19 These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. 21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said 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.”
24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. – Genesis 25:19-28 ESV
Ultimately, the book of Genesis traces the history of a single man, Abraham, and his subsequent descendants. But along the way, the author has provided an essential background story to Abraham’s life by chronicling God’s creation of mankind and the entrance of sin into the plotline. It was the ubiquitous and all-pervasive presence of sin that led God to destroy the world with a flood. But in His grace and mercy, God spared one man, Noah, and his family, charging them with the divine mandate to multiply and fill the earth. The following chapters of Genesis reveal that from that one man and his family came a multitude of nations that spread over the face of the earth. But sadly, as they spread, so did sin. So, God chose a man named Abram, who lived in the land of Mesopotamia and promised to make of him a great nation. God called Abram out of his homeland and led him to the land of Canaan, which He promised to give to him as an inheritance.
But by this time in the story, Abraham has died and his son, Isaac, is married but childless. The “great nation” that was to have come through Abraham’s line consists of one man. Yet, Ishmael, Isaac’s disinherited stepbrother has fathered 12 sons. Even Abraham fathered six more sons after the birth of Isaac, but they would not share in the inheritance with their step-brother. It seems that the non-elect nations of the earth were continuing to grow and spread, while the elect line of Abraham remained stalled and facing yet another case of barrenness that would result in more fruitlessness.
Everything about this story screams futility and failure. Yet, behind the scenes, God is working His sovereign plan. While, at first glance, it may appear like that plan has hit another roadblock, these verses reveal that God is in full control. Yes, the patriarch of the family is dead, and Isaac, the sole heir of the family inheritance remains childless. To make matters worse, his wife Rebekah is barren. And this sad state of affairs will remain unchanged for 20 long years. For two decades Isaac and Rebekah would long for the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham.
“I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:6-8 ESV
“Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:19 ESV
God had kept His word and Isaac had been born. But 60 years later, Isaac and his wife were still waiting to have a child of their own. Where was the offspring that God had promised? How was Isaac to share the inheritance of the land if he and his wife could have no children?
It is essential to understand the futility of Isaac’s circumstances. He was living in the land of Canaan, the land God had promised as an inheritance to Abraham’s descendants. But Isaac was still living a nomadic lifestyle, just as his father had. He owned no land, occupied no cities, and remained an insignificant minority surrounded by much larger clans, tribes, and nations. And, year after year, the seasons would come and go and Isaac’s flocks would bear new lambs, but he remained childless.
And how did Isaac handle the repeated disappointment of childlessness? The text indicates that he prayed. And it seems unlikely that this was a one-time occurrence. Isaac repeatedly and passionately pleaded with God.
Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. – Genesis 25:21 ESV
He knew what the problem was, and he took it straight to Yahweh. Moses doesn’t divulge the content of Isaac’s intercessions, but it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what this man prayed year after year. With each new spring, he must have called out to God, asking for Him to open Rebekah’s womb. Isaac would have known the miraculous nature of his own birth. His father and mother had waited years before God stepped in and caused Sarah to conceive.
The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. – Genesis 21:1-3 ESV
But while Isaac was familiar with the story, he still longed to see his own wife’s battle with barrenness broken. He desperately desired to have a son. And for 20 years Isaac prayed and waited. And God heard those prayers. He was not ignoring Isaac or punishing him for some sin he had committed. He was simply following His preordained timeline. And, one day, at just the right time, God answered Isaac’s prayer.
And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. – Genesis 25:21 ESV
God opened Rebekah’s womb. To Isaac, this would have appeared to be a 20-year delay. But to God, it was all according to His providentially prepared timeline.
The news of Rebekah’s pregnancy must have thrilled Isaac. He would have been beside himself with joy and eager anticipation as he waited for the nine months to pass and the baby to be born. But things took a turn for the worse. Rebekah ended up having a difficult pregnancy. She didn’t know it at the time, but she was carrying twins, and the two babies “struggled together within her” (Genesis 25:22 ESV). The pain must have been unbearable, leaving Rebekah concerned about the viability of the baby and worried about her own health. She took the matter to God, asking, “why is this happening to me?” (Genesis 25:22 ESV). She couldn’t understand what was going on. Her joy had turned to fear and apprehension. Thoughts of losing the baby must have crossed her mind. But God reassured her.
“The sons in your womb will become two nations. From the very beginning, the two nations will be rivals. One nation will be stronger than the other; and your older son will serve your younger son.” – Genesis 25:23 NLT
God informed Rebekah that she was carrying two sons. This news must have thrilled her and helped to calm her fears. And God went on to explain that the “struggle” taking place within her womb was a sign of the future struggle that would take place between her two sons. In a sense, Rebekah was bearing two future nations that would end up in a perpetual state of conflict and acrimony.
This announcement from God must have left Rebekah as perplexed and confused as ever. While she was comforted to know that her difficult pregnancy was the result of twins and not a serious medical problem, she would have been displeased to hear that the relationship between her two sons was destined to be adversarial.
God was informing Rebekah and Isaac that they would be used to produce two nations through whom He would accomplish His divine plan of redemption. God could have blessed this couple with a single child but He had other plans. At this point, His purpose for placing two sons in Rebekah’s womb remains obscure and difficult to ascertain. And His plan for those two sons to result in two nations that stand diametrically opposed to one another remains a mystery.
Rebekah and Isaac are given little in the way of explanation. So, they simply had to wait and see what God was going to do. It’s not clear from the text just how much of God’s message Rebekah shared with Isaac. Other than the news that she was carrying twins, she might have withheld the details concerning the prophecy concerning sibling rivalry.
But the day finally came when Rebekah gave birth, and just as God had said, she delivered two healthy boys. But there was something unique about this delivery. The two babies, while twins, appeared to be nothing alike.
The first one was very red at birth and covered with thick hair like a fur coat. So they named him Esau. – Genesis 25:25 NLT
Not exactly a flattering description. And it doesn’t appear that Moses was using hyperbole in describing the baby’s appearance, because Isaac and Rebekah named him Esau, which means “hairy one.”
And when the second baby appeared, hanging on to one of Esau’s hairy heels, they named him, Jacob, which means “God will protect.” But in Hebrew, Jacob sounds similar to the word for “heel.” So Jacob would earn the nickname of “heel-grabber.”
With the births of these two boys, the scene is set for the next phase of the story. And Moses fast-forwards past the early days of their lives and straight to their adulthood. And the differences between the two young men become increasingly more pronounced with time. Esau became an outdoorsman and a hunter, while Jacob was more of a homebody. They displayed different temperaments and dispositions. Over time, they looked and acted less and less like siblings. No one would have ever guessed that they were twins. And even their relationships with their parents reveal a growing familial conflict brewing.
Isaac loved Esau because he enjoyed eating the wild game Esau brought home, but Rebekah loved Jacob. – Genesis 25:28 NLT
The stage is set. God has established the next set of players in His grand drama and the story is about to take yet another dramatic and decisive turn. And as the events unfold, the readers of this story will echo the words of Rebekah: “Why is this happening?”
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.