his generosity in fact obscures theft and deceit.
This charge against Roman duplicity also appears in other amoraic midrashim. For example, Genesis Rabbah 65:1 (Theodor-Albeck, edition, p. 713) depicts Rome and its legal system as robbing and killing the innocent: “This evil kingdom robs and extorts yet it (lit. and she) looks as if she were holding court (bimah; lit. she arranges a platform that was erected for the judge’s tribunal).” In this text, Rome professes to operate a just legal system while boldly stealing from its subjects. Thus, this passage in Pesiqta de Rav Kahana shines a light on Rome’s hypocrisy by condemning Christian almsgiving, labeled as the actions of Esau. While Rome supported its citizens in certain cases (sometimes including the poor), it is noteworthy that, before the rise of Christianity, Rome had no interest in appearing “generous to the poor” (compare, Büchler, Studies, p. 144).
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