23 - Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:19–28:9)
Jacob’s deception of his father certainly is a low point in his life, but the others involved in this episode are equally at fault. Their actions provide a solemn warning that seeking our will in our way is a sure path to strife, bitterness, and heartache.
In our study in these chapters of Genesis, we’re going to watch different people react to God’s revealed plan, and we’re going to see the price they pay for doing things their own way.
After twenty years of marriage (Genesis 25:20, 26), Isaac and Rebekah haven’t had a child, and God’s covenant promise to raise up a nation through them seems to be fading. So, Isaac prays to the Lord, and God responds; it isn’t long before his wife is expecting twin boys (verse 21).
Maybe Isaac shouldn’t have prayed so hard. My wife and I have twin sons, and it wasn’t always a double blessing; sometimes it was just double the diapers and double the baby food and double the crying at night when they would wake each other up. It eventually got easier—when they left for college. I’m teasing—sort of.
Well, long before these twin boys here in chapter 25 double the workload in the nursery, they’re already causing trouble in the womb. It’s a wrestling match in there!
Rebekah asks the Lord about it, and He says to her:
“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” (verse 23)
That’s quite a revelation to Isaac and Rebekah. God’s going to skip over the firstborn and raise up the Hebrew nation from the second born, to whom He’s giving His covenant blessing.
So, on delivery day, Esau emerges from the womb first, but his little brother’s hand is grasping his heel. “Jacob,” the name given to the younger son, means “heel-catcher” and describes one who tries to get in front. Jacob’s going to live up to that name.
Esau grows up to become a hunter, but Jacob prefers a quiet life at home, which would involve shepherding. We’re told in verse 28 that Isaac especially loves Esau and Rebekah especially loves Jacob. That clues us in on this being a house full of favoritism, and that will create nothing but trouble in any home.
Verse 29 tells us that one day Esau comes home hungry and begs Jacob for some of the homemade stew he’s prepared. And Jacob decides this is the moment he’s going to get the birthright, the inheritance of the firstborn.
Remember, Jacob doesn’t need to manipulate Esau to obtain this because God already told Isaac and Rebekah that the older brother is going to serve the younger. But Jacob wants to be in control now, so in verse 31 he says to Esau, “Sell me your birthright now.” That means today!
The birthright gave the son a double portion of the inheritance. It also gave the heir the right to assume the role of family priest, prior to the law being delivered and the priesthood established. So, this birthright was as much a spiritual inheritance as a financial one.
And right there at the kitchen counter, Esau agrees to sell it for a bowl of stew. Verse 34 tells us he “despised his birthright”; in other words, he didn’t care at all about spiritual things.
Chapter 26 opens with a famine taking over the land and Isaac taking his family to Gerar. That’s the same place Abraham and Sarah had gone back in chapter 20. And Isaac tells the very same lie his father had told. He says that Rebekah is his sister out of fear the men of that place might kill him in order to take Rebekah if they thought the two were married.
Fortunately, the next few verses tell us the king figures out they aren’t brother and sister at all—they were evidently getting along too well with each other. He warns his people not to touch either Isaac or Rebekah.
Why would Moses record this episode here, which is so similar to Abraham’s sin? Well for one thing, it demonstrates that human nature doesn’t change from generation to generation. We’re still sinners. The human race can improve on just about everything—except the human race.
But this also demonstrates that God’s faithfulness to His promises won’t change. His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and their descendants doesn’t depend on their faithfulness but on His.
That doesn’t excuse Isaac and Rebekah or Jacob and Esau—they should have joined the Lord in His plans rather than substitute their own plans and disobey God. But the point remains: nothing is going to derail the plan of God.
We come to the last two verses of chapter 26, and they sum up the defiance and unbelief in the heart of Esau:
When Esau was forty years old, he took Judith . . . to be his wife, and Basemath . . . and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah. (verses 34-35)
These are pagan Hittite women. It’s a heartbreak for any godly parents—as it was for Isaac and Rebekah—to see their child marry an unbeliever. Many of you might be praying that God will save your extended family members and bring them to faith in Christ; keep on loving them and praying for them.
In chapter 27, we find that Isaac is now old and blind and believes that death is near. And instead of calling for Jacob to receive the covenant blessings, he calls for his godless son Esau. Isaac clearly is determined to disobey the revealed will of God. In verses 3-4 he tells Esau to go hunting and then prepare his favorite dinner; afterward he’ll transfer the covenant blessings to Esau.
The bestowing of the firstborn blessing was a public celebration of God’s faithfulness to the family. But Isaac knows what he’s doing isn’t God’s will, so he’s going to do this privately.
Rebekah’s been listening through the kitchen window, evidently. She knows what Isaac is planning, but she doesn’t ask God to intervene. Instead, she comes up with her own devious plan. And Jacob goes along with it. His only question in verse 12 is essentially, “What happens if I get caught?” And Rebekah answers in verse 13 that she will bear the consequences of their deception. And my friend, she will indeed pay a heavy price.
So, Rebekah cooks up Isaac’s favorite meal, and Jacob dresses up in Esau’s clothing. And this ploy completely fools Isaac.
Again, keep in mind that the Lord has already chosen Jacob for this blessing. God would have worked out the details without this sinful deception, which is going to divide this family for the rest of their lives.
Isaac blesses Jacob, thinking he is Esau. But Esau soon finds out what has happened, and verse 41 tells us, “Esau hated Jacob” and planned to kill him as soon as Isaac passed away.
Rebekah learns of Esau’s intentions, and again, instead of asking God for wisdom, she convinces Isaac to send Jacob out of town—back to their extended family—to find a wife. Rebekah, who so loved and favored Jacob, will never see him again.
Rebekah’s manipulation, Jacob’s deception, Isaac’s defiance of God’s revealed will, and Esau’s rejection of spiritual things are all going to bring much sorrow, pain, and division. Sir Walter Scott famously wrote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”
God gave these biographical sketches as warnings to us. Hold these chapters up like a mirror, and take a look:
- Maybe you see yourself in Isaac, resisting God’s will because you want something different than God wants.
- Maybe you see yourself in Rebekah, who manipulated people rather than prayed to God.
- Do you see yourself in Jacob, deceiving rather than waiting on God’s timing?
- Or maybe you see yourself in Esau, whose immediate appetites were more important than spiritual priorities.
Let’s learn from their tragic decisions and be encouraged to honestly and patiently wait on God and trust His timing.
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