This passage from Genesis Rabbah is in a chapter that expounds on Genesis 32:4-7:
Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, instructing them: “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: ‘Thus says your servant (or slave) Jacob: “I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.”’” The messengers returned to Jacob, saying: “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him” (Genesis 32:4-7; in NRSV, verses 3-6).
These verses describe the exchange of messages between the estranged brothers, Jacob and Esau, when Jacob returns from Haran, where he has dwelled since fleeing Canaan after stealing the birthright (Genesis 25:29-34) and the blessing of their father Isaac (Genesis, Chapter 27) from his elder twin Esau. In amoraic texts, the names Esau, Seir, and Edom often refer to the Roman Empire (which later adopted Christianity) and sometimes to Christianity itself (see Bakhos, “Figuring [out] Esau,” which addresses this theme and the need to exercise caution when interpreting the symbolism implied by the name Esau, which may refer to polytheistic or Christian Rome).
Our passage discusses the words that Jacob uses to address Esau in his message, through a narrative about Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch (referred to as Rabbi) dictating a letter to the Roman emperor, Antoninus. The relationship and conversations between these two leaders are a popular theme in rabbinic literature (for a list of such traditions, see Wallach, “The Colloquy,” p. 263-264). The identity of this emperor Antoninus and the status of both Rabbi and the patriarchate have been extensively debated by scholars; for an overview of these positions, see the commentary on Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Shirah (Be-Shalaḥ), parashah 6. The prior material in this chapter (Genesis Rabbah 75:1-3, not included here) as well as our passage seek to discuss possible reasons why Jacob calls Esau “my lord” (“Thus you shall say to my lord Esau”) and refers to himself as “your servant” (or “slave”).
In our source, Rabbi instructs Rabbi Afes, fifth-generation tanna who was active in the last decades of the second century and the first decades of the third century – to write a letter in Rabbi’s name to “our master (maran), the king Antoninus.” Rabbi Afes opens the letter as follows: “From Yehudah the Patriarch (nasi) to our master (maran), the king Antoninus.” This salutation presents Rabbi Yehuda as nasi, the leader of Israel, and accords equivalent status to the patriarch and the Roman emperor or, at minimum, presents Rabbi as a figure who holds a high social and political position. Rabbi reads the letter and tears it to pieces, then dictates a new version: “From Yehudah your servant (‘aved) to our master (maran), the king Antoninus” (in some manuscripts the verse is reversed, reading: “To our master (maran), the king Antoninus, from Yehudah your servant”). The Aramaic word ‘aved (and ‘eved in Hebrew) renders “servant” or “slave”; its inclusion in the opening of this letter emphasizes the superior status and power of the Roman emperor (on the vocabulary of slavery in Latin texts that describe the relationship between Rome and the peoples it ruled, see Lavan, Slaves to Rome, especially Chapter Two). Rabbi Afes then inquires why Rabbi diminishes his own honor by both portraying himself as Antoninus’s servant and omitting his own title. Rabbi responds by asking whether he ranks above his ancestor Jacob, who instructed his men to tell his brother: “Thus says your servant Jacob” (based on Genesis 32:5; in NRSV, verse 4). In this rabbinic narrative, Esau is associated with the Roman emperor while Jacob is parallel to Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch. Ofra Meir suggests that, in the eyes of his generation, Rabbi represents the progeny of Jacob standing before the government of Esau’s offspring (see Rabbi Judah, p. 255, for other rabbinic narratives where Jacob and other biblical protagonists provide models for Rabbi’s leadership). Although Jacob was chosen by God and, in essence, he is superior to his brother, he nonetheless refers to himself as Esau’s servant. Our midrash uses Roman reality (or, more likely, a fiction that draws on Roman norms) to explain Jacob’s words. Moreover, this source sees Jacob’s encounter with Esau as a model for Jews to consider in terms of their engagement with Roman authorities in their time.
A number of rabbinic teachings present discussions between Rabbi and Antoninus, in which this emperor poses a question to Rabbi, thereby consulting with him on a variety of political, philosophical, and religious issues. In these sources, Antoninus is depicted showing deference to Rabbi and respect for Judaism. Yet Antoninus is clearly the ruler who holds greater conventional power. In this context, it is wise to use Jacob’s words. Although it has been suggested that this text highlights Rabbi’s humility, the necessity to honor the emperor seems to be at issue here (much like Jacob’s approach to Esau). The requirement to pay respect to the kingdom or government (malkhut) appears in several passages from Genesis Rabbah (89:9, Theodor-Albeck edition, p. 1097; 96, Theodor-Albeck edition, p. 1242). Therefore, whereas the midrashic sections that frame our section of this midrash anticipate divine punishment for Edom and the fall of Esau in the future, our midrash explains the need to honor the emperor in the present.
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