Bible Stories for Grownups -

Jacob and Esau

Genesis 25:20-34, Jacob and Esau
Genesis 27:1-17, Rebekah's Plans for Jacob
Random Walk in a Gallery of Religious Art, Step 41: Genesis 27:15-29, Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Gerbrand Van Den Eeckhout
Genesis 27:18-28:1-9, Marriage Choices
Genesis 28:10-22, "Jacob's Ladder"
Genesis 32:3-23, Jacob decides to go home.
Genesis 33:1-18, Jacob and Esau meet again.
Genesis 35:27-36:8, Israel and Edom

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Genesis 25:20-34, Jacob and Esau (8/17/2009)

So what do kids know about Jacob and Esau? Mostly that Jacob was sneaky, and Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. I doubt whether they have a clue what a birthright or a mess of potage is, but they know Esau sold it, and that's what he got. The story of Jacob and Esau starts with Rebecca. Rebecca was Isaac's first cousin, once removed. Her father, Bethuel, was the Abraham's nephew, the son of his brother Nahor. Remember that Isaac was born very late in Abraham and Sarah's life, so he was probably about the same age as his cousin Bethuel's daughter. My Grandma said that the most important thing in marriage is to share the same goals, and here she was in agreement with Abraham. Abraham insisted that his son's wife be someone from his own people and family, not one of the women from the foreign country that he and Sarah lived in. He wanted a girl for Isaac who would share the same goals.

Aside from Moses and the Prophets, God didn't speak directly to very many people in the Bible, but Rebecca is one of them. God tells her that the older twin will serve the younger twin. Maybe this is why she was later so concerned to obtain the birthright for Jacob. Maybe she was playing favorites, pure and simple. The Bible doesn't say, so you can make up your own mind.

Now, as to the charge that Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright, let's be fair. Jacob was kind of a sneak, and not always totally honest, but here he's innocent. It would be more accurate to say that Esau threw away his birthright. What? He couldn't make a sandwich? Or wait for dinner? Esau didn't understand God's plan. He was focused on the here and how, and Jacob was focused on his relationship with God.

Genesis 27:1-17, Rebekah's Plans for Jacob (8/18/09)

Rebekah was intent on God's goal for Abraham's descendants – she knew that God was going to bless them so that they would be a blessing to others. Either because of what God said to her about her sons during her pregnancy, or because she preferred Jacob, or maybe because of a realistic assessment of the characters of the two young men, she was determined that Jacob should inherit the blessing.

Again, Jacob is always blamed for cheating Esau out of the blessing that was rightfully his as the eldest. Esau was cheated, no question about that, and Jacob was certainly a co-conspirator. However, did you realize that it was actually Rebekah's idea and plan? She insisted that Jacob go along with it. She made the stew and the bread and dressed Jacob up to look like Esau. It sounds to me as though Rebekah was the strongest personality in the whole family.

Random Walk in a Gallery of Religious Art, Step 41: Genesis 27:15-29, Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Gerbrand Van Den Eeckhout (7/27/15)

I’ve always been puzzled about how Isaac could have been fooled into thinking Jacob was Esau. He thought the voice was Jacob’s voice, which it was. But he felt the goat skins that Rebecca had put on Jacob’s hands and thought they were Esau’s hands, which we remember were hairy. But that hairy? So hairy that they felt like goat skin?? Gerbrand Van Den Eeckhout’s painting doesn’t help me out, because he has painted the goat skins as being very furry indeed. The painting tells me the story, but it still doesn’t give me any insight into why Isaac was fooled.

Notice all the modern (to Van Den Eeckhout) furniture and clothing. The artist is trying to put us into the scene by giving us familiar surroundings.

Reader Congratulation: Goodness gracious! Extremely alert fellow-reader Nancy S. found a mistake in the International Standard Version, or at least in the electronic copy of the ISV from!
    Gen. 27:25, electronic version of International Standard Version: "Come closer to me," Isaac replied, "so I can eat some of the game, my son, and then bless you." So Isaac came closer, and Isaac ate. Jacob also brought wine so his father could drink.
Clearly Jacob is the one coming close, not Isaac. The Hebrew and Greek just have “he,” and several other modern translations have “Jacob.” So far as I know this is the only one to have “Isaac,” which is obviously an error. Full props to Nancy for reading carefully for herself.

Previous Step. Next Step.
Isaac blessing Jacob. Click to enlarge.
"Isaac Blessing Jacob" by Gerbrand Van Den Eeckhout, from the Gamble family Bible,
now in the private collection of Regina Hunter. Photgraphy by Daryl Lee.

Genesis 27:18-28:1-9, Marriage Choices (8/19/2009)

We have a cat who is fearful of strange women. She likes our daughter-in-law and doesn't mind our granddaughter, but other women normally don't even know that we have a cat. We say that she doesn't like Hittite women.

Once the parental blessing was given, it couldn't be taken back, altered, or duplicated. When they discover Jacob's fraud (not knowing Rebekah's part in it), Isaac is appalled and Esau is furious. Quick-thinking Rebekah decides that Jacob needs to leave town before blood is drawn.

Esau has married a couple of local girls, the Hittite women. They do not share Isaac and Rebekah's goals, and apparently Rebekah also doesn't like the way they keep house. Rebekah is probably perfectly sincere in worrying that if Jacob – who is now the inheritor of both the birthright and the blessing – marries a Hittite woman, God's plan will be impaired. She kills two birds with one stone: she uses the possibility that he will marry Hittite women as an excuse to get Isaac to send Jacob out of town and keep him safe from Esau. Isaac agrees completely, and he immediately sends Jacob back to the old country to find a wife.

Then comes a second example of Esau's failure to understand God's plan. Realizing that Mom and Dad have something against the Hittite women, he decides to take another wife. But instead of going back to the old country, he chooses a wife who is the daughter of Abraham's son Ishmael, who also does not share the familial destiny.

Legal Notice: Fellow reader Doris Br. informed me rather indignantly that my cat likes her just fine. Let the record show that Doris Br. is not a Hittite woman.

Genesis 28:10-22, "Jacob's Ladder" (8/20/2009)

Here's a little camp song most of us remember singing at one time or another:

We are climbing Jacob's ladder.
We are climbing Jacob's ladder.
We are climbing Jacob's ladder.
Soldiers of the cross.

Every round goes higher, higher.
Every round goes higher, higher.
Every round goes higher, higher.
Soldiers of the cross.

Sinners do you love your Jesus?
Sinners do you love your Jesus?
Sinners do you love your Jesus?
Soldiers of the cross.

If you love him, why not serve him?
If you love him, why not serve him?
If you love him, why not serve him?
Soldiers of the cross.

Rise, shine, give God the glory.
Rise, shine, give God the glory.
Rise, shine, give God the glory.
Soldiers of the cross.

We are climbing higher, higher.
We are climbing higher, higher.
We are climbing higher, higher.
Soldiers of the cross.

So why do we sing about Jacob's ladder? While Jacob is on the run from Esau, he stops for the night near a place called Luz. He's so exhausted that he can sleep on a rock. While he's asleep, he has a vision of angels going up and down a ladder between earth and heaven. God speaks to him and reiterates the blessing given to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob is a little alarmed when he wakes up, because he realizes that this is a special place – the very House of God. He renames the place Beth-El, which means "House of God."

I think the most interesting part about this passage is the statement, "If God will be with me and will keep me ... , then the LORD shall be my God...." I had a student in Advanced Bethel once who said at the end of the two years of study that Christianity had been his parents' religion, but after taking this course, it was his own religion. We often assume that a child who is raised in the faith will just naturally come to accept it as his or her own faith, and for some of them, that's true. For others, only personal experience will bring them to the point that "the LORD shall be my God."

Genesis 32:3-23, Jacob decides to go home. (8/21/2009)

Many years ago I was in a cafeteria under one of the federal buildings in Washington, DC. I wanted a salad, but all the ready-made salads had ham on them, and I'm allergic to pork. So I asked if the woman at the counter would make me one without ham. She said, "That would take a long time." I looked at her expectantly for a few seconds, and she sort of turned away and said, "That would take a long time." After a few more seconds, I figured out that I should order something else.

After Isaac sent Jacob away to find a wife, he was gone for a long time – about 20 years. Finally he got fed up with his in-laws and decided to go home. Still, the last he heard, Esau was ready to kill him. He decided that a little spade-work was in order. By now a wealthy man, he sent separate droves of goats, sheep, camels, cattle, and donkeys on ahead as gifts to Esau. He was hopeful, but not certain, that Esau would be appeased.

Genesis 33:1-18, Jacob and Esau meet again. (8/24/2009)

If I had to cast the part of Esau in a movie, I'd get a big, bluff, redhead with hairy arms and a hair-do like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Jacob would be smaller, darker, and sort of worried-looking, like a coyote. Jacob was worried that Esau would still be holding a grudge. He put his concubines and their kids out in front, and then Leah and her kids, and then his favorites – Rachel and Joseph – way in the back, where maybe they'd get overlooked when the shooting started.

By the time they met, Esau seemed to have forgotten the old quarrel (the gifts of livestock probably didn't hurt anything), and he was thrilled to see Jacob home at last. Nevertheless, Jacob didn't push his luck. Esau returned to Seir, which is in Edom, the country that Esau founded, and Jacob said he'd follow along at a slower pace. In fact, he stopped before he got there and took up residence in Shechem, in northern Israel.

Genesis 35:27-36:8, Israel and Edom (8/25/2009)

I want to talk about loving and hating. We all know that God "loved Jacob and hated Esau" (Romans 9:13, Malachi 1:2-3). That seems a little harsh, primarily because there are two things we usually don't understand.

First, these two scriptures not talking about the person Jacob and the person Esau. They are talking about the nations "Jacob," i.e., the nation of Israel that descended from Jacob, and "Esau," i.e., the nation of Edom that descended from Esau.

Second, "I love/I hate" is an idiom. Remember that a literal translation (which this is) of an idiom can distort the meaning. Many, many times in the Bible, "to love" and "to hate" are used separately. Mostly they mean "love" and "hate" in those circumstances. However, when the pair is used together, they nearly always mean "love more" and "love less."

The clearest example of the meaning of this idiom is shown in Luke 14:26, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." This verse is a stumbling block to many, because they see the literal meaning, not the idiomatic meaning, and they think that Jesus is urging us to hate our families.

The parallel verse in Matthew 10:37 expands the saying to give the idiomatic meaning, "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." Since there's no way on earth that we can read the verse in Luke to mean that Jesus urged us to hate our relatives, Luke has to mean exactly what is said in Matthew: love Jesus more than you love your mother, father, spouse, or children. That's a lot of love! And God loved the person Esau with a lot of love. Esau was healthy, wealthy, and the father of a mighty nation, Edom. The nation of Edom did not inherit the blessing of Abraham, and they did not stay faithful to God. For that, God loved Edom less.

More Bible Stories for Grownups

Old Testament Stories

New Testament Stories



The Tower of Babel

Noah's Ark

Jacob and Esau

Stories About Joseph

Moses Parts the Red Sea

Joshua Parts the Jordan

Samuel's Call

David and Jonathan - Part 1

David and Jonathan - Part 2

The Lost Tribes of Israel

Hezekiah's Reprieve

Ruth, Jonah, and Divorce

Feeding of the 5000

Three Parables of Jesus

Six Short Stories About Jesus


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