The story of Jacob and Esau is one I’ve often found troubling.
On the one hand, Jacob is obviously the hero. It virtually says so; he’s the one from whom the Twelve Tribes descend, he’s the one we follow when the two part ways, he’s the one we still name children after to this day. I mean, you find plenty of people named “Jacob” or “Jake” or “Jack” or “James”, but how many “Esaus” do you know?
But on the other hand, Esau looks so much more like hero material. He’s the manly man, out in the open country, a hunter, and later a leader of men, where Jacob seems like a mama’s boy, at home in the woman’s world of the tented encampment. Where Esau seems gloriously wild, Jacob is… domesticated.
Furthermore, Esau always seems so much more honest than the shifty, cunning Jacob. Yes, he’s rash, but even that seems like more promising character material for God to work with than Jacob’s deceptiveness.
And yet the Bible unequivocally singles out Jacob for God’s blessing and Esau for Scriptural censure.
Why? What’s wrong with Esau?
The narrative portions of the Old Testament are frequently fairly opaque when it comes to levelling moral judgment against a person. Perhaps more aware than we that moral judgment of that sort is reserved for God alone, the narrative books are frequently quiet on the morality of an event, simply recording it as having happened.
The prophetic writings of Malachi record that God “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau. The plot thickens. The situation becomes even more troubling. Doesn’t the Bible teach that God loves everyone? How can it say He hated Esau? What did poor old Esau do to deserve that?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that we are told that “loved” and “hated” may be a bit stronger than the precise sense of the Hebrew. It may more accurately read “Jacob I chose, and Esau I did not choose”.
All well and good, but the question still remains. Why Jacob and not Esau, either as well or instead? Why choose a shifty deceiver over an honest but rash man?
Hebrews 12 may be as close as we’re going to get to an answer. “See to it that no-one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the eldest son…”
Ok, we’re told that he was “godless”. That’s a word which isn’t exactly in the current lexicon enough that we have a firm grasp on its meaning. We think it’s a synonym for “evil” or “pagan” or “atheist”, and we’re apt to throw it around as a general-purpose insult meaning “anyone who doesn’t agree with us”. Godless liberals. Godless communists. Whatever.
What does it actually mean?
Hebrews 12 uses it as a summary statement of his major fault: that he sold his inheritance rights for a bowl of stew.
This apparently wasn’t some boyhood transaction between two kids, in which the ten-year-old persuades the naïve six-year-old to give him his pocket money in exchange for use of the blue crayon. No, for a start Jacob and Esau were twins, and Esau was the elder.
Second, the inheritance rights were a bit more important than pocket money. You’re going to get some more pocket money next week; the inheritance rights are your future. The double portion of the estate that you ought to get as the eldest son when your father passed on. As Abraham’s grandchildren, thousands of sheep, goats, camels and donkeys.
Also, this happened when they were a bit older than ten. Old enough that Esau was out hunting all day without supervision, while Jacob was back home cooking borscht. They may not have been full adults yet, but they were certainly close enough in age to the rite of passage that they knew what they were doing.
And that’s what makes Esau’s deed so incomprehensibly short-sighted as to constitute wilful sin. This is like Bill Gates ceding controlling interest in Microsoft, in exchange for a cheeseburger.
Jacob may be shifty and deceitful, but at least he values what is truly important.
In this scenario, “first sell me your birthright” doesn’t look like the deceitful serpent-whisper of temptation so much as a brother’s verbal sparring with his twin:
“Give me some of that red stew; I’m famished!”
“This is for Dad. Go make your own stew!”
“No! Give me stew now, I can’t wait any longer!”
“Sell me your birthright first!”
It reads like “bow down and lick my feet!” or “donkeys will learn to talk first” or “when pigs fly!” The “yeah, right!” ludicrous request of someone who’s still cooking.
The incomprehensible thing is that Esau agrees to this.
The Bible seems fairly convinced that, as stupid as it sounds, he actually knew what he was doing. He just didn’t care right then. All he cared about was that he was hungry right then.
Given the situation, that these are Abraham’s heirs in a nomadic encampment the size of a small nation, there’s no way that anyone was going to let the eldest son and presumed heir get to the point of actually starving. Esau’s whining looks just like a petulant two-year-old wanting candy before supper.
This, then, is what’s wrong with Esau. He’s not merely rash or ill-counseled. He’s willing to trade something of ongoing importance (his property rights as the firstborn) and infinite value (including the promises made to Abraham that God had not fulfilled yet) for a bowl of stew. Something to fill his stomach for a few hours.
God can’t work with that, because that sort of mindset will trade away anything that God invests in return for a handful of Satan’s fake “magic beans”.
Even a shifty deceiver is better than that.