Esau was the twin-brother of Jacob and the legendary ancestor of the Edomites, whose territory lay southwest of Judah. As the grandson of Abraham and the firstborn son of Isaac and Rebekah, he seemed poised for greatness. In antiquity, the firstborn was the natural successor to the father, and the principle applied even to twins. Nevertheless, when Esau and Jacob grew up, Esau’s situation changed.
How did Esau lose his birthright?
One day, the red-haired and hairy Esau was famished after a long hunt. (Red in Hebrew is “Edom,” and this became another name for Esau.) Luckily for him, Esau’s quiet, homebody brother had made lentil stew. However, the cunning Jacob demanded an unusual payment for the bowl of stew: his brother’s birthright. Esau did not seem to care, saying, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” (Gen 25:32 NRSV). Thus, Esau relinquished his firstborn inheritance to Jacob.
Yet Esau’s father Isaac was the only one who could officially hand over the birthright. When Isaac was old, blind, and dying, he could barely distinguish between his twin sons. Accordingly, Isaac was easy prey to deceit, and Rebekah took advantage of her husband’s condition, for she “loved Jacob” (Gen 25:28). One day, Isaac requested a “savory meal” of fresh game from Esau. While Esau was away hunting the wild animal, Rebekah used animals from the flock to prepare the meal. She also disguised the smooth-skinned Jacob in animal skins so that he would appear hairy like Esau. Although Isaac was aware that something was amiss (Gen 27:18–24), Isaac ate the meal anyway and blessed Jacob, saying specifically that Jacob would rule over his brothers (Gen 27:28–29). Perhaps, Isaac had no choice but to trust that it was his firstborn son in front of him. Yet the text gives subtle hints that Isaac was not so simple-minded, since he questioned at least five times who was in front of him (see Gen 27:18, 20, 21, 24, and 26). It seems that Isaac felt doomed to bless Jacob as the one whom the Lord has blessed (Gen 27:27).
What did it mean to be blessed?
The understanding of blessing in antiquity was radically different from the contemporary understanding of a kind, prayerful wish. To be blessed meant to be one of God’s own people with all the benefits that it brings: prosperity, fertility, and protection. In other words, the essence of blessing in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is the bestowal of God’s relational presence in the person’s life. When Isaac blessed Jacob, he granted him this relationship, along with the rights to all the family’s riches and the promises that God had given to Abraham. There was almost nothing left for Esau. When the deceit was revealed, Isaac blessed Esau by saying that he would live away from the good land, that he would live “by the sword,” and that he would not serve his brother forever (Gen 27:39–40). Having lost the birthright and blessing of a firstborn—having fallen away from the “election track” through doom, plotting, deceit, and divine providence—Esau found himself in the non-elect line. Esau nevertheless received a sizable consolation prize: he would become the father of a new nation, the Edomites.
Image Credit: Esau Selling His Birthright to Jacob from The Story of Jacob series, 1550–75, wool and silk, 152 1/2 x 91 1/4 in (cropped). Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- Anderson, Bradford A. Brotherhood and Inheritance: A Canonical Reading of the Esau and Edom Traditions. London: T&T Clark, 2011.
- Niditch, Susan. My Brother Esau Is a Hairy Man: Hair and Identity in Ancient Israel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Westermann, Claus. Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church. Translated by Keith Crim. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.