[b-hebrew] The Name "Esau"

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Wed Aug 28 10:13:05 EDT 2013

The Name  “Esau” 
University scholars tell us that the author  of Genesis 25: 25 may not have 
known the meaning of the name  “Esau”: 
“Esau. There is an odd displacement of etymology in the naming sentence  
[Genesis 25: 25], perhaps because the writer was not sure what ‘Esau’ 
actually  meant.”  Robert Alter, “Genesis”  (1996), p. 127. 
Yet having said that, for the last 100 years  or so university scholars 
have been quite forthright in telling us, over and  over again, that they 
themselves have no idea what the name “Esau” means:   
“The real meaning of ‘Esau’ is  unknown, the usual explanation ‘densely 
haired’ (= ‘wooded’) being very  improbable.”  Isidore Singer, Cyrus  
Adler, “The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 5” (1916), p. 206. 
“Esau is named after his  looks, whereas Jacob, in contrast, is named after 
an action of his….  In fact, only for Jacob is the etymology  compatible 
with the name.  As has  been pointed out by Westermann and others, two 
etymological explanations are  given for Esau, but neither actually produces the 
name ‘Esau’.  It is ‘Edom’  and ‘Seir’ that seem to be in the author’s mind.
”  Roger Syrén, “The Forsaken First-Born: A  Study of a Recurrent Motif in 
the Patriarchal Narratives” (1992), p.  85. 
“ ‘Esau’ the name  is unknown elsewhere in the ancient Orient, and its 
etymology is  uncertain.”  Gordon Wenham, “Genesis  16-50” (1994), p. 176.   
“No etymology is offered for  the name Esau itself….”  T. Desmond  
Alexander, David W. Baker, “Dictionary of the Old Testament” (2003), p.  219. 
“Despite the apparent connection between his name and his  hairiness in 
Genesis 25: 25, the etymology of Esau remains uncertain.”  Bruce M. Metzger, 
Michael D. Coogan,  “The Oxford  Guide to People & Places of the Bible” 
(2004), p.  73. 
What gives?  Can’t we on the b-hebrew list figure out what the name “Esau” 
means, even  if the academic community insists that such name has no known 
etymology and no  known meaning?  Scholars have never  asked if Rebekah gave 
her firstborn son a name that was redolent of her homeland  in Bronze Age 
Syria.  But isn’t that a logical question to  ask?  And if it strongly 
implies  that the Patriarchal narratives as a written text are centuries older 
than  university scholars are willing to contemplate, then so much the better.  
Why not  a-s-k  if the name “Esau” is coming straight  out of Bronze Age 
Syria?  And why oh  why should we assume that the author of Genesis 25: 25 
allegedly didn’t know  what the name “Esau” meant?  Is that  a plausible 
assumption to make?   
If  we are willing to  a-s-k  what the name “Esau” historically meant  in 
Bronze Age Syria [given that the text portrays Rebekah as being born and  
raised to adulthood in Bronze Age Syria and as giving her firstborn son the 
name  “Esau”], we will find that Genesis 25: 25 was composed by a brilliant 
early  Hebrew author who knew exactly what the name “Esau” means.  And we 
will find, to no real surprise,  that the underlying meaning of the name “Esau”
 perfectly fits the circumstances  of his birth.  In that regard there  are 
clues galore, in spades, as to what the name “Esau” should mean.  We will 
see that linguistically, that’s  exactly what this name does in fact mean.  
It all boils down to simply being willing to  a-s-k  what the name “Esau” 
historically meant  in Bronze Age Syria. 
Jim Stinehart 
Evanston,  Illinois
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