This essay is the last in a six-part series by Jacob Howland on Homer and the Hebrew Bible. Historians of Western intellectual culture sometimes compare “Jerusalem,” or the biblical traditions that erupt into history at Sinai, with “Athens,” the city where Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle sought human wisdom through the exercise of the human mind. In this series, Howland invites a different comparison. Rather than comparing later prophets to philosophers, he looks back at yet earlier cultural cornerstones set at the very foundations of Hebraic and Greek civilizations.—The Editors
In his landmark book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), the great literary scholar Erich Auerbach devoted the first chapter, “Odysseus’s Scar,” to analyzing some fundamental stylistic differences between the Homeric epics and the Hebrew Bible. The Homeric style, he wrote, delights in the rich particularity of the world; but, behind its uniformly illuminated “foreground,” little transpires. By contrast, the language of the Bible is dense and compact but positively “fraught with background”; beneath its surface, one senses the agitated flow of the characters’ emotions. Similarly, while the passage of time affects Homer’s heroes only outwardly, God actively “bends and kneads” the Bible’s characters. Odysseus does not seem to develop, but “what a road, [and] what a fate, lie between Jacob who cheated his father out of his blessing and the old man whose favorite son [Joseph] has been torn to pieces by a wild beast!”
Auerbach is perhaps too dazzled by the foreground of the Homeric epics to do justice to their own species of fraught background. A suggestion of Nietzsche’s in The Birth of Tragedy—namely, that the shining, crisp, clear world of the Iliad and the Odyssey was a beautiful illusion that the Greeks needed in order to endure the terror and horror of existence—points us in a better direction. That terror—the molten flow of primordial Chaos, agitating the chests of men—is the deepest, darkest background of Homer’s poetry. To control its eruptions, and to direct those that are necessary toward some enduring common good (volcanic soil, after all, makes for lush farmland), is the psychological and political problem Odysseus confronts in the Odyssey.
When it comes to biblical style, however, Auerbach’s characterizations are indeed profoundly insightful. When Abraham is introduced in Genesis, we learn only the most basic facts about his life: his line of descent from Shem, his residence in Ur and then Haran. But unspoken background accumulates around the great patriarch like thick fog in a mountain valley. Nowhere is this background more densely freighted, more unspeakably fraught, than in the case of his son Isaac, who came down from the ordeal of the Binding on Mount Moriah physically intact but, as the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard intuited in Fear and Trembling (1843), feeling abandoned—orphaned—by God, or his father, or both. Abraham, at the end of his life, “gave everything he had to Isaac,” we are told, yet the father could not restore what was taken from his son on Mount Moriah: the confident joy that was the promise of his name, Yitsḥak (he laughs).
Isaac, Robert Alter observes, “is in most respects the most passive of all the patriarchs.” Where Abraham is preeminently a doer, an agent, his son Isaac is a patient—in some sense even a convalescent. He is forty years old when his father decides he must be married. His mother Sarah, who must have hovered over him after his near-sacrifice, is by now dead and buried in the Machpelah cave in Hebron, which Abraham had shrewdly purchased in order to establish a legal foothold in the Promised Land. A Canaanite woman will not do for his son. Too old for the journey himself (he is now one-hundred-forty), Abraham sends his servant to Aram-Naharaim, the city of his brother Nahor, to find a bride from within his own clan. But Isaac himself must remain at home. Thinking of death, Abraham makes his servant swear that he will never bring him back to his former homeland; too many anxieties, at once paternal and covenantal, argue against it.
The text leaves little doubt as to Isaac’s psychological fragility. When the servant duly arrives back in Canaan with the to-be-bride, we are told, “Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah as wife. And he loved her, and Isaac was consoled after his mother’s death.” Is it any wonder that he had been especially close to his mother? Or that now, three years after her death—she gave birth to him at the advanced age of ninety and died at one-hundred-twenty-seven—he lives in her tent? (Perhaps he lived there before her death, too.) Or that he finds solace in Rebekah, Sarah-like in her beauty—she was “very comely to look at”—and her powerful presence?
Rebekah is in many respects the wifely counterweight God intended for man when He created woman. While Isaac stays put (that one trip up the mountain was enough for him!), Rebekah is always on the move. She is nothing if not wholesome and healthy: vigorous in body, sharp in mind, strong in will.
These virtues—bound together by trust in God, and soon to be focused on her son Jacob as the bearer of the Promise— ground her distinctive heroism and are manifest from the moment she appears on the biblical scene. When Abraham’s servant spots her at the communal well, she springs into action with boundless hospitality, running to draw water for his ten camels, perhaps 250 gallons in all. Then she runs to announce him and his entourage to her brother Laban and to her mother, the wife of Nahor’s now-deceased son Bethuel. She literally jumps at the chance to follow in the footsteps of her great uncle Abraham, leaving Haran to take her part in the unfolding story of the family that God, too, has chosen.
Motherhood and matriarchy are natural to Rebekah, but they don’t come easily. Like Sarah (and later, Rachel), she is initially barren. God’s plan or Isaac’s prayers evidently help her to conceive. Twin sons clash so fiercely in her womb that she cries out, “Then why me?” God answers her directly, a sign of election that she will reciprocate with Abrahamic devotion. He informs her that “Two nations—in your womb,/ two peoples from your loins shall issue./ People over people shall prevail,/ the elder, the younger’s slave.” The natures of these quarrelsome twins also manifest themselves immediately. The firstborn son is “ruddy, like a hairy mantle all over, and they called his name Esau.” The second comes out “grasping Esau’s heel [’akev], and they called his name Jacob [Ya’akov].”
What is the meaning of Jacob’s defining grasp? Does he want to pull Esau back into the womb, or to be pulled out by him? He seems to sense that he is entering a hostile world where he must fight for himself. Later he will acquire Esau’s birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew, and, in what resembles an Odyssean rite of initiation, will disguise himself in animal skins to steal Esau’s blessing from old, blind Isaac—a deed that leaves his brother seething with murderous resentment and his father “seized with a very great trembling.” Nor had the newborn infant Jacob spared Rebekah herself, for his was evidently a breech birth. Shifting and restless even in the womb, he would be trouble for his family from the get-go.
We are surprised to read that “Esau was a man skilled [yode’a] in hunting, a man of the field, and that Jacob was a simple man, a dweller in tents.” The King James Bible translates yode’a as “cunning,” heightening what will seem in hindsight to be an ironic contrast between Jacob’s supposedly “simple” nature and Esau’s supposedly “clever” one. For while Jacob is initially a homebody like his father, he will prove with the help of his mother to be as adept as any game hunter in the use of bait and camouflage.
“And Isaac loved Esau for the game that he brought him, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” Isaac loves Esau for the meat he provides, but one also guesses that this aging frail soul takes vicarious pleasure in his older son’s manly pursuit of wild game with quiver and bow. By contrast, Rebekah’s love of Jacob is unconditional. With the farsightedness of maternal ambition, she perceives that her younger son is a kindred spirit, one quick to seize the main chance when it comes along.
Jacob’s attachment to the family tents is also consistent with his grasping nature: a combination of acquisitiveness with a preference for the safety and stability of domestic life. The blend is unsurprising in one who came into the world expecting anything but a warm welcome. It’s as though he was born already feeling the “Terror of Isaac”—his peculiar way of referring to the God of his father. Perhaps his father’s unspeakable ordeal on the mountaintop marked the son even in the womb: research in epigenetics suggests that traumatic experiences can be expressed in one’s genes and passed down to one’s children. Yet Jacob is no Isaac, as is clear from his receptivity to Rebekah’s big plans for him.
If Esau has likewise internalized Isaac’s wounds, it isn’t obvious to the reader. But it is telling that he comes into the world with a ruddy pelt, like a beast of the field. Esau’s mantle is not removable, unlike the “skins of the kids” with which Rebekah camouflages the hands and neck of Jacob to aid him in stealing his brother’s blessing. Incapable of moral deception, of appearing as other than he is, Esau is indeed the simple brother. Nor can he separate himself from his animal nature; he must directly gratify his impulses, without taking thought for the future.
So ruled is Esau by his stomach that his language breaks down when he offers to trade his birthright for a bowl of Jacob’s lentil stew. Regarding his breathless request to “Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff [ha-adom ha-adom ha-zeh, literally, ‘this red red’], for I am famished,” Robert Alter notes that the verb Esau uses for “gulping down” occurs nowhere else in the Bible, “but in rabbinic Hebrew it is reserved for the feeding of animals.” Leon Kass further observes that at the end of the episode, “the piling up of five single-word verbs, “and-he-ate and-he-drank and-he-rose-up and-he-left and-he- despised [his birthright],” indicates a degree of vigorous action that belies Esau’s claim to have been “at the point of death.”
“And it happened that when Isaac was old, his eyes grew too bleary to see.” Feeble and bedridden in his old age, Isaac’s world has contracted to sensory immediacies: the taste of roasted meat, the smell and feel of a son’s hairy arms. Rebekah overhears him asking Esau to “hunt me some game, and make me a dish of the kind that I love and bring it to me that I may eat, so that I may solemnly bless you before I die.” God has blessed Isaac with flocks and herds and many slaves and has promised to multiply his seed; Rebekah appreciates the power of a paternal blessing “in the Lord’s presence” (words she adds when quoting Isaac’s instructions to Esau), and she is determined to ensure that Isaac’s blessing will go to Jacob.
The episode of Isaac’s deception is a vivid little dramatic masterpiece. It is Jacob’s initiation into the cunning and tenacious ways of his mother. The whole plan is Rebekah’s, and she is very much in charge. Twice she tells Jacob to “listen to my voice” and do as she commands; twice she calls him “my son,” underscoring that his deeds on this day will decide which parent he takes after. Jacob has no moral objection to her scheme, only a tactical one: he is “smooth-skinned” (like, one cannot help thinking, the clever serpent in the garden of Eden) while Esau is hairy. “What if my father feels me and I seem a cheat to him”—strange words, for he would then not just seem to be a cheat—“and bring on myself a curse and not a blessing?” “Upon me be your curse, my son,” Rebekah replies, but this encouragement is no less strange: if Isaac’s blessing cannot be transferred after it has been bestowed, wouldn’t the same be true of his curse?
Jacob comes to his father decked out in Esau’s garments and the strategically positioned kidskins. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, bearing lamb dressed up as wild game. His complex fraud is breathtakingly brazen. “Father!” he cries. “Here I am” replies Isaac, fully available as just what he is; but, he wonders, “Who are you, my son?” Well might he ask. Even as Jacob usurps his brother’s identity, he distances himself from his father: when Isaac asks how he bagged his game so quickly, he replies “Because the Lord your God gave me good luck” (emphasis added). Isaac is clearly suspicious—“The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are Esau’s hands”—but while he hears, he does not listen. He is reassured especially by the smell of Esau’s garments, “the smell of the field that the Lord has blessed,” and he blesses Jacob in turn.
When Esau learns of his brother’s trick, he cries out “with a great and bitter outcry”: “Was his name called Ya’akov/ that he should trip me now [ya’k’veni, from ’akov, ‘crooked’] twice by the heels?” Isaac sorrowfully explains that he has made Jacob “overlord to you, and all his brothers I gave him as slaves, and with grain and wine I endowed him.” Esau mournfully implores Isaac to bless him, too: “Do you have but one blessing, my father?” Isaac does bless him: Esau will have bounty from the earth, but he must live by the sword, with the promise that he will someday break off Jacob’s yoke from his neck.
It is in the act of blessing that Isaac proves to be most potent. Esau becomes a wealthy clan leader with hundreds of fighting men, and ultimately the progenitor of a nation. But that nation is Edom, a thorn in Israel’s side, just as Jacob was in his. Esau sires twelve tribes—like Jacob, but also like his half-uncle Ishmael, a “wild ass of a man,” one of whose daughters Esau takes for a wife. Duped by his mother and her favored child, he is the Ishmael of his generation: the older son who, displaced by the younger, is cast out from familial affection.
Forcibly propelled from the nest by his own actions, Jacob must flee Beersheba. “Look,” Rebekah tells him,
Esau your brother is consoling himself with the idea that he will kill you. So now, my son, listen to my voice, and rise, flee to my brother Laban in Haran, and you may stay with him a while until your brother’s wrath subsides, until your brother’s rage against you subsides and he forgets what you did to him, and I will send and fetch for you from there. Why should I be bereft of both of you on one day?
But she knows why. Her betrayal of Esau has also deprived her of Jacob, whom she will never embrace again. Yet she has deliberately chosen to make these sacrifices. It is her resolve in the face of entirely foreseeable consequences that elevates her from a mother to a matriarch: a woman whose powerful elective affinity for the Abrahamic mission triumphs over her natural maternal affections and sympathies, which surely extend also to Esau.
Jacob’s road to adulthood begins with his journey to Haran, an idea that Rebekah cleverly plants in Isaac’s mind when she claims that her life will be no good to her if (like Esau) Jacob “takes a wife from Hittite women.” God comes to Jacob in a dream in the no-man’s land of Bethel, where Abram built an altar when he first entered Canaan. “I, the Lord, am the God of Abraham your father and of Isaac,” He announces, suggesting that Jacob is spiritually the son not so much of his father as of his grandfather.
But Abraham’s God is not yet Jacob’s. God promises him the land on which he lies and seed “like the dust of the earth” through which “all the clans of the earth shall be blessed,” and He tells him that “I will guard you wherever you go.” These abundant assurances fill the wary Jacob with awe, but elicit only a conditional commitment: if God returns him safely to his father’s house, “then the Lord will be my God.” The way back home—back to the house and the faith of his fathers—will be long and hard, and will finally involve a reckoning with a man who, for now at least, wants him dead.
Jacob’s twenty years in Haran season and toughen him even as they expand his circle of care and concern far beyond himself. There he acquires wives (more than he’d bargained for, in fact) and children, and learns important things: how to labor for the ones he loves, and how to persevere in the face of significant frustration. His uncle Laban tricks Jacob just as he himself tricked Isaac, substituting Leah for Rachel in the dark to extract another seven years of work from him. Laban explains that “It is not done thus in our place, to give the younger girl before the firstborn”—a morally fitting tit-for-tat, Alter observes, as Jacob “in his place acted to put the younger before the firstborn.”
Measured as he has measured, Jacob learns the way of the world and the way of God. More, he learns how the two ways mysteriously converge, as the arc of the universe bends toward justice.
And with this we return to Homer.
Jacob and Odysseus are in many respects cut from the same cloth. The man whose very name is Trouble is famously shifting and shifty. He is polutropos: a man of “many twists and turns,” disguises and devices, including the Trojan Horse and the ram under which he hides so as to slip, Jacob-like, beneath the blind Cyclops’s probing hands. What is more, both men leave home and return, after twenty years abroad, inwardly changed and chastened.
But a closer Odyssean analogy to Jacob’s story—at least up to this point—may be that of Odysseus’s son Telemachus, another homebody whose life is endangered in his own house; who is launched by a powerful female on a dangerous voyage that takes him back to an older generation; and who, in the process, crosses the threshold of manhood so that he may take his part in a god’s plans for his family. Telemachus, too, must learn how to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors.
For the wily and defensive Jacob, this means expanding: opening his soul in love, and laboring to sustain a family. For the impulsive and ingenuous Telemachus—wishfully named Far From Combat, perhaps by his mother Penelope or his grandmother—it means contracting: becoming harder, more circumspect and self-controlled. While Jacob must build a home, Telemachus must reclaim one that has been lost. And that will require him to stand alongside his father and close with his enemies in a daring surprise attack.
At the beginning of the Odyssey, Telemachus is utterly discouraged. Spurning custom, Penelope’s suitors have refused to approach his grandfather Icarius to ask for her hand, preferring instead to besiege his home and consume his inheritance. Seemingly heedless of his interests, his mother for more than three years refuses to accept or reject any offer of marriage. He is convinced that his father—the one man who could put a stop to the suitors’ depredations—is dead. And because Odysseus has vanished without a trace, he himself has been denied the fame that would have accrued to him had “all united Achaea . . . raised his tomb.” Telemachus considers himself to be “a boy inept in battle,” and he is unsure even whether he is Odysseus’s son. He feels very much alone as he contemplates the prospect of an “unsung future.”
But Telemachus gives his mother too little credit. By putting off any decision about marriage on the pretext that she must first finish her father-in-law Laertes’ funeral shroud, Penelope has managed to protect her son’s life while preserving her own autonomy. For had she refused outright to marry any of the suitors, they would likely have killed Telemachus and divided up his property. Recently, however, they have discovered her ruse of unraveling by night what she has woven by day. That discovery prompts the even more clever Athena, daughter of the goddess Metis (Cunning Intelligence), to bring matters to a head in a way that Penelope, fearful of losing her son, would never have countenanced.
Athena appears in Ithaca in the guise of a visitor who calls himself Mentes, a name formed from the Indo-European root *men-, “to think.” Her aim is to rouse Telemachus to intelligent action and prepare him for a fight. Mentes speaks to him like, as Telemachus gratefully acknowledges, “a father to a son”—and as no one else has ever done, for the guardian whom Odysseus appointed to look after him when he left for Troy, an old man named Mentor, seems to have been anything but. The visitor now advises him to call an assembly and “tell the suitors to scatter,” and then go to the mainland to seek news of Odysseus. Suggesting that Odysseus would have killed the suitors with poison-tipped arrows, Mentes also encourages Telemachus to be brave like Orestes, who avenged the murder of his father Agamemnon. “You must not cling to your boyhood any longer,” he tells the youth; “it’s time you were a man.”
Thus encouraged, Telemachus informs the suitors that he will sail to Pylos and Sparta, and announces—foolishly—that “I’ll stop at nothing to hurl destruction at your heads.” From this they surmise that he intends “to hire cutthroats,” or perhaps to hunt for “lethal poison” to dose their wine. And so the die is cast; the furious suitors make plans to waylay him on his return voyage. But Athena, who can be as little surprised by their murderous rage as Rebekah was by Esau’s, assumes the form of Mentor to accompany Telemachus to Pylos. There she reveals herself by turning into an eagle and flying away, filling Telemachus with cheer even as his mother tosses sleeplessly in her bed, harried by anxiety for her only son.
Telemachus is handsomely hosted at Pylos by Nestor, who fought with his father at Troy. Nestor tells him that none of the Achaeans could hope to rival Odysseus “for sheer cunning.” “I look at you and a sense of wonder takes me,” the grandfatherly old warrior tells him. “Your way with words—it’s just like his—/ no youngster could ever speak like you, so apt, so telling.” Nestor reports that Athena “lavished care” on Odysseus; with her help, he suggests, Telemachus—the “true son of my good friend Odysseus”—could defeat the suitors.
Telemachus’s visit to Sparta is even more encouraging. King Menelaus tells him what he learned from the sea-god Proteus: Odysseus is alive, and being held by force on Calypso’s island. What is more, Menelaus’s wife Helen, the resplendent daughter of Zeus and the mortal Leda, recognizes Telemachus immediately, pointing to “that man”—perhaps “the first time in his prolonged boyhood that he has been called a man,” Eva Brann notes, “and by such a personage!”—and dispelling any lingering doubt about his paternity. “To the life he’s like the great son of Odysseus,” she says; “surely he’s Telemachus!” Most important, this famous and powerful couple, who between the two of them know Odysseus as an enemy as well as an ally, give him a concrete model to emulate. For their stories—really, their ensemble performances—vividly communicate what sort of man his father was, and is.
Slipping a drug into the winebowl so that their memories will not raise tears, Helen tells of the time Odysseus infiltrated Troy disguised in beggar’s rags and covered with self-inflicted welts. She alone “spotted him for the man he was,/ kept questioning him—the crafty one kept dodging.” But, she claims, she extracted “the whole Achaean strategy” from him after bathing and oiling him (and perhaps not just that?) and swearing a binding oath. By then, she says, she had recovered from the “madness” with which Aphrodite had lured her to Troy and into the arms of Paris. Her heart had changed, and she wished to return to her child, her bridal bed, and her husband Menelaus, in that order.
“That was a tale, my lady. So well told.” Menelaus’s approval of Helen’s questionable story suggests that their damaged marriage has been sustained by the principle of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That suggestion is confirmed by his own unintentionally revealing anecdote. He recalls hunkering with Odysseus in the wooden horse when Helen came along, “roused, no doubt,/ by a dark power bent on giving Troy some glory.” This was at the war’s end, so her heart must have changed (or, in Menelaus’s deliberately oblivious version, have been changed) yet again. “Three times,” he tells Helen,
you sauntered round our hollow ambush,
feeling, stroking its flanks,
challenging all our fighters, calling each by name—
yours was the voice of all our long-lost wives!
Here the most toxic extremes of masculinity and femininity confront each other. With her witchy pharmacopeia of pain-killing potions and man-killing charms, Helen epitomizes all of Homer’s dangerous females: Calypso and Circe, Clytemnestra and the Sirens. Odysseus alone can resist her deadly seductions. Menelaus and Diomedes would have cried out as Helen called to the hiding Greek warriors in the voices of their “long-lost wives,” but Odysseus the great Ithacan “damped our ardor, reined us back.” He even “clamped his great hands” on the mouth of the soldier Anticlus “and shut it, brutally—yes, he saved us all,/ holding on grim-set till Pallas Athena/ lured you off at last.” The murdered soldier’s name recalls Odysseus’s mother Anticlea, who died from grief over her lost son. We are at the furthest possible remove from the happy home Odysseus left behind so many years ago, and to which he is determined to return.
Telemachus sails back to Ithaca having learned that Odysseus achieved victory at Troy by an unbeatable combination of craftiness, courage, and self-control. Buoyed by the knowledge that Odysseus lives, that he is his son, and that Athena actively supports him as she supported his father (confirmation of which is furnished by his success in slipping through the suitors’ ambush on his return voyage), he finds fresh resources of strength and determination within his own soul. Father and son thus approach one another as they each converge on Ithaca, with Telemachus growing more manly and warlike even as Odysseus struggles to recover the goodness of domesticity and peace.
Dwelling in Mimesis on stylistic differences between the Homeric epics and the Hebrew Bible, Erich Auerbach notes that in the Odyssey, domestic life takes on an idyllic coloration, while in the Bible, and especially in Genesis,
perpetually smoldering jealousy and the connection between the domestic and the spiritual, between paternal blessing and divine blessing, lead to daily life being permeated with the stuff of conflict, often with poison.
Just so, in the Odyssey, Telemachus and Odysseus are reunited on the idyllic middle ground of familial intimacy, where husbands and wives, parents and children may live and work together to build something good and lasting. Call it home.
Just so, in Genesis, Jacob and his elder brother Esau, after a twenty-year interval since the latter’s violent displacement, will have a reconciliation scene—on Esau’s side spontaneous and sentimental, on Jacob’s side halting and wary—before parting ways forever.