Sifre Deuteronomy 343 (part two)

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Rome is identified as Esau and Seir

3d CE
Syria Palaestina
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Sifre Deuteronomy

This selection from the third-century midrash Sifre Deuteronomy expounds on a verse from Moses’s final blessing to Israel: “And he said: ‘The Lord came from Sinai, And dawned on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran, And He came with ten thousands of saints; From His right hand came a fiery law for them’” (Deuteronomy 33:2; NKJV). The sages read this verse as a reference to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (see also Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael beḤodesh (Yitro), Parashah 3 and 5 [Horovitz-Rabin edition, p. 214, 221]). This source is important because it uses the names Seir and Esau to symbolize Rome. While this link is common in amoraic texts, especially fifth-century midrashim, scholars have debated the initial appearance of this association (for a survey of views on the dating of this identification, see Berthelot, “The Paradoxical Similarities,” p. 95-99, who cites our text as evidence for the third century).

This passage and Sifre Deuteronomy 343 (part one) indicate that this association had been well established by the third century. Our text also anticipates that Rome is destined to be punished by God, immediately followed by Israel’s ascent. Significantly, the fact that Jacob and Esau are not only enemies but also brothers is not developed here.

Section A cites two verses – each includes the name Seir – to suggest that, just as God shook the world when the Torah was given, so he will do when he inflicts retribution upon Rome:

Deuteronomy 33:2

Judges 5:4

“And he said: ‘The Lord came from Sinai, And dawned on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran, And He came with ten thousands of saints; From His right hand came a fiery law for them’” (NKJV).

“Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled” (NRSV).



Through these verses, our midrash establishes the link between Edom and Seir, indicating that these two names, along with Esau, signify Rome. According to this source, the inevitable destruction of Rome by God will coincide with natural calamities.

Section B uses the biblical description of the delivery of the twins Jacob and Esau, specifically the image of Jacob holding Esau’s heel during their birth, to teach that, upon the demise of the Roman Empire, Israel will govern, just as Jacob (who symbolizes Israel) follows Esau. A related interpretation of this verse appears in 4 Ezra 6:7-10:

“I answered and said, “What will be the dividing of the times? Or when will be the end of the first age and the beginning of the age that follows?” He said to me, “From Abraham to Isaac, because from him were born Jacob and Esau, for Jacob’s hand held Esau’s heel from the beginning. Now Esau is the end of this age, and Jacob is the beginning of the age that follows. The beginning of a person is the hand, and the end of a person is the heel; seek for nothing else, Ezra, between the heel and the hand, Ezra!” (NRSV; see Stone, Fourth Ezra, p. 159–161).

Michael Stone and others understand Esau to represent Rome in this pseudoepigraphic text (Fourth Ezra, p. 159–161; this association has not gained scholarly consensus). Based on this passage, Mireille Hadas-Lebel dates the identification of Esau with Rome to the late first- or early second century, although she does not link this usage to the parallel in Sifre Deuteronomy (Jerusalem against Rome, p. 499-500; both she and Stone cite only amoraic parallels). It is also noteworthy that 4 Ezra seems to describe two distinct worlds or ages whereas, from our passage, it may be inferred that, in our world, Rome will be the last kingdom to rule over Israel.

Thus, by drawing on biblical verses that include the names Edom, Seir, and Esau, these midrashic passages offer consolation to Israel, which is currently under Roman rule: with divine support, the Roman empire will fall and Israel will rise to power.


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Sifre Deuteronomy 343 (part two)
Author(s) of this publication: Yael Wilfand
Publishing date: Thu, 06/27/2019 - 08:03
Visited: Sat, 02/24/2024 - 04:21

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