Genesis Rabbah The Claim of the Siblings

Having emphasized the genealogical theory of Israel, we have now to return to Genesis Rabbah and its account of the matter. For the framers of that document present a viewpoint that we do not find in Leviticus Rabbah, one important in outlining sages' view of Israel. Sages' mode of thought, as we know, reqired them to treat as personal matters of family relationships the history of Israel. It followed from this policy of the personalization of social entities— tribes as brothers, sons of one father—that if sages wished to absorb into their view of the world other components of the world community as they saw it, they would have to place into genealogical relationship with Israel these originally alien elements. So it is quite natural that sages found a genealogical tie to Rome. In that way they fit Rome into the history of Israel. The biblical account of Israel's history in Genesis showed the way. The time and urgency of the enterprise—the genealogization of Rome—derived of course from the crisis of the fourth century. Prior to that time, as we have noted, the documents of the canon reveal no such consideration. Afterward it became a commonplace.

We recall (chapter 2) that sages read the book of Genesis as a typology, as if at important points in the narrative it portrayed the history of Israel and Rome. Rome, as we shall now see, found representation in Esau, Edom, Ish-mael, but, in Genesis Rabbah, mainly in Esau. It seems to me that the choice of Esau represents as powerful a judgment as the choice of the pig in Leviticus Rabbah. The message is the same. Rome is the brother—the genealogical connection—but the rejected brother. History thus has expanded to take account of what demanded explanation, what insisted upon categorization within the family theory of history. But at what cost for the larger apologetic! For that symbolization of Rome as brother concedes much, specifically recognizing—if only for the purpose of rejection—the claim of Christian Rome along with the family of Israel to inherit biblical Israel.

Why Rome in the form it takes in Genesis Rabbah? And why the obsessive character of the sages' disposition of the theme of Rome? Were their picture merely of Rome as tyrant and destroyer of the Temple, we should have no reason to link the text to the problems of the age of redaction and closure, namely the late fourth or early fifth century. But, as we have repeatedly observed, now it is Rome as Israel's brother, counterpart, and nemesis, Rome as the one thing standing in the way of Israel's, and the world's, ultimate salvation. So the stakes are different, and much higher. It is not a political Rome but a messianic Rome that is at issue: Rome as surrogate for Israel, Rome as obstacle to Israel. Rome now confronts Israel with a crisis, and, I argue, Genesis Rabbah like Leviticus Rabbah constitutes a response to that crisis. My argument is simple: Rome in the fourth century became Christian. Sages responded by facing that fact quite squarely and saying, "Indeed, it is as you say, a kind of Israel, an heir of Abraham as your texts explicitly claim. But we remain the sole legitimate Israel, the bearer of the birthright—we and not you. So you are our brother: Esau, Ishmael, Edom." And the rest follows. Accordingly, we should not find surprising sages' recurrent references, in the reading of Genesis, to the struggle of two equal powers, Rome and Israel, Esau and Jacob, Ishmael and Isaac. The world-historical change, marking the confirmation in politics and power of the Christians' claim that Christ was king over all humanity, demanded from sages an appropriate, and, to Israel, persuasive response.

By rereading the story of the beginnings, sages discovered the answer and the secret of the end. Rome claimed to be Israel, and, indeed, sages conceded, Rome shared the patrimony of Israel. That claim took the form of the Christians' appropriation of the Torah as "the Old Testament," so sages acknowledged a simple fact in acceding to the notion that, in some way, Rome too formed part of Israel. But, as I said, it was the rejected part, the Ishmael, the Esau; not the Isaac, not the Jacob. The advent of Christian Rome precipitated the sustained, polemical, and, I think, rigorous and well-argued rereading of beginnings in light of the end.

Let us begin our survey of the position of Genesis Rabbah with a simple example of how ubiquitous is the shadow of Ishmael/Esau/Edom/Rome. Wherever in Genesis Rabbah sages reflect on future history, their minds turn to their own day. They found the hour difficult, because Rome, now Christian, claimed that very birthright and blessing that they understood to be theirs alone. Christian Rome posed a threat without precedent. Now another dominion, besides Israel's, claimed the rights and blessings that sustained Israel. Sages found comfort in the iteration that the birthright, the blessing, the Torah, and the hope—all belonged to them and to none other. As the several antagonists of Israel stand for Rome in particular, so the traits of Rome, as sages perceived them, characterized the biblical heroes. Esau provided a favorite target. From the womb, Israel and Rome contended.

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