Esau and Jacob as Rivals
1 Corinthians 1:26–31
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Describe the early rivalry between Jacob and Esau.
2. Compare and contrast the rivalry between Jacob and Esau with rivalries within families and/or churches today.
3. Create a plan for his or her church to help people recognize and defuse destructive tensions that threaten families and/or the church.
How to Say It
Beer Lahai Roi. BEE-er-luh-HI-roy.
Paddan Aram. PAY-dan-A-ram.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Oct. 1—God Chose the Least (1 Corinthians 1:26–31)
Tuesday, Oct. 2—Rebekah Agrees to Marry Isaac (Genesis 24:50–61)
Wednesday, Oct. 3—Isaac Takes Rebekah as His Wife (Genesis 24:62–67)
Thursday, Oct. 4—Rebekah’s Twins Struggle in the Womb (Genesis 25:19–23)
Friday, Oct. 5—The Birth of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:24–28)
Saturday, Oct. 6—Esau Sells His Birthright (Genesis 25:29–34)
Sunday, Oct. 7—Esau’s Lost Blessing (Genesis 27:30–40)
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.”
Why Teach This Lesson?
Choices. We make them every day. Sometimes we deliberate, seek counsel, and pray before deciding. At other times, a pressing physical or emotional need may seem to overwhelm us, forcing an instant decision.
Today, you may have “an Esau” in your class in this regard. This is someone whose failure to value his or her inheritance in Christ results in affairs, overspending, overeating, substance abuse, and other false fixes to smooth over momentary discomfort. You may also have “a Jacob” in your class—someone ready to provide the false fix for personal gain.
Such decisions (by either an Esau or a Jacob) can destroy what God wants for us. Such decisions affect not only one’s eternal salvation, but also the relationships within families and churches. Today’s lesson challenges your learners to be wary of quick solutions that carry long-term cost.
A. Sibling Rivalry
I have a sister who is one year and one month younger than I. We were bitter rivals growing up. One might say we fought like cats and dogs! There were no holds barred.
As we grew to be teenagers, I could no longer physically fight my sister, but we continued our battles with our tongues. I felt that Dad preferred my sister; I received several punishments for things I never did.
However, there was one time my sister took my side. I climbed a tree after being told not to, and then I fell and nearly killed myself. I had actually broken my left arm close to the shoulder. I asked my sister not to tell Mom or Dad lest I receive certain punishment. She obliged and “protected” me, helping me hide my broken arm for two weeks. The pain became unbearable, and I had to reveal my predicament.
When I finally confessed, I was taken to the doctor. Despite the fact that my sister went along with my request, I think she enjoyed my agony more than ever. The rivalry persisted even when one was doing the other a favor; each was gleeful at the other’s suffering. Such is sibling rivalry.
B. Lesson Background
Today’s lesson is the opening story of the struggle between close relatives—Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac. We should not be surprised to read of such a struggle, because Genesis records similar animosities leading up to today’s text: between brothers Cain and Abel (4:1–16); within Noah’s family (9:18–27); between Abraham and Lot, his nephew (chapter 13); and between half-brothers Ishmael and Isaac (chapters 16, 17, 21). This kind of rivalry did not cease with Esau and Jacob, but continued among Jacob’s sons, namely Joseph and his brothers (chapters 37–50).
Barrenness is also part of our lesson’s background. This was a key issue for the story of Abraham and Sarah, as we saw previously. Only God was able to open Rebekah’s womb, but not as she expected or perhaps wanted!
Isaac and Rebekah were living somewhere near Beer Lahai Roi (translation: “well of the living one who sees me”; Genesis 25:11). This was between Kadesh and Bered, somewhere south of Beersheba in the Negev (see Genesis 16:14).
I. Siblings Struggle Before Birth (Genesis 25:19–26)
A. Family Background (vv. 19, 20)
19. This is the account of Abraham’s son Isaac.
Abraham became the father of Isaac,
The phrase This is the account of describes an important framework. If a narrative follows this phrase in Genesis, the meaning is something like “family history” or perhaps “story.” If a genealogical list follows, the meaning is best understood as “descendants.”
After the initial introduction of creation in Genesis 1:1–2:3, there are ten such accounts given. These are the heavens and the earth (Genesis 2:4–4:26), Adam (5:1–6:8), Noah (6:9–9:29), Ham and Japheth (10:1–11:9), Shem (11:10–26), Terah (11:27–25:11), Ishmael (25:12–18), Isaac (25:19–35:29), Esau (36:1–37:1), and Jacob (37:2–50:26). We note that the rest of Genesis is taken up with the stories of Esau and Jacob in this regard, primarily with the latter.
The phrase This is the account of Abraham’s son Isaac is the title of the eighth of these generational segments in Genesis. The phrase that follows is so abrupt as to be somewhat amusing: Abraham became the father of Isaac. He certainly did, but not without great agony, fretting, and even laughter (Genesis 15:2; 16:1–4; 17:17; 18:12–15).
In fact, Isaac means “he laughs” in Hebrew. We could say that the conception and birth of Isaac revealed God’s sense of humor to the world: only a sovereign God could bring about this birth, because Abraham and Sarah were 100 and 90 years old, respectively, when Isaac was born (Genesis 17:17; 21:5)!
20.… and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.
Verse 20 gives us more family background. The mention of Laban provides hints at the future adventures of Jacob, who will be one of Isaac’s sons. The fact that the text informs us that Isaac is forty years old when he marries Rebekah implies the unusual lateness of Isaac’s marriage.
Rebekah, for her part, is the daughter of Bethuel; he is a son of Nahor, a brother to Abraham (Genesis 22:20–24; 24:15). Laban is Rebekah’s brother, an Aramean (or Syrian). That family lives in Paddan Aram, located in northwest Mesopotamia (part of modern-day Syria). The name Paddan Aram means “Plain of Aram” (see Genesis 28:2–7; 31:18; 35:9, 26; 46:15).
B. Barren Wife (v. 21)
21. Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.
A barren wife is socially despised in ancient times (compare 1 Samuel 1:1–7; Psalm 113:9; Isaiah 54:1). Yet great men are born to mothers who previously had been barren and were desperate for God’s help (see Judges 13:2–5 regarding Samson and 1 Samuel 1:11 regarding Samuel the prophet).
Only by God’s will and purpose are the sons—soon to be known as Jacob and Esau—conceived. On the surface it seems that God answers Isaac’s prayer of supplication immediately. But one must remember that Isaac and Rebekah have been married 20 years by this point (compare Genesis 25:26b with 25:20). Couples in ancient times usually expect children very soon after marriage; thus Isaac and Rebekah have been anticipating children for some 20 years!
What Do You Think?
What are some ways that people react when God delays granting answers to prayers that they know are in his will? How can we comfort people during those times?
Isaac’s plea to God thus may cover a rather long period of time—perhaps 15 or more years of pleading. This should teach us to wait on God and be content in his timing. The prayers are answered. God’s sovereignty over his creation and creatures is demonstrated in this conception.
C. Inquiry of the Lord (vv. 22, 23)
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.
In this case there are twins—surely unexpected. Just as the case of Isaac brought the laughters of disbelief and joy, so now Rebekah is overwhelmed with the struggle going on within her! She is happy for the pregnancy but disturbed about the turmoil within.
The Hebrew word for jostled each other usually comes with the idea “to oppress, crush, suppress, smash.” The form of the Hebrew in this text means “to struggle together,” that is, to kick and shove one another. Rebekah is concerned about what is happening to her: Why is this happening to me? Just as Isaac had turned to Yahweh God because of his wife’s barrenness, so now Rebekah turns to Yahweh God concerning her difficult pregnancy. So she went to inquire of the Lord.
What Do You Think?
What are some areas in your life where you have questioned God because of your own frustrations and uncertainties? Where did your questioning lead you?
Exactly how and where she does this we do not know. The use of mechanical means, such as the priest’s Urim and Thummim for yes or no answers, is not yet available (see Exodus 28:30). There is no mention of a prophet, priest, or angel to deliver the message. Yet God does respond. As God answered Isaac’s prayer, so now he answers Rebekah’s inquiry.
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.”
Verse 23 lays out the answer in poetic form. The response addresses the destiny of the sons as two nations, one to be stronger than the other. The statement the older will serve the younger suggests that it is the younger who will be the stronger, but not necessarily. At this point, it is possible that the stronger, elder son will indeed serve the weaker, younger son. However, as nations later on, the stronger will be Israel/Judah over the weaker Edom. These are the two nations at issue.
Variations of the theme the older will serve the younger are found throughout Genesis. Note the Lord’s acceptance of Abel over Cain (Genesis 4:4, 5), Isaac over Ishmael (17:17–21), Joseph over his brothers (37:5–11), Ephraim over Manasseh (48:17–20), and Judah over Reuben (49:3, 4, 8–10). We could add David over his older brothers (1 Samuel 16:1–13) and Solomon over Adonijah (2 Samuel 3:2–5; 1 Kings 1).
“The law of primogeniture” is in effect at this time, and Moses will articulate it more fully centuries later (Deuteronomy 21:15–17). This law requires that every father give his firstborn son a double share as an inheritance. This double share is in line with the eldest son’s responsibilities as the family’s new patriarch. Yet at times God seems to delight in reversals. Consider that the “many who are first will be last; and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30). God has a specific purpose in mind when he notes that the older will serve the younger (see Romans 9:10–12).
Visual for Lesson 6
Use this visual to start a discussion on conflict resolution. Ask, “What’s a good first step to take toward resolving conflicts?”
Nicola and Stuart Richardson tried for six years to have children. Fertility treatments finally succeeded. At seven weeks a nurse saw two heartbeats on the ultrasound scan. After further scanning, the nurse told Nicola that she could see four heartbeats! On January 21, 2002, Nicola gave birth to three boys and a girl. The children have personalities that differ from one another. As their mother describes them, Harry is active, Matthew loves music, Ben charms everyone with his smile, and Anna is content to play alone.
The Richardsons discovered what every parent of more than one child knows: children are different! Rebekah certainly was aware of this, even before her children were born. Her alarm at the struggles of her preborn babies was so great that she felt compelled to ask God, Why? The Lord explained the situation in terms of her sons’ future relationship with each other, including the lives of their descendants.
Parents today should not expect direct revelations from God concerning their children’s future or their relationships with one another. The parents’ task is to recognize differing personalities as a fact of life, then shape those personalities so God may be glorified in their lives. —C. R. B.
D. Birth of Twin Sons (vv. 24–26)
24. When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb.
The original Hebrew of this story includes the exclamation “Behold!” or “Now see!” Thus the story is narrated as if it is a surprise to Rebekah when she discovers she has 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.
But the fact that Rebekah is bearing twins is not the only surprise. These boys are as different as night and day—they are definitely not identical twins! The first son born comes out red (which sounds like Edom in the Hebrew). His appearance is somehow like a hairy garment. The parents name him Esau, which sounds like the word for hairy, though it does not mean the same. Thus, Esau is named for his appearance (compare Genesis 25:30; 36:1, 8).
26. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.
While one son is named for his appearance, the other is named for his action: his hand is grasping Esau’s heel. The name Jacob sounds like the word heel in Hebrew. The verb form means “to defraud.” It carries the idea of sneaking up behind someone to betray, hamper, hinder, or even supplant. Figuratively, it means “to deceive.” This “heel grabber” will be a deceiver who himself will often be deceived (see Genesis 27:36; 29:25; 31:7, 26, 27).
Jacob will indeed live up to his name. Jacob’s pattern of deceit will cause conflict. These brothers are in conflict even before birth. Conflict will follow them and their descendants.
What Do You Think?
What is the meaning and significance of your name? Should you care? Why, or why not?
II. Siblings Struggle After Birth (Genesis 25:27–34)
A. Differences (v. 27)
27. The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents.
Esau and Jacob are not only born in conflict, they live in conflict. One indication is their differing occupations; this difference ties in to parental preferences (see below). Esau becomes a skillful hunter, a man of the open country. He loves the outdoors, especially the hunting of wild game. He certainly looks the part, having a hairy body and perhaps a reddish color to either his hair or skin or both.
By contrast, Jacob is not a man of the fields. He is, rather, a quiet man, staying among the tents. The word quiet used to describe Jacob probably means “complete” or “self-contained.” Thus he is able to live quietly and self-sufficiently. Perhaps he follows the herds as he dwells in the tents.
What Do You Think?
What family principles do we learn from the differences between Esau and Jacob?
B. Preferences (v. 28)
28. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Not only are the boys different in abilities and interests, they are also treated differently by their parents. Isaac loves Esau for his ability to provide wild game from the countryside. Apparently this is the main reason Isaac prefers Esau. Rebekah, on the other hand, prefers Jacob, but no reason is given. Rebekah may have God’s response of Genesis 25:23 in mind as she sides with the younger son.
Psychologically, all this makes for a profound difference in the ways the boys react to circumstances and life in general. Such preferential treatment is bound to cause ongoing conflict within the family. And it does.
C. Disdainfulness (vv. 29–34)
29, 30. Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)
It is ironic that a mighty hunter would come in from the field famished and weak. Yet, there Esau stands, vulnerable before his brother, who apparently has been preparing a stew of lentils that looks red (see v. 34, below).
As we have already noted, Esau was “red” when he was born; now he begs for some red stew. Thus, his descendants will be called Edom, which means “red.” These words look and sound alike in Hebrew. The play on words emphasizes the foolishness of Esau’s action (see Hebrews 12:16-17).
31. Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
Jacob takes advantage of his brother’s vulnerability and immediately tells him what he wants in exchange for the soup: First sell me your birthright. No “please” or “I pray thee,” just the outright desire of the birthright.
32. “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
Rationalizing is very easy when we’re under stress! There is no doubt that Esau greatly exaggerates his own condition of being about to die. But haven’t we all said at some time, “I am so hungry I could die” or “I’m dying of thirst”? The point is that Esau despises his birthright as firstborn in order to gratify an immediate felt need of hunger.
33, 34. But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. 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.
Jacob makes Esau swear an oath, thus securing the birthright permanently. The older is beginning to serve the younger!
Before bringing our lesson to a conclusion, it is useful to pause and consider Gen 25:29–34 as a whole. The story is told in an “X-shaped” manner to emphasize the fact in the middle statement. The flow goes something like this, with statement D in that important middle position:
A1: Esau came in from the open country (v. 29).
B1: let me have some of that red stew (v. 30).
C1: first sell me your birthright (v. 31).
D: I am about to die … what good is the birthright to me? (v. 32).
C2: he [sold] his birthright (v. 33).
B2: Esau … ate and drank (v. 34a).
A2: [Esau] … then got up and left (v. 34b).
What Do You Think?
Christians sell their spiritual birthright when they turn from God and go back to their former, sinful way of life (see Galatians 4:8–11; 2 Peter 2:20). Was there a time when you were in danger of “selling” your Christian birthright? What corrective measures did you take?
Notice that statements A1 and A2 are similar or parallel to each other in a certain way. The same is true for statements B1 and B2 as well as statements C1 and C2. So what does the middle statement D emphasize? The foolish logic people can use to talk themselves into doing the dumbest things!
Too bad Esau didn’t live in the twenty-first century! When his brother demanded that high price for a bowl of soup, Esau merely could have gunned his SUV down to the ATM, grabbed a quick $40, then gone around the corner to the McTaco-in-the-Box drive-up window. He thus could have satisfied his hunger in a couple of minutes with little fuss and bother.
But on second thought, that hypothetical sequence still may may not have been fast enough for Esau. Think about your computer. In the last two decades, processing speed has increased exponentially. Yet which of us hasn’t complained when it doesn’t respond as rapidly as we wish?
This mind-set affects us even at church. Some churches have started putting the Sunday sermons on CDs, but to have to wait for a week to pick it up has become too tedious. So some churches now have the CDs ready as church-goers walk out the door!
Movie actress Carrie Fisher sarcastically noted that “instant gratification takes too long.” Esau is an easy target for his impatience as well as his deeper problem: his willingness to trade something of long-term value for the instant gratification of his need for food. But in this way Esau is a very modern person. How often in the past month have you trapped yourself with this same immature attitude? —C. R. B.
The rivalry between Jacob and Esau yielded bitter fruit for many years. Their two peoples (the Israelites and the Edomites) would forever be known as enemies (see 1 Samuel 14:47-48; 2 Samuel 8:13-14; Jeremiah 49:7–22; Ezekiel 25:12–14; 35; Obadiah; Malachi 1:2–5).
But today’s story is really about God’s choice—his purpose and will being worked out through the life of a young man who was chosen in spite of himself. The deceiver would be deceived often enough that one day he would learn how to struggle not only with others but with God and prevail (Genesis 32:28). The consequences would change his name (Jacob to Israel) and his life forever.
Sometimes when God chooses a person, it may not be pleasant—it may be for a life of struggle rather than one of contentment. God sees to it that we all must struggle with him before we can make a significant contribution to his kingdom.
Incidentally, my sister and I have reconciled our bitter rivalry from years past.
Thought to Remember
Struggles today can yield much fruit tomorrow—either good or rotten.
O Sovereign Lord, may your purposes and will for us be realized in spite of our weaknesses and desires. Teach us to desire your will above all felt needs that beg for instant gratification. Lead us to resolve all conflicts within our families as well as within our church families to your honor and glory. In Christ’s name, amen.
Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2007-2008. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing, 2007