Learning From Esau – Ray Stone

Ray Stone

To be clear in the very beginning: Esau is largely a great example of how not to be! Hebrews 12:16 calls him a “profane person”—hold on to that description; we’ll see just why inspiration called him that, and more importantly, exactly what it means (you may be surprised), before we’re done.

Let’s situate this story in the Bible’s timeline: Isaac, the “child of promise” of Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 21:1-5), took a wife named Rebekah of Abraham’s kin back in his home country. Rebekah was the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor (Gen. 24:47) which makes her technically Isaac’s first cousin once removed. We might blanch at that, but Isaac’s parents were half-brother and sister after all (Gen. 20:12), much closer blood kin than cousins! In those days so much nearer to the Creation, surely the genetic code was not so corrupted as to make this the problem it can be today.

After some 20 years of barrenness, Isaac and Rebekah were blessed with children—twin boys, Esau and Jacob. As counterintuitive as it is, twins are not always similar. These boys in fact were very different, poles apart in temperament as well as appearance. Even before their birth, Rebekah perceived them as struggling with each other in the womb (Gen. 25:22). When her distress drove her to appeal to God for the cause, He revealed to her, “Two nations are in thy womb, and two people shall be separated from thy bowels: and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). Their birth even foreshadowed that conflict: Esau was the firstborn, but Jacob followed immediately, grasping Esau’s heel (Gen. 25:25-26). Concerning the “two nations, two people” prophecy, Esau eventually would became the ancestor of the Edomites (Gen. 25:30; 36:1) and Jacob the Israelites (Gen. 32:28; 35:10). The Edomites would be constant enemies of Israel through the ages, only being conquered finally by the Maccabees during the 400 silent years between the Testaments. Interestingly, according to the historian Josephus, the Herods of New Testament times were Edomites.

Not only in the womb, but as children their differences were obvious: Genesis 25:27 depicts Esau as “a cunning hunter, a man of the field”, whereas Jacob was “a plain (ASV “quiet”) man, dwelling in tents.” We’re further told, Esau was Isaac’s favorite, while Rebekah favored Jacob. This could only have driven a further wedge between the brothers. Not surprisingly, then, we see in the account rivalry—jealousy—eventually, treachery and murderous intent between the two.

I would be remiss if we didn’t pause right here for a valuable lesson to parents: The obvious advice is “Don’t play favorites”; but that’s not nearly as easy to do as it is to say! Every child is different, and some are just more pleasant to be around, more lovable, sweeter in nature, than their siblings. If we were to be totally honest, most parents of multiple children have a “favorite” if only in secret, in their heart of hearts. It would do us well to admit that to ourselves, and bend over backward—and beyond—to avoid showing it to the kids. It does none of them any good, least of all the favored one. Every parent should constantly look for positive traits in each child, things that are praiseworthy, talents or abilities that can be encouraged—even (especially) in the least-lovable or least-talented among them. We owe that to our kids.

The high priest Eli “restrained not his sons” 1 Sam. 3:13); they became “base men” (1 Sam. 2:12) not fit to follow their father’s footsteps into the priesthood. When David’s son Amnon raped his own sister, (2 Sam. 13:11-14) David did nothing—was Amnon, his firstborn, his favorite? Later, when David’s son Absalom murdered Amnon in a revenge killing and fled to hide in his grandfather’s land (2 Sam. 13:37; cf. 3:3), David mourned every day for—not murdered Amnon, but murderer Absalom! His new favorite, now that Amnon was dead? Absalom was about as bad a son as they get; he warred against his father for the throne and was killed in the process, (2 Sam. 18). Who would be David’s favorite now? Next son in line was Adonijah; sure enough, 1 Kings 1:6 says of him, “his father (David) had not displeased him at any time in saying, Why hast thou done so?” Predictably, Adonijah proved himself no better than his brothers before him, plotting to usurp the throne from his brother Solomon (1 Kings 1).

The lesson seems clear: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). “Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath; but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” Eph. 6:4. Isaac and Rebekah failed in that, and so failed their children. Each had their favorite, and as we will see, each allowed the twins to exploit that favoritism.

As young men, the sons pursued their respective interests. One day Esau came in from the hunt “and was faint” with hunger (Gen. 25:29). As it happened, Jacob was in the tent “boiling pottage.” Perhaps Esau was having an attack of low blood sugar; at any rate, he pleaded with Jacob to give him to eat, “lest I die,” (Gen. 25:30-32). And Jacob, the 2nd-born, saw an opportunity to get the birthright of the firstborn for himself. A bargain was struck: Esau “sold his birthright unto Jacob,” in return for bread and pottage of lentils, eaten and gone immediately. So Esau “rose up, and went his way: so Esau despised his birthright,” exactly the reason given in the Hebrew letter for marking him “profane” (Heb. 12:16).

Now is perhaps the time to define more accurately that word profane, so offensive to us. The Greek word is bebelos which carries the literal meaning of “permitted to be stepped on”, from the root word for threshold! As it turns out, our English word profane is an accurate translation, coming from the Latin profanus, literally “before the temple”—every-day stuff as opposed to specially designated things. We might say common vs. spiritual; secular vs. divine. And that’s the contrast the Bible draws: Esau wasn’t profane as we often define it, in that he used blasphemous language or socially objectionable behavior; he simply treated a valuable gift from God in a casual, ordinary way, trading it readily for common food. He didn’t prize it as he was expected to do; didn’t count it a special thing.

And so it was said that God “hated” Esau but “loved” Jacob (Mal. 1:2-3; Rom. 9:13). But even that must be understood provisionally, for God continued to bless Esau, even as He did Jacob. In fact, the parallels are striking:

  1. Each left home, as adults, to stay with an uncle: Jacob to Laban, his mother’s brother (Gen. 28:5); Esau to Ishmael, his father’s brother (Gen. 28:9).

  2. Perhaps predictably, as a result each married cousins (their uncles’ daughters): Jacob, to Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29); Esau, to Mahalath (Gen. 28:9).

  3. Each underwent a change of name: Jacob became Israel (Gen. 32:28); Esau became Edom (Gen. 25:30; 36:1).

  4. In fulfilling His prophecy that the twins would become “two nations”, God would provide from Esau’s sons and grandsons 13 “chiefs” as the foundation of the nation of Edom, even as Jacob was given 12 sons to head the “tribes” of Israel (13, when you count his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh through Joseph).

  5. Each would be granted his own land by God in which to live and prosper: He gave Mount. Seir to Esau (Deut. 2:5) even before He did the same for Israel (Gen. 36:31). God also drove out the former inhabitants of Seir for Esau, as He would do later for Israel (Deut. 2:22).

A lot of blessings for one “hated” of God; equal to the one God “loved”! The truth is, Jacob’s nature was simply better suited than Esau’s to the long-time purpose of God to establish the nation through whom His Son would come to Earth. That preference was expressed by the words He “loved” Jacob more; but He certainly didn’t shortchange Esau!

But, back to our story of the brothers: Later, when Esau realized Jacob had deceived their father and usurped his rightful inheritance as firstborn, he was angry—murderously angry (Gen. 27:41). Whether he had forgotten the bargain he’d made years before, or he was just now realizing the value of what he had given away, his resentment was enormous. Their mother Rebekah, to avert certain bloodshed, sent Jacob away to his uncle Laban back in their home country “for a few days” (Gen. 27:43-44). But Jacob would never see his parents alive again, for that “few days” stretched into some 20 years!

Eventually, God told him it was time to go home again (Gen. 31:3). By this time, Esau and Jacob each had obtained wives, children, possessions; had made their fortunes. Jacob still feared Esau, so as he traveled toward home, he sent messengers to feel out his reception. They soon returned and said “Esau’s coming to meet you, and he has a small army with him!” (Gen. 32:6. Fearing the worst, Jacob took what measures he could: He divided his company in two, reasoning “If Esau smites the one company, the other shall escape” (Gen. 32:8); he sent more messengers with lavish gifts of livestock and goods for Esau; and hoped for the best. And as the two brothers approached, wonder of wonders, “profane” Esau, whom he feared, “ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept” (Gen. 33:4). Further, Esau refused Jacob’s gifts, even though Jacob insisted with these remarkable words: “I pray thee… receive my present at my hand; forasmuch as I have seen thy face, as one seeth the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me” (Gen. 33:10).

Hear it? “Profane” Esau represented, to Jacob, the face of God Himself! What did he see in his brother’s face? Unconditional forgiveness, acceptance; the past was forgiven and forgotten. Though true to the old prophecy, the brothers—and their descendants—would experience much animosity in the future; for now, their estrangement was behind them. They were family, and acting like it again—due almost entirely to Esau, grown and matured enough to finally realize something of the value of abstract, non-material things. In this case, the love of a long-lost brother, and the ability to accept differences and live in peace with one another. Valuable insights indeed.

So: We learn from Esau…

  1. …to not minimize things God deems important. That birthright seemed nothing to him; too late, he learned it was everything. We have a birthright from God, I Peter 3:9. Be spiritually-minded and realize how precious that is. Don’t sell it for a bowl of soup!, or the riches of this world, or for any pleasure or temptation this World offers.

  2. God blesses even those who refuse to be part of His plan. As God did for Jacob, so did He also for Esau. God “maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust,” Matthew 5:45. Don’t expect special Earthly blessings above others just for being a Christian. The “prosperity Gospel” so popular today is a tool of Satan!

  3. Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human; to forgive, Divine.” The spirit of forgiveness such as Esau demonstrated, reflects the very face of God; we should strive to present that same face.

  4. Realize people are complex—very few are “all good” or “all evil.” The worst can occasionally rise to the occasion and reflect the very nature of God!

   Send article as PDF   

Author: Editor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *