Read Genesis 25:27–34
Already at birth it becomes apparent that these twin boys are quite different. The slightly older boy (Esau) emerged from the womb covered with hair (a physical thing that makes him clearly a fraternal twin to his slightly younger brother Jacob). Identical twins they are not! Furthermore, the Lord had revealed that the relationship of these children would not be friendly. As the heads of nations, their future and that of their descendants would not be that of equals. The one nation would be stronger than the older; the “older will serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23).
Separate developments (25:27–28)
These two verses are something of a transition that bridge the story line from the birth and naming parts to the separate developments that occur in these two lives.
Twins often grow up close to each other, even physically close. But this does not appear to happen in the tent of Isaac. Esau develops into a skilled hunter, while Jacob is content to remain around the tents of his semi-nomadic family. Furthermore, we note that there is the reality of parental favoritism: Isaac loves Esau because he hunts, and when successful, that means delicious wild game to eat. Rebekah, on the other hand, loves the younger son Jacob, but the text does not give us a reason why. It may be because of the LORD’s word during her pregnancy. But readers know that when parents show favoritism to particular children, the end result is almost always not pleasant.
In the description of what these two sons are like, it is easy for our cultural stereotypes to take over as we read this very familiar story. A common way to read this story is to think that Esau is “allboy,” a regular guy who loves to play football, baseball, and rugby. He is not afraid to go out on the hunt to kill and prepare game. Jacob, on the other hand, is a kind of “momma’s boy.” While twin brother Esau is outside doing “guy things,” Jacob is back with mother Rebekah, baking cookies, perhaps. In other words, Jacob is soft, maybe a kind of sissy. If that is the picture that we see as we read this story, then Jacob comes off quite unfavorably. As he grows up, we already don’t “like” Jacob.
But let us consider this story again. Earlier in the story of Genesis, we met a great hunter before the Lord, Nimrod. While there is nothing wrong with hunting for game in order to eat, Nimrod is not noted for his godliness. Furthermore, father Isaac does not admire or show his love to son Esau for his godliness. It is his stomach that is satisfied by the delicious game that Esau is able to bring back from his hunts. Favoritism in family relationships based on self-satisfaction is a minefield of dangers. Trouble brews before trouble breaks out.
As for Jacob being a dweller in tents, there is nothing unusual about that. In fact, that is what semi-nomads do: they live in tents! Thus Jacob is living in a manner not unlike his own father and grandfather before him. In addition, Jacob is described in verse 27 as a “quiet man” (NIV). Other translations say “perfect” or “complete.” Currid (Genesis, vol. 2, p. 19) says that Jacob was “a man of peace.” The word used here is usually translated in a moral sense, i.e., perfect. See Job 1:1 and 8, as well as Genesis 6:9. Both Job and Noah are described as “perfect.” This does not mean that they were free from original sin. Rather it refers to the fact that they were godly men who lived before the Lord God with integrity, seeking to serve God in faithfulness.
Is this the sense that this word has in Genesis 25:27? Hamilton (Genesis 16–50, p. 177) thinks that the moral sense as descriptive of Jacob is “inappropriate” here. He interprets the sense here as “complete,” meaning that Jacob is “a self-contained, detached personality complete in himself, hence ‘quiet.’” Others disagree in order to maintain that Jacob is a morally upright man as he grew up, and that understanding must be used to judge, in the main, his actions in the rest of his life. What does his later life show? Is Jacob “soft?”
Swearing away the birthright (25:29–33)
There are a number of ways of reading what happens in this part of the story. How you read this will influence how you think of the two characters, especially Jacob. It is often read in the following manner: brother Esau comes back from a hunt, but he is so very hungry (apparently he caught and killed nothing for food), that he is truly on the verge of death. He asks for a bowl of red soup from his twin brother, but his brother drives a very hard bargain. Esau is somewhat trapped: either sell the birthright and live (by eating the soup), or, refuse to sell the birthright but then risk his own life since, in his mind, “I am about to die” (verse 32). In this way of reading and hearing the story, Jacob comes across quite unfavorably. Even if Esau is not really about to die from hunger, Jacob should have done the “nice” thing, the Christian thing: he should have given his brother a bowl of hot red soup and a second helping, if he asked! Some writers even say that Jacob here “steals” the birthright away from his very hungry brother. But there is another way to hear the story if we think our way through the details. First of all, we will learn later in Genesis 27 that Esau also is able to cook. When Isaac sends him away on the hunt, Esau will be successful then, and he will come back, cook his catch, and present it to his father Isaac. Second, can we really believe that Esau is on the verge of dying of starvation? How long does it take for a person to die of starvation, if he or she is deprived of food (assuming that such a person has water to drink)? Normally starvation takes several weeks. Plus, a person on the verge of death from starvation is so weak that they cannot move without assistance. In addition, such a person does not take red stew (lentil soup?) for his first meal on the road to recovery. It would be too great a shock to the starving person’s system. Fruit juices usually start the starving back to health. Okay, let’s say that Esau was very hungry. Indeed, when have we not heard our children say— or said it ourselves—“I’m starving! When are we going to eat?” It is very believable to think that Esau has not had much if anything to eat while he was away on the hunt. But when he says that he is about to die, we find that to be very hard to believe. Esau is exaggerating his growling stomach.
But to the more difficult question, we ask this, “Was Jacob being an oppressor, a cheat, when he drove this bargain with his brother?” Commentator Baldwin (Genesis 12–50, p. 106) thinks so. “Jacob was ruthless in his scheming to outwit his brother, who, as the elder of the two, was in a specially privileged position.” Again, we must ask ourselves whether this is true. How is Esau outwitted? Jacob’s proposition is fairly straightforward: “I’ll give you some of this red stuff, and you give me the birthright.” That is the deal: take it or leave it. No small print; no unseen or unspoken clauses, amendments, or modifications.
What was the birthright, in any case? Why would Jacob want it? We know from later in the story of Genesis 27 that the birthright and the blessing are separate things. The birthright was the privilege that belonged to the firstborn son. This was the favored gift that the firstborn son was to receive, namely, that he would receive the double portion from his father. Read Deuteronomy 21:15–17, where the law requires that the firstborn son receive just such a portion, even if he is not the son of the beloved wife. Such a double portion would put the son in a favored spot for the future, and he naturally would be the leading figure in the family’s future, all things being equal.
This was in Esau’s future prospects, and it is this birthright that Jacob wishes to acquire. Why? Here we might speculate. Perhaps Jacob is a selfish man, a person who sees his twin brother at a slight disadvantage and then he goes in “for the kill.” But, on the other hand, if he is a “perfect” man in a moral sense, it is more likely that he sees in his brother a lifestyle, a spiritual direction, and a moral personality that cares little for the things of God’s covenant. Jacob and Esau are the sons of the same two parents, but they are headed in different directions spiritually and covenantally, at least at this point in the story. If Esau really values the birthright for all the right reasons (or, for that matter, for any reason at all!), then he would refuse to sell the birthright. But the smell of the red stew is enticing, and it is ready to eat now, and what good is a birthright (a future thing) now when one is about to die (present predicament)? He sells the birthright, even sealing the deal by swearing an oath at Jacob’s insistence (verse 33).
Jacob serves his brother a very delicious meal (hunger makes for a good appetite, after all!) of bread and soup. The original text in verse 34 is rather blunt in the use of four words (all verbs): “(he) ate… drank… got up… left.” Some commentators say that in the ancient Near East the hairy person is considered to be boorish and crude. In this case, Esau seems to live up to the stereotype! But there is one more verb in verse 34: (he) despised. Esau has just sold his birthright, confirming the sale with a solemn oath or vow, and the Bible tells us that this means he despised his birthright.
Esau despised his birthright (25:34)
Despise. Sounds so harsh, does it not? Does Esau ever say anything mean and nasty about the birthright? It does not seem so. The word “despise” has the idea of thinking little of something, treating something with little or no honor. What we love and value, we protect and hold onto. We would not let something go, but we would think about it often, and we would consider it very valuable. But to despise something is like wiping our dirty shoes on a doormat. We probably don’t hate the doormat, but we don’t highly value it either. When David sinned with Bathsheba, God tells David that he has despised the Word of the LORD (2 Sam 12:9). Esau faces a far-reaching choice: a bowl of soup versus the birthright? Esau here thinks with his stomach.
What has he just done? Does he have any idea what it means to sell his birthright as a covenant son for a bowl of red stew? Genesis 25:34 closes this account with the somber statement: “So Esau despised his birthright.” What Esau has done is to seek a short-term solution to a growling stomach and physical weakness due to his great hunger. But this indifference and apathy to his great privilege as the firstborn son is equivalent to hostility. It is interesting to note that we do have ancient texts that tell us that it was possible for a person to sell his birthright. Yet we may not evaluate Esau’s actions here merely in the light of ancient traditions and customs. The text of Scripture says that Esau’s actions were in reality a despising of his birthright.
Jacob, on the other hand, has looked ahead to obtain the blessing that accompanies the covenant promises. Jacob is often treated harshly for what he did, but this should be re-examined. Did Jacob sense in his brother that the things of God and of His covenant were not important to Esau? Did Jacob think that perhaps rather than have the covenant responsibility fall to a man who was largely indifferent to the coming of the Kingdom of God, he would “step up to the plate” and try to secure this birthright with all its privileges but also its responsibilities as well? If that is the case, who then is the wiser man?
When the story began, Jacob had lentil soup, while Esau had the birthright. When the narrative closes, it is reversed: Jacob has the birthright, while Esau is satisfied with a nice square meal. Hours later Esau will be a hungry man again. Who is now the richer man?
Read Hebrews 12:16–17. In the context of this passage (Hebr. 12:14–17) the inspired text is urging us readers to live in peace and in holiness, to avoid allowing little sinful weeds to pop up, such as bitterness and sexual immorality. In that context he refers to Esau who is described as godless or profane because he sold his inheritance rights as the eldest for a single meal (12:16). Paul rightly describes such people as enemies of the Cross of Christ, people whose god is their stomach, folks who mind earthly things (Phil. 3:18, 19). Are such people with us today? Is such a warning for us as well?
Esau and Jacob were both covenant sons. They both were called to seek God’s rule over all things in their life. Spiritual wisdom opened Jacob’s eyes to the future, the long-term future, in fact. But Esau sold his future for some tasty food, and thus he lost it all.
Lesson 2: Points to ponder and discuss
1. Why does Rebekah love Jacob? Are there some hints or suggestions in the story that may explain why she loves him more than Esau?
2. Genesis 3:15 tells us that there is a history-long battle and struggle going on between the Seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. How is such a struggle evident in the story of these two brothers as they grow up in the family of Isaac and Rebekah?
3. Christians are under no obligation to assist the wicked in their agenda and program of working against the Kingdom of God. Yet Christians are required to feed our enemies when they are hungry and give them drink when they are thirsty. Read Romans 12:20. How can we sort this out? Talk about those times when you have (or could have) shown Christian charity to those who were your enemies.
4. We are baptized into the Name of the Triune God. That is our Christian birthright in the covenant of grace. What do we have as Christians in such a birthright? What privileges and responsibilities now fall to us with the name “Christian?”
5. What parallels are there, if any, between the first temptation in the Garden of Eden (food that could make one wise), what the first woman and first man did, and this action of Esau? Both stories deal with food as a kind of temptation. What did our first parents lose, and what did Esau lose?
6. The third commandment deals with misusing God’s Name. How can Christians themselves sometimes despise God’s Name, besides cursing and blaspheming? Can we treat God’s Name lightly? How does heresy (false teaching, unbiblical doctrine) belong to the area of despising God’s Name?
7. Esau had a “felt need,” namely hunger. We all have real and pressing needs, including physical needs. What does our Lord Jesus Christ press upon us about His Kingdom and our “needs” in Matthew 6:25–34?
Rev. Mark Vander Hart is the Old Testament Professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He has also written a Bible Study on Genesis 1–11 which is available through Reformed Fellowship.