In Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of Rebecca who after struggling conceiving is blessed with twins. During her turbulent pregnancy she sought out God. Rashi understands this to mean that she went to seeks the counsel in the Academy of Shem. There she learned:
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. ( Genesis 25:23)
And soon after the twins are born. Esav is born first and close at his heel is Jacob, who is named from holding on to his brother’s foot. Esav the older one is favored by Isaac while the younger Jacob is Rebecca’s favorite. Rebecca is instrumental in helping Jacob best his older brother and dupe his blinded father Isaac into giving him the blessing.
How would Joseph Campbel the renowned mythologist read Toldot, this week’s Torah portion? It is shocking to realize the connections between our story and the story of Oedipus.
Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta, king and queen of Thebes. After having been married some time without children, his parents consulted the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi about being barren. The Oracle prophesied that if Jocasta should have a son, the son would kill her husband and marry her. In an attempt to prevent this prophecy’s fulfillment, when Jocasta indeed bore a son, Laius had his ankles pinned together so that he could not crawl, and gave the boy to a servant to leave him to die on a mountain. As fate would have it the sympathetic servant passed the baby onto a shepherd from Corinth and then to another shepherd. Eventually passed on to another king and queen who were barren. Eventually Oedipus learns about the prophecy. Trying to evade it in turn he actually fulfills his destiny. When he finally learns this horrible tragedy he blinds himself.
So lets start connecting the dots. There is the obvious interest in the blindness of Isaac and Oedipus, the love of the mother, and role of the oracle’s prophecy. The most obvious connection between the stories is the names of the main characters. Oedipus is named after the swelling from the injuries to his feet and ankles. The word edema is from this same Greek word for swelling: οἴδημα, or oedēma. “Pous” meaning foot is as we know from Octopus. This is the mark of his parents trying to evade the prophecy. In our story Jacob is named Yaakov because he was holding on to ekev- heel of his brother. It seems from the beginning the younger was trying to rule over the elder.
There are many more interesting parallels between the stories, but the compelling part is where they diverge. Prophecy is a foretelling of something that is going to happen. If it is going to happen there is nothing you can do to stop it. Here is where the stories are at odds. In trying to be good Oedipus does horrible things. Jacob does some very bad things ultimately to be a pretty upstanding guy. Where everyone in the story of Oedipus is running from fate, Rebecca and Jacob are both active in trying fulfill his destiny.
Oedipus Sh’oedipus at least he loves his mother.