Dr. Eliezer Diamond
This week's Torah portion contains an ambiguity that is rarely noted, and yet it is crucial to how we understand the contest between Rebecca and Isaac. When Rebecca experiences the as yet unborn children struggling, indeed almost crushing each other, she goes "to seek God"-whatever that may mean. She is told that two nations will emerge from her womb, two nations that will contend with each other and, the divine response concludes, "ve-ravya'avodza'ir."
This last phrase is normally translated as, "The elder son shall serve the younger." Indeed, Nahum Sarna suggests that this episode is crucial to legitimating Jacob's claim to the birthright. Although deception was employed to win the prize, Jacob's entitlement to the patrimony had already been foreordained by God.
However, another reading is possible. As Sarna notes, the answer to Rebecca is oracular in form and content. The Bible scholar Yair Zakovich has pointed out that there are a number of oracles in Tanakh. Think, for example, of Balaam's prophecies concerning the "end of days." Oracles are frequently ambiguous; again, the opacity of Balaam's final speech supplies us with a perfect example. Scholars have generally concluded that many of the Delphic oracles were equivocal, although that view has been challenged recently by Hugh Bowden.
It is against this background that I suggest we read Rebecca's oracle as inherently ambiguous. Let's return to the phrase "ve-ravya'avodza'ir." Were the word et to precede za'ir, it would indicate that za'ir is the object of the phrase. Et is in fact absent, opening up the possibility of identifying subject and object conversely. As a result, the verse would read "ve-rav (and the elder,) ya'avodza'ir (the younger shall serve)." Which, then, was the true meaning of the oracle? Perhaps it had no definite connotation; the "true" meaning was to be determined by human initiative.
If this reading is correct, we must ask what the point of the oracle was if it was not a straightforward proclamation of things to come. Perhaps the ambiguity of the oracle is exactly what was necessary because it was intended precisely to apprise Rebecca of the importance of her actions. The oracle indicated that there was no fated outcome to the struggle between Jacob and Esau. God may have intended the eventual outcome, but it could come about only through the volitional acts of human beings.
These words of Torah were taken from The JTS Torah Commentary archive:
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