An Old Testament Hero part 1: How not to be a patriarch

Diana Wynne Jones’ children’s fantasy “Howl’s Moving Castle” starts: “In the land of Ingary… it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.  Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”

Peter Enns’ book “The Bible Tells Me So”, recently reviewed on this blog, makes it clear that in the land of the Bible, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of… well, any family larger than one.  Everyone knows that you are the one God will decide not to favour.  (Jesus is the exception to this rule.)  Abel and Cain, Isaac and Ishmael, Joseph and the Others, Judah and Reuben, Rachel and Leah, David and the Others, Solomon and Adonijah… Those pesky younger brothers, eh?

I am myself the eldest of three, which may possibly affect my thinking.

My SU Bible reading notes are currently in Genesis, and this has inspired me to set down a few thoughts about one of my favourite characters; one of the greatest but most disregarded heroes of the Old Testament.

I am talking, of course, about Esau.

As well as Genesis, Esau is also mentioned in Malachi (“Jacob I loved, and Esau I hated”), Romans (where Paul extrapolates from Malachi), and most fatally in Hebrews.  “See to it that no one fail to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ spring up and cause trouble, and by it the many become defiled; that no one be immoral or irreligious like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.  For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” 

My husband’s NIV Study Bible [1985] comments sternly on Hebrews: He[Esau] had no appreciation of true values and was profane in his outlook on life… he only regretted his loss, and did not repent of his sin… his sorrow was not ‘godly sorrow.’

And of course Esau’s descendants were the Edomites.  The Edomites refused passage to the people of Israel in Numbers 20, and later were regarded as taking advantage of Judah’s fall.  Obadiah wrote his whole book against Edom: “You should not have gloated over the day of your brother… there shall be no survivor to the house of Esau.”

Of course Esau isn’t personally responsible for the actions of his descendants.  But I can see I’ve got my work cut out in rehabilitating him from all this abuse.  So let’s get started.

What Esau does, mainly in Genesis 25, 27 and 33 is as follows:

  1. He is born. A prophecy is made that he will serve his younger brother;
  2. He grows up to be an outdoors energetic type, in strong contrast to Jacob. One day, when hungry, he sells his birthright to Jacob for a meal of bread and pottage.  We’ll come back to this, his gravest sin;
  3. He marries two wives whom his parents don’t like. It’s not clear whether the polygamy is regarded as sinful (what else can Hebrews mean by “immoral”?) but the main problem seems to be that the wives are local women.  They make life “bitter” for Esau’s parents, but we are not told how, or whether Esau could have prevented them;
  4. He is cheated out of his father’s blessing by Jacob. I have read criticisms that suggest Esau should have regarded the blessing as already Jacob’s by purchase (and criticism of Isaac for ignoring the earlier prophecy).  I don’t know enough of the culture to say, but this seems a bit harsh.  Esau himself seems to think of birthright and blessing as two separate things (“He has supplanted me these two times,” Gen 27:36.)
  5. He threatens and plans to kill Jacob, considerately deciding to wait till after their father is dead (their father lives 20+ more years, but presumably this was unexpected!)
  6. At around this point in time, or earlier, he is rejected by God in favour of Jacob as the ancestor of His chosen people;
  7. He marries a third wife, Ishmael’s daughter, apparently in order to please his parents. Interestingly, he does not seem to have divorced or banished the other two, unlike Abraham in slightly similar circumstances;
  8. Many years later, he forgives Jacob.  They eventually bury their father together.

As far as I can see, this is all that Esau does.  Immoral, irreligious, profane…. Really?

In what follows, I assume that most of my readers are familiar with the basic story.

Esau is out hunting, and comes home tired and hungry after providing for his family.

(It is probably unfair to suggest that he is the son who gets a job, while Jacob sits around playing Minecraft… Jacob at least can cook, and later proves to be clever, hardworking and physically strong.)

But still, Esau is tired and hungry for entirely commendable reasons.  Perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, he agrees to “sell” his birthright for a meal.  This we can agree is stupid and short-sighted. It possibly shows a certain disdain for his father.  If Esau knows the prophecies made for his line, it may also have shown contempt for a relationship with God and for a holy destiny.  (We aren’t actually told that he did know this, or for that matter if he knew of the prophecy that implied Jacob was the more important anyway, nor do we know that the divine destiny of Isaac’s children couldn’t have descended through both of them equally.)  This is speculation.

At any rate, it’s a bad move.  (“So Esau despised his birthright,” Gen 25:54.)

Jacob, on the other hand… He sees his brother walking in exhausted, and one might have thought he would have said, “Hello.  Are you hungry?  Here you are.”  But no.  Jacob’s first thought is to take advantage of his brother’s momentary weakness to do a grubby deal in his own favour that will seriously damage Esau’s whole life.

Which son would you rather have?

Time moves on, and we have the famous deception scene in Genesis 27.  Those who think that Esau shows an unworthy attitude to divine things might like to ponder Jacob’s behaviour in verse 20.  Here he avoids Isaac’s suspicion that “Esau” is back early from the hunt by claiming God granted him success, thus using God’s Name to assist in his deception, and breaking, as far as I can see, the third, fifth, eighth and tenth commandments, admittedly before Moses was given them.

Unlike some commentators above, the author of Genesis shows great sympathy for Esau in this powerfully written and moving chapter – “When Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, ‘Bless me, even me also, O my father!’”  I think it’s fair to say that this sympathy has been felt by readers/hearers through all the centuries since… but we’re not allowed to dwell on it, because the story moves on rapidly to follow that rapscallion Jacob, whom God inexplicably favours.

Why does God favour Jacob?  This is the question, indeed.  He is looked after throughout his life (admittedly not without suffering), and he becomes the patriarch Israel, the father of the Twelve Tribes and ultimately the Messiah.  “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” as God says.

The Bible gives us two reasons.

Genesis says that Esau despised his birthright, and Hebrews in chapter 12, quoted above, goes into more detail, implying that Esau didn’t deserve God’s favour.  (God knew this beforehand; hence the prophecy.)

On the other hand… The prophet Malachi presents the people Israel as asking how God has loved them.  This is the answer.  “‘ Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ says the Lord.  ‘Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau; I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.’” (Mal 1: 2-3).  In its context this seems very much to refer to “hating” the Edomites, not Esau as such, but still the point of rejection of their ancestor may still be there.

And then we get Paul’s radical interpretation.    “Not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants,” he says in Romans, and a few verses later, “when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our ancestor Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of His call, she was told, ‘The elder will serve the younger.’  As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (Romans 9: 10-13).

God chooses Jacob because Esau is worldly-minded, unlike Jacob.  Or God chooses Jacob just because He is God, and is allowed to be arbitrary.  You could preach a good (or certainly an interesting) sermon on either of these reasons; but they do not seem to me to be compatible.

(Or of course God was quite willing to choose either, but Esau scuppered his perfectly even chance by his deal with Jacob… This makes rather a mockery of both the prophecy, and of God’s sovereignty.)

You may think this is enough about Esau… and so it is, for today.  I haven’t finished!

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Malachi Malagowther

    29th July 2016 at 5:48 pm Reply

    God is quite prepared to forgive Abraham, Moses and Jonah when their lack of trust makes them try to interfere with His plans. His purposes are fulfilled despite their weakness. I don’t think there is any doubt that He is sovereign here. Esau is a very successful leader and seems to be a man of great energy who relates well to people and doesn’t bear grudges for too long. However Jacob finds seems to have greater spiritual insight as well as being an expert in genetics and selective breeding and God forgives his failings. I would like to think that God favours those who learn more about the world by careful observation and can apply that knowledge rather than those who have the best business acumen or are the most financially successful.

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