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 other) Son of Isaac

Jacob is a multi-faceted Biblical character; he is full of flaws and makes bad life choices, yet God blesses him and chooses him over his brother to be one of the patriarchs of his chosen people. In fact, the nation of Israel takes its name from the new name God chooses to give to Jacob. So it is helpful to study Jacob’s life. We can learn a lot from his interactions with God and others.

Today, I want to look at Jacob’s (sometimes) dysfunctional home life. We think of the patriarchs as having blessed lives and few, if any, flaws. But God’s blessings are not earned. They are a free gift, freely given to imperfect people. Jacob’s father, Isaac, was the son of God’s promise to Abraham. But Isaac’s home life was not blissful. Isaac was taunted and resented by his older brother, Ishmael, leading to Ishmael being exiled. And he had several younger brothers who were sent away as they grew older (see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+21%3A8-20&version=NIV and https://biblia.com/bible/Genesis25.1-6) He was devastated by the death of his mother, Sarah. And, while he was much-loved, and the son of promise, he was also indulged, isolated, and coddled. He was the “winner” among all his brothers.

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As for Jacob’s mother, Rebecca– her family history was dominated by a cunning and dishonest older brother (more about him in a future post!) She was given a choice to leave her family and become Isaac’s wife (almost unheard of freedom for a woman at that time, and certainly not her brother’s idea!) She was a good wife to Isaac and was a great comfort to him in his grief after the death of his mother, Sarah. But when she became pregnant, she soon realized that something was happening inside her womb– something beyond her ability to understand; something that would test her (and Isaac) to their limit.

God had promised to make Abraham a great nation. And he promised that Abraham would have a son through Sarah. Ishmael was the result of Abraham and Sarah trying to do things for God “their way,” when they got impatient and fearful. Isaac’s birth was confirmation that God’s blessings would come “His” way, and not through human efforts. Isaac knew all of this, but there was more he would need to learn about how God operates.

In Isaac’s family, God underscored the truth of His character– God blesses those whom he loves. God’s blessings are not earned; they do not come in predictable patterns or for reasons based solely on human logic. God’s favor rests not on the “deserving” but on those he chooses to bless. So Isaac and Rebecca have twin boys. According to human tradition, the eldest son inherits all the property and blessings and becomes the patriarch of the next generation. The younger son serves the elder or else leaves to start his own family. Over the centuries, this patterns has caused wars, as brother fights brother for control over land, rights, crowns, and more.

We have no record of Isaac consulting God over this situation, but Rebecca does– and she gets a surprising answer! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+25%3A+19-28&version=NIV
Even in the womb, the boys are fighting, but God tells Rebecca that the oldest will serve the younger! Both boys will become strong nations, but they will be separated, and they will continue to struggle throughout their histories. It is the younger, seemingly weaker underdog who will be God’s choice to continue the line of promise begun with Abraham.

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Even in their names, Jacob “loses” to Esau. Esau is named for his bright red hair, a mark of distinction, and a reason to stand out and be a leader. Jacob is named after his action of grabbing his brother by the heel as they come out of the womb. It is a disparaging name, a constant reminder that he is second, and lesser, and always lagging behind his brother.

Today, as I look at Jacob and Esau, I am reminded that I pray to the God of Jacob. He is the God of the underdog; the God who sees and hears the outcast and the downtrodden; God of the disparaged one; the one who feels left out or left behind, even in his own family– even by his own father. It’s not that Isaac hated Jacob or abused him or denied him. But his affection for his sons was shaped by human traditions and his own preferences. God’s love is pure and unchanging! I am comforted in knowing that when God sees me, He always looks with the eyes of perfect love!

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