Esau’s Stolen Birthright

It was the heist of a millennium: Rebekah and her second-born son Jacob conspired to rob her first-born, Esau, of his birthright. At stake wasn’t just gold or silver, servants or sheep, but rather the patriarchy for the whole future nation of Israel. To complete the theft, they would have to manipulate a blind and crippled Isaac, husband and father, into confusing his children and blessing the wrong one. It was an inauspicious start to the tribe of Israel, to say the least.

Rightly or wrongly, Rebekah was persuaded to do this by a vision from God given to her in pregnancy. But what led Jacob down this dark path? Was it greed? Did he, too, have a vision from God? The bible is mostly silent, but for me it comes down to one bowl of delicious soup. Read on for more.

Starving Esau

A Soup Worthy of a Kingdom? (Source: Wikimedia commons)
Lentils: a soup worthy of a kingdom? (Source: Wikimedia commons)

(This post is part of a continuing series of chronological commentaries on Genesis, starting at the very beginning. This is the beginning of Jacob’s story, but Rebekah’s side of the story details her vision from God.)

The story begins simply enough:

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!” […]
Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
Genesis 25:29-31

Esau visits while Jacob was cooking and instead of offering his hungry brother some of his food, Jacob makes an impossible demand: Esau’s entire birthright.

It’s shocking to consider how far the apple has fallen from Abraham’s family tree. Look back just a few chapters to see how important hospitality and family were to Abraham. And here we have Jacob not only being inhospitable to a traveler, but to his brother. By way of comparison, here’s what Genesis said about Abraham when he met three strangers outside his tent:

Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

Genesis 18:3-5

While those strangers were later revealed to be angels, Abraham did not know this before offering them his hospitality. Abraham also went to war to rescue his nephew, Lot. By refusing to give his visiting brother soup, Jacob is failing at both hospitality and support for his family.

Although Jacob’s offer was terrible, Esau accepted it:

 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
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.
Genesis 25:32-34

This brief passage opens up many lines of questions. Were the twins of age to be able to make oaths like this? Almost certainly. Was Esau visiting or did he live there? Was he really starving or just very hungry? Those questions are more difficult. But if this was used as a pretext for Jacob’s later actions, was it a valid oath?

Today, we would say that this contract is invalid on its face. In American jurisprudence, the fact that Esau was facing starvation would have made the contract under duress, and therefore void:

Duress is the “threat of harm made to compel a person to do something against his or her will or judgment; esp., a wrongful threat made by one person to compel a manifestation of seeming assent by another person to a transaction without real volition”
Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004)

Similar prohibitions against contracts under duress exist in other legal systems. But was such an oath valid in Jacob and Esau’s time? Since this is prior to Torah, we do not know what laws applied to them. The bible is full of contracts and covenants– both between man and God, and between men– but few examples like this one. The closest I can find in the law is in Leviticus 6 where God commands that one should not “cheat his neighbor”. This looks an awful lot like cheating to me.

Jacob’s Punishment and Redemption

"Esau Sells His Birthright for a Pottage of Lentils" by Gerard Hoet, 1748. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
“Esau Sells His Birthright for a Pottage of Lentils” by Gerard Hoet, 1748. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Jacob’s first action in Genesis is deeply troubling. For all that Esau is depicted as a wild and unintelligent man of the country, Jacob is the slippery city lawyer who takes advantage of others to line his own pockets. Even his name in Hebrew can be translated as “he who deceives”.

I am reminded of one of the Proverbs:

There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.
Proverbs 6:16-19

But while this is Jacob’s first action in Genesis, then it is also the beginning of his path to personal redemption. Much of the rest of Genesis can be seen as God’s punishment for Jacob’s twin thefts against his brother: Jacob’s exile from his family, his nearly 15 years of labor to win the hand of his beloved Rachel, then all but failing to have any children with her, and finally the exile of his entire family into Egypt. And, unlike when his grandfather was exiled to Egypt in Genesis 12, he would never see his homeland again.

While it is jumping ahead a bit (spoilers?), I think it’s worth making the comparison now. How much more is Jacob like Abraham after his trials than before, when he finally returns home to ask Esau’s forgiveness?

But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.
Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”
Genesis 33:4-5

Forgiveness is a beautiful thing.

Esau the Animal

"Esau verkauft Jacob das Erstgeburtsrecht oder Das Linsengericht" by Matthias Stom (17th Century) (Source: Wikimedia commons)
“Esau verkauft Jacob das Erstgeburtsrecht oder Das Linsengericht” by Matthias Stom (17th Century) (Source: Wikimedia commons)

One of the things I love most about Torah is the way that no one– not even Abraham, Jacob, or Moses– are portrayed as being perfect. Even great people can make terrible mistakes and that isn’t a bad lesson to learn. But many commentaries, especially Jewish ones, struggle to read between the lines and find ways to show that Jacob is somehow doing good in this exchange.

Rashi, in his commentary, takes the view that Esau was more beast than man. He was not starving, no more than a hungry dog is starving when it begs for food. Esau simply could not control his impulses. When he trades his birthright for something as meaningless as a bowl of soup, we should not pity Esau but rather be relieved that Jacob has relieved this incompetent man of his heavy burden.

Some commentaries are worse: not only was Esau a man of the fields, he was also an idolator! And he hung out with Canaanites! And why was he hungry? Because he had just come back from committing murder! The stories go on, but you get the point. Jacob could no more be faulted for his actions than we could be if we resisted harboring a fugitive.

The closest that I think the text gets to this bestial image of Esau cannot be seen in most English translations, but a slim few translate the passage like this:

and Esau saith unto Jacob, ‘Let me eat, I pray thee, some of this red red thing, for I am weary;’ therefore hath one called his name Edom Red;
Genesis 25:30 (Young’s Literal Translation)

This makes the Hebrew wordplay more clear. Esau is so hungry that he cannot even speak like an adult, just calling the stew the “red red thing” or the “red red stuff”, depending on the translation. But if he were starving, can we fault him for being a little weak of speech?

The story of Jacob is just getting started and we will return to him over and over as we complete the Book of Genesis.

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3 thoughts on “Esau’s Stolen Birthright”

  1. Consider, Esau and Jacob the year after grandpa Abram died were only 16 years old when this promise to sell for soup was made. Then 61 years later at age 77 the blessing by Isaac at 137 became the test. It is the story of Jesus and Satan. Is the firstborn always more righteous in behavior and views and doctrines. Those that look at this not as a sale but as a theft or stolen ar ethose who live by law not love because they think that perfect is rules to obey. The firstborn always right, the second born wrong. Is that what it was with Cain and Abel? Is not Rebecca another disobedient mother Eve? No, because though Eve stood against Adam about the fruit, her stand for Abel not Cain can be again accused against Adam but it was not a woman-rights or woman-exaltation situation. Eve was standing for a man (Abel) whom she stood again for, (Seth) replacing Abel not as 3rd son but perhaps being 4th or 5th son he replaced Abel with his ability to see GOD, what God is, and what results GOD brings. This is what Esau-Jacob is about. It is about the mother and the good son. Criminals always pretend their error is not but your mistaken perception of them, and then they dare make law and claim YOU break it. The law is the messiah who becomes king with a crown, but the perfect son of God is the messiah whose example makes him king of conduct behavior with the perfect exact prediction of results as it reward. It makes the future.

    Step forward and you will also seethis with uncle Laban who says to Jacob (not knowing his wife did steal the inheritance wrist-band), Laban says swear by Jehovah as if Laban worships Jehovah and Jacob does not. or as if Laban respects the god Jehovah as if it can force Jacob to tell truth or promise yet again as he did 7 years and 7 years and 6 years until he had to duck out. Instead Jacob says (because he knows God, he knows the true Jehovah who sees Laban) he says I will swear by my father Isaac that you Laban will fear (not swear by Jehovah whom you Laban pretends to fear). Yes whether atheist wants you to swear by God as if it binds you, or whether your own church or a greater religion thinks God’s power will oblige you by using God and his name, the fact is truth is knowing what they really fear so they’ll get off your FNS (effin-ess).

  2. I think you ignore 16 years plus 59 years of proven behavior on Esau’s part. A man doesn’t attempt to kill at 77 if he hadn’t been trying 76 years of it. Siding with Esau also implies the hunter is the man who provides food for the world and maybe Jacob is a homo. Tradition pretends Shem killed Nimrod, and Abram killed Nimrod, and here Jasher says Esau killed Nimrod at just 16. Busy saying kill kill kill that Nimrod for God and you fail to see Esau was “just like Nimrod a mighty hunter taking up the challenges of Jehovah”. he is equal to Nimrod, not opposing him.

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