Brotherly hatred: Jacob and Esau.
A month before my fifth birthday, my peaceful existence was shattered. My mother went to the hospital and came back with my baby brother.
I didn't mind so much at first, but that kid was the bane of my existence. It got even worse when we moved to a new house. I had to share a bedroom with him.
Whenever I wanted some peace and quiet, he was there. Whenever I wanted to do anything at all, he was there. The Bible says, "There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother." Didn't I wish I had a friend like that! My brother stuck around no matter how hard I tried to get rid of him.
But then one day, he made a comment that was really funny. Almost in spite of myself, I began to admire his sense of humor. Then I began to find other good points in him. After I moved away from home, I was actually glad to see him when I went back to visit. Now he's one of my favorite people. I guess that's not so unusual, either. Lots of boys squabble with their brothers growing up and then get along just fine as adults, but not everyone.
Twin brothers Esau and Jacob fought with each other from before their birth. Their mother Rebekah asked God what was going on. He told her that not only were two babies jostling in her womb, but two separate nations contending together. He also said that the older would serve the younger.
That answer must have been very unsettling. Middle Eastern society at the time and for many generations afterwards gave tremendous advantages to the firstborn. When God set up his covenant, he chose to subvert human systems. Society at that time chose the elder son, so God would choose the younger.
The twins were born, first Esau, then Jacob, grasping Esau's heel. As they struggled in the womb, so they struggled at birth and, we can be sure, the entire time they were growing up.
Esau grew up to be an outdoorsman, a hunter, the very manliest of men. Jacob stayed close to home, close to the security of the family encampment. Esau probably got the best of all of the physical fights. Jacob must have been very creative and subtle in retaliation.
Their parents made the situation worse by taking sides. Isaac loved the wild game that Esau brought home and loved Esau more than Jacob. Rebekah appreciated a son who stayed by her. She knew that God had chosen Jacob, and loved Jacob more than Esau.
One day Esau came home after an unsuccessful hunting trip, tired and hungry. The aroma of lentil stew wafted to his nostrils as Jacob stirred the pot. If Esau had loved Jacob, he would have said, "That really smells good. May I have some?" Instead, he said, "Gimme some of that red stuff." If Jacob had loved Esau, he would have seen how exhausted he was and said, "You look like you've had a rough day. Here. Have some of this stew." But of course, neither had any love or respect for the other at all.
God had said, "The older shall serve the younger." Rebekah must have told Jacob, whether she ever told Isaac or not. Jacob, a schemer, saw his chance. Esau demanded the stew and Jacob used it for a bargaining chip. He said, "First, give me your birthright."
That seems like a very odd exchange, but not without precedent. Historians and archeologists tell us that brothers in other families of the time sometimes transferred inheritance rights. But it usually involved long negotiations, and the younger brother had to pay a much higher price. Perhaps Jacob picked that moment to begin a negotiation, expecting Esau to make a counter-offer. Instead, Esau said, "What use is my birthright to me if I die of hunger?" So he swore an oath to Jacob, ate his stew, and got up and left.
There are a number of lessons in this story. I want to point out two of them. First, when God decides to do something, he doesn't need our cleverness to help him out. As Paul pointed out in Romans 9:11-13, "Before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she [Rebekah] was told, 'The older will serve the younger.' Just as it is written: 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'" (NIV).
The account concludes, "Thus Esau despised his birthright." But didn't Jacob also despise the birthright and the blessing? He reduced them to commodities that could be bought, sold, or obtained by trickery. The book of Hebrews acknowledges him as a man of faith when he was an old man. If he had had faith as a young man, he would have realized that God intended to give him the birthright and the blessing, and he would have waited patiently for them. He would have trusted in God's grace and not in his own cleverness.
Judas apparently wanted to help God out. He was sure that Jesus was supposed to be the savior of the Jews, riding into Jerusalem on a white horse to chase all the Romans out. The trouble was, so he thought, Jesus wasn't moving fast enough. Perhaps if Jesus were in personal danger, he'd have a greater sense of urgency. God didn't need that kind of help.
In our own time, there was a man from North Carolina who was offended at the number of abortions in this country. He thought that doctors who performed abortions did not deserve to live. And so he decided to help God out and speed the process of judgment along by murdering abortionists. God doesn't need that kind of help, either.
Second, God can accomplish his perfect purposes through imperfect people. Actually, he has no choice in the matter. In Romans 3:10-18, Paul quotes five different psalms. The passage begins with these words: "There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks for God. All have turned aside. Together they have become useless."
Jacob deceives Isaac
The four characters in our story are almost equally at fault.
Esau despised his birthright and gave it away for a bowl of stew. The Bible calls him godless.
Jacob used a moment of Esau's weakness to take what did not belong to him. Later, he obtained his father's blessing by deceit.
The two brothers held each other in utter contempt.
Isaac and Rebekah created that family dynamic by taking sides. Both of them loved one son more than the other.
After a while, I suspect they did not get along with each other very well, either.
But God accomplished his purpose in spite of them. Jacob founded a greater nation than Esau did and inherited the blessing of Abraham. The role call of the heroes of faith in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews mentions Isaac and Jacob, along with many other men whose names and deeds have been celebrated for centuries.
On closer examination, every single one of those heroes exhibits deep flaws. The story of every one of them speaks as much of missed opportunities as victory, but the writer concludes that the world was not worthy of them.
So it is with us. The story of our lives is likewise a story of sin and missed opportunities along with whatever victory we have known. Like Jacob, we act in unrighteousness by instinct, and by faith only after great struggle.
God does not call us to be perfect before he can work through us. He only asks that we turn to him in faith and trust. When we do, he produces in us a righteousness that does not depend on our works. God has a purpose for each one of us. He has begun a good work in us and is faithful to complete it.
More by this Author
Full-time Christian ministry is not limited to professionals. These enterprising tent makers are great role models for the laity.
Like a potter, God has the unquestionable right to do as he chooses with his creations. Does that make him some kind of capricious bully? No. His mercy is over all his works.
Samson may be the most disappointing of all Bible heroes, but don't blame his parents. They did everything right.