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I had always thought that Europeans descended from Yafet, not Shem, and certainly not Shem, Avraham and Yitzhak. I am aware that it was common in the past to equate Rome with Edom, but I always assumed this was an allegory, likening Rome's treatment of Yisrael with that of Esav's treatment of Yaakov. However, I recently learned that some actually believe the Romans, and European people by extension, are the literal descendants of Esav, the Edomites. Is this true?

EDIT: I am not trying to be offensive, but as a white gentile, I find the view that white people are Edomites offensive because of this verse (Gen 25:23):

"And the LORD said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger."

If a significant portion of the Jewish community believes white gentiles exist to serve them, how is that not offensive and racist? Please explain how this is not true, as I don't want to become hateful myself. Is it only Orthodox Jews who believe this?

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adam, Welcome to mi.yodeya, and thanks very much for the interesting question! We'd love to have you as a fully-registered member, which you can accomplish by clicking login/register, above. –  Isaac Moses Feb 24 '11 at 3:24
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If the point of the question is "are Jews racist with respect to Esau's descendants", then you don't need the rest of it. That is, whether you as a European are considered to be from Esau or not, someone is (or was), so your question is valid. If, however, the point of your question is genuine curiosity about whom Jews consider descendants of Esau, then you don't need the racism part of it. Do you mean to ask two distinct questions? Should you perhaps separate them into two questions on this site, so the answers can clearly address the one or the other? –  msh210 Feb 24 '11 at 4:39
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I'm still not sure what the relevance of the equation Eisav = Edom is to this, though. Let's suppose that indeed Edom is not the lineal ancestor of any of the Romans, or of any European nation. Logically, there are some people somewhere in the world who are his descendants, though, no? And then this statement would apply to them. You personally might not be offended then because you'd have no reason to assume that you're one of Eisav's descendants, but that's neither here nor there; European, Asian, black, or white - we're all G-d's chilluns here. –  Alex Feb 24 '11 at 7:41
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Adam, to be quite frank (and no I do not descend from the Franks;-) with you, there is no reason to be offended if one does descend from Esav. Korah thought he was destined for greatness in the positive sense because he came from excellent stock. He merited leaving the legacy of being the father of all political squabbling and stands for everything that we do not want. His own children repented and turned around that legacy, the most famous one Samuel! It does not make much difference where one comes from if one repudiates the negative traits of his ancestors. –  Yahu Feb 24 '11 at 23:48
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You sound like you are more of a Marcus Aurelius rather than a Tinnius Rufus. So what if someone has evil people up the family tree! Even if you do not descend from Esav, what about the Roman oppressors of Israel? A person has free will and is not subject to being eternally cursed because of the sins of the fathers. –  Yahu Feb 24 '11 at 23:51

6 Answers 6

up vote 12 down vote accepted

As other posters have pointed out, there are indeed various opinions in Jewish sources as to whether the equation of Edom with Rome is literal or metaphorical. I recall also seeing a view (though I can't recall the source) that it's specifically the early Roman patrician families who were descended from Edom, while the rest of the Italian peoples were descended from Kittim, one of the Japhetic nations. According to this view, practically speaking there's no one today who can be identified as an Edomite, since most of the old patrician families were extinct already in early imperial times (and anyway, I doubt very much that anyone nowadays could reliably trace their ancestry back that far).

As for your difficulty with "the elder shall serve the younger," here are a couple of thoughts to chew on.

  • Which one is really the "elder," Yaakov or Eisav? Eisav was born first, but Yaakov was the first one conceived (Rashi to Gen. 25:26, citing a Midrash). Furthermore, Eisav sold the birthright, making Yaakov the legal firstborn. You could then argue equally well that the verse is saying that Yaakov will end up serving Eisav. (I've actually come across this idea recently, although again I don't recall the source.)

  • "Service" doesn't necessarily equal "subservience." As an extreme example to the contrary, Rehoboam's older advisors tell him to "be a servant to the people and serve them... and they will serve you" (I Kings 12:7). He'll be the king and they'll be the subjects, but they'll both be "serving" each other in the sense that each of them is working on behalf of the other's interests.

    In Jewish tradition we have the symbiosis of the tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun, where the Zebulonites worked (as seafaring traders) and used their wealth to support the Issacharites' Torah study, and received part of the Divine reward for that. (Some of the Zebulonites also became distinguished Torah scholars through this association, and they are singled out for praise in Judg. 5:14.) The same could have been true of the relationship of Eisav and Yaakov: rather than being antagonists, they could have been partners - Yaakov with his Torah study, Eisav with his hunting in order to provide for Yaakov's upkeep (and learning from Yaakov's fine qualities in the bargain). Eisav would then indeed be "serving" Yaakov, but not in a demeaning and servile sense, but as one who has the privilege of assisting in an important endeavor.

    And in a sense he does. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 2a ff) depicts G-d's judgment of the nations in order to determine what acts they've done that deserve commendation. Each one comes in turn - the Romans, the Persians, and so forth - and point out various things they've done to advance civilization - "and all of these we did only so that the Jewish People should be able to engage in Torah." In the narrative, G-d dismisses this claim as foolish: "Everything that you did was for your own good!" The truth is, though, that their argument has merit: all of the discoveries, inventions, creature comforts, etc., that the non-Jewish world has produced can be, and should be, used for G-dly ends - like the computers, the Internet infrastructure, and the StackExchange platform which we're using for this discussion. In that sense, even now "Eisav serves Yaakov" by making more material resources available for Yaakov to serve G-d; what G-d derides as "foolish" is the fact that they don't realize this and come with this claim only when it's too late.

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Thank you for your thoughtful response, Alex. You've interpreted the story of the two brothers and the verse predicting servitude in a very charitable way. But can you guarantee that virtually all Jews interpret it in a nice way, like you, and that they will continue to do so? If not, can you at least acknowledge that the equating of Edomites with Rome and with modern Europeans or any other existing population can potentially serve as a justification for racism, and should perhaps be reconsidered unless it has historical/scientific proof? –  user345 Feb 24 '11 at 8:07
    
As an example, please look at this: dovbear.blogspot.com/2007/11/esav-enigma.html One commenter likens defending Esav in the way you're doing with defending Hitler! Do you really think I'm being totally unreasonable for taking offense at having my ethnic background tied to Esav (erroneously, as I see it), considering what might follow from it? –  user345 Feb 24 '11 at 8:10
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adam, If you're looking for a guarantee that virtually no Jews hold racist views that they tie to their interpretation of Scripture, I'm sorry to say that you're not going to get it. The world is full of racists, and the Jewish community is unfortunately no exception. And, Internet comment threads are notorious for letting people present their most offensive views in the most bombastic language from behind a cloak of anonymity. If you encounter Jews who hold racist views in fact, I suggest that your quarrel is with them. –  Isaac Moses Feb 24 '11 at 14:47
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@adam, the bottom line is that the commenter you're referring to is not in the mainstream of Jewish thought. It is true that we see Eisav as evil because of how he behaved; it is equally true, as Dov Bear pointed out there, that there are several places where the Midrashim point out his good qualities. The Talmud in fact mentions Antoninus (the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius) as an exemplar of the kind of virtuous person that Eisav could have been - and that this potential too was inherent in Eisav himself. Any descendant of his has the choice which of these potentials to actualize in his life. –  Alex Feb 24 '11 at 15:26

The original people of Europe descended from Japeth, but they were conquered by the children of Esau. Basically historians call it the Aryan invasion theory.

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Hello Shem, and welcome to Mi Yodeya! I had heard something similar to what you have written here in the past, but I don't have a source for it. Do you know where I can find this written up somewhere? –  Shokhet Sep 19 at 13:15

The Vilna Gaon (in his commentary Eliyahu Rabbah to Negaim 2:1, as explained in Bo'az ibid.) says that Europeans are descendants of Yafet.

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The verse is not sanctioning racism or racist attitudes. It is a statement about historical destiny based on the choices of these two boys and not about racial superiority. Judaism has a strong belief in the concept that choices made by individuals in the age of the forefathers had strong influence on the destiny of their progeny. The service mentioned here is with regard to service of G-d. It is a statement that Esau's descendants who choose to serve G-d will be secondary and assistants to Jacob's descendants in that endeavor. As a gentile I am sure you have heard of the concept of the "Chosen Nation". If you believe that the idea that G-d chose the Jewish People to be His ambassadors to the world is racist then there is nothing more to discuss. If you understand that it is a statement of the responsibility demanded of the Jewish People and that with added responsibility comes added privilege and greater consequences then you have started to grasp the meaning of the verse.

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I understand the concept of choseness and that Jews believe non-Jews can easily find salvation by being righteous without converting to Judaism, which is why I didn't mention it in my post. What is news to me is the apparent belief that white gentiles are somehow actually Semites descending from Esav, which, in the most literal context of the verse I quoted, is offensive, at least to me. –  user345 Feb 24 '11 at 6:56
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Bear in mind that there's no possible way that it could mean "white gentiles" in general; no one claims that Eisav was that prolific, and after all, there are 69 other nations to account for. At most, even if the equation Edom = Rome is meant literally, that covers probably less than 1% of the human race. –  Alex Feb 24 '11 at 7:15
    
@user345 Upon further investigation I found a source (Nachmanides) that states that the Roman's were originally descended from Yafet. However, he then explains that the Edomites who had entered the Holy Land and had adopted Judaism and then early Christianity, then brought Christianity to Rome. They intermarried with the Romans and eventually Christianity was adopted by most of Europe. He seems to intimate that the ideology of Edom, as embodied in Christianity, as well as the fact that Edom married into Rome, is why we refer to Rome (and perhaps Christianity?) as Edom today. –  Yahu Jan 22 at 5:36

It's complicated and there are many opinions. See this excellent essay.

Also see this very similar question here on mi.yodeya.

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For an interesting discussion of this topic see here

http://parsha.blogspot.com/2007/11/toledot-is-edom-equal-to-rome-and.html

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One poster keeps repeating this: "The great kingdom of Rome was built by Zepho, son of Eliphaz, son of Esau. (Yelamdeinu, Batei Midrashos 160)." This is completely at odds with Roman history! Rome was founded, according to Livy, by Romulus and Remus. It had seven kings, the first of which was Romulus, until the last one was overthrown and the Republic was formed. –  user345 Feb 24 '11 at 4:19
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No one has ever figured out what family the Etruscan language belongs to, or where they came from. And they certainly had a major influence on Rome. Perhaps they were Zepho's people? Another possibility: if you suppose that Zepho came to Italy with a small band of people and settled among an existing local population, then their language wouldn't have survived very long (and, in a preliterate society, there wouldn't be much evidence of their coming). We can theorize all we want, and of course it's also possible that this midrash is teaching a metaphorical lesson rather than a historical truth. –  Alex Feb 24 '11 at 7:04
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If you think it's offensive because of the problem with "the elder shall serve the younger," then please re-read Yahu's and my posts and realize that it doesn't have the derogatory connotation you're ascribing to it. If you have a different problem with the identification of Edom as the ancestor of Rome (aside from the question of its historical accuracy), please explain what that is. –  Alex Feb 24 '11 at 7:23
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Seeking reasons for or asking a question on what the Torah en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oral_Torah says is fine; suggesting the Torah "should be repudiated" is not. Not on this site and not in society. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/repudiate –  msh210 Feb 24 '11 at 15:40
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@adam, if we were to repudiate a detail of the Torah every time someone says he's offended by it, we'd be like the man and the boy in Aesop's fable with the donkey - "please all, and you will please none." If you want to argue that available history seems to contradict this Midrash - we can live with that. But I'm still having trouble understanding what you see as offensive about it - or, frankly, why you'd object any less if we were to identify people of some other ethnic group or skin tone as descendants of Eisav. –  Alex Feb 24 '11 at 20:28

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