A Tale of Two Brothers
Most of us are familiar with the famous opening lines from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” his seminal novel on the French Revolution: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness …” He described everything about that period “in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Book the First, Chapter I.) I have titled our lesson from Genesis 25, “A Tale of Two Brothers” because this story also is a study in contrasts expressed in the superlative.
In our last study of Genesis we saw that Isaac’s wife Rebekah gave birth to twins. They were as different as they could be. Esau was the red, hairy boy who became a skillful hunter and spent a lot of time outdoors. Jacob was the smooth-skinned, mild boy who would rather be inside the tent. As we come to Genesis 25:29-34, Moses has skipped over many years to focus on an incident that happens when the boys are now young men. Those differences seen at their birth become more pronounced in adulthood. Jacob is everything Esau is not; Esau is everything Jacob is not. More opposite brothers could hardly be imagined.
Although neither Esau or Jacob come out of this story smelling like a rose, this incident highlights the very different mindsets and values of these men. Here we begin to see the cunning of Jacob and the carelessness of Esau, traits that will characterize their lives. And here we begin to see what is important to each of them, what they value. Jacob prized the birthright and pursued it tenaciously, while Esau despised his birthright and traded it thoughtlessly. That’s the contrast between these two men. It’s a character picture that we’re seeing here. And it’s not a pretty picture in either of them, very frankly.
This story causes us to ask, what do I value? What is it that I am seeking in life? Is my mind set on the things of this world or on the things of eternity? Think about those questions as I read this short passage in Genesis:
29 Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.” Therefore his name was called Edom. 31 But Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright as of this day.” 32 And Esau said, “Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?” 33 Then Jacob said, “Swear to me as of this day.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose, and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Gen. 25:29-34).
Jacob cunningly struck a deal with his careless brother Esau. Jacob unlovingly takes advantage of Esau’s weakness. Esau impulsively trades his birthright for a bowl of soup. Let’s look at the parts of this story:
1. The setting of the deal (Gen. 25:29-30)
Genesis 25:29 sets the scene for our story: “Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary.” One day Jacob was standing over a caldron of savory stew, made of red lentils (Gen. 25:34). This is a dish which to the present day is highly relished in Syria and in Egypt. The appetizing aroma soon filled the air, enticing enough on its own—but even more so to a hungry man. At that moment, who should come in but Esau, faint with hunger. Perhaps he had been out in his customary pursuit of hunting but had failed to catch anything.
He discovers Jacob with his pot of stew and pleads with him, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary” (Gen. 25:30). With his ravenous hunger resulting from outdoor activity Esau can hardly restrain himself. His words are expressive of his uncontrolled appetite. The translation “feed me” is too mild, the words mean “let me gulp down” some of that red stuff. Esau is not politely asking for meal; he wants Jacob’s red stew and he wants it now!
His impatience does not even allow him to try to name the soup; he just designates it: “of the red, that red.” Moses makes a point of this, writing, “Therefore his name was called Edom” (Gen. 25:30). Remember that Esau came out of the womb red (Gen. 25:25). Now this incident reinforced that nickname which would become the title of the nation that descended from Esau. It also reminds us of Adam. The names Edom and Adam are both related to the red colored ground. And Esau follows his forefather Adam’s precedent. Adam sold his birthright as a son of God for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Edom also sold his birthright as the heir of God’s blessings for food.
2. The substance of the deal (Gen. 25:31-33)
Jacob pounces on the desperation of his brother, “But Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright as of this day’” (Gen. 25:31). Now, I doubt that this thought just popped into Jacob’s mind when he saw Esau coming in from the field. Chances are that Jacob had been scheming for some time how he would grab this advantage from Esau. Surely, he knew about the prophecy about him that his mother received before he and his brother were born: “the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). Jacob is clever. My guess is that he was looking for just such an opportunity to dupe his brother out of the birthright. As his brother, Jacob should have gladly given Esau a bowl of soup. But instead, he used it as an opportunity to take advantage of his brother. For this he should not be commended.
I suppose that you do have to give Jacob credit—at least the thing he desired was worth having. What is the birthright? In most cases it is the right of the firstborn son which includes a number of things being bestowed on the firstborn son upon his father’s death. First, you would inherit the leadership position of your father’s house. Second, you would receive a double portion of the inheritance. Third, in the case of the patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac, you would inherit the priesthood position because the leader of the house was also the priest of the house. Abraham and Isaac both showed they had this role by setting up altars to the LORD wherever they settled. Fourth, especially with the patriarchs, you received the covenant promises that God had made to Abraham, the promise to become a great nation, the promise of the inheritance of the land of Canaan, the promise that all the families of the earth would be blessed through your seed, and the promise that God would be your God. (Joe Beard).
“Jacob was right to want the birthright. He was wrong to want the birthright for the personal advantages it would bring him; and, he was wrong to take it in the way he did. He took advantage of his brother’s impetuous personality and hungry condition. He should have waited on the Lord to fulfill His promises. As we’ll see in future studies, God dealt with this deceiver by giving him a dose of his own medicine. Jacob was always scheming to work things out for his own advantage. He needed to learn that God could work things out if he would trust Him.” (Steven Cole). Jacob highly valued the birthright.
Esau on the other hand did not consider the value of the birthright. Genesis 25:32 says, “And Esau said, ‘Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?’” Esau exaggerated his plight saying that he was dying of hunger. I seriously doubt that was the case. His question betrays Esau’s real sentiments “what is this birthright to me?” He has no appreciation of, or desire for, the spiritual advantages or values represented by the birthright. He thought that he needed food. Spiritual matters were nice, but not necessary, for Esau. So he was willing to trade his birthright for a bowl of soup. Esau missed God’s best was because he undervalued it. The problem was food and life were more valuable to him than God and His blessing.
The people to whom Moses was writing were in danger of doing the same thing. They had left slavery in Egypt and were headed for the promised land. Because of their disobedience God kept them in the wilderness to teach them to endure hardship and warfare so that they would be ready to conquer the land. But a lot of them grumbled. They thought they needed good drinking water, food, shelter, and protection from their enemies. And certainly those are essentials. They complained that Moses couldn’t provide those things, so they desired to go back to Egypt. They were willing to trade their spiritual inheritance of God’s promises to Abraham in order to gain the comforts they wanted. But Moses is urging them to value the spiritual heritage of a relationship with God first. As Jesus would later teach, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31-33).
It’s very interesting to consider that Christ faced a similar temptation. In the wilderness, Satan tempted Christ to turn a rock into bread. In Matthew 4:4, Christ replied, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Christ essentially said, “Obeying God is more important than eating!” If it was God’s will for him to fast and not use his power to eat, then he would fast. Life did not matter; obeying God did.
Jacob insisted that Esau seal the deal with an oath, “Then Jacob said, ‘Swear to me as of this day.’” He is taking no chances that Esau might change his mind later. Esau agrees to the deal, “So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob” (Gen. 25:33).
3. The significance of the deal (Gen. 25:34)
Moses record in Genesis 25:34, “And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose, and went his way.” In the Hebrew text the verbs are piled up on top of one another as if to imply that it happened very quickly, “and he ate, and he drank, and he arose, and he left.” These are staccato statements. You can hear Esau gulping and slurping down his lentil soup; no manners; over in a hurry; absolutely indifferent to what had just happened. Just that fast and it’s over. Matthew Henry says, “He went on his way without any serious reflections upon the bad bargain he had made, or any show of regret.” There is something carnal about the attitude of Esau, so carnal as to rouse a feeling of contempt. Moses condemns Esau’s attitude saying “Thus Esau despised his birthright.“
We’re not left to wonder about what this story means. Esau’s decision was impulsive, and yet it stemmed a disregard for spiritual things. Here is God’s divine judgment on what Esau did. He despised his birthright.
Hebrews 12 give the Holy Spirit inspired commentary on Esau in regard to this episode. Listen to it:
14 Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: 15 looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; 16 lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. 17 For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears. (Heb. 12:14-17)
The author of Hebrews is calling Christians to holiness. He does not want us to be complacent as we run the race of faith. So he gives a warning and uses Esau as an illustration. Hebrews 12:16 calls Esau a “profane” or “godless” person. To be profane is to treat holy things as common. It is to live as if there is no God or to live without regard to God’s holiness. Esau was not concerned about spiritual matters. He lived for the here and now. “Who needs a birthright?” he thought. “After all, I may be dead tomorrow. What I need now is a good meal. What good is a birthright if I starve to death?”
Profanity is treating lightly that which God says should be taken seriously. You are godless when you treat lightly the most important things of life. And when you sell the things that matter for the things that don’t matter, you are not only a fool, you are also godless and profane. (Ray Pritchard).
Listen, as believers in Jesus Christ we also have an inheritance promised to us:
Hebrews 9:15 — And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
1 Peter 1:3-4 — Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you,
Galatians 3:29 — And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Jesus came into this world so that we could be given salvation from our sins by His death on the cross. The result of salvation is that we might come into our inheritance, being heirs to the kingdom of God, joint heirs with Christ. Our inheritance is God Himself and heaven because of Jesus. When we believe on Jesus Christ, we are born again as children of God, we are adopted into God’s family. Heaven and God become our birthright. Think about that! We inherit the creator of the universe. He loves us so much that we are His and He is ours and it is not something that we can earn. It is God’s gift of grace to those He will call, to those who believe in His Son.
This story stands as a solemn warning to the people of God. “Don’t be like Esau” who in a moment of weakness sold that which was priceless for that which satisfied him only for a moment. Jesus said, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). Esau traded it all for a bowl of soup.
We only get one life on this earth. We need to make sure that we’re not wasting our lives by valuing to highly the temporary things of this world. If you’re living for what meets your immediate needs, just using God for what He can do for you, you’ll end up losing the spiritual blessings which count for eternity. You’re trading your soul for the wrong things. But if you seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness through Jesus Christ, you’ll be eternally blessed.