Jacob and Esau

Choosing lentil soup over venison, we traded the freedom and risks of the nomadic life for the security and order of the settled agricultural society.  The hunter in us stubbornly regrets the decision.

Choosing lentil soup over venison, we traded the freedom and risks of the nomadic life for the security and order of the settled agricultural society. The hunter in our psyche stubbornly regrets the decision.  (Photo from crispybits.com)

We live in Jacob’s village, but we yearn to wander with Esau’s tribe. And so we hunt.

Jacob and Esau

The parable of twin brothers Jacob and Esau, found in the Book of Genesis, is a hunter’s story.

Each fall when we don our boots and vests, load dogs into the pickup, and drive to the Dakotas for a week’s hunt in the “wild,” we are trying to escape Jacob’s village and join Esau’s tribe.

The core of the biblical fable, Jacob outwitting a hungry Esau by offering him a bowl of lentil stew in exchange for his birthright (his right to assume the patriarchy of the clan), is usually interpreted as the triumph of calculated forethought over the mercurial passion of the moment, a lesson that reasoned intelligence will prevail over impulsive instinct. Jacob’s virtue is his understanding of the concept of delayed reward; Esau’s failing is his desire to have immediate reward and satisfaction.

Jacob and Esau’s parable is also seen as a cautionary tale, a warning that our compulsive desires can make us victims of an intelligent but manipulative person’s cunning and greed. Jacob is not quite a scoundrel, but neither is he completely honest and forthright in his dealings with his brother. Esau is no fool, but he is trusting and naïve in regard to the workings of wealth and power within both family and community.

Incongruously, the Bible, touted as the code of moral and ethical behavior for men and nations, tells us that a clever but devious person who is sometimes less than honest is preferable as a leader over a person who is straightforward and candid but sometimes impetuous. In short, a politician over a statesman. A warning for us to beware those who advocate government based on religious principles?

Although they may be on target regarding the moral and sociological messages of the Jacob and Esau parable, biblical scholars miss the greater story, it seems to me. Esau and Jacob represent that dramatic and world-changing evolution of civilization from the wandering nomadic tribe to the settled agricultural village. More than 14,000 years ago, Neolithic man chose to plant, harvest and store Jacob’s “lentils” and ceased to hunt, gather and feast on Esau’s “venison.”

We chose the cultivated field over the untamed wilderness, the city over the camp, forethought over impulse, and the security of planning and preparation over the freedom of the wild with its uncertainty, chance and randomness. We chose to be farmers, not hunters.

The end of the hunter’s nomadic life was not sharp and sudden; it ebbed slowly around the world through the millennia, coming to a close with the extermination of the North American Plains Indians tribes in the late 19th century. But its demise was inevitable when the first Natufian cultures began to plant, not just harvest, the wild grains that grew in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East.

Soon there were fields of crops, grain storehouses, livestock, organization and division of labor, specialized craftsmen, machines, barter, systems of exchange, money, writing and records, government, taxes – all the necessary evils of civilization. With security comes much toil and drudgery.

Genetic need for the tribal life was strong, and so the struggle between settled and wild cultures was long and brutal. Nomadic people overran the agricultural people hundreds of times. The raiders included the Scythia, Xiongnu, Huns, Gokturks, Dzungars, Mongols, Seljuks, Kalmuks, Kazakhs, Cossacks, Vandals – dozens more. They all had their day of conquest and pillage of nascent civilizations.

In the end, the farmers always prevailed because they had the means to sustain their way of life, and the nomadic tribes did not. Even the sweeping plains of Eurasia could not provide, year after year and century after century, the resources the nomadic cultures needed to survive.

When the dust settled after each invasion and conquest, the agriculture-based society arose again from the ashes because the raiders themselves settled and became farmers. Jacob offered Esau a bowl of lentils (settled civilization based on farming) in exchange for Esau’s birthright (nomadic civilization based on hunting), and Esau took it. He really had no choice; he was ravenously hungry, and Jacob had the seemingly unlimited means to provide food – and shelter, clothing, metal, fuel, and all those material benefits that nomadic cultures can acquire though trade or theft but cannot produce themselves.

Although we are all settled agriculturalists now, that same genetic force within us still craves the nomadic tribal life. Even in the industrialized nations this innate drive to hunt and gather was apparent well into the 20th century in the form of market hunters and others who made their living by reaping the bounty of the fast-shrinking wild places.

There are still parts of the Third World where the hunter can subsist by taking “bush meat” for sustenance and trade, but that is a miniscule part of a global population of six billion humans who have depleted virtually every wild animal and plant from the face of the Earth. We have even destroyed all of the world’s once-great fisheries (a peril that we have not yet begun to realize but which will have disastrous effects on mankind’s ability to survive in the next 100 years).

The only vestige of the nomadic life in the wild is sport hunting, a purely symbolic act that feeds our hunger for Esau’s tribe’s life of impulse, randomness, insecurity, chance and wildness. Our physical survival does not depend on our skills and success as hunters, since the game we harvest accounts for only a small portion of our food. Our emotional health is another matter.

When we hunt, we are engaged in a pre-historical reenactment of sorts, going afield to gather food for the tribe, sometimes in pursuit of a whitetail deer or a few pheasants, at other times a bag of morel mushrooms or a bucket of wild plums. The hunt soothes our primal longing and our subconscious doubts: did we make the right decision 14,000 years ago? Was the gain of the settled comforts of civilization worth the loss of the nomadic freedom of the wild?

We live in Jacob’s village, but we yearn to wander with Esau’s tribe. And so we hunt.


More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in the collection of essays, Crazy Old Coot, and the novel, Hunting Birds. Both are available in Kindle and paperback editions atAmazon.com.

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
This entry was posted in Jacob and Esau, Nomad Hunters and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Jacob and Esau

  1. Ronni Schacht says:

    I just read your story to Glenn. He said that if you continue in this philosophical vein, he is going to ask you to preach for him!!!!

  2. uplandish says:

    Great read and thought provoking.
    The world would undoubtedly be a better place today if we stayed nomads. Esau’s tribe will have their day again at the rate we are going.

  3. Pingback: Beer’s magical powers | Dispatches from a Northern Town

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