In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
In our survey of Genesis, it’s worth saying just a few words about Isaac, because we’re passing over his story entirely. You might expect more out of Isaac’s story because Abraham’s story is so wrapped up with the expectation of Isaac. However, we actually only get a couple of chapters on him. In one of those chapters, we find out about Sarah’s death. In another chapter, we get a story about Isaac finding his wife Rebekah. Finally, we find out about Abraham’s death. This brings us to our passage today.
So what’s going on in this story?
The main image we get in this passage is the interaction between Esau and Jacob. It’s a story that most of us are probably familiar with. Jacob makes a deal with Esau to take/gain the rights of the firstborn. Or to frame it another way, Esau gives up his birthright (the bible says that he “despised” it) for the sake of some stew. And it illustrates through a concrete event the nature of the relationship between the two brothers that we’ll see throughout the rest of the story of Jacob. So what can we understand that relationship?
Firstly, note that Jacob and Esau, unlike Isaac and Ishmael, are both legitimate sons of Isaac (that is, descendants of Abraham). In fact, they are twins. This is possibly highlighted by the fact that we’re informed that Rebekah was barren – just as Sarah was barren before Isaac.
21 Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.
It’s possible this is not intended to be a direct literary allusion to Sarah, but at the very least it serves to remind us that ultimately, the people of God is a creation of the will of God – not of human effort. Once again, God overcomes human shortcomings to bring about his divine promise.
However, in spite of the fact that they are twin brothers, they do not share in the promise of God equally. Right from the beginning, Rebekah receives this oracle:
22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.
23 The Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.”
So even before the two are born, we find out that there is conflict. And it seems that this conflict will define their relationship. At least part of the reason for this conflict seems to be the story that we get today. The account continues with the birth of the twins:
24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. b 26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. e Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.
Old Testament scholars Victor Hamilton and Bruce Waltke, among others, both note that Jacob’s name is actually most likely a shortened version of the name yaʿqub-alel, which is a common name for the time and region meaning “May God (El) protect him” or “God (El) will protect him.”
However, the English translations usually footnote “so he was named Jacob” with:
- “Jacob means he grasps the heel, a Hebrew idiom for he deceives” (NIV; NLT)
- ESV: Jacob means He takes by the heel, or He cheats
- NRSV, NASB, : That is He takes by the heel or He supplants
- NKJV splits the difference and says: Supplanter or Deceitful, One Who Takes the Heel
The footnotes, then, are referring to a linguistic similarity between the name yaʿqub-alel (ya’qub, i.e. Jacob) and the Hebrew noun ʿāqeḇ which means “heel” which gets transformed to the verbal form ʿāqaḇ which means “to follow closely” (i.e. on the heel).
So Jacob’s name then seems to reflect both the providence and protection of God as well as Jacob’s own deceitful nature/tendencies. This may be worth pointing out because Jacob’s name in its dual interpretation seems to almost mirror the conflict between his calling and his nature.
The passage gives us some more insight into the nature of the twins and their relationship with one another. Firstly, it tells us that Esau was a skillful hunter but that Jacob was more of a homebody:
27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents.
This is a statement which is a little difficult to parse. Many biblical scholars have noted that the claim “Jacob was content to stay at home” (NIV); “Jacob was a quiet man” (ESV, NRSV) might better be translated as “Jacob was [civilised]” (Waltke, Von Rad). Now while I hesitate to argue with biblical scholars without good reason, I am not convinced that the narrator is making that much of a moral judgment between the two. Hamilton, at least, notes the possibility that:
“It may be that tām comes not from tāmam but from tîm, a root attested in Arabic and meaning “to be kept in subjection, enslaved (by love).” Thus ʾîš tām may mean, by semantic development, “domesticated” or “homebody.” This interpretation would provide a perfect contrast with Esau, who is styled a man of the steppe (ʾîš śāḏeh).”
Nevertheless, I think that at the very least (and possibly at most) what we can say is that what we are seeing is a picture of Esau and Jacob as complete opposites.
This contrast between the two culminates in the encounter at the end of this passage. To look at this passage again:
29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)
31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.
34 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.
So what do we learn about the two brothers? First, regarding Esau, we might say that he is depicted as someone who is depicted as governed by his urges. He is willing to give up his birthright simply because he is hungry. He is unable to see beyond the moment. Jacob, on the other hand, seems to live up to his name. He knows that his brother is hungry and he is undoubtedly aware of Esau’s tendency to be rash and impulsive. Jacob is able to think ahead, see beyond the immediate, and take advantage.
Now what do we make about the characterization of the two brothers? As much as it appears obvious that Esau is foolish, as we’ve said earlier, I think it’s short-sighted to see this story as praising Jacob and condemning Esau. There’s too much in this story (as well as Jacob’s greater story) that indicate that Jacob is not to be applauded. Throughout the early part of Jacob’s story, we learn that he’s kind of a jerk. However, the text makes a point of making a judgment on Esau, “So Esau despised his birthright.” So perhaps the most we can say about Jacob at this point is that, “at least Jacob, unlike Esau, wanted the birthright.”
More importantly, however, is what we can learn about God and what He is doing in creating a people. We are still very early in the story of Jacob, and only in the middle of the very beginning of the story of Israel, so there’s still a lot to be fleshed out. But a couple of themes emerge:
Once again, we seem to be seeing that God chooses whom He chooses, not because they are particularly good or holy or because they have a particularly good understanding of God and His plans. God seems to choose someone purely because He wants to.
The second thing we are seeing is the beginnings of the theme that God subverts the expectations of the world. In Jacob and Esau’s culture, the expectation and the accepted cultural norm would be that Esau would, by virtue of his being the firstborn son (if only by a couple of minutes) receive the birthright. However, this is not how God works. God doesn’t accept or call people in the way that the world does. God doesn’t call the firstborn here, in the same way He doesn’t look only for the strongest or the smartest. It’s the same kind of subverting of expectations we see when God works through Joseph instead of any of his brothers. It’s the same thing we see when David becomes king, the youngest and smallest of all his brothers. And it’s the same kind of thing we see when Jesus walked and ministered among tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, choosing his harshest words and strongest criticism for the “religious leaders”, precisely those whom people would have thought were the godliest.
So What Now…?
What do we make of this story? How do we place in the greater context of the biblical narrative? And how does it relate to you and me?
Firstly, as we’ve just said, the story reminds us of the way God works versus the way human beings and societies tend to work. That is, God works by grace. Or, in other words, who we are in the economy of God is not what we have earned, but what He gives. How we live is then not about what the world, including the religious world, thinks we should live but about how God leads.
We talk a lot about salvation by grace alone. We say that God accepts us, no matter what, but we constantly tell ourselves (or worse, others) that they’re not good enough. We say that it’s about what God has done in Christ and not what we can do, and yet we’re constantly asking what we have to do. So, perhaps, inasmuch as we read the story looking for what Jacob did right (and what we can copy) and what Esau did wrong (and thus what we must avoid), we may be kind of missing the point.
The second point that I want to make is less of a point than, perhaps something merely worth consideration. Let’s be reminded of a basic principle that we’ve talked a lot about over the past several months. That is, we cannot read and understand narrative purely by, or solely by, reducing it to propositions (i.e. “do this; don’t do that”). Secondly, let’s be reminded that we are only at the very beginning of the narrative of Jacob, which again is only the middle of the very beginning of the story of Israel. In other words, it’s okay to hold off on any judgments until we have a better understanding of the bigger story.
And the observation I want to make is that we, likewise, are in the middle of our stories. Some of have a few more years in that story than others, but simply put, our stories are not complete. So perhaps it’s okay that we are not yet where we think we are supposed to be. Like Jacob, we are not yet finished.
The story will come out right. Inasmuch as we live, like Jacob – for all his shortcomings – and not like Esau, in the truth that the story actually matters. The story will come out right, not because we are right. Not because we are such great characters or actors in the story. But because the author of the story is perfect. Because the author is good, and full of grace. Because our author is God Himself.