By Betty Dunn, Crosswalk.com
Sibling rivalry is a touchstone in the Old Testament narrative of brothers Jacob and Esau. Jacob’s name comes first whenever the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah are mentioned, but Esau was actually the firstborn. In ancient Jewish culture, and often today as well, the firstborn child has sole rights to the inheritance of the father. Esau sells his birthright to his brother Jacob and loses his claim on the family property. Specifically, Esau trades his birthright for Jacob’s freshly made soup when Esau is hungry. Begin a manly man, Esau comes in from hunting one day and wants a good meal to fill his stomach. Jacob provides that meal in trade for his older brother’s future prosperity—Jacob gets their father Isaac’s birthright.
What Happens in the Story of When Esau Sells His Birthright?
Part of the backstory of Jacob and Esau is the fierce sibling rivalry encouraged by Isaac and Rebekah. As described in Genesis, Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau; but Rebekah loved Jacob (Genesis 25:28). The twin brothers are very different from each other. Esau the firstborn is a skilled hunter, with a reddish complexion and hairy body. Jacob is fair-skinned and talented in the domestic arts, like cooking. It appears as though you get what you see with rough and rowdy Esau. Jacob is much more devious.
Esau’s name means “hairy” in Hebrew. He is also referred to as “Edom,” meaning “red,” and his descendants are called Edomites. Jacob’s name means “deceiver.” In Hebrew culture, grasping the heel of another was a figurative way to express deception. Jacob was holding on to Esau’s heel when the twins were born. After losing his blessing, Esau laments; “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob?” (Genesis 27:36). Esau is aware too late that he lost his birthright as a result of Jacob’s scheming.
Their parents Isaac and Rebekah look on as Jacob becomes a conniving young adult and Esau consoles himself with thoughts of killing Jacob (Genesis 27:42).
Reverend Kyle Norman, Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, writes on this complicated relationship between brothers: “The twins are continually seen at odds, with Jacob winning out over his older brother time and again.” The brothers reconcile their differences later in their lives. “As Jacob journeys to be reunited with Esau [twenty years after the birthright scandal] in Genesis 33, we see Jacob is no longer rooted in selfish gain. As he prepares to meet Esau, Jacob prays, ‘I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown to your servant…I am afraid that Esau will attack me, and also the mothers with their children’ (Genesis 32:10-12). Jacob’s fears about Esau do not come true: Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept (Genesis 33:4). Esau’s need for revenge against his brother Jacob changes into brotherly love over the years.
What Was a Birthright in the Bible?
Esau was born first and thus was the legal heir to the family birthright which included, besides property, being heir to the Covenant between God and Abraham. Isaac’s blessing for his eldest son was for him to be a link in the line of descent through which the Promised Messiah was to come.
In exchange for a hot meal, therefore, Esau loses his monetary inheritance and his father Isaac’s blessing. On his deathbed, a blind Isaac is fooled by Jacob, wearing furry skin to impersonate Esau’s hairy hand. Isaac touches Jacob’s hand and Isaac blesses the wrong son with inheriting God’s promise to be with the people of Abraham.
Why Did Esau Give Up His Birthright for Soup?
Esau was hungry. He wanted to fulfill the desires of his flesh. He may also have been overconfident that his life was already blessed, and no harm would come by his giving up an inheritance.
Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)
Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.
Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.
So Esau despised his birthright.
Esau came from the field, and he was faint: And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me…with that same red pottage (stew); for I am faint. Knowing the character of his brother, Jacob replied: Sell me this day thy birthright. Esau had no interest in spiritual things so he agreed, saying: I am at the point (about) to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?(Genesis 25:29-34).
Esau could not have been at the “point to die” by missing one meal, but he revealed how worthless he considers the birthright and what little faith he has in God in selling his birthright.
How Do Christians "Sell" Their Birthright for Soup?
Reverend Noelle Kirchner, MDiv, an ordained Presbyterian minister and graduate of Princeton Seminary, writes of several ways it is possible for Christians to “sell their birthright” as children of God.
Believing a person rather than the Bible in regard to statements that are not edifying to our souls. Example: Esau may have ignored the Torah and Jewish commentary on the birthright tradition. Reverend Kirchner encourages Christians to treat the Bible as the Word of God (John 1:1).
Allowing ourselves to become discouraged and without hope in God’s ability to mend the broken pieces of our lives. Example: Esau may not have trusted God to give him his father’s birthright, which caused him to live recklessly and make the rash decision to trade his inheritance for soup. The reverend claims fixing problems is God’s specialty (Jeremiah 29:11).
Trying to please other people rather than trying to please God. Example: Esau may have wanted to please Jacob in devouring some of his delicious soup when Esau was hungry from hunting all day. Reverend Kirchner encourages us to follow God’s plan for our lives (Romans 12:2).
Worrying about the future. Example: Instead of trusting God would provide food for his hungry stomach in short order, Esau took the first food he saw! Reverend Kirchner extolls us to keep the faith and be grateful for what we have right now. We can trust God to provide for us in the future (Proverbs 3:5-6).
Living in fear rather than enjoying God’s blessings. Example: Esau was living too much in the moment and feared God would let him starve.
God, the reverend reminds us, will equip us for our life journey (Philippians 4:13).
Esau may have been operating from any one or all of the mindsets described above when he sold his birthright. We can learn from his mistakes and live a good life, as God promises.
Do we sometimes sell our God-given birthright for soup, however? Do we let the need for short-term satisfaction and relief overtake our genuine, long-term purpose in a life leading to a heavenly home? The answer may be yes if any of the following scenarios take place in your life:
- You take out loans instead of saving money for purchases of material objects.
- You let children do things you don’t approve of to keep them happy at the moment.
- You worry ceaselessly about the future instead of being at peace in the present.
It is easier for me to point out flawed spirituality than to carry out faithful actions myself.
According to the writer of Hebrews, Esau is an example of a person who places immediate satisfaction over spiritual temperance and faith (Hebrews 12:16b-17). And the differences between Esau and Jacob expand as biblical history unfolds. Old Testament Scripture testifies that the twin brothers represent two opposing nations (Genesis 25:23). Jacob’s descendants become the Israelites, while Esau’s descendants become “Edomites.” Although Esau is the older of the two, God’s promises follow Jacob’s line of descendants. As it is written in Genesis 25:21-23:
Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.’
“The elder will serve the younger.” God’s plan in the early days of Genesis is already running contradictory to humans’ plans and expectations. Younger Jacob overcomes his brother, father, and Jewish tradition to lead the nation of Israel through the ages to a Messiah. Esau was part of God’s plan.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/PippiLongstocking
Betty Dunn hopes her articles in Crosswalk.com help you hold hands with God, a theme in her self-published novel Medusa. A former high school English teacher and editor, she is working on new writing projects from her home in West Michigan, where she enjoys woods, water, pets, and family. Check out her blog at Betty Dunn and her website, www.elizabethdunning-wix.com