Column 9: Two Views of Sibling Relations: Jacobís Blessing and the Curse of Oedipus Print E-mail

Biblical and Greek writings offer a radically different view of sibling rivalry and its resolution. Both the Hebrew Bible and the literature of ancient Greece present stories of family conflict. However, several basic difference between these literatures can be quickly noted. First, the stories of Genesis abound with sibling conflict, beginning with Cain slaying Abel, and continuing with the rivalry of Isaac and Ishmael, the conflict between Jacob and Esau, and culminating with the anger of Joseph's brothers. Many of these stories involve sons vying for their father's blessing or favor.

The earliest myths of ancient Greece are very different, portraying conflict between father and son rather than between brothers, with the brothers often banding together, joined by the mother (as in Freud's historical reconstruction in Totem and Taboo, Freud, 1913) to kill or castrate the menacing father.

The second basic difference between the literatures is even more striking. The Hebrew Bible offers a plan to resolve family conflict by employing the father's blessing. Originally the source of the sibling conflict, the blessing may work to achieve some level of reconciliation between his sons. As the father becomes more involved with his family, his blessing becomes more potent. This blessing from the father, in turn, reduces the degree of sibling rivalry.

Greek literature offers no such balm; never develop the idea that a father should bless his children. The result is that conflict in the families grew more angry and nasty in each succeeding generation until the families self-destructed, as the family of Oedipus did. Not only do successive generations of parents not bless their offspring, they actively reject them. The father represents an obstacle rather than a blessing, and an obstacle rather than a teacher. While the father remains an active threat, the sons remain united against him for survival. As the power of the father diminishes, the sons become free to turn their enmity on each other. As his power completely recedes, the father leaves the sons with a curse regarding their relationship.

The Greek Family Pattern: Several examples of the Greek family pattern come to mind. Uranus was angry over the birth of the offspring and he shoved them back into his wife Gaia as they were born. Groaning with pains, Gaia instigated their son Cronos to castrate Uranus and overthrow his rule.

Cronos then repeats his father's pattern, imprisoning his brothers, the Titans, in Tartarus. He then marries his sister, Rhea, and fearful of the prophecy of Earth and Sky (his parents) that he would lose the rule to his own son, he devours his offspring as they are born.

A third example of the relationship between paternal threat and sibling rivalry can be seen in Ovid's narrative of Heracles and Iphicles. Although the two boys are described as twins born from the same mother, they have different fathers. As the power of Zeus wanes, rivalry between the young males emerges in earnest, encouraged by Zeus's wife Hera. Eurystheus is able to force Heracles into 12 labors which involve great danger. Later, after Heracles' death, Eurystheus expels Heracles' children from Greece.

The final Greek family we examine is that of Oedipus himself—in relation to his sons rather than to his father. Four children are born out of his incestuous union with his mother Jocasta: two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. When the horrible truth of the incestuous union between Oedipus and his mother became known, Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus takes out his eyes. His sons, who were to share the power of Thebes, mistreat their now powerless father. They allow him to be exiled from Thebes and he wanders, cared for by his daughters. Before his death, Oedipus announces a curse that his sons should die by each other’s hands (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, ll. 1386-1394, .

And both alike, even now and here have closed their suit, with steel for arbiter. And lo, the fury-fiend of Oedipus, their sire, hath brought his curse to consummation dire. Each in the left side smitten, see them laid —the children of one womb, slain by a mutual doom! (Aeschylus, the Seven against Thebes (ll. 879-924)


The Biblical Family Pattern: Consider the stories of (a) Adam, (b) Abraham, (c)

Isaac and (d) Jacob. These four generations show an increase in paternal involvement,

a greater degree of paternal blessing, and ultimately resolution of sibling rivalry

God gives blessings directly to Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:28) and to Noah and his family (Gen. 9:1). But there is no indication that God blesses Cain and Abel directly or that Adam gives either son a blessing. A direct blessing by Adam to his sons, showing each his place in the larger divine purpose, may have helped prevent the murder of one sibling by the other.

Abraham circumcised both Ishmael (Gen. 16:22) and Isaac (Gen. 21:21). According to some interpretations (Rabbi Nehamiah) Abraham gave his blessing only to Isaac, though others (Rabbi Hama) interpret Abraham as giving only gifts to Isaac (Genesis Rabbah 61:6, Rashi on Genesis 25:9)._ What is clear is that Abraham sends Ishmael out into the desert because of his making sport at a feast celebrating the weaning of Isaac (Gen. 21). At the same time, Abraham apparently had become close to Ishmael after a period of estrangement (Gen. 25:9) and both sons join together in burying Abraham. Nevertheless, there is no indication of any real meeting of minds between the two sons. Isaac and Ishmael do seem to be able to cooperate when necessary, and one does not kill the other.

God first told Rebecca that when she was still pregnant that Jacob and Esau would be two great nations in her womb and that the older would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23-24). This is more a prediction than a blessing per se. God subsequently did bless Jacob, (Genesis 25:24, 28:14, 32:30) but does not seem specifically to bless Esau.

Isaac, however, did bless both Jacob and Esau, repeating God's prediction that the older (Esau) shall serve the younger (Jacob). Significantly, however, he gave each son a blessing that seemed suitable for him. First Isaac blessed Jacob, who had disguised himself as Esau, with the dew of the heaven and the leadership of other nations (Gen. 27:27-30). Esau, distraught over Jacob's trickery also received a blessing of the dew of the heaven and to live by the sword and serve his brother (Gen. 31:39-40).

Esau naturally hated Jacob because he felt his blessing was stolen from him and so threatened to kill him (Gen. 27:41). But with the intervention of the mother Rebecca, peace between the brothers was restored and ultimately Esau indicated satisfaction with his portion. (Gen. 33:4). Again note the striking difference between this curse and the prophecy given by God to the pregnant Rebecca regarding Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:23-24). Polyneices and Eteocles are cursed to a mutuality of doom, within one womb Again note the striking difference between this curse and the prophecy given by God to the pregnant Rebecca regarding Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:23-24). Polyneices and Eteocles are cursed to a mutuality of doom, within one womb. Jacob and Esau are described as two separate nations, albeit of the same womb!

Jacob, had the joy of seeing his sons reconciled despite their many problems with both him and each other. Even the selling of Joseph had come to a happy ending when Joseph as viceroy of Egypt saved the family from famine in so wise a manner that the old wounds were appreciably healed.

There is no mention of a direct blessing given by God to Jacob's sons. Moreover, in his last moments, Jacob conscientiously and lovingly blessed his sons each according to his own personality and his own needs (Gen. 49). Going a step further, Jacob also blessed his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh and added that they would be the highest examples of blessing: "In you will Israel give blessing saying, 'May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh' " (Gen. 48:21).

A Comparison of Greek and Biblical Family Narratives In summary, then, we argue that the greater incidence of sibling rivalry in narratives in Genesis than in Greek mythology is misleading. It is a function of the underlying purpose of the biblical family—the sons compete to inherit the covenant of the father. The father's blessing can resolve this rivalry as culminated in Jacob's blessing to all his sons.

The Greek family in contrast is purposeless. The father is not a source of inheritance but an impediment. Sibling rivalry is initially masked by the threat of the father to the sons who must band together to protect themselves. However, this bonding is shallow and will disappear as the paternal threat recedes. This pattern is consummated in the curse of Oedipus to his two sons to slay each other.

A purposive family therapy would benefit from taking seriously the Biblical idea of parental blessing as a means of overcoming potentially disastrous sibling conflict. Each child may require a unique blessing suited for his particular talent and leaving him feel unconditionally loved. This is the biblical message to family dynamics.


Kalman J. Kaplan, Ph.D.

Professor of Psychology.

Wayne State University/

Clinical Professor,

Department of Psychiatry

University of Illinois College of Medicine

Visiting Lecturer and Fulbright Scholar

Department of Psychology

Tel-Aviv University




Last Updated ( Sunday, 27 August 2006 )
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