If you could write a subtitle for the book of Genesis, what would it be? My entry would be Genesis: Oh, Brother! That’s because brothers, and the fraught relationships between them, are the beams upon which the structure of this book is built. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and of course his twelve sons—brothers dominate the sacred history of Israel. Cain’s pathetic question,השומר אחי אנכי “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is arguably the set-up for all that follows in Genesis, and even the Torah. What does it mean to be a brother? A family? A covenanted nation? There is a lot to learn, and the Torah is eager to teach us. Genesis will close with Joseph making his brothers swear to become his שומרים, the guardians of his body (in later Jewish parlance, anyway). In doing so, they will show repentance not only for their prior offense against Joseph, but for all of the instances of fraternal treachery in this book.
Parashat VaYishlah certainly features brothers—five chapters (28-32) and twenty years separate Esau’s threat to kill Jacob from his dramatic and weepy hug of his younger brother. During the interim they have both grown independent, but no one expects that the old tensions have been forgotten. Soon after their fraught embrace, Jacob and Esau join together to bury Isaac (35:28), but just a few verses later we learn that Esau will depart Canaan for “another land because of his brother Jacob.” Modern scholars have long noticed the Bible’s trope of younger brothers supplanting their elders, and understood this to be a projection of national history. Israel too was a younger, weaker and smaller nation than those that surrounded it to the east and west; yet as God’s beloved child, it could presume to greatness and even hegemony, just as Isaac and Jacob (and Moses, and David etc.) would dominate their older brothers.
Brothers are important in Genesis, but what about the girls? Women of course appear in many roles—as daughters, mothers and wives—but what of their role as sisters? Genesis doesn’t give us a great deal to work with—some scholars have seen the Rachel/Leah rivalry as a mere reflection of Jacob vs. Esau. Indeed, the famous midrash that Leah’s eyes were רכות“weak” from crying over her feared match with Esau (b. Bava Batra 123a), would support this argument.
However, recent scholars have reread the Bible’s women, and found much more substance to their relationships. I am lucky to have gotten a sneak pre-publication peek at Rabbi/Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky’s new book, Dangerous Sisters of the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press, Jan. 2014). Rabbi Kalmanofsky teaches us about two types of sister narratives—that of the ideal sister, who reinforces the patriarchy of her natal household, and that of the dangerous sister, who destabilizes it. Rebecca plays the role of the ideal sister, waiting for Laban to arrange her marriage, and readily acceding to it. Her union with Isaac reinforces the family’s unity. Rebecca’s sexuality and fertility are entirely at the service of her natal family. Miriam, when we first meet her in Exodus 2, is likewise an ideal sister. She protects her brother Moses, and thus aids in the success of her birth family. Later, in Numbers 12, she will play a more independent and challenging role vis a vis her lead brother, and for this “dangerous sister” behavior, she will be punished. Continue reading