The bow in the Torah is originally meant to provide a visual connection between man and G-d, the rainbow that reminds us of a divine promise. https://creativejudaism.org/2022/01/25/biblical-symbolism-a-bow/
There is an overall theme in the Torah, a theme of connection of disparate elements. For example, Adam is made from the dust of the earth, combined with a divine soul breathed in by G-d. We have many other dualisms in the Torah: heaven and earth, Egypt and Israel, etc. But the overall goal of the text is to encourage and grow positive relationships between people (as well as between man and G-d): see the progression of brotherhood from Cain killing Abel through to Moses and Aaron’s teamwork. Similar themes can be seen between husband and wife, man and G-d and, of course, fathers and sons.
The earliest sons left their fathers, and even Terach, Avraham, Isaac and Jacob all left their fathers. Not until Jacob’s sons did sons and fathers choose to live together, enabling the creation of a nation.
But in order for any two people to live together, there must be acts of love and giving on both sides. Connections do not merely happen: they must be built.
So, in the case of Isaac and the son whom he loved, Esau, there was an opportunity for something very special to happen. Isaac tells Esau, Take your gear, your bowstring and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. In this case, the bow was a preparation for an act that would have reinforced their relationship, a holy connection between a man and his son that not so different in kind from the original bow – the rainbow – that was designed to connect, using a promise, between the divine and the human.
But the process does not play out. Rivka and Jacob intervene, preventing Esau from fulfilling his father’s desire. Esau’s cry is one of bewilderment and shock: he cries out as if he entirely lost his place in the world; the ground has shifted under Esau’s feet.
Instead of a son serving his father, and being blessed, the family was ruined: many relationships were damaged or destroyed that day.
Rivkah and Jacob believed they had to do what they did. And they even knew that there would be consequences, that the deception might well lead to a curse:
If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” But his mother said to him, “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.”
Indeed, there seems to be some negative fallout. Rivkah’s death is not marked in the text, she is deprived of Jacob, the son she favors, for the rest of her life. And, measure for measure, Jacob loses Joseph for the same number of years. While Isaac does not curse his wife or son, it seems that there was a punishment or curse nevertheless, as we see from the consequences of their actions.
Is it the deception of Isaac that leads to the curse? Or is it perhaps the perversion of the “bow and string” that were meant to be used to build relationships, but instead were turned into negatives? Might it be both?
These are not random questions, because we have the same words, “string” and “curse” much later in the Torah: A strung-up body is a curse to G-d. (The word for “string” is the same from Esau’s bowstring to the string used to hang someone (both use a noose at one end).) This is the only verse in the Torah that suggests we can curse G-d!
When someone is strung up on a tree, that person, who is partially composed of dust from the earth, literally become disconnected from the ground. And it is part of what leads to their death. The combined dualities that make up mankind must remain in place, or a person dies.
More: the way in which a person was classically strung up (being pulled from the ground using a noose looped around a tree or gallows) killed them in a very specific way: hanging prevents a person from breathing. And recall that Adam is made from dust from the earth, and the breath of life that was blown in from G-d Himself. Being strangled undoes the connection of body and soul, separating the body from the ground while trapping the soul in the body. In other words, it is a kind of reversal of the creative act that made Adam – but without returning the constituent parts to their origins (the body is hung in the air, and the soul, the breath, is trapped in the body).
Perhaps this is why the text tells us that we must bury a strung-up person that same day. Perhaps we are meant, in some way, to restore the original purpose of a bow and bowstring: for connection and not for curses? Perhaps we are always to look for ways to restore and grow connections, even those that have been undone?
[Note that this is part of a series explicating a single verse: Deuteronomy 21:23. All work was done in collaboration with @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblackmith and @eliyahumasinter. The full series can be found on creativejudaism.org]