Thursday, July 30, 2009

Esav and Rome

And so we may arrive by Talmud skill,
And profane Greek, to raise the building up
Of Helen's house against the Ismaelite,King of Thogarma, and his habergions
Brimstony, blue, and fiery; and the force
Of King Abaddon, and the beast of Cittim;
Which rabbi David Kimchi, Onkelos,
And Aben Ezra do interpret Rome.

--Ben Johnson, The Alchemist(1610), act 4, scene 3

A few years back, Bray, some others, and I, argued for months across multiple posts and comments about Esav and Rome. I don't remember the counterarguments, and have no wish to misconstrue them but my claim was that the famous and familair association of Esav with Rome was a late innovation, and an example of rabbinic polemics. As I explained in 2005:

Esav appears as a stand-in for Rome only after the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 C.E.). Until then Esav was generally just a symbol of godlessness and bad stuff, inspired, most likely, by that verse at the beginning of Malachi. Before the Bar Kokhba Revolt, there's no specific equation of Esav with Rome.
Also, prior to the destruction of the Temple, we find a few agadot that don't view Esav negatively. One midrash remembers him as the expert at honoring his father; some others express sympathy for Esav, implicitily criticizing Jacob for stealing the blessing.

The other day, I suggested to @kosheracademic that Esav's association with Rome might make a nice Tisha B'Av study. She pointed me to Traditions of the Bible, by James Kugel, and the Kittim.

According to the genealogy in Genesis, the Kittim decend from a namesake founder who was Yavan's son, and the grandson of Noah's son Yafeth. The Kittim are mentioned in the Dead Dea Scrolls, and by Billam in one of his speeches. According to Kugel, the DSS scrolls clearly identify Rome with the Kittim, and you can deduce from various texts that the DSS authors did not think Rome and Esav/Edom were one and the same. Onkelos glosess the mention of Kitim in Billam's speech (Num 24: 24) as Rome, and Targum Psedeo Jonathan takes it as Italy.

I haven't been able to track down the Ibn Ezra and Kimchi (Radak) cites given by Johnson in his play, but find it facinating that the early modern English poet was so familiar with the writings of our medieval Rabbis.

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