[b-hebrew] The Meaning of the Name "Esau"

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Tue Mar 4 10:55:22 EST 2008


The Meaning of the Name “Esau”
 
Genesis 25: 25 explains the meaning of the name “Esau”:
 
“And the first [of Rebekah’s twin sons] came forth ruddy 
[aleph-dalet-mem-vav-nun-yod], all over like a hairy [sin-ayin-resh] mantle;  and they called his 
name Esau.”
 
As with the names of Jacob’s most prominent sons, (i) the name “Esau” is a 
double pun, and (ii) it foreshadows this character’s most important action 
later in life.  As a linguistic pun, “hairy”, which is sin-ayin-resh/seir, is a 
play on “Esau”:  ayin-sin-vav.  The two most prominent sounds in the name “Esau
” are ayin-sin, and reversing the order gives us sin-ayin, which are the two 
most prominent sounds in seir/sin-ayin-resh.  The text explicitly insists upon 
this particular play on words.  As we will soon see, both of these words are 
variants of the town name “Seir”/sin-ayin-yod-resh.  
 
Though not related linguistically, “Esau” and “Edom” are related as to 
meaning, because each means “ruddy” or “red”.  At Genesis 36: 8, “Edom” is 
spelled aleph-dalet-vav-mem.  This is a variant of aleph-dalet-mem-vav-nun-yod at 
Genesis 25: 25.  The three-letter root word in both cases is aleph-dalet-mem, 
meaning either “red” or “to show blood in the face, flush”.
 
As we will now see, the name “Esau” foreshadows that Jacob’s older twin 
brother will, at age 47 regular years (when Jacob returns to Canaan), spend the 
rest of his life sojourning in Udum/Edom in the land of Seir, from Seir/Jazer in 
southern Gilead in the south, to the town of Udum/Edom, just east of the Sea 
of Galilee, on the north.  Thus Esau will be identified in the Patriarchal 
narratives with the northern half of the Transjordan.  In the Patriarchal 
narratives, unlike in the rest of the Bible, Esau has nothing to do with the later 
historical kingdom of Edom, south of the Dead Sea, or with that geographical 
area.
 
As to “Seir”, one of the most important towns in southern Gilead in the rest 
of the Bible is “Jazer”.  See Numbers 32: 1.  But archaeologically, we know 
that the ruins near Jazer are called “Seir”.  See the old scholarly article 
referenced at: 
_http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0021-6682(191110)2%3A2%3A2%3C241%3AJAIS%3E2.0.CO%3B2-K_ 
(http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0021-6682(191110)2:2:2<241:JAIS>2.0.CO;2-K)   Thus in the Patriarchal Age, this prominent town 
in southern Gilead was called “Seir”, though its later name was “Jazer”.  
Genesis 25: 30 refers to the “land of Seir”.  That identical phrase appears in 
Amarna Letter #288: 26.  (As usual with the Akkadian cuneiform of the Amarna 
Letters, a U is added at the end, so it comes out “land of Seru”.)  That Amarna 
Letter was written by the ruler of Jerusalem, whose name in part honors a 
Hurrian goddess.  It is doubtful that the tiny desert oasis of Seir-Tamar south 
of the Dead Sea was inhabited at this time.  And even if it was, a reference to 
the “land of the tiny desert oasis of Seir-Tamar south of the Dead Sea” 
would make no sense.  There was no kingdom of Edom south of the Dead Sea in the 
Patriarchal Age.  Rather, the phrase the “land of Seir”, both in the Amarna 
Letters and in chapter 36 of Genesis, must in context be referencing instead 
either southern Gilead or all of Gilead.
 
As to “Edom”, there are at least three references to “Edom” or “Udum” in 
truly ancient times.  In the 15th century BCE, Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep II 
won an important battle at Shamesh-Edom, near the Sea of Galilee.  The most 
famous myth from Ugarit features the Ugaritic hero Keret going south from Ugarit, 
past Sur (“Tyre”) in southern Lebanon on his way to the mythical kingdom of 
Udum.  That mythical kingdom of Udum is either the northern half of the 
Transjordan, or the entire Transjordan.  Finally, Amarna Letter #256: 24 refers to 
the town of Udumu (adding a U at the end, as per usual), in the context of 
referencing cities that mostly are located just east of the Sea of Galilee, in the 
northern Transjordan.  Thus in the Patriarchal Age, “Udum”/“Edom” meant 
either a town in the northern Transjordan, or the northern half of the Transjordan 
(or possibly the entire Transjordan).  
 
Now we can understand the repeated identifications in Genesis chapter 36 of 
Esau both to the land of Seir and to Edom.  “So Esau settled in the hill 
country of Seir -- Esau being Edom.  This, then, is the line of Esau, the ancestor 
of the Edomites, in the hill country of Seir.”  Genesis 36: 8, 9 (1985 JPS)  
Gilead, north of ancient Seir/later Jazer, is definitely hill country.  We know 
this geologically, and also we read concerning Jacob, shortly before Jacob 
meets Esau:  “Soon he [Jacob] was across the Euphrates and heading toward the 
hill country of Gilead.  …[Laban caught] up with him in the hill country of 
Gilead.”  Genesis 31: 21, 23  If “hill country” is the right translation here, 
instead of “mountain” (following the 1985 JPS instead of the 1917 JPS as to the 
translation of this phrase), then we know where the “hill country” was in 
greater Canaan:  (1) from Hebron to Bethel is the Hill Country of Judah;  (2) 
from Bethel to the Jezreel Valley is the Hill Country of Ephraim;  and (3) in the 
Transjordan (not in Canaan proper), from just north of the Dead Sea (a little 
south of ancient Seir/modern Jazer) on the south, to the Sea of Galilee on 
the north, is the Hill Country of Gilead.  By contrast, the Arabah south of the 
Dead Sea, where the historical kingdom of Edom would eventually come into 
being centuries after the end of the Patriarchal Age, is not hill country.
 
Prior to Jacob’s return to Canaan, Esau had been sojourning for 27 regular 
years in Canaan proper after Esau’s marriages.  “These are the sons of Esau, 
that were born unto him in the land of Canaan.  And Esau took his wives, and his 
sons, and his daughters, and all the souls of his house, and his cattle, and 
all his beasts, and all his possessions, which he had gathered in the land of 
Canaan;  and went into a land away from his brother Jacob.”  Genesis 36: 5-6 
(1917 JPS)  The “land away from his brother Jacob” is the Transjordan, where 
Esau will sojourn the rest of his life, after Jacob has returned to Canaan 
proper.  Esau had probably spent many years sojourning in the hill country of 
Canaan proper (as do all three Patriarchs).  So it would be natural for Esau, upon 
leaving Canaan as a middle-aged man, to commence sojourning in the similar 
hill country of Gilead, from Seir/Jazer on the south, to the Sea of Galilee on 
the north.  Since Esau has a large flock and 400 men at his disposal (Genesis 
32: 7), it would make no sense for Esau to move to the desolate area south of 
the Dead Sea.  Thus when the text says that “Esau settled in the hill country 
of Seir -- Esau being Edom”, that means that after Jacob returned to Canaan, 
Esau sojourned in the hill country of Gilead/Seir/Udum/Edom, from the town of 
Seir/Jazer on the south, to the town of Udum on the north, near the Sea of 
Galilee.  “Udum”/“Edom” and the “land of Seir” reference the same precise 
geographical area in the Patriarchal narratives -- the hill country of Gilead, being 
the northern half of the Transjordan.  By contrast, in the rest of the Bible, 
which was composed after the historical kingdom of Edom later emerged south 
of the Dead Sea as an important rival to Judah, “Edom” refers to a very 
different locale:  the area south of the Dead Sea (which is not hill country, and 
which would not have been a suitable locale for Esau, his large flock, and his 
400 men).
 
In the Patriarchal narratives, as in the Amarna Letters, “Udum”/“Edom” and 
the “land of Seir” mean the northern half of the Transjordan:  the hill 
country of Gilead.
 
The name “Esau” references both “Seir” (linguistically) and “Edom” (by 
substantive meaning).  Thus the name “Esau” deftly foreshadows that when Jacob 
returns to Canaan, his older twin brother Esau will leave Canaan and thereafter 
sojourn in “Udum”/“Edom”/the “land of Seir”, between Seir/Jazer in 
southern Gilead on the south, and Udum at the Sea of Galilee on the north.  Thus Esau 
is identified with the northern half of the Transjordan, where the 
Horites/Hurrians historically lived in the mid-14th century BCE, as accurately 
referenced in chapter 36 of Genesis in describing Esau’s lines of descendants.  
 
The apparent reference to the Euphrates River (“the river”) at Genesis 36: 
37, and to “Rehoboth”, which suggests a generic great city on the Euphrates 
River, may be referencing Assyria’s successful campaigns in the mid-14th century 
BCE against the only Hurrian state, which itself was located on the upper 
Euphrates River.  The Hurrian state of Mitanni/Midyanni/Nahrima/Naharim had 
claimed sovereignty over all of Syria and all Hurrians.  The northern Transjordan 
was the part of greater Canaan that was closest to the upper Euphrates River, 
which was the Hurrian heartland, and there were more Hurrians in the northern 
Transjordan than in any other part of greater Canaan.  Genesis 36: 35 refers to 
the defeat of mem-dalet-yod-nun;  that may be referencing the defeat in the 
mid-14th century BCE of the Hurrian state of Mitanni (Midyanni;  called “Nahrima
” by the Egyptians, which is “Naharim” at Genesis 24: 10)).  At Genesis 36: 
35, the temporary victor in an apparent civil war has a capital city named “
ruins”/Avith, which may reference the fact that not long thereafter, part of the 
Hurrian state succumbed to Assyria (Rehoboth on the Euphrates River).  The 
references to 8 kings who one by one claimed sovereignty over “Edom”/“Udum”, 
with each king’s succession seeming to be entirely irregular, with not a single 
son succeeding his father to the throne, well describes the chaos into which 
the Hurrian state of Mitanni/Midyanni/Nahrima/Naharim descended in the 
mid-14th century BCE, as the former overlord of all Syria and all Hurrians 
effectively disintegrated in the face of civil war and outside attacks.  While nicely 
describing the fatal chaos of the Hurrians in the mid-14th century BCE (with the 
Hurrians being the dominant ethnic group in the northern half of the 
Transjordan, for the last time, in the mid-14th century), none of this material has 
the slightest relevance to either (i) the geographical area south of the Dead 
Sea, or (ii) the much later kingdom of Edom located south of the Dead Sea.  
Genesis 36: 35, 38 refer to the Syrian gods Hadad and Baal.  Syria (which was 
dominated, for the last time, by Hurrians in the mid-14th century BCE) was the 
neighbor of the northern Transjordan, whereas Syria had no contact with the area 
south of the Dead Sea.  These textual references to Horites/Hurrians and the 
Euphrates River and Rehoboth and Syrian gods and a chaotic succession of kings, 
and the possible textual reference to the Hurrian state of Mitanni being 
defeated, make no sense at all in the context of the arid land south of the Dead 
Sea, where no Hurrians ever lived, and which would never have attracted the 
attention of any ruler of a great city on the Euphrates River.  Rather, this 
portion of chapter 36 of Genesis is reflecting the Hurrians’ swan song in the 
mid-14th century BCE, the last time the Hurrians were an important factor in world 
history.  The reason why the author of the Patriarchal narratives is so 
concerned about all these many details is because the demise of the Hurrians in 
Syria and greater Canaan seemed to open the pathway for the dreaded Hittites to 
have a golden opportunity to invade Canaan.
 
As we have seen, the name “Esau” is telling us from the very beginning that 
eventually Jacob will be the twin son who will inherit Canaan, whereas Esau, 
by contrast, will have to leave Canaan and live amongst the Hurrians in the 
hill country of Gilead -- the land of Seir/Udum/Edom, in the northern half of the 
Transjordan. 
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois




**************It's Tax Time! Get tips, forms, and advice on AOL Money & 
Finance.      (http://money.aol.com/tax?NCID=aolprf00030000000001)



More information about the b-hebrew mailing list