19These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.23And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” 24When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 27When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
This passage introduces us to the Esau and Jacob narrative that continues until Genesis 35. It starts with a very brief genealogy connecting Esau and Jacob to the patrilineal line of Abraham and Isaac. This indicates that the character being introduced is important to the story of the people of God, as Jacob proves to be.
Rebekah’s barrenness, a common motif in birth narratives of important people, reinforces the point that the one who is about to born is significant in the story that follows. After 20 years of childless marriage Isaac prayed to God that she bear him a child. He may have learnt about the power of prayer from his father (Genesis 20:17). God granted Isaac’s prayer and Rebekah became pregnant.
Her pregnancy was difficult, even dangerous. In fear and discomfort, Rebekah cried out to God. God replied: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” These are hardly words of comfort, and possibly very confusing to a mother otherwise joyfully pregnant with twins (the first mention of twins in the Bible).
What significance is there is the fact that Rebekah gives birth to twins? Twins would have been a huge blessing to a couple that was formerly barren and who are expecting to continue Abraham’s legacy by having many children. One expects twins to be close, and perhaps one reason Esau and Jacob were twins was that this makes the coming rupture all the more dramatic.
If there is to be a great nation, shouldn’t both sons be contributing to it? It seems very strange that even before Israel really gets underway, this great nation has a rival. One solution to this puzzle is that their split continues the family divisions that had occurred in previous generations in Genesis, which was one means by which the whole Earth could be populated. Another suggestion is that because the twins were fighting in Rebekah’s womb, their differences, were not due to upbringing, but were, in accordance with God’s revelation, genetic or basic to their makeup as God intended.
With twins there is always one younger and one older. In this case, Esau was older, thereby earning the birthright of Isaac. Yet the brothers were rivals from the start, with Jacob, the younger twin, seizing the heel of Esau at birth, indicating a challenge to his status. Fraternal rivalry can be fierce, and the rivalry of twins might be magnified, with both knowing how close they were to being in the other’s elder or younger position. One might expect brothers to get on, but fraternal rivalry is the source of many religious and political conflicts.
Such rivalry is a motif of Augustine’s City of God, where the story of Remus and Romulus, another set of twin brothers, is of central significance to the founding of the first “Earthly City” of Rome (City of God, XV.5). Here Augustine distinguishes between the fratricide of Remus and Romulus and that of another set of Biblical brothers, Cain and Abel. Whereas the case of Remus and Romulus is the primordial and archetypal case of the division and conflict within the city of man, Cain and Abel is a justified case of conflict between the City of God and the City of Man.
As Romulus was to Rome, Jacob was to Israel, and Esau was to the Edomites. Applying Augustine’s framework to our text, Jacob’s tussle with Esau would be of the later sort, with Israel as the City of God and the Edomites as the City of Man.
Jacob, the younger twin of the two, founds Israel against cultural expectations. He does so by acquiring the birthright and later blessing that should have passed from his father Isaac to Esau. When Esau sells his birthright for a mess of pottage (the Hebrew reads literally “that red red”, the name of a current Ghanaian dish of beans and plantain) he disregards his birthright.
Some interpreters use this disregard to vindicate Jacob (as the elect of God) and justify his cunning in dispossessing Esau. But interpreting Genesis through Genesis we see Jacob later repaid for his deception of Esau when Laban tricks him by switching his daughters at his wedding (Genesis 29:21-30) so that their customs are upheld. In fact, neither brother comes out of this deal looking good. This ought to teach humility to the nations of Israel (that trickery lies at the origins of their nation) and Edom (that their founder didn’t treat his birthright with respect).
In fact, all nations have tainted origins and histories, suggesting humility rather than pride is the better orientation toward our nations. And we should never justify our nation’s actions on the basis of election or the belief that our nation is the carrier of God’s mission in the world.
In their exchange, Jacob converts Esau’s simple request for food into a transaction. He might be condemned here for not simply giving his famished twin some refreshment. And in commodifying both a birthright and food in this way, he plays an unacknowledged role in the history of economics.
One interpretation of this transaction is that it suggests an economy of scarcity. From the time of the Fall, there is a battle between brothers for God’s blessing. We see this in the tale of Cain and Abel, where Cain’s blessing is rejected by God, and Abel’s accepted. Here Jacob schemes for the birthright which is given only to the oldest son.
Such examples of scarcity are the product of the Fall and human culture and do not come from God’s original economy. Yet a perceived scarcity of goods and a winner-take-all political culture, creates and reinforces social and political conflict.
There have been countless typological interpretations of who Esau and Jacob represent in terms of competing peoples or cultures. For, as the text says, from conception the boys tussled, lived separate lives, growing in different directions and into dissimilar cultures.
For Paul (Romans 9:10-14), Jacob represents God’s elect. Augustine treats the Lord’s revelation to Rebekah as a prophecy, and concludes that the older serving the younger is about older Judaism serving the younger Christianity (City of God, XVI. 35). For Luther (LW 4:345), Jacob represents the true faithful church.
Modern political interpretation might also make something out of the cultures of the two peoples represented by Esau and Jacob. Esau is a hunter and is seen as uncouth and uncultured. As a hunter he follows a more ancient or primitive way of life. He is favoured by his father for providing game and practical help. In today’s politics, Esau might represent the working class who work in unskilled jobs in the field or factory, doing the hard work of feeding the family and nation for little pay.
Such workers are relatively uneducated and work long hours, returning after a hard day’s labor famished and tired. Their labor might feed people, but increasingly in this changing world this labor is unrewarded and unrecognised. Such people might be forced to think short-term in face of meeting their immediate everyday needs.
The Esaus of this world understand little of their birthright, and risk treating their political traditions and their political power with contempt, giving up their voice for a bowl of food, or selling their votes too cheaply for empty promises and slick rhetoric which promises easy gains in the short term. As Esau says, “let’s eat, for tomorrow we die”.
Such people do not have much appreciation for the long term, but maintain an immediate focus on pleasure and today’s bread and butter issues. They are, therefore, easily manoeuvred out of their birthright and political power.
Jacob, by contrast, is the ancient farmer, who cultivates both the land and himself. His food comes from gardening, being the more “advanced” pastoral culture, which is in conflict with hunting. Jacob dwelt in tents, indicating that he stuck close to home, becoming educated, and familiar with the ways of the world. But instead of using his skill and knowledge to serve his brother, he uses cunning and rhetoric to deceive and trick Esau out of his rightful leadership role.
He is quick to spot the vulnerable and make a deal with them to his advantage. Jacob, unlike Esau, thought long term and planned ahead, anticipating the day that their father would pass on his blessing and then die.
Are there Jacobs today? Are they the political class exploiting the short term needs of today’s Esaus for their own political advantage? We hear of the dispossessed’s anger at the self-centred political class that is educated but knows little of the lives of ordinary working people.
The story of Esau and Jacob is rich with meaning, and offers a good reminder that political rivalry is not just between superpowers or nations, but is sometimes much closer to home that we sometimes care to admit.
Dr. Richard A. Davis is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He tweets on @rad_1968.