Genesis Rabbah 16:4

Isaac’s blessing of Esau as an explanation for Roman power
5th CE
Syria Palaestina
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Title of work: 
: Genesis Rabbah



This passage from the fifth-century midrash Genesis Rabbah, which also has a parallel in Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 (part four), is part of a longer section that expounds Genesis 2:10-15:

“(10) A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. (11) The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; (12) and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. (13) The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. (14) The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates” (NRSV).

Our passage is placed within a section of the midrash which states that these rivers symbolize the four kingdoms, following the famous vision in Daniel (7:2-7). In this sequence, which encompasses the fullness of history, the fourth kingdom will be the worst oppressor, but also the last, for deliverance will come with its demise (for more on this theme, see the commentary on Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 [part one]). In both Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah: the Pishon stands for Babylonia, the Gihon is associated with Media, the Tigris represents Greece, and, Rome is represented by the fourth river – the Euphrates, or prat in Hebrew. This midrash uses vocabulary that resembles the sound or root (p-r-t) of this Hebrew name to comment on Rome’s power and eventual fall. The narrative voices in this midrash seem to vary (they also differ among the extant manuscripts): While Sections B and D portray God speaking, the voices in the remaining sections are harder to identify. Nonetheless, this text is significant for its explanation of the source of Roman power: Isaac’s blessing to his son Esau who, like Edom, symbolizes Rome (see the commentary on Genesis Rabbah 6:3 for a discussion of Esau in rabbinic literature and, particularly, in Genesis Rabbah). 

Section A draws on the Hebrew word heyferah (the hiphil conjugation of the root p-r-r) that here may mean “to destroy” or “to break,” including to abrogate a covenant, to identify the fourth river as Edom; indeed, Marcus Jastrow renders this passage as: “she broke faith with, and distressed his (God’s) sons” (Jastrow, A Dictionary, p. 1241). If the action cited here goes beyond physical destruction, to evoke severing a covenant, this section might represent a debate with Christianity. However, this reading is uncertain, for the physical ruin and the enduring distress that Rome afflicted God’s children are equally plausible subjects.

Each of the subsequent sections expound on the name prat, offering further evidence to support the identification of the fourth kingdom, namely Rome, with this river. As in Section A, Section B too uses the word heyferah. However, here, God states that Rome went beyond harming Israel, referred to here as “His sons” by destroying (or “breaking faith with”) and disturbing his world.

Whereas these two sections (A+B) address the past, Section C provides an explanation for Rome’s strength in the present. Building on the similarity between the word parat, “she multiplied” (from the root p-r-y,which also means “to grow,” “to increase,” and “to be fruitful”; Jastrow, A Dictionary, p. 1225), this midrash ascribes the origins of Roman prosperity to “the blessing bestowed by the elderly man,” understood as Isaac, the father of Jacob and Esau (see Albeck, Bereschit Rabba, p. 148; Margulies, Midrash, p. 283):

“(39) Behold, your dwelling shall be of the fatness of the earth, And of the dew of heaven from above. (40) By your sword you shall live, And you shall serve your brother; And it shall come to pass, when you become restless, That you shall break his yoke from your neck” (Genesis 27:39-40, NKJV).

In Genesis, Isaac blesses Esau after having blessed Jacob, who disguised himself as his elder brother Esau, to receive the blessing of the first-born. For the midrash, Isaac’s blessing to Esau is pivotal for Rome’s rise to power and dominance. In the parallel in Leviticus Rabbah, Roman prominence is attributed to a prayer rather than a blessing:

"נהר הרביעי הוא פרת". זו אדום שפרת ורבת בתפילתו שלזקן.

“And the fourth river is the Euphrates” (prat; Genesis 2:14, NRSV). This is Edom (Rome), that was fruitful (parat) and multiplied because of the prayer of the elder man.

In both of these midrashic versions, this passage is significant for its contrast with other rabbinic sources, which typically trace Rome’s triumph to Israel’s neglect of the commandments (mitzvot; on Israel’s transgressions as the reason for Roman victory see, for example, Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 4:1, 7b; Taanit 4:6, 68c and Jerusalem Talmud Ta‘anit 4:6, 68d-69a). Here and in Leviticus Rabbah, this triumph is attributed to a blessing that was granted to Esau.

The closing two sections of this midrash focus on the future punishment that Rome will experience and the end of its rule: Section D also uses the root p-r-r (here in the hiphil infinitive form) in its presentation of God’s statement that he was “destined to break faith” with Rome or “to destroy” her (‘atid lehafer). Section E incorporates a biblical passage that discusses God’s revenge upon Edom:

“(1) Who is this who comes from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah, This One who is glorious in His apparel, traveling in the greatness of His strength?— ‘I who speak in righteousness, mighty to save.’ (2) Why is Your apparel red, and Your garments like one who treads in the winepress? (3) ‘I have trodden the winepress (purah) alone, and from the peoples no one was with Me. For I have trodden them in My anger, and trampled them in My fury; their blood is sprinkled upon My garments, and I have stained all My robes’” (Isaiah 63:1-3, NKJV).

Our source quotes the opening words of Isaiah 63:3 as a reference to this three-verse selection, for this biblical material has two levels of significance: first, its mention of retribution against Edom, read as reference to the future punishment of Rome; and, second, it includes the word purah, which seems to signify either part of a winepress, a specific measurement or a container for grapes. Since purah sounds a bit like prat,this association connects the name of this river with the fall of Rome. Therefore, this concluding section may provide comfort for Israel living under Rome and fits the model of the four kingdoms.

This midrash has a clear structure: Sections A and B address Rome’s sins, Section C offers an explanation for her power (despite her evil ways), and Sections D and E predict her imminent demise. Although the content in the parallel passage from Leviticus Rabbah is structured differently, and only its last section (E) is articulated in God’s voice, here too the order of sections is carefully arranged:

A)     "נהר הרביעי הוא פרת". זו אדום שפרת ורבת בתפילתו שלזקן.

B)     ד' א'. שפרת ורבת הצירא לעולמו

C)     ד' א'. שפרת ורבת והצירא לבנו.

D)    ד' א' שפרת ורבת והצירא לביתו.

E)     ד' א'. "פרת" על שום סופה. שאני עתיד להיפרע ממנה בסוף. ה' ה' ד' "פורה דרכתי לב".

A)     “And the fourth river is the Euphrates” (prat; Genesis 2:14, NRSV). This is Edom (Rome), that was fruitful (parat) and multiplied because of the prayer of the elder man.

B)    Another thing: For she (Rome) was fruitful (parat) and multiplied, and caused distress to his world.

C)    Another thing: For she (Rome) was fruitful (parat) and multiplied, and caused distress to his (God’s) son.

D)    Another thing: For she (Rome) was fruitful (parat) and multiplied, and caused distress to his (God’s) home.

E)     Another thing: “Prat” – because of her end: For I am destined to repay (le-hipara‘) her in the end, as it is written [in Scripture]: “I have trodden the winepress (purah) alone, [And from the peoples no one was with Me. For I have trodden them in My anger, And trampled them in My fury; Their blood is sprinkled upon My garments, And I have stained all My robes]” (Isaiah 63:3, NKJV).

This version also starts with explanation of Roman prosperity and power (A). Sections B, C and D assert that “she,” namely Rome, used this success to disrupt God’s world, sons, and house (probably the Temple), respectively. Section E then predicts Rome’s ultimate fall.

The idea that Roman dominance originated from Isaac’s blessing or prayer to Esau also appears in Leviticus Rabbah 15:9. Thus, these midrashim demonstrate an innovative explanation that is not related to Israel’s conduct, but rather to a blessing from the forefather of both Jacob-Israel and Esau-Rome. In the two versions studied here, despite this wielding authority that is rooted in Isaac’s paternal blessing, Rome’s own sins will lead to its destruction.

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