51. Genesis 25:27-34; 26:34-35; 27:46; 28:6-9

III. continued

C. Jacob and Esau

1.  Jacob Buys Esau’s Birthright (Genesis 25:27-34; 26:34-35; 27:46; and 28:6-9)

When the twins have grown up, they are introduced into the biblical narrative in terms reminiscent of Cain and Abel. Esau was a man of the field, a skillful hunter, parallel to Abel who cared for the sheep and lived outside; Jacob was a quiet man who stayed inside, parallel to a gardener like Cain. And Jacob was parallel to Cain in more than externals. Jacob was jealous of his brother, the older brother who would inherit a double portion of the inheritance because of a few minutes head start in being born, and who was his father’s favorite. And Jacob figuratively killed his brother, cheating him out of everything he was entitled to as the first-born. And yet in the story of Jacob and Esau it was Jacob who found favor in God’s eyes; it is as if we read the story of Cain murdering Abel and God rewarded Cain. Sometimes bad guys finish first, and finish with God’s full support and blessing. The story of Jacob and Esau lands us squarely in the middle of the mystery of God’s choice, the mystery frequently called Predestination.

Not only does a covenant relationship rely entirely on God’s initiative, it also relies on God’s sovereign choices. Within the Covenant God reserved the sovereign right to exclude or include. Romans 9:6-13 takes up this theme and expands on it. One of the points of both the examples, Isaac/Ishmael and Jacob/Esau, is that God’s choice was made before the individuals were born. Their choices and their characters were not part of that decision. In particular, God did not narrow the Covenant to Isaac because of any virtue in Isaac, nor because of any flaw in Ishmael; God excluded Ishmael from the Covenant simply because he had the wrong mother, because of the meaning he was assigned in the long metaphor of revelation. And in another particular, God did not narrow the Covenant to Jacob because of any virtue in Jacob, nor for any flaw in Esau. God excluded Esau from the Covenant simply because of the meaning he performed in the long metaphor of revelation.

Esau is first described as despising his birthright, his inheritance rights as the elder. When brothers would divide their inheritance, the eldest would get a double portion, as if he counted as two people. Thus, if there were four brothers, the inheritance would be divided into five equal portions and the eldest would get two of them. So Esau was entitled to inherit two-thirds of Isaac’s property but Jacob only one-third. Esau traded this advantage for a bowl of soup. Some commentators have argued that Esau was despising the spiritual components of the birthright even more than the material components, and that this is the real cause of Esau’s exclusion from the Covenant. This view seems to be based on Hebrews 12:16. As the eldest, wasn’t Esau the rightful heir to the Covenant of Revelation, the rightful heir of the oral tradition preserved from the creation of the world, and the rightful successor to Isaac in continuing that revelation?

No. In fact there is no indication at all that the Covenant was ever meant to operate by headship being passed from the father to the eldest son. The leadership in the Covenant people would always be something of a random selection from various tribes and never from eldest sons of previous leaders. Even the later kingship over Israel did not automatically go to the eldest son. Furthermore there had been no indication to this point that anyone besides Ishmael would ever be excluded from the Covenant. All that had been said to Rebekah was that there would be two distinct nations arising from her, and that the descendants of the younger would rule over the descendants of the older; there was no need to think that the older would be excluded from the Covenant.

On the contrary, there is no reason to think that Esau despised anything except the material blessings he was entitled to as the oldest son. And there is no reason to think that Jacob was coveting anything of Esau’s except those material blessings. We can try to spiritualize/demonize the twins but there is little or no evidence in the passage itself to support it. As events unfold, the characters of both Esau and Jacob belie such an interpretation. If we try to make Esau into a bad guy and Jacob into a good guy, it may be because deep down we are uncomfortable with the thought that God should pick someone like Jacob over someone like Esau without a secret and good reason. Surely God, who looks at the heart, saw a heart of flesh in Jacob and a heart of stone in Esau and that is why He did what He did, we think to ourselves. But no; God chose Jacob because He chose Him, with no reason given except the one given in Romans 9: God was demonstrating that His choice does not depend on works, on the deeds of the person, but simply on His call. Perhaps it was displeasing to God that Esau despised the blessing he was entitled to as the eldest son, the riches in camels and goats and sheep and servants; but the taking advantage of one’s brother when he is exhausted and fainting and not in his right mind was certainly displeasing to God as well. Jacob did worse than Esau: though he did not despise his inheritance, he did despise his brother.

There is a further question: just how binding could their deal over the inheritance have been? Who would have known about it? At some point, Esau’s selling of his birthright must have been made public, and it must have been made public by Esau himself. What good would Jacob’s word alone have been, particularly if Esau had contradicted it? Who would have believed that Esau had sold his birthright for a bowl of soup? At some point, Esau must have admitted what he had done. The jaded among us would say that this just shows how dumb Esau was. Perhaps so, but it also shows that he was honest, even honest about dumb things he had done that would only serve to hurt him. The selling of his birthright speaks more good about Esau’s character than bad.

This was the event that got Esau the nickname “Edom”, which means “red”, after the color of the soup he got from Jacob. The name would become a barrier between the brothers, always reminding Esau of his mistake, always reminding him of the dis-service Jacob had done him. Who gave him the nickname “Edom”, anyway? At birth, Esau had had an unusual amount of hair and of a reddish color, and the name Esau is related to the Hebrew word that means “hairy one”. The nickname, Edom, could have been applied at birth, but 25:30 attributes it to the bowl of soup. Though it must have been Esau who admitted what he had done, it must have been Jacob who gave him the nickname. It must have been Jacob who first began calling him “Red”, mocking him, rubbing salt in the wound of Esau’s foolishness, inviting others to laugh at his stupid older brother who was willing to buy a million dollar bowl of soup. Others might have taken the nickname to refer to Esau’s red hair, but from Jacob it would have been a barb, and Esau would have known it: “What a doofus” is what Jacob meant. Thus Jacob planted the seeds of bitterness in Esau. First he cheated Esau, and then when Esau had made his foolish bargain known, Jacob made sure to give him a name that would humiliate him every time Jacob used it. Esau was a bit thick, a fool who was dominated by his needs of the moment rather than a rational consideration of his true situation, a man who was insensitive and impulsive, and who held a grudge; but Jacob was a snake.

The next recorded event in Genesis after the episode with the soup is the marriage of Esau to the two Hittite women, who caused much grief to Isaac and Rebekah.  The women were Judith the daughter of Beeri and Basemath the daughter of Elon, daughters of Hittite men. In 28:8 they are said to be Canaanite, but in this case the word is being used generically for an inhabitant of the land that would later be called Canaan. The word would have naturally been used in later years when the oral tradition was written down and when the Canaanites dominated the land. However, this was the century in which there were a large number of actual Canaanites moving into the land. The marriage occurred when Esau was forty years old, so in the year 1959 b.c. It is easy to think of Esau’s marriage to the Hittite women as yet further evidence that he was not interested in the spiritual aspects of his family, but this interpretation of Esau is not quite fair. It is true that Esau was ignoring his family history; his grandfather Abraham had never been close to the Hittites. But once he realized how important his choice of wives was and how greatly they offended his parents, he tried to remedy his mistake by marrying an Ishmaelite woman, Mahalath, the daughter of Ishmael himself. Clearly, the problem was not that he did not care; he was just a bit clueless. On the other hand, Jacob did not give any thought to going back to Haran for a wife; he only went to Haran as a convenient dodge to escape his brother’s wrath.

And how important was it that they not marry the natives of the land? Important, yes, but not so important that their descendants would ever go back to Haran again looking for wives; Jacob was the last to make that journey. Judah would later marry a Canaanite and then marry his son to a Canaanite woman who then became part of the Messianic line; marrying a Canaanite was certainly not a fatal mistake. It is not clear whom Judah’s brothers married, but at least one other also married a Canaanite. The exact cause of the grief these Hittite women brought to Isaac and Rebekah is not stated, but it was more than simply their nationality. They were Hittites, but worse, they were obnoxious Hittites. In them, perhaps because of their personalities, the clash of cultures reached a boiling point over the decades.

The timing of the events recorded here is not clear, particularly how the events with the twins fit in with the events in Isaac’s life. Isaac lived in the neighborhood of Beer-lahai-roi with Rebekah for a while, probably until the twins were born in  1999 b.c. and for a while afterwards. Then at a time of famine he moved to Gerar, just before 1985 b.c. and stayed there for an extended time during which he pretended Rebekah was his sister; then he went to Beersheba (coincidentally the place where God had rescued Ishmael in Isaac’s youth), from which Jacob fled to Haran (Genesis 28:10) in about 1920 b.c. (this is based on the dating of events in Joseph’s life and working backwards). Esau married the Hittite women (in about 1959 b.c.) but whether at Gerar or Beersheba is not possible to tell. Somewhere in this sequence, Jacob bought Esau’s inheritance, but we also cannot determine where in the sequence it fits. The book of Genesis does not claim to be a chronological account, and as the book covers the lives of increasing numbers of people it naturally departs from a strict chronological order. My preference is to think Isaac’s family moved to Beersheba before Esau’s marriage and before he sold his birthright. What does it matter? Lots and none at all. It matters a lot just because it is part of taking the Scripture seriously; and none at all because no great spiritual principle hinges on it.

I have been reading between the lines here, which also seems to me to be part of taking the Scripture seriously as long as we don’t lose sight of what we are doing. As best I can make out, there is simply nothing in the text that presents Jacob in a good light. On the contrary, the text is relentless in exposing Jacob’s character. With each event, Jacob must decline in our estimation, as if we were being invited to judge him. The point, of course, is not to get us to judge Jacob, but to help us to understand how differently God judges than we do. It should be a relief.

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