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Beyond Retaliation

John D. Rayner
Summer 2002

“Everything’s got a moral,” says the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, “if you can only find it.” Everything? Well, perhaps not everything. Much of the biblical narrative, for instance, is simply folklore. And when it comes to folklore, the ancient Israelites were not essentially different from other peoples. They enjoyed a good yarn! And the story of Esau and Jacob is certainly that. Not least the account of how Jacob tricks his brother first out of his birthright and then out of his father’s blessing. Our ancestors, we may be sure, found that highly entertaining, without necessarily bothering their heads a great deal about its moral implications.  

Nevertheless, like many other Bible stories, it does lend itself extraordinarily well to reflection on the moral issues it raises. And such reflection is not only a modern pastime: it has been going on all through the ages. Already in the Bible itself ― in Hosea (12:3f) and Jeremiah (9:3), for example ― there are hints of disapproval of Jacob’s deceitful behaviour towards his brother. Indeed, his whole life-story can be read as a series of fitting punishments on that account: how he had to flee for his life and go into exile, how there he was exploited by his uncle Laban, and how his old age was overshadowed by grief for his supposedly dead favourite son, Joseph.  

Moral Issue  

But there is one particular moral issue arising out of the story which I would like to explore, and that is the motif of hatred and revenge in the relationship between the two brothers.  

Esau is understandably furious with Jacob for what he has done to him, and resolves to kill him (Gen. 27:41). That is why Jacob, on his mother’s advice, flees to Mesopotamia. When, twenty years later, he returns, he fully expects Esau’s anger to be unabated. So he prays to God: “Deliver me, I beseech you, from the hand of my brother...for I am afraid of him, lest he comes and kills us all” (Gen. 32:12). And the next morning, when Esau approaches with a small army of 400 men, he naturally fears the worst. But he need not have worried. After a passage of twenty years Esau’s lust for revenge has evaporated, and he embraces his brother in a scene of reconciliation as touching in its way as the reconciliation, a generation later, between Joseph and his brothers.  

What then is the moral of the story? Perhaps it is that reconciliation is sweeter than revenge; that it is best to “let bygones be bygones” and make a fresh start. At least that is one possible reading of the story.  

Esau and Jacob  

But it is not the end of the matter. For Esau and Jacob are not only Esau and Jacob. They are also Edom and Israel, the two peoples supposedly descended from them. And between these two peoples the former enmity of their progenitors renews itself with a vengeance. This time, however, the roles are reversed. The Edomites are no longer the hard-done-by victims of an injustice: they are the culprits, the villains, the aggressors.  

Already at the time of the Exodus, they showed their cruelty by refusing to allow the Israelites safe passage through their territory on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land (Num. 20). And there were other hostile encounters in later times. The worst of all occurred in 586 BCE, when the Babylonians conquered Judea and destroyed the Temple. Then, instead of coming to the defence of the Jews - their ethnic kinsfolk - they rejoiced in their calamity and actively sided with their enemies: an unspeakable act of treachery.  

At least that was the Jewish understanding of the history of the relationship between the two peoples. I daresay the Edomites, if their records had been preserved, would have given a different account of it. But however that may be, the enmity that evidently existed between the two peoples transposes the story of Esau and Jacob from the personal to the international plane and raises the question: how should a nation respond when faced with the hostility of another?  


To that question conventional wisdom gives a clear and simple answer: with counter-hostility. And this conventional wisdom is well represented in the Bible, not least by the prophecy of Obadiah.  

Perhaps written shortly after the Babylonian conquest, it is a bitter denunciation of the Edomites for their treacherous behaviour at that critical time. Because of that treachery, they will be brought to justice. Though they may think they are safe “in the clefts of the rock” (1:3), they will be rooted out. Retribution is on its way and nothing can stop it. The whole philosophy is summed up in the concluding verse: ka-asher asita ye’aseh lach, “As you have done, it shall be done to you” (1:15).  

That is the conventional wisdom: the answer to evil is counter-evil. It is the philosophy of retaliation. And by that philosophy, otherwise known as Realpolitik, nations of every kind have conducted themselves all through the ages.  

Makes Things Worse  

The trouble is that it achieves nothing except to make a bad situation worse. Of that there is no plainer illustration than the modern history of the relationship between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. In fairness it must be said that the violence was begun by the Arabs already in the days of the Mandate. But that was long ago, and nowadays it hardly matters any longer who started what. Whenever an attack is launched by either side, the other strikes back, and in the case of Israel, with its immense military superiority, two or three times as hard.  

It seems the right thing to do by the most elementary of all moral principles ― the retaliation principle ― which is as unquestionable as the laws of nature. Even if the politicians didn’t believe in it, which most of them do fervently, they would have no choice, because retaliation is what the people demand. Politicians must always be tough, never soft; otherwise they would soon be turned out of office. And even if it were not a matter of retaliation for retaliation’s sake, there would still be the argument of deterrence. You’ve got to deter the enemy. If you don’t hit back they’ll only do it again.  

Theory Belied by Facts  

That is the theory. But it is belied by the facts. For if your enemies hate you for what they think you have done to them, your hitting back won’t change their minds. On the contrary, it will only confirm in their minds how right they were to hate you in the first place. Every act of violence or counter-violence deepens the hatred, exacerbates the anger, intensifies the hunger for revenge. And so the conflict escalates until it becomes uncontrollable except by the annihilation of one side by the other, in short, by genocide.  

In the history of the Middle East conflict that has been proved over and over and over again. It has been there for every child to see. Yet it persists. Is there really no way out of it, no way of stopping the escalation, of reversing the trend? Of course there is! It is the way of restraint, of moderation, of magnanimity. And it, too, is to be found in Judaism, as in other religious traditions.  

It is to be found already in the Hebrew Bible, and even in relation to the Edomites! For in the book of Deuteronomy we read: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother” (23:8). Given all that we have heard about the hostility between the two peoples, isn’t that amazing? There we hear a note different from Realpolitik, different from nationalism: a religious note!  

Golden Thread  

And it is only part of a trend which runs like a golden thread ― although, it must be admitted, a somewhat slender one ­― all through our literature. In the great chapter 19 of Leviticus, for instance, we read: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge,” (19:18), and although that refers to individual behaviour, the principle is surely transferable to international relations. The book of Proverbs tells us: “Do not say, I will do to others as they have done to me” (24:29); and again, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat” (25:21); and it commends “the soft answer that turns away wrath” (15:1).  

And the trend continues. The Gospel teaching of “turning the other cheek” (Matt. 6:39) is a famous example of it ― somewhat extreme but completely Jewish, for Jesus never taught anything but Judaism. It was the Jewish authors of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha who taught: “Forgive your fellow human beings the wrong they have done” (Sira 28:2); “Drive hatred out of your hearts...And if anyone sins against you, speak to them words of peace”(Testament of God 6:1, 3). It was the Rabbis who taught: “If others speak ill of you, do not respond in kind” (Derech Eretz Zuta 1:7) and, “Who is the greatest hero? The one who turns an enemy into a friend” (ARN 23:1).  

This is the golden thread of our tradition which we need to rediscover if we are ever going to put an end to the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence as it drags us inexorably towards catastrophe in the Middle East and throughout the world.  

Forswearing Retaliation  

It doesn’t mean that crime should not be punished; of course it should! It doesn’t mean that nations should not defend themselves against aggression; of course they must! But it does mean forswearing retaliation, which is only a polite word for revenge. It does mean using minimum force to achieve what must be achieved. It does mean renouncing the language of confrontation in favour of “the soft answer that turns away wrath”. It does mean seeking political solutions and showing magnanimity in the process.  

On the sixth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, 80,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to demonstrate for a return to the path of sanity and peace. One huge banner, which could be seen throughout the square, read: “Peace ― the sane retaliation”. If everything has a moral, then that is the moral of the story of Esau and Jacob, of Edom and Israel, of the Middle East conflict, and of the whole blood-stained history of humankind. It may not be easy to find, but we had better find it soon.  

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