29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
1 Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines. 2 And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. 3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. 4 I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” – Genesis 25:29-26:5 ESV
According to Moses’ narrative timeline, Isaac was 60-years-old when his twin sons were born. If, as Moses records, Abraham was 100-years-old when Isaac was born, and he died at the age of 175, that means he would have had 15 years to watch his grandsons grow. It seems likely that Abraham and his second wife, Keturah, lived with Isaac in Beer-lahai-roi, which would have given him time to tell Esau and Jacob all the stories of his past, including God’s promise to give all the land of Canaan to his descendants as their inheritance.
For Abraham, the normal joy of seeing his grandsons born was coupled with the extreme excitement of knowing that the promise of God was going to be fulfilled. His son had been blessed with sons, and the line of Abraham was slowly expanding. But fortunately for Abraham, he died before he could witness the strife that took place within his own household. During his lifetime, he had been forced to send away Ishmael and the six sons born to him through Keturah. But little did he know that his two grandsons would end up alienated and separated for years. And it would be in direct fulfillment of the words spoken by God to Rebekah during her pregnancy.
“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.” – Genesis 25:23 ESV
The two boys, while twins, could not have been any different. For nine months, they had shared the same womb, but when they were born, their appearance and temperaments were visibly apparent. Even in the womb, the two boys “struggled together” (Genesis 25:22). And that struggle seemed to intensify as they grew older.
And the day came when the conflict between these two siblings reached a boiling point. Moses relates an occasion when Esau arrived home after a long day of hunting. Evidently, it had been an unsuccessful trip and he was famished. When he walked into the tent he shared with his brother, Esau demanded to have a portion of the stew Jacob was eating. One can almost sense that there might have been a pattern of bullying between these two young men. It seems that Esau, the older and stronger brother, seems quite comfortable bossing his younger brother around. But this time, Jacob decided to take advantage of the situation. And it appears that he had been looking for this opportunity for some time.
It’s important to recall how Moses described an unhealthy rift that had developed in Isaac’s household, not just between the two boys but between their parents. Moses states that “Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28 ESV). In a sense, the two parents had chosen sides and this was going to cause a further fracturing of the relationship between the two sons.
There is little doubt that Rebekah had remembered the words that God had spoken: “the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23 ESV). And, as she watched the two boys grow, she probably bristled as she watched the older, stronger Esau pushing around her more delicate and refined Jacob. And it seems likely that somewhere along the way she had shared with Jacob the words that God had spoken. So, when Esau demanded a portion of his stew, Jacob decided to use his brother’s impulsiveness and unbridled physical appetites against him. Jacob craftily offered Esau a deal he couldn’t refuse.
“All right,” Jacob replied, “but trade me your rights as the firstborn son.” – Genesis 25:31 ESV
To any reasonable person, this would appear to be a ludicrous and unreasonable offer. But Jacob knew his brother well. For years he had witnessed Esau’s tendency to allow his physical appetites to control him. Jacob knew that Esau would let his stomach override his brain. It seems that Esau suffered from what John calls a love affair with the world. Something he describes as “a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions” (1 John 2:16 NLT).
Esau’s impulsive and ill-reasoned decision is clear for all to see.
“Look, I’m dying of starvation!” said Esau. “What good is my birthright to me now?” – Genesis 25:32 NLT
He overexaggerates the “threat” to his life and, in doing so, he undervalues his birthright. So, what was it that Esau so flippantly traded away? The birthright was reserved for the firstborn son and came with the promise that he would one day become the head of the household and inherit his father’s estate. According to Deuteronomy 21:17, the birthright guaranteed the oldest son a double portion of whatever the father left behind. Driven by his love affair with food and penchant for satisfying his physical appetites, Esau made an unwise decision. And the author of Hebrews declares that what Esau did was ultimately immoral and godless.
Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears. – Hebrews 12:16-17 NLT
But what Jacob did was no better. He willingly took advantage of his brother’s weakness and deceived him. Before handing over the bowl of stew, Jacob forced Esau to swear an oath concerning the birthright, which Esau willingly did. And then, Esau consumed the stew and “despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34 ESV).
It’s interesting to note that as chapter 25 ends, Esau has a full stomach but an empty future. And as the next chapter opens, Moses describes yet another “famine in the land” of Canaan (Genesis 26:1). This is the second famine to have struck the land God had promised to Abraham. During the first one, Abraham had made the fateful decision to seek refuge in the land of Egypt. That is where he had convinced Sarah to introduce herself as his sister instead of his wife. And that little white lie resulted in Sarah becoming a concubine in Pharaoh’s harem. It took a divine intervention to rescue and restore Sarah to Abraham’s side. So, this time, God warns Isaac to avoid going down to Egypt. Instead, Isaac is to remain in Canaan.
“Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father.” – Genesis 26:3 ESV
Isaac was to stay right where he was, despite the famine. And God reminds Isaac that the land was his birthright. What God had promised to Abraham was now his – by right. And no famine was going to prevent God from fulfilling His promise. The close proximity of this story with Esau’s selling of his birthright is intentional. Esau, driven by hunger, made an immoral and ungodly decision. He was motivated by his physical senses rather than a devotion to God. He despised his birthright by trading it away for a meal. And God did not want Isaac to do the same thing. Running to Egypt might temporarily put bread on the table, but it would result in Isaac despising his birthright. The famine was not to be viewed as a setback but as an opportunity to see God work.
Esau had traded away his birthright for a single meal of stew. His hunger would eventually return and he would come to recognize that he had squandered away his inheritance for nothing. Esau’s famished condition is meant to coincide with the famine that Isaac faced. Esau could have rejected his brother’s deceitful offer, but he didn’t. Now, Isaac was going to have to reject the temptation to seek temporary relief in Egypt and trust God instead. Would he value his birthright and remain in Canaan? Time will tell.
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.