What happened to Esau?
In the rabbinic imagination Esau is the ancestor of the wicked Roman Empire. They drew this concusion from a creative interpretation of the story of Jacob and Esau, and from the Book of Daniel.
Daniel had predicted that the Jews would be subjugated successively by four kingdoms. When the fourth kingdom was overthrown the messianic age would begin.
By the 2nd century CE, the period when rabbinic Judaism was fashioned and the rabbinic imagination shaped, three of these kingdoms had come and gone. Babylon, Persia (or if you prefer, Assyria) and Greece had all ruled in the Land of Israel. As is the way of all powerful tyrannical regimes, each had fallen prey to their enemies. They were no more.
But now Israel was ruled by another power. Rome was a more fearsome opponent than any who had gone before. Like the Babylonians they had destroyed the Temple. Like the Babylonians, Persians and Greeks they were supremely self-confident. They could not foresee their impending downfall. But the rabbis could. Rome would be vanquished and the Messiah would arrive.
That Esau was the ancestor of Rome was not difficult to deduce. Rebecca had given birth to twins. She had been told that they would each become nations. They would confront each other. One would be stronger yet the greater would serve the younger. The twins were Jacob and Esau. Esau, the older, was a hunter, his younger twin Jacob a simple man, dwelling in tents. The prophecy foretold conflict between the brothers, but that the stronger would not ultimately prevail. Eventually Esau would serve Jacob. The rabbis saw this as a reference to the messianic future.
Later, when Jacob tricked Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, he gives him dominion over his brother. But when Esau begs for a blessing also, Isaac promises that one day he will rule, and pluck Jacob’s yoke from off his neck. The rabbis saw the times they were living in as the period when Esau (now represented by Rome) would rule. But ultimately the prophecy given to Rebecca would win out. That prophecy after all had come from God.
But the rabbis got it wrong. Rome was eventually defeated but the messianic age did not arrive. Instead Rome became the centre of Christianity. When medieval Christians persecuted them, the Jews saw them as Esau. Esau was still in charge. The promised redemption had not yet arrived.
The problem today is that Christians no longer play the role attributed to Esau. They don’t persecute Jews. Antisemitism may have deep and ancient roots in Christianity but the Church is not anti-Semitic. Not only has the messianic age not arrived, but Esau, as the rabbis conceived of him, is nowhere to be seen. He no longer exists. How could they have got it so wrong?
Unfortunately the rabbis who proclaimed Esau as Rome took a short term view. Living just a century after the Temple’s destruction they, not unreasonably, thought that history would repeat itself. The Babylonians had destroyed the first Temple. They had been conquered in turn and the Temple was rebuilt. The same would happen now. The Messiah would come, vanquish Rome and Jerusalem’s Temple would rise again. They were wrong.
The rabbinic imagination is the rich well from which the Midrash and Talmud are drawn. It is full of tremendous insights and great ideas. But it is not prophetic. Rabbis, not even the greats of the 2nd century are not able to foresee the unfolding of history. Which, probably, is a good thing.