The norm in the historiography of the other is to write him out of meaningful history. If it is inconvenient to demean one’s adversary—or if doing so requires too much energy—the obvious alternative is to ignore him.
So does it become possible to make the too trite claim that history is written by the victor. That mantra is more than a half-truth but falls short of the whole. It fails to reflect the complexity of who records and interprets the flow of lives and events and who does not.
Esau’s lengthy genealogy in the thirty-sixth chapter of the book of Genesis ought to surprise us. Once Jacob—whether under that old, suggestive moniker or his recently-bestowed identity as ‘Israel’—has reconciled with Esau, the latter might easily have disappeared from the constitutional history of ancient Israel. It would be convenient to let him melt into the mist of things, unremembered in the shadow of his newly prominent brother, the promise-bearing namesake of the nation itself.
Yet here are Esau and his kin, scrawled across forty-three verses of the Hebrew Bible’ first book, annotated with all the ennobling detail of biblical genealogy.
These are the descendants of Esau, ancestor of the Edomites, in the hill country of Seir. These are the names of Esau’s sons: Eliphaz son of Adah the wife of Esau; Reuel, the son of Esau’s wife Basemath. The sons of Eliphaz were Teman, Omar, Zepho, Gatam, and Kenaz. (Timna was a concubine of Eliphaz, Esau’s son; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz.) These were the sons of Adah, Esau’s wife.
One must wonder what impulse honors the adversary, the rival, the historical antagonist in this way. Esau, returned to his land and out of view while Jacob-Israel migrates from the periphery to the narrative center, would not have been missed.
Biblical particularism is not to be denied for sentimental motives. In the biblical metanarrative, Israel matters beyond all other pretenders. The nations, when they are not positively in the way in a manner that requires their subjugation or elimination, are in the biblical anthology primarily supplementary to YHWH’s parental care for Israel, his first-born.
Yet this same particularism is too easily caricatured. With a beguiling persistence, the biblical history’s gaze wanders to the margins, to the nations, to Esau and his generations. It is capable of treating them as important, of dignifying their history and their future with a respectful touch that it commonly reserves for Israel, the script’s self-evident star.
Said briefly, it can allow them a tenderly preserved genealogy. It can concede them the full stature of humanity, of an entitled space. It can allow that parental and filial drama played itself out even among those people, as it does among us.
It can name names.