Bible Studies on Jacob Lesson 15: The History of the Older Brother, Esau

Read Genesis 36–37:1


In many ways, Genesis 35 completes the circle of Jacob’s life that began with his flight to Paddan- Aram away from his brother Esau (Gen. 28:1–9). Genesis 35 in many ways summarizes the key elements in Jacob’s life, especially those things that God had introduced into his life. Genesis 35 closes with two things that prepare us for the next portion of Genesis. First, we read a list of Jacob’s children, grouped according to their mothers (Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah). Second, we also read that Esau and Jacob together bury their aged father Isaac. The venom of ill-will between the brothers at the time Jacob deceived his father in Genesis 27 is gone. That prepares us to read more of what became of Esau.

Surprise! here’s the family of… Esau

Actually, we may be somewhat surprised by the inclusion of such a long chapter devoted exclusively to Esau, his family, and the nation that came from him. After all, didn’t God say that the “older (Esau) shall serve the younger (Jacob)”? And we know from Malachi 1:2–3 that God loved Jacob, but He hated Esau. So there must be a good reason for God to include this family history of Esau for us to read.

Genesis 36 is frequently skipped over in most Bible reading and in many Bible studies. “What, another genealogy? All those difficult to pronounce names!” You can almost here it from family members at Bible reading time. Indeed, in the Old Testament at different points we meet a list of names of fathers, their children, and their grandchildren, and we may well wonder why. What does God want the community of faith to see and hear in these names? “All Scripture is breathed out by God,” writes Paul to Timothy (2 Tim. 3:16), and that would include the genealogies of the Old Testament.

Genesis 36:1 and 36:9 both include that phrase used in Genesis that periodically begins a new focus of interest. “These are the generations of…” or “This is the family history/record of…” the translations say. See Genesis 2:4; 5:1; 6:9, etc., for instances of this phrase. We may think it rather odd that Esau and his family line get an entire chapter in Genesis… and one of the longest in the entire book, at that! Let’s consider what God is saying to us readers.

Two seeds in the story line

Abraham had two sons: Ishmael, the son of Hagar (the Egyptian maidservant), and Isaac, the son of Sarah (the free woman). Abraham’s death and burial are recorded in Genesis 25:7–11. Right after that comes an account of Ishmael’s family descendants. Although Ishmael is not the promised seed, God still says to Abraham that Ishmael would become a nation “because he is your offspring” (Gen. 21:13). God keeps His promises! So the text records—albeit briefly—Ishmael’s family. It is like taking a brief turn off the main road to take note of a point of interest, and then we readers return to the main storyline. Once the text has glanced at Ishmael, it then throws the spotlight on the more important person at that point, namely, Isaac.

Something similar happens here in Genesis 36. Isaac has two sons: Esau, the physical firstborn, but the one whom God does not choose, and then Jacob, the younger son, the one whom God chooses before he is even born. God tells us about Isaac and Jacob, but before He tells us of what happened in Jacob’s family, He first directs our attention to Esau. He tells us that Esau also fathered a nation, a people, and that he was very wealthy as well. Once we note that, then the story of redemptive- history gets back on the main route again to focus on the covenant people, the family of Jacob.

Beyond that, we are reminded that there are two seeds that are traced in history: even in a covenant home there is one son of God’s electing promise and another son who is not the promised seed. This does not mean that the son who is not the promised seed is automatically on his way to hell. The question of personal faith is a different question. In fact, one gets a different impression of who Esau (Edom) is when we read the text closely. Earlier we have read that Esau was very welcoming to Jacob, while Jacob was very afraid of his brother. Jacob had tried to soften the soul of his brother with wave after wave of gifts, but Esau says that this was not necessary. God has blessed him with wealth; Jacob could keep it all (see Gen. 33:9). Esau actually invited Jacob to settle together with him in the Mt. Seir region, but Jacob refuses. And the brothers bury their father together.

In the end it is clear that Esau is more than willing to “bury the hatchet”—and not in his brother’s head! In the end Esau is warm to his brother, and we should not miss that point. They do not die as mutual enemies.



Esau is Edom

Would such brotherly affection had remained in their children! Several times in Genesis 36 (verses 1, 8, 9, 43, etc.) we read that “Esau is Edom,” and in this way the Bible is telling us about the future. From one man, Esau, came the nation of Edom (which means “red”). The names of his wives as given here differ from the names given in Genesis 26:14 and 28:9. Solutions to this question are not easy. Either Esau had more than three wives, or the names are altered in the text, or there may be another solution.

Amalek and Edom in the Exodus

In any case, Esau has three wives and five sons listed in Genesis 36, along with their descendants. We cannot comment on every name, but we draw attention to just this one person, Amalek. Genesis 36:12 tells us that Esau’s son Eliphaz had a son with his concubine. This son, Amalek, became the father of the nation that attacked Israel after she was freed from slavery in Egypt. Exodus 17:8–13 records the first test that Israel had as a nation after the liberation. Joshua overcomes this enemy, but Amalek becomes the nation that is the paradigm of hostility against God’s people. The LORD is at war with Amalek forever. Israel must never forget this (see Num. 24:20; Deut. 25:17–19)!

Later on, as the Israelites are getting closer to the Promised Land, they must skirt the land of Edom because the Edomites refused any brotherly kindness to God’s people (see Num. 20:14–21). Even Israel’s offer to pay for any water drunk by the animals receives a cold rebuff. “You may not pass through!” Edom says. National hostility has replaced brotherly hospitality.

Psalm 137 and Obadiah

Much later, while they are in exile in Babylon, the forlorn believers are homesick for Zion, the city of God. Part of this psalm from Babylon turns our attention to the Edomites. Psalm 137:7 reveals that the Edomites cheered the Babylonians on in destroying Jerusalem. “Tear it down!” they cried. In other words, “Destroy the city! Crush the church!” Even though Judah, the covenant people, was worthy of severe discipline, the attitude of Edom was a perverse glee to see Zion destroyed.

When did you last hear a sermon from Obadiah? The shortest book of the Old Testament is focused on the day of the Lord coming against Edom, while the Kingdom of God would triumph. This is good news!

Hope for Edom in David’s tent (Amos 9:11–15)

The last Edomite known in the Bible is wicked king Herod (sometimes called “the Great”) in Matthew 2. This is the king in Jerusalem who wanted to kill Christ after the Magi from the east alert him to the fact that a new “king of the Jews” had been born. Actually Herod was half-Idumean, Idumea being the name of the nation in southern Palestine near where the Edomite kingdom had been. As a half- Idumean ruler, installed by the Romans and hated by his own people, king Herod was “great,” not because he was so good, but because he was so evil. He murdered members of his own family, and he feared any rival to his throne. He embodied the spirit of the great serpent, Satan, who was poised throughout the Old Testament era to devour the Child that was to be born to the mother, the Old Testament church. Revelation 12 pictures this so clearly for us. The insanity of sin becomes painfully obvious to us when we read that Herod orders a massacre of all male children in the Bethlehem region, two years and younger, in the hope that a quick thrust of a soldier’s sword might destroy this new “king of the Jews.” The Devil strikes out against the Christ through the evil of Herod.

Herod reminds us in a very sobering way that throughout history there are two seeds existing, and there is enmity between them.

They are in conflict with each other. Yet the most that the seed of the serpent can do is bruise the heel of the Seed of the woman. Satan cannot, he will not, win.

The Seed of the woman culminates in the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). And all who believe in Jesus Christ are children (seed) of Abraham, born again by the power of the Holy Spirit. Even Edom can find hope in Him. Amos 9:11-15 closes off a prophetic book that is nearly unrelenting in its condemnation of Israel’s sins. But God’s grace gets in the last good word. Amos says that a time will come when God will restore the fallen tent of David. The nations—even Edom!— will find shelter, home and security, in the restoration of the kingdom of David.

Now switch to the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. The council hears the wonderful news that Gentiles are coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ: this is what the prophets had earlier said! Christ has died and has been raised from dead. These saving events have changed everything for all the nations of the world. True, the two spiritual seeds still exist in the world, and they will exist in this world until the end of time. But the New Testament makes clear that we should never think in terms of the two seeds as a racial or national thing, but as a spiritual matter. God’s electing grace and wondrous love reaches into all cultures, all tribes, all nations, and all peoples. Even people who are descended from Edom can be reached by the power of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. God’s grace is never chained, and it does not stop at political borders.

This is true today as well. There may be nations that are largely hostile now to the gospel of God, as Edom was hostile to Israel throughout history. Yet from those nations there will come an elect remnant, chosen to everlasting life in Jesus Christ and brought to saving faith by the Word of the Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Lesson 15: Points to ponder and discuss

1. In your Bible reading, have you ever skipped over the genealogies of Genesis 5, 10, and 11, or the long name lists in Ezra and 1 Chronicles (be honest now!)? Why or why not? If you have omitted them in your Bible reading and study, what were some of the reasons? Did you ever make a little extra effort to find out what the reason is for including them in the inspired Scriptures?

2. Esau and Jacob appear to be reconciled to each other in the closing years of their lives. The Edomites, Esau’s children, become very hostile to the Israelites, Jacob’s children. What might be the reasons to explain such hostility?

3. Edom rejoiced to see Jerusalem fall to the Babylonians. Do we see a similar kind of smug satisfaction on the part of non-believers when Christian churches as well as Christian leaders and people have shortcomings and sins, personal and public? Why is that so? What do we learn about human nature? What might God be teaching us in those times?

4. Christian missionaries have reached many nations and peoples in today’s world. In some places such mission efforts may be only through radio broadcasting and literature distribution. In what nations today is there great hostility to Christianity, either on the part of the government and/or the society?

5. The “Voice of the Martyrs” is an organization that keeps track of the persecution of Christians in various parts of the world. What can Christians in North America do to assist such churches and these persecuted Christians? Prayers and letters? Political pressure? Physical and material assistance? How can your congregation become more aware of the suffering of fellow believers?

6. Read Deuteronomy 23:7, 8. The Edomite is a brother, not to be abhorred, even though the Edomites remained hostile to God’s people throughout history (see Amos 1:11–12). Is this an example of our Lord’s teaching to “love your enemies”? If so, what does loving your enemies include?