Beyond winners and losers

We’ve talked enough about the election, so how about a discussion on the doctrine of election, the fact that God freely chooses one people over others? It’s scandalous idea in today’s world, but an undeniable part of Scripture. The election produces winners and losers; how about the doctrine of election?

Let’s consider the case of Isaac and Ishmael. The Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, is firmly associated with Rosh Hashanah, but we sometimes forget that it’s the second of two special readings for the holiday. First we are to read the preceding chapter, which tells of the birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Ishmael from Abraham’s encampment. From this brief description, you might think of Isaac and Ishmael as opposites, but what’s most striking in the narrative are the similarities between their two stories. In both cases, Abraham is tested because of his son—Ishmael in Genesis 21:11 and Isaac in Genesis 22:1-2. In both stories, Abraham’s response to God’s instruction is described in identical words, vayashkem Avraham ba-boker; “And Abraham got up early in the morning.” In Ishmael’s story, Abraham takes bread and water and lays it upon the shoulder of Hagar, and sends her off with Ishmael into the wilderness; in the Akedah, he takes the wood of the offering and lays it upon Isaac’s shoulders and goes off with him. When Hagar runs out of water and is ready to give up Ishmael to death, the angel of God calls to her from heaven, just as the angel of the Lord calls to Abraham from heaven as he is about to give Isaac over to death. God opens Hagar’s eyes to see the source of salvation, a spring of water, that an instant before was not present, just as Abraham lifts up his eyes to see the source of salvation, a ram caught in the thicket, that wasn’t there a moment before. Finally, both sons receive the promise of abundant offspring, although Ishmael is simply to become a great nation (Gen. 21:18), and Isaac is promised offspring “as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17).

This final contrast reminds us that, of course, the destiny of the two sons is quite different and “In Isaac shall your seed be called” (Gen. 21:12). Still, we tend to think of Ishmael as the rejected son when it might be more accurate to think of him as the son not chosen, for there is only one chosen to be the heir, but still blessed. This perspective could correct some of our abuses of the idea of chosenness, and counter-balance our tendency to mix notions of ethnic superiority with the truth of divine election.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a great midrash when he arrived in Washington for peace talks ­­ a couple of months ago. He told “how two brothers in conflict—brothers, Isaac and Ishmael—joined together . . .  at a moment of pain and mutual respect to bury Abraham in Hebron”  ( Netanhyahu suggested that the pain experienced by the offspring of Isaac and Ishmael, the Jews and the Arabs, might unite them to find a way to make peace today. Not long after, he suggested that Ishmael might make a good start toward peace by recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, but that’s another story. He clearly honored Ishmael as a son of Abraham, even if not the uniquely chosen son.

You can see the same dynamic in the story of Jacob and Esau. In some ways Esau is the bad guy. When he sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew, Jacob comes across as too crafty, ready to take advantage of his poor brother’s lack of impulse control. But the moral of the story is “thus Esau despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:34). Later Esau grieves his parents by marrying Canaanite women, proving himself unworthy of the birthright and its attendant blessing, which Rachel and Jacob soon connive to re-route to Jacob. Still, when we hear Esau’s cries when he learns that he’s lost the blessing, we are drawn to him, and cheer him on when Isaac finds a blessing for him too. Like Ishmael, he is not the uniquely chosen one, but he is blessed.

In a remarkable d’rash on this story, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, no less), points out that Esau’s blessing came to pass long before Jacob’s: “‘These are the kings of Edom [i.e. the descendants of Esau] who ruled before any king reigned over Israel’ (Genesis 36:31). Esau’s descendants were settled in their land while Jacob and his children were enduring exile.” (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “The Other Face of Esau,” posted November 18, 2009, [, accessed 11/8/10].) Accordingly, when Jacob’s offspring finally return from their exile in Egypt, God tells them, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own” (Deut. 2:4-5). Later Moses commands Israelites, “Do not hate an Edomite, for he is your brother” (Deut. 23:8).

Rabbi Sacks says that the “sages admired Esau’s intense love and devotion toward Isaac.” What I’ve always noted is the nobility of Esau when he is finally reunited with Jacob twenty years after his shenanigans with Esau’s blessing. Esau seems noble and forgiving, powerful enough to meet Jacob and his band with 400 armed men, but magnanimous when he sees that Jacob intends no ill. I’ll admit it, I like the hairy guy.

So what about Malachi’s saying, “‘Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ the Lord says. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated…’” (Mal. 1:2-3)?

Rabbi Sacks argues from the Hebrew that “hate” here is a relative term that “means not hated but loved less intensely, less intimately. That, as Ramban and Radak point out, is what it means in the passage, ‘Jacob cohabited with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah … When the Lord saw that Leah was hated [senuah]…’ Leah was not hated; she was merely less loved. That too is its meaning in Deuteronomy: ‘If a man has two wives, one loved, the other hated [senuah]…’ Here again, the meaning is not hated but less loved.”

 Rabbi Sacks goes on to quote Rav Kook, a great rabbi and scholar who served as the first chief rabbi of the independent state of Israel. When Jacob is reunited with Esau, he says, “I have seen you, and it is like seeing the face of G-d” (Genesis 33:10). Rabbi Kook comments, “His word shall not go down as a vain utterance. The brotherly love of Esau and Jacob, Isaac and Ishmael, will assert itself above all the confusion that the evil brought on by our bodily nature has engendered. It will overcome them and transform them into eternal light and compassion (Letters, 1, 112).”

Amen, so may it be, especially as we expect that eternal light and compassion to be revealed at the return of our Messiah, Yeshua.

 Rabbi Sacks concludes, “When Jacob was chosen, Esau was not rejected. . . . Chosenness means two things: intimacy and responsibility. G-d holds us close and makes special demands on us. Beyond that, G-d is the G-d of all mankind—the Author of all—who cares for all, and is accessible to all. In an age of resurgent religious conflict, these are truths we must never forget.”

I consider myself a Zionist and agree with Netanyahu that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is a non-negotiable, essential for any meaningful peace with the Arabs. Still it seems a shame that followers of Messiah often stress the righteousness of Israel’s cause and the promises that God will vanquish our foes more than they do the hope of ultimate peace, which is after all the hallmark of Messiah’s coming. The Torah makes it clear that God’s choice of Israel is not a rejection of non-Israel, but the means of blessing the nations, even those descended from Esau and Ishmael.


1 thought on “Beyond winners and losers”

  1. I enjoy your insights! FYI: the frist 2 volumes of Rabbi Sacks’ essays on the weekly Torah portion are now available in book form:

    Covenant & Conversation: Genesis

    Covenant & Conversation: Exodus


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