Jacob the Brother of Esau

The Biblical story of Jacob and Esau has long baffled readers and scholars alike. I don’t pretend to have the answers to some of the tough questions it poses, but I’d like to take a close look at some of them.

Esau and Jacob were twins–the only sons of their parents–born just minutes apart. Yet their personalities, their destinies, and their relationships with God and others could not have been more different.

We spent the last post covering some of Jacob’s character flaws– his early years involved scheming and “cheating” this twin of his. Jacob’s life and actions are the focus of the story, after all. He is the one God chose to establish the nation he promised to Jacob’s father and grandfather. But why Jacob and not Esau?

In many ways, this story echoes that of the very first brothers in the Bible. God chose Abel’s sacrifice over his brother’s. We are not given an obvious reason why Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable– or why Abel’s was. In this case, God does not give Rebecca a reason why her boys would fight throughout their lives or why the elder son would serve his younger brother. At one point, the Bible even says that God “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau! So we are left with a big question–Does God play favorites? Does He give His favor capriciously? If so, why bother to worship, serve, and obey Him if, in the end, He has already chosen who will be blessed?

We may never have a full explanation of God’s ways– we are told that they are not our ways; that they are higher and wiser than our ways–but there are several things I want to consider that may shed some light.

  • God is timeless. He lives beyond the boundaries of linear time, and he sees the end from the beginning. As we read through the story of Jacob, we see his progression, and the changes he makes as he matures and as he encounters the great God of his fathers as it unfolds in time. His beginning shows little promise, but God already sees Jacob as Israel, as the father of twelve tribes of people, as the ancestor of Moses, of King David, and of the coming Messiah. He sees all of this before Jacob is even born! It is part of His eternal plan that Jacob, the cheater, the underdog, the “lesser” brother should become all of these things.
  • God sees inside the human heart. Esau’s character is not fully shown in this Biblical story, but we get a few clues: 1) Esau despised his birthright– he was flippant about his inheritance, trading it for a bowl of stew. 2) Esau took foreign wives who caused his parents distress–this detail may almost escape the modern reader. We do not tend to live with our extended family, but it was (and in some cases still is) common to the society in which Isaac lived. Esau did not consider his parents when bringing foreign women into the family. They had different customs and different gods. And Esau didn’t learn from the first two wives..when Rebecca commented on the Hittite women, Esau married a daughter of Ishmael, a woman likely to resent her father’s rival (remember Ishmael was banished on account of his resentment of Isaac!) 3) Esau plotted his brother’s death. His anger and resentment over the lost blessing caused him to plot murder. Jacob was sent away, not only to find an acceptable wife, but to keep him safe from his brother’s vengeance. Even though the two brothers later met in peace (Genesis 33), the meeting was filled with tension and the brothers were never close. 4) There is not one indication in the Bible that Esau ever sought the God of his fathers—no mention of him praying, offering a sacrifice, or acknowledging God. In fact, the sons and descendants of Esau (Edom) would attack and fight with the nation of Israel for centuries to come, finally being conquered and forced to serve the descendants of Jacob. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-edomites
  • God does not “love” or “hate” in the same way that we do. God’s love is universal and eternal. God loves even those who reject, mock, and hate him. So when God says, “Jacob have I loved, and Esau I have hated”, He is not talking about his feelings for individuals (see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Malachi+1%3A1-5&version=NIV and https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+9%3A6-16&version=MEV). Rather, He is talking about how He shows mercy. Jacob and Esau were real people, and God blessed both of them, and built both of them into great nations. But God showed mercy and favor on Israel for keeping his commandments, while destroying the nation of Edom because of its continuing wickedness. (God eventually showed wrath on the nation of Israel as well, sending its people into exile because of their unfaithfulness!) Even in their destruction, both nations retained a remnant and their peoples exist to this day.
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  • God did not abandon Esau. When Jacob finally reconnects with his older brother, Esau is the head of a mighty army. Esau’s sons became the heads of tribes and kings of Edom. God allowed Esau to prosper and grow strong. But Esau never sought God; Edom never showed humility, wisdom, or reverence–only arrogance, might, and hatred. God shows mercy to those who don’t deserve it, and grace to those who desire it, but He will not allow injustice and arrogance to go unchecked forever.
  • God’s grace is a gift–Jacob didn’t deserve to be favored; but neither did Esau, or Isaac, or Abraham. Nor do any of us. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+3%3A9-18&version=ESV Not one of us has earned God’s blessing. God chooses to love us even in our sin, and chooses to give us the Grace to return and receive His blessing!
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Praise be to the God of Jacob!

Jacob the Cheater

Why do we pray to, sing praises to, and trust in the fortress of “the God of Jacob” (Psalm 46; Psalm 75, etc.)? Isn’t Jacob the one who cheated his brother and tricked his father to steal an inheritance? Wasn’t he a liar, and a thief?

Last time, https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/78948359/posts/2322587905, I wrote about Jacob as the “other son”, the one in the shadows. But Jacob wasn’t content to stay in the shadows. He waited and schemed, and used his brother’s and father’s character traits against them and to his own advantage. Jacob was crafty, and sly, and devious. These are not characteristics designed to build trust or inspire admiration. They are, however, characteristics many of us secretly admire. Jacob tricked his way to the top! He didn’t exactly “steal” his brother’s inheritance– he tricked his brother into giving it away! No bloodshed or fighting…Jacob simply used his brother’s weakness and vanity to get what he wanted. Some might say that Esau didn’t deserve to keep an inheritance he was willing to barter away for a measly bowl of stew. (https://biblia.com/bible/nlt/Ge25.27-34) Even the Bible says that Esau despised his birthright!

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Later, Jacob steals his brother’s blessing, too. This time, he lies and deceives his dying father in the process. This Bible story is curious, and much has been written about whether Jacob and his mother set out to deceive Isaac, and why. Was Rachel trying to cheat her own son, Esau, out of his blessing, and lie to her husband in the process? Why would Jacob want to steal a blessing from his brother when he already had “taken” the birthright?

The Bible doesn’t always give us easy answers and complete explanations. What it does, however, is give us glimpses into the lives of real people and their very real encounters with God. Jacob’s family was a divided family. Isaac was prepared to give everything to Esau when he died. There is no evidence that he was prepared to give Jacob any kind of blessing– it had all been reserved for Esau. Whether this was in retaliation for Jacob’s earlier “trick”, we are not told. Whether Jacob and Rebecca intended for Jacob to appease his father with meat and get “a blessing” , and things got out of hand, or whether they intended that Esau should be cut out of both blessing and birthright, we don’t know. What we see is that Isaac meant to bless only Esau. When the “real” Esau showed up too late, there was nothing left for Isaac to give as a blessing. There was no plan for a secondary blessing– for either son. (Ironically, because Jacob was sent away, Isaac had a “going away” blessing for him that was also denied to Esau.. (see Genesis 28:1!)

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Jacob’s days of cheating and using deception were to leave a lasting impact on his life. He was sent far away from his family, fearing his brother’s anger. He missed years of being with his mother and father; of having their advice, or letting them spend time with their grandchildren. Jacob ended up finding, in his Uncle Laban, a bigger cheat and liar than he had ever dreamed of being; a man whose craftiness cheated Jacob out of years of labor and saddled him with family problems for the rest of his life. Jacob’s heart was broken by the deception his own sons would perpetrate on him when they sold their brother, Joseph, into slavery. Cleverness, deceit, and crafty schemes may offer a temporary ticket to victory, power, and “the good life.” But such schemes have consequences that cause lasting pain and punishment.

But that’s not the end of the story. We see Jacob rise above his own earlier mistakes. Jacob never loses his cleverness or his desire to succeed, but he learns how to “cheat the cheater”– he becomes so successful and hard working that Laban can’t fault Jacob for having larger flocks and becoming rich. Jacob could rightfully show that he had not stolen any of his uncle’s flocks, and he made Laban rich, too. Jacob’s cleverness was not the problem– it was how he had used it; with lies and deception against his father and brother. Later in life, he uses the same cleverness to appease his brother, provide for his family, and establish his own growing dynasty.

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And, at the end of his life, Jacob had blessings for each of his sons. Even though he had “favorites”, he made sure each son knew that he was loved and blessed by both his earthly and heavenly father. God also confirmed this by giving each “son” an inheritance among the burgeoning nation of Israel when they returned to the land of promise after their time in Egypt.

What caused this change? Some might say that Jacob “learned his lesson” (and he did!) at the hands of his uncle and with the passage of time. Some might say he matured with the responsibilities of fatherhood and his career. But the Bible gives us one other important factor– Jacob encountered God. Jacob even wrestled with God. But God cannot be cheated. God cannot be outwitted or tricked. God cannot be grabbed by the heel and tripped up by any scheme of man. Yet God blesses even the cheater. God loves even the liar. God chooses even the thief. God’s love and grace are greater by far than any birthright or blessing we can “grab” for ourselves. God doesn’t bless us because we are clever, and certainly not because we lie or cheat. But he gives us intelligence, cleverness, and, if we ask for it, the wisdom to know how to use our gifts in ways that please him and help others.

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We can take refuge in the “God of Jacob”, because even in our sin, God wants to rescue us from ourselves and give us a better way.

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