You’ve advertised for help with a bakery in a country town. Two people apply. The first asks prying questions about your business model, disquieting questions that leave you feeling you can’t trust him. The other doesn’t bother showing up for the interview. You have to call him and remind him. So, who do you hire? The one you can’t trust? Or the one who couldn’t care less?
Jacob will do anything to get the birthright. Esau doesn’t care. The birthright means the eldest inherits twice what his brother gets, along with the honour and responsibility of caring for the family after their father dies. Given the wealth Isaac inherited from Abraham, it represents a huge sum. Jacob wants it. He’s been waiting for his moment.
One evening after a failed hunt, Esau arrives home so famished that the aroma of Jacob’s vegetarian stew sends his stomach into overdrive. Jacob sets his fee: the birthright. Price gouging and profiteering doesn’t begin to describe Jacob’s outrageous demand. He’s charging his starving brother hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single meal! Unconscionable!
If Esau had stopped to think, he could easily have shoved Jacob aside, gulped down the food, and told his brother what to do with his greed. Esau was the macho bloke with sun-reddened skin and strong hairy arms. The wimpy Jacob with his smooth unscathed skin and insipid complexion wouldn’t have stood a chance.
But Esau didn’t think. The birthright wasn’t on his radar. It meant nothing to him. All he cared about was his immediate appetite. He seemed to have no idea of the future that God has promised his family, of the divine ruler’s plans to establish a nation through them to restore his reign and justice over the earth. Jacob’s cunning defeated Esau’s apathy.
But Jacob still has a problem. Their father will never agree to the deal the brothers have struck. When the time comes for his death, Isaac will still give the family blessing to Esau as the firstborn. Jacob will have wasted his stew.
Unless … unless Jacob can deceive their father as well. It’s a risky proposition: if his father recognizes the ruse, Jacob could end up cursed instead of blessed. Jacob needs help. It’s not clear whether his mother knows of the boys’ deal, but she clearly wants the boy who supported her at home to be the chosen one.
While Esau is out on his crowning hunt, Rebekah plans the deception and Jacob perpetrates it. They overcome Isaac’s suspicions, and Jacob receives the blessing. It’s all over when Esau returns. Esau lost; Jacob won.
No: Jacob didn’t win. Everybody lost. Jacob fled for his life. He got nothing of his inheritance, and he never saw his parents again. Esau wants Jacob dead, and he won’t have anything to do with their mother. Can God’s plan work through this dysfunctional family? Jacob’s power grab destroyed everything: there is no Abrahamic family left—only individuals.
Remember how humanity tried to grasp God’s power in the beginning? Remember how the sovereign explained the conflict they had introduced into his realm? Remember how the older brother (Cain) wanted to kill the younger one? It’s all happening again! The same problem that wrecked humanity in the beginning is tearing the Abrahamic family apart too. Jacob’s power grab has shattered the Abrahamic family just as fatefully as Adam’s shattered humanity.
Human brokenness is reprised in the Abrahamic family. If the heavenly sovereign thinks he can save humanity through his family, he has his work cut out!
Which brother would you have chosen? The brother who valued the divine calling so low that he would trade it for a meal? Or the brother who valued it so highly that he would do evil to get it?
Actually, the sovereign had made his choice long before Jacob’s power grab. Before they were born, he had told Rebekah:
Genesis 25:23 (ESV)
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.
Their evil schemes neither achieved nor prevented God’s purposes. Their actions certainly made life worse for them. But the divine sovereign knows how to achieve his goals even in the face of human brokenness.
What others are saying
Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 189:
After satisfying his hunger, he [Esau] not only showed no regret but also displayed a careless indifference to the sacred institution.
Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 166–167:
Esau had traded away the firstborn’s blessing. This makes all four participants in the present scene almost equally at fault. Isaac, whether he knew of the sale or not, knew God’s birth-oracle of 25:23, yet set himself to use God’s power to thwart it (see verse 29). This is the outlook of magic, not religion. Esau, in agreeing to the plan, broke his own oath of 25:33. Rebekah and Jacob, with a just cause, made no approach to God or man, no gesture of faith or love, and reaped the appropriate fruit of hatred. …
These rival stratagems only succeeded in doing ‘whatsoever (God’s) hand and … counsel foreordained’ (cf. Acts 4:28). As a crowning touch, at a moment when Isaac was in no mood to care whom Jacob might marry, Jacob found himself thrust out of the nest he had feathered, to seek refuge and a wife among the very kinsmen to whom Abraham had turned in obedience to the vision (24:3ff.).