Surprising Meaning and Lessons from the Lives of Jacob and Esau
- Rev. Kyle Norman Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2021 11 May
The relationship between Jacob and Esau is, no doubt, one of the more colorful stories of Scripture. The twins are continually seen at odds, with Jacob winning out over his older brother time and again. In fact, we may wonder why the manipulative and selfish Jacob is even considered a hero of faith at all. The more positive events of his life, such as his vision of the angelic ladder, his marrying of Rachel, and his wrestling with the angel of the Lord, all occur against the backdrop of his constant deceit. Furthermore, where Jacob is duplicitous, Esau is someone who “consoles himself with thoughts of killing Jacob” (Genesis 27:42). One cannot be faulted for questioning what this biblical account may have to teach us.
Who Are Jacob and Esau in the Bible?
Jacob and Esau are the grandchildren of Abraham, the one with whom God established a covenant. Thus, the two brothers occupy an important place in God’s cultivation of a chosen nation. Scripture testifies that the two twins, born of Rebekah, represent two opposing nations (Genesis 25:23). Jacob’s descendants become known as the Israelites, while Esau’s descendants are termed “Edomites” Although Esau is the older of the two, God’s redemptive activity follows Jacob’s line. “The elder will serve the younger.”
What Happened between Jacob and Esau?
Jacob and Esau are complete opposites. Esau is described as a skillful hunter, red in hue, and covered with hair. In fact, the name “Esau” means “hairy.” He also goes by the name Edom, meaning red, which is why his descendants are called the Edomites. Jacob is his direct opposite. Where Esau is red and hairy, Jacob comes across as fair, with smooth skin. He is born grasping the heel of Esau, so is given the name Jacob. In Hebrew culture, grasping the heel was a figurative way to express deception. After losing his blessing, Esau laments; “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? (deceiver)” (Genesis 37:36, parentheses added). Like Esau, Jacob lives into the meaning behind his name. Jacob is the consummate manipulator and comes across us unyieldingly selfish.
We first see discord between the brothers when Jacob barters his brother out of his birthright. In the ancient world, the first-born son received a double portion of the family inheritance. This double portion conveyed that the eldest male child preserved the family lineage. In this way, the first-born child held a position of honor, respect, authority, and (depending on the resources of the family), financial security. For nothing more than a bowl of red stew, Esau forsakes that which is rightfully his and hands it over to Jacob.
Jacob also steals Esau’s parental blessing. This blessing, spoken by the father, involved the transfer of familial leadership to the first-born son. The blessing also served as a prophetic proclamation of how God would act on behalf of the individual, and the family. Isaac, blind and on his deathbed, desires is to give his final blessing to Esau. With the encouragement of Rebekah, however, Jacob poses as Esau and steals his father’s blessing. Esau responds to this by promising to murder his brother.
What Can We Learn from The Differences of these Brothers?
When we look at the relationship between the two brothers, we see a certain degree of complementarity between them. Esau is the consummate hunter. While not very strategically minded (he did after all trade his birthright for a bowl of stew), he is resourceful and skilled. He grows his resources to a place of plenty through his own skill and labor. Jacob also amasses plenty of resources, but only grows his flock through manipulation. Jacob has a keen intellect and a strategic mind.
Jacob and Esau’s uniqueness is woven into their very creation. Their skills and aptitudes are gifts of God. Jacob is not called to be Esau, nor is Esau called to be Jacob. Each brother brings unique skills, perceptions, and abilities to bear. One can only wonder what the two may have accomplished if they had allowed their strengths to work together. Rather than being continuously at odds, what if the two chose to bless each other instead?
Unfortunately, Jacob and Esau rarely work together. They exist in a combative relationship. This combativeness cannot be solely ascribed to “sibling rivalry.” One of the unfortunate things we see in the narrative is the playing of favorites by both Isaac and Rebekah. The text says definitively that “Isaac, who had a taste for while game, loved Esau; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28) The parents stoke the fires of rivalry between the two boys by placing one child over the other. Just as we might wonder what it may have looked like if Jacob and Esau had worked together, we might also ponder what their relationship might have been if Isaac and Rebekah had loved their children equally.
Unfortunately, because Jacob grew up in a family-system rooted in favoritism, he embodies this very dynamic toward his own children. Jacob loves his wife Rachel more than Leah, and thus favors Rachel’s children over Lea’s. Jacob’s ultimate expression of favoritism is toward Joseph displaying this physically in the gifting of a multi-colored coat. Joseph becomes hated by his brothers, who eventually, sell him into slavery.
3 Surprising Lessons from the Story and Lives of Jacob and Esau
Given Jacob’s manipulative character, and the manner in which he treats Esau, what lesson are we to glean? How does the story of Jacob and Esau lead us into a deeper recognition of God’s place and activity in our lives? Can we find anything redeemable in the story of these two warring brothers?
1. God Redeems All
It is remarkable to see how redemption comes to these alienated twins. As Jacob journeys to be reunited with Esau (Genesis 33), we see a shift in his personality. Jacob is no longer rooted in selfish gain. As he prepares to meet Esau, Jacob prays “I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown to your servant… I am afraid that Esau will attack me, and also the mothers with their children” (Genesis 32: 10-12). During the years, God formed Jacob to be a man with a repentant spirit and a concern for his family. This is certainly a far cry from the self-focused manipulation of his youth.
There is also growth with Esau. After the loss of his blessing, Esau breathes murderous threats upon his brother. This is why Jacob fears reunification. Yet when Esau approaches Jacob there is no hint of animosity or resentment. “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept” (Genesis 33:4). Scripture doesn’t record what occurred in Esau’s life over those years, but it is safe to say that God softened in his heart. The fire of revenge slowly turned into the warmth of compassion.
The embracing of Jacob and Esau is a wonderful testimony to God’s ability to redeem even the messiest of situations in our lives. Even if we feel that forgiveness or restoration is impossible, God is able to soften the hardest of hearts and work reconciliation amongst family members or friends. Importantly, this may take some time. Reconciliation is never instantaneous. Yet for Jacob and Esau, and for us, under the guidance of God’s loving and gracious hand, forgiveness and redemption are always possible.
2. God Works Against the Grain
In choosing to establish the redemptive plan through Jacob, the younger brother, God moves against the grain of worldly expectation. This is a constant trend in scripture. Jacob is an unlikely hero, but then again, so is Moses, David, Rahab, Ruth, Peter, and Paul. God chooses that which is weak in the eyes of the world to testify to the surpassing greatness of God’s own power. Ultimately, salvation occurs not through our own mastery or expertise, but in responding to the gracious invitation of our ever-loving Lord.
As we recognize how God works through Jacob’s experiences, flawed and troublesome as they are, we are led to consider how God may be present in our own life circumstances. Jacob’s experience of redemption encourages us to consider how God may be moving outside of our own worldly expectations. Could there be a blessing coming from an unexpected place in our life?
3. Blessing Is Not Devoid of Struggle
We can easily assume that the life of blessing involves an easy and trouble-free existence. But this is not what we see with Jacob, nor in fact, is that what we see in any hero of faith. Jacob’s life is rarely devoid of struggle or hardship. His life is a constant battle. His father’s blessing is met only with murderous threats and familial isolation. Having been just declared the head of the family, he must now leave the family in fear of his life.
The blessings of God do not necessarily remove us from the difficulties of life. In fact, at times, the blessings of God can actually call us into places of hardship or struggle. Yet while God’s blessings over us do not take us away from difficulty, they declare the presence of God in the midst of the difficulty. God’s blessing testifies that something deeper is always at play in our lives. As Jacob discovered in Bethel, we are called to discover that “the Lord is in this place” (Genesis 30:17). Understanding ourselves as blessed by God means recognizing how our lives are continually lived within God’s redemptive work.
The story of Jacob and Esau is not an easy fable of well-defined morality. It has no clear winners or losers; Jacob is never a perfect character. Yet ultimately, as in all biblical accounts, our eyes are not to be fixed on human individuals. We must cast our vision upon God’s presence and activity. Despite the rivalry, favoritism, deception, anger, and discord, the account of Jacob and Esau testifies to a God who continually works within human life. God is present in the lives of these people. God works redemption, forgiveness, and ultimately, salvation. Such activity may not always be in the forefront of life, but it is there. Similarly, we can claim, in faith, that God makes redemption available in our lives. As flawed as we might be, or as prone to wrong decisions as Jacob was, we can be confident in God’s loving regard, and God’s willingness to redeem.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/EKSTAZA
The Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada. He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.com, ibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others. He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca. He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.
This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.
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