Esau versus Jacob: Naming Names and Telling Tales (Genesis 36:1-43)
Why are the generations of descendants of Esau merely listed in these 43 verses with no stories told about any of them? In contrast, in the next parasha, we are introduced to an in-depth tale about Jacob’s sons, most predominantly his youngest son, Joseph. Of course, this is the story that leads to the tale of slavery in Egypt, followed by Moses and the Exodus. Why, then, are 43 verses given over to listing Esau’s wives and children and their spouses and children when real estate in the Torah is obviously quite valuable and Esau’s story seems to essentially be a dead end street?
Rashi explains this by telling a story about looking for a precious gem that was lost in the sand. When the gem is found, the sand is all brushed away and forgotten and the gem remains. Rashi says the Torah does not spend time talking about those individuals who are less beloved to God.
But this explanation does not answer the question of why go to the bother of listing them by name at all? After all, after the death of Isaac, the Torah could have mentioned in one or two lines that Esau and his family went here or there and then get straight to the point in presenting us with Jacob’s stories. Why spend 43 verses listing names that are apparently as worthless as the sand among which a gem was lost?
Could it be that, against a background of seemingly worthless grains of sand, a gem looks more beautiful and more precious and so it is useful to show the sand as well?
If, on the other hand, the account of this same period of time had been told from a different perspective, these very descendants of Esau might have merited the telling of tales of great depth and detail. I imagine, in fact, that their stories would be no less fascinating than the story of Joseph and his brothers.
Therefore perhaps the sand particles themselves have value when looked at from a different angle and we should not forget that. In fact, under sufficient microscopic power sand grains can look like gems of incredible beauty.
If that is so, then why are we not given enough material to explore the potentially hidden beauty of the sand? Why are we made to walk across it as if it has no significance as we make our way toward those of our forefathers and mothers who do? After all, Esau is my uncle. Maybe I do want to know a little bit more about him.
And this makes me wonder if I am paying enough attention to the people in my life, if I am taking care to see their beauty even if it is not immediately discernible. Or are too many of them just names without stories?
Featured Image Credit: By Wilson44691 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons