Marcel Mauss famously argued that in archaic societies, giving was guided by three imperatives - the obligation to give, to receive, to repay.

Except for the exceptions. Like Jacob and Esau: On his return from Haran, Jacob sends gifts ahead to pacify Esau’s wrath and Esau receives. When Esau offers gifts in return, Jacob refuses.

GW Peterman ( Paul’s Gift from Philippi: Conventions of Gift Exchange and Christian Giving (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series) ) suggests this explanation: “Esau’s offer to lend aid in return is refused by Jacob, and Esau’s lack of insistence on this point shows the fundamentally different view the two men have of their relationship. Jacob must only give for he feels that in this way he can secure the favour he needs. On the other hand, the gift is of no consequence to Esau, for nothing can be gained by it” (29).

Perhaps. Perhaps too Jacob considered the exchange to be closed by his gift to Esau, and did not want to open up a further cycle of exchange. Even-steven, and there an end.

Whatever the reasons, the exchange is a neat counter to rigorous Maussians.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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