The story of Jacob and Esau has always bothered me. Now, I understand that the Old Testament is history more than prescription, and the point of the Old Testament isn’t man, but God and His promise to send the Messiah. Still, the story of Jacob “stealing his brother’s blessing” has always bothered me. Thanks to an episode of Fighting for the Faith (F4F), I no longer have a problem with this passage. F4F is usually a 2 hour program, so I don’t expect you to take time to listen to the whole broadcast for this point, so I thought I’d take some time to share the major points I got from the program, but I will also be exploring some additional Biblical research.
First of all, the story of Jacob tricking his father Isaac into blessing him rather than Esau is found in Genesis 27. However, rightly understanding what is taking place in Chapter 27 needs to begin in Chapter 25.
Genesis 25:19-28 (ESV)
19 These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. 21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the older shall serve the younger.”
24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Remember that we’ve spent a great amount of time looking at God’s promise to Abraham, the promise of his Descendent (Jesus Christ) that would be a blessing to all nations. The biggest problem with the Jacob and Esau story is that if you only read chapter 27, you might walk away with a twisted notion that in some instances God might bless acts of deception. But that is a lie of the enemy. Notice above, that when Rebekah inquired of the Lord, He told her that the older shall serve the younger. God had already clearly chosen Jacob for the lineage of the Messiah, not Esau. He chose Jacob before the twins were born. Now, scripture does not say how Rebekah inquired of the Lord. She could have gone to Melchizedek or someone of his order (this predates the Tabernacle and the Law of Moses, and the tribe of Levi), or she could have asked Isaac to seek counsel on her behalf, or it could have been direct communication… we just don’t know, because it isn’t written. Any attempt to explain this gap is conjecture. But that she received this answer from the Lord would have been made known to Isaac. It would not have remained a secret between God and Rebekah, because we are talking about the covenant of Abraham and the line of his descendents. That the Lord God would choose the younger over the older would have been a largely significant decree and extremely unorthodox. I don’t know if they would have shared this prophecy with their children. But what we do know is that despite the Word of the Lord, Isaac loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. Isaac favored Esau.
Genesis 25:29-34 (ESV) 29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Okay, so there is room to surmise from this passage that in her love for Jacob, Rebekah probably shared with Jacob the Word of the Lord concerning them. We don’t know if this was the first time Jacob went after the birthright, or if it was the first time Esau accepted an unreasonable deal for a bowl of food, we simply know that in this instance, Esau despised his birthright. This isn’t a mere mention of a simple mistake, nor of an honest man being duped by a con artist… this speaks to a character problem with Esau. In normal cases of the day, the first born son grew to take over all of his father’s possessions and lands, as ruler over the household. Over all of the livestock, the tents, the women, children, slaves, everything. That is his birthright. Additionally, Esau was third generation from Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham, His intervention in sparing the life of Isaac as a sacrifice, all recent history and part of Esau’s birthright. And he traded it all to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew and some bread. I highlighted “Edom” as a reminder for you whenever you read later about the Edomites, that you would remember they are of Esau.
Now, interestingly enough chapter 26 for the most part makes no mention of Jacob, and only a single comment about Esau. So what is the focus of the chapter? God reminds Isaac of His promise to Abraham and subsequently to Isaac, but also we see God’s mighty hand on Isaac such that the Philistines envy and fear him and ask him to make an oath with them to do them no harm. That’s huge… and it is all part of the birthright that Esau despised earlier. Has Esau’s character improved? Well, lets look at the closing comment of the chapter…
Genesis 26:34-35 (ESV) When Esau was forty years old, he took Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite to be his wife, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.
Esau marries 2 Hittites and they make life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah. Skipping ahead briefly we see Rebekah expand on the bitterness brought by these women:
Genesis 27:46 (ESV) 46 Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I loathe my life because of the Hittite women.[a] If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women like these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?”
[a] Genesis 27:46 Hebrew daughters of Heth
Who are the Hittites? Normally, I exclude the footnotes in the ESV in these posts, but this footnote is relevant for this post. Searching for Hittites alone doesn’t give a full picture of what is at play here.
Genesis 15:18-21 (ESV) 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
God promised Abraham that his descendents would endure captivity for 400 years in a foreign land, but be delivered and given these lands. But why these lands? For that, we need to look at the name “Heth”.
Genesis 10:1 (ESV) These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood.
Genesis 10:6 (ESV) The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan.
Genesis 10:15-20 (ESV) 15 Canaan fathered Sidon his firstborn and Heth, 16 and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, 17 the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, 18 the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Afterward the clans of the Canaanites dispersed. 19 And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon in the direction of Gerar as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. 20 These are the sons of Ham, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations.
Quite the list of tribes. Recognize these names? Let’s go back one more chapter to see Noah’s response to the sin of Ham..
Genesis 9:24-27 (ESV) 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,
“Cursed be Canaan;
a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
26 He also said,
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem;
and let Canaan be his servant.
27 May God enlarge Japheth,
and let him dwell in the tents of Shem,
and let Canaan be his servant.”
This has been a bit of an aside, but all of this is important to understand in light of the Promise of God to Abraham. Esau had no business taking wives from the daughters of Heth/Canaan/Ham. So, Esau’s character issues have worsened. Let us continue now to Chapter 27:
Genesis 27 (ESV) 1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called Esau his older son and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Behold, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. 3 Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me, 4 and prepare for me delicious food, such as I love, and bring it to me so that I may eat, that my soul may bless you before I die.”
Despite having sold his birthright, married two daughters of Heth, made the lives of Isaac and Rebekah bitter, and most importantly despite the Word of the Lord God to Rebekah that the older shall serve the younger, Isaac was determined to give Esau his blessing. We are not talking about a “bless you” you give when someone sneezes (odd that we do that, by the way) because Isaac is clearly connecting this even to the fact that he is growing old and might die soon. Therefore, Isaac wants to give his blessing (inheritance) before he dies. But Isaac is planning to give his blessing to the wrong son. Wrong not by custom, but according to the Word of the Lord.
Genesis 27:5-13 (ESV) 5 Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game and bring it, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I heard your father speak to your brother Esau, 7 ‘Bring me game and prepare for me delicious food, that I may eat it and bless you before the Lord before I die.’ 8 Now therefore, my son, obey my voice as I command you. 9 Go to the flock and bring me two good young goats, so that I may prepare from them delicious food for your father, such as he loves. 10 And you shall bring it to your father to eat, so that he may bless you before he dies.” 11 But Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “Behold, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man. 12 Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him and bring a curse upon myself and not a blessing.” 13 His mother said to him, “Let your curse be on me, my son; only obey my voice, and go, bring them to me.”
Okay, so Rebekah overheard Isaac speaking to Esau. She heard that Isaac was about to bless Esau contrary to the Word of the Lord regarding Jacob and Esau. Does she act honorably? No, she engage in deception. The historical passages of the Old Testament are not always prescription for how we are to live our lives, they are to show God’s Greatness and that He keeps His Word. Forgive me a bit of armchair quarterbacking, but reminding Isaac of the Word of the Lord, or that Esau had already sold his birthright or both might have been better routes. However, the perfection in the Old Testament is God, not man. The biggest point here is that God doesn’t honor the blessing on Jacob because of this deception; rather, God had already chosen Jacob before he was born. The deception does not go unpunished… Jacob has to flee the wrath of Esau, and Rebekah has to deal with the pain of her sin of deception. Jacob has a long road ahead of him to grow into maturity.
It is my sincere prayer that if you’ve ever struggled with this story of Jacob and Esau and the blessing of Isaac, that perhaps this has shed some light on the subject. Even if you’ve never had an issue with the story, I hope that this has at least been an interesting look at how we strive to allow the Scriptures to define and explain Scriptures.
May the Lord Bless you and keep you,
8 thoughts on “Jacob and Esau”
Greetings, and thank you for a well-written and excellently-reasoned post. It looks like the same things bothered you about the story as bothered me. This has been helpful.
However, I have a question.
You said “Esau had no business taking wives from the daughters of Heth/Canaan/Ham”. Isn’t this rather racist?
Rahab the Canaanite from Jericho married into Israel and became the mother of Boaz and great-great-grandmother of King David.
King David ended up marrying Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite and presumably a Hittite herself, and she’s in the genealogy of the Messiah. So’s Rahab. So’s Ruth, a Moabite.
If the problem with Esau’s wives was purely that they were descended from Ham, then in addition to looking racist it kind of makes these others wrong too.
It seems to me that the problem was not that they were Hamites but that they made life miserable for Isaac and Rebekah. What gives?
Thank you for taking the time to comment. I’d like to start with your statement “If the problem with Esau’s wives was purely…” It wasn’t “purely” that they were Hittites (or daughters of Heth). The focus of my post, and of the Scriptures in this regard is the character of Esau. That these were Hittites was mentioned twice, once as a description of Esau’s decision to bring strife to his parents, and again by the mouth of Rebekah who clearly identified their being daughters of Heth as a major factor. It was not only that they were evil individuals (the Old Testament often identifies individual evil, “so-and-so did evil in the sight of the Lord”), but that they were Hittites. When Abraham sought a wife for his son Isaac, he sent his servant to the land of his family and specifically instructed that Isaac not marry a daughter of Canaan (Genesis 24). Isaac and Rebekah understood this, and so should Esau. Isaac instructs Jacob that he is not to take a wife from the daughters of Canaan (Genesis 28).
As for the comment, “isn’t this rather racist” I can’t help but feel a present-day understanding of the term being applied or read-into the scriptures here. Let me address your examples first and then we’ll get back to the whole “racist” bit.
–Rahab was not only a Canaanite, in Jericho, she was also a prostitute (Joshua 2). However, she recognized the God of Israel, and took a step of faith to serve Israel by hiding the spies and so by her faith and service salvation was secured for her and her household. All of this happened before she was brought into the Messianic line. She is a picture of salvation, a foreshadowing of the fact that the Messiah was coming to redeem the whole world not just Israel (remember the promise to Abraham, that all nations would be blessed by his descendant).
–David (2 Samuel 11) committed adultery with Bathsheba, then attempted to cover it up by having Uriah sleep with his wife, and when that failed he committed murder so that he could marry Bathsheba. David repented and paid a high price, but because his heart remained true to God, God did not turn away His promise to David. David had NO BUSINESS getting involved at all with Bathsheba for far more reasons than race. However, we serve a God who redeems and keeps His covenants even when we fail.
–Ruth, again, though a moabite, she honored Naomi and chose to stay with her despite her insistence that the Hand of the Lord was against her and that Ruth should return to the house of her mother. This was a redemptive act. God blessed Ruth and honorable Boaz. Ruth married into the House of Israel, and demonstrated love and loyalty to the house, and was blessed for her faith. She was no longer a daughter of moab (a lineage that began when Lot’s daughters got him drunk and committed incest), she honored the house of Israel.
In this present day, in the US, we don’t really understand tribalism outside of gangster/mobster cultures. Racism here is rightfully vilified because we live in a nation of laws where all agree to live as one people regardless of ethnicity or color of skin (at least, that is what citizenship means on paper). But in the Old Testament, the differences between the tribes were REAL. God made covenants with a people, not just persons. God spared Noah and his family from the global destruction of every living thing because Noah found favor in God’s sight, and Noah walked with God. Of Noah’s three sons, one of them (Ham) sinned against his father and his descendants (Canaan) were cursed to serve the older brothers. God made a covenant with Abraham that was to be an everlasting covenant, to all of his descendants, because he believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. The descendants of Canaan end up being the very people that Israel was to eradicate from the promised land, people who worshiped false gods and rejected/hated the One True God.
The overarching theme of the Old Testament is God’s preservation of the lineage of Abraham and His covenant not only to Abraham but to Eve, the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ. The Lord God identified Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob an exclusive identification according to His covenant with Abraham. Also remember that God created Adam, and Adam fell. God rescued Noah, and one of Noah’s sons failed. God’s intent is for all people to remain in Him, but sinful man falls away, and is dead in trespasses and sin without Jesus Christ as the atoning sacrifice, so that by Grace, through faith, we might be saved redeemed from the kingdom of darkness.
Thank you for your response. I completely agree with your treatment of my examples; however, I still believe they show that God isn’t nearly as committed to tribalism as His people were. Isaac’s instructions to Jacob not to marry a Canaanite happened after Esau had already married two women who were apparently morally questionable enough to offend both of his parents (I don’t contest that Esau shouldn’t have married them; I question the tribalistic reasoning that says that the problem was that they were daughters of Heth). The position of this command in the timeline makes it a little beside the point: Isaac and Rebekah saw the travesties of womanhood that Esau had married and said to Jacob “Don’t follow your brother’s example”.
“Racist” is perhaps the wrong characterisation; you’re right. Your description of it as “tribalistic” is better. But it appears to me that a lot of the time God deliberately steps outside the inherent tribalism of the age in order to demonstrate His love and concern for all people regardless of their ancestry. Into this category go not only Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba (the specifically Canaanite examples), but also Jonah being sent to Nineveh, Naaman the Syrian being healed of leprosy and a host of others.
But in general, this was the clarification it needed. Thank you.
Great discussion, thank you! It is important not to over-emphasize the tribalism, as well as not to undermine it. God looks at both the individual and the lineage. God is Sovereign over all of the earth, even those who do not serve him (Naaman and Nineveh are great examples to that end, but also King Cyrus at the end of the Babylonian Exile). Lineage matters a great deal, because God’s covenants and promises in the Old Testament go to generations, not just individuals. The Good News is that now that Jesus has fulfilled the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, Salvation has been made available to all people, of all nations, of all walks regardless of lineage, for He laid down His life as the ultimate and final sacrifice for the sin of man and He rose from the grave so that in Him we might have life. I pray you have a wonderful week, and again, thank you for the engaging discussion.
This was a great article. I have always loved this story, particularly in the prophetic patterns pointing to the life of Messiah. When I read Genesis, I am always amazed that although the Law of Moses clearly has many blessings in store for the firstborn son (Exodus 13 and the “double portion” law of Deuteronomy 21:17), it’s a fact that Abel was favored ahead of Cain, Abraham over his brothers, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau as mentioned above, and Joseph over his! So it is clear, then, in the Law- that God will not respect the birthright if faithlessness is found. In other words, what is implied and what we see is that “a firstborn must work hard to lose his birthright.” When Cain was enraged, when Ishmael persecuted Isaac, when Esau thought his birthright was worth a bowl of stew- they were all judged by God. How does that point to Messiah? Because “the wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy.” (Matt. 22:8). The principle of “the first shall be last, and the last first” has long been extant and demonstrated since the beginning of time. Many of Israel, who were God’s firstborn as noted by the Law (Exodus 4:22) and the Prophets (Jeremiah 31:9) despised their birthright too- by not recognizing Messiah when he came. I find the story of Yaakov and Esau to be extremely prophetic in nature.
Another thing I find interesting is that Herod the Great was an Edomite- a descendant of Esau. I just find it so interesting that like his ancestor Herod was a hunter too- he tried to hunt Messiah Yeshua as an infant. That’s conjecture on my part, but we all carry the sins of our fathers and we seem to eat our father’s portion, except we break the progression with salvation in Jesus’s life.
I struggled with this story for a while too, but then I realized that the laws of God are a prescription, and they’re helpful only if they are followed. We have to work to make them invalid, and that’s the whole point of the Gospel- the keepers of the first covenant really had to work to invoke a judgment, and that’s what they earned. So it was with Esau, too. When I look at it from a judgment perspective, it makes perfect sense to me. I wanted to point out that when Isaac blessed Jacob, he was saying his words in faith as a prophecy. That’s why they could not be recanted; Isaac considered them the Word of God. So in essence, Isaac reaffirmed the Word spoken to Rebekah- they were both the Word of God. This was also what Paul wrote in Hebrews 11:20. It took a lot of faith in Isaac to realize that his favored son was rejected by God. I don’t know why God likes to wait until the last possible minute but He does… But when I realized that God spoke by Spirit to Isaac and it was part of a bigger pattern, that’s when it all made perfect sense.
Thanks for sharing, Shalom!
Thank you so much for the comment. Hebrews 11 is such a great tutor for rightly reading the Old Testament. Thank you for sharing the broader themes in this story, to include the prophetic nature of the blessing.
[…] and Cush) might not be so. We looked at the significance of the descendants of Heth in the story of Jacob and Esau. We will take a look at Cush, but for now I’d like to draw your attention to the significance […]
[…] reviewed the story of Jacob and Esau a while back. We were focused on the fact that God had chosen Jacob over Esau. This time, we are […]