Esau’s ordinary kingdom (Genesis 36)

Esau’s kingdom story is such a contrast to the kingdom God is establishing through Jacob.

Petra (in ancient Edom)

If you miss the kingdom perspective, you may wonder why Genesis 36 is in the Bible. It’s a repetitive jumble of names associated with Esau. Sure, Esau was Abraham and Sarah’s grandson; God promised them nations; and Esau has a nation. But there’s too much detail to just say that. Something else is going on.

The narrator wants us to see the contrast between Esau’s nation (Edom) and Jacob’s nation (Israel). Cheese and chalk! Esau’s nation is all about the people in power: the chiefs, the leaders, the kings, the clan chiefs. That’s so typical. Ancient nations typically provided king lists and told the stories of those in power. That has been the pattern down through history.

Today we would provide this data in tabulated form, but the ancient structure of Genesis 36 is logical and elegantly simple. It begins with Esau and his three wives, and how they moved to Edom (36:6-8). Esau’s legacy was then recounted in three lists, each consisting of in two parts (descendants and chiefs):

  • Esau’s descendants (36:9-14) and their chiefs (36:15-19)
  • Seir’s descendants (36:20-28) and their chiefs (36:29-30)
  • The Edomite kings (36:31-39) and clan chiefs (36:40-43)

It’s all about who rules—which of Esau’s descendants hold power: genealogically (descendants), chronologically (kings) and geographically (by clans). That’s how national stories work.

But Israel’s story is different. Jacob’s descendants are a nation ruled by God. Without a divine ruler, Israel would have been just another nation like Edom. Because God chose Israel as his representative kingdom, Israel’s history is so different. The heavenly sovereign delivers them from the oppression of human rulers (Pharaoh), leads them to his mountain (Sinai), establishes a covenant that makes him their ruler, gives them his laws, and asks them to build him a tent where he will live among them and lead them. (That’s the Book of Exodus).

Ultimately God did permit them to have kings because they struggled to implement the theocratic ideal. Esau’s nation never had that struggle. Edom was an ordinary nation, so they had “kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites” (36:31).

Edom was what Israel would have been without divine election. Esau did not inherit the Promised Land: “He went into a land away from his brother Jacob” (36:6). He lived in “the hill country of Seir” (36:8, 9), “the land of Seir” (36:30), “the land of Edom” (36:16, 17, 21, 31). Esau was Edom 36:1, 8, 43). With repetition and in multiple ways, the narrator underscores the difference: Esau’s was a different nation, in a different location, separate from the covenantal promises.

Esau headed off to found an ordinary nation, but Jacob is the foundation of God’s nation. Jacob’s sovereign called him back to the Promised Land, specifically to Bethel where Jacob had discovered the doorway to the sovereign’s house. Jacob was invited to live in God’s house (Beth-el in 35:1). The sovereign who directs Jacob’s steps is the one who rules over all nations—even Egypt as we will see in the coming chapters.

Esau had a nation and a story like the other nations. The uniqueness of Jacob’s nation is its divine ruler. Israel’s story is not about human chiefs and kings and clan rulers: it’s about the God who restores his reign over the earth through them.


What others are saying

John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 17–50, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 128:

It is a strange fact that the Israelites ensured that so many of Esau’s family did not get totally forgotten. It is strange because we have noted in connection with Genesis 27 that there was no more love lost between Israel and Edom than there was between Jacob and Esau in their youth. At least, the Old Testament (especially the Prophets) tells us how negatively Israel felt about Edom, and we know how much of Judah’s land fell into Edomite control later in Old Testament times. Yet Genesis knows Edom is somehow part of God’s story, even if less central than Israel. As happened with Ishmael and Isaac, Genesis tells us about the descendants of the older son before telling us about those of the younger son, because it is the latter on whom the story is to focus. The same pattern begins to assert itself when Genesis turns to Jacob’s line and notes Jacob’s favoritism toward his young son Joseph, which does not thrill his big brothers.

Read Genesis 36.

[previous: Jacob’s life in God’s house]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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