Genesis 25 introduces us to Isaac and Rebekah’s children, Jacob and Esau. Esau was a skillful hunter and a man of the field while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Esau is the outdoorsman while Jacob preferred staying at home. Genesis 25:28 tells us something unfortunate that will play strongly into the future problems we will read about. Isaac loved Esau because he enjoyed eating the wild game that Esau caught. But Rebekah loved Jacob. This information is told to us to explain some of the storm clouds that are brewing in this family.
So Jacob is cooking stew one day and Esau comes in from the field exhausted and hungry. Esau says to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted.” Jacob’s response is, “Sell me your birthright now.” What a thing to say to your brother! Have you thought about what Jacob does here? Your brother has been hunting and comes back into the home exhausting and starving. He asks to eat some of the stew you have been cooking and you tell him that he must sell you his birthright for the meal!
As we noted in our last lesson, the birthright was a very important blessing that was bestowed upon the firstborn son. The birthright meant the firstborn son received a double portion of the inheritance. He would receive double the possessions, double the property, and double the wealth than what the other children would receive. The birthright, therefore, was very valuable. Remember that Abraham was a wealthy person and therefore so was Isaac. I want us to see that Jacob’s request is outlandish. Jacob is immediately living up to his name as a supplanter and cheat. Jacob does not freely give his stew to his hungry brother but uses this as an opportunity to try to rip his brother off from the inheritance he was given by birthright. Jacob is already presented as a fairly despicable person.
But before we are allowed to savor how unbelievable Jacob is, listen to what Esau says. “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” (25:32). So Esau swears to Jacob his birthright. As unbelievable as it is for Jacob to attempt to swindle his brother from his birthright for a meal, it is even more unbelievable that Esau agrees. What a dramatic exaggeration by Esau! I might as well sell you my birthright because I am about to die. Esau is saying what we often will say that we are “starving to death.” He’s hungry and exhausted and during this time of physical weakness, Esau trades something very valuable, his birthright, for something temporary and of far little value, a bowl of stew. Therefore the scene ends with this declaration: “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” Esau’s willingness to sell his birthright was evidence that he considered his birthright unimportant. He treated his birthright as nearly worthless.
Consider the big picture of what we see in Esau that is so troubling. Esau shows a greater concern for the present than for the future. He had so much to gain in the future but was unwilling to wait for it, choosing a temporary satisfaction in the present than the riches to come in the future. Why would he do this? What would make a person throw away something so valuable in the future for something so irrelevant in the present? The answer is that Esau is so consumed by the physical that he has no concept of waiting or of sacrificing. He must satisfy his desires today and cannot say no to his flesh. Therefore he forfeits the riches of the inheritance to come for a mere bowl of stew to satisfy his hunger.
The New Testament Picture
The writer of Hebrews seizes upon this scene and makes an important point for Christians to understand. Turn to Hebrews 12:15-17.
15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Hebrews 12:15–17 ESV)
By understanding what Esau did we can understand the point the writer of Hebrews is making. Notice that the writer warns Christians of failing to obtain the grace of God and becoming defiled. He warns against being sexually immoral and unholy like Esau. Now you will read that and think, “Wait a minute! Esau did not do anything that was sexual immoral or unholy in this text.” But the point is that he did because forfeited his spiritual blessings for physical fulfillment. By selling his birthright for a single meal he became defiled because he chose the physical over the blessings of God’s covenant promises. Do not reject God’s covenantal promises for your mere, temporary desires. Esau did not properly value the things of God. This is why he is used as an example of failing to obtain the grace of God.
In fact, notice how far the writer of Hebrews makes this point in verse 17. After pointing out that Esau sold his birthright for a single meal, the writer connects this to the loss of blessing he desired to receive. “When he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” We will look at this in more detail when we get to this part of the account of Jacob and Esau later. But I want us to see the connection that is being made. The decision to not value the future inheritance and exchange it for temporary physical fulfillment is the reason why he was rejected in receiving the blessing, though he desired it. Please consider that this is the opposite choice that Abraham, his grandfather, made.
24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24–26 ESV)
Here is the message: the person who rejects and discards his status with the Father will miss out on the blessing in the end. This is what the writer of Hebrews is teaching. When we choose the pleasures of this life over the inheritance that God has promised us, then we have no reason to believe that we are going to enjoy the grace of God and the blessings to come. We have made our choice for the physical, counting as nothing God’s riches and blessings to be given on the final day. This was the point the apostle Paul made in Romans 8:5-8.
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:5–8 ESV)
When we choose to satisfy our physical desires we have set our minds on the flesh and cannot be pleasing to God. To use the language that the writer of Hebrews uses, we have defiled ourselves. We may desire to inherit the blessing of God but will be rejected because we have chosen the single meal rather than the birthright God has promised to us as “sons of God.” We look at the choice of Esau and say, “How foolish! How shortsighted!” But friends, when we choose sin we are making the same foolish choice. Rejecting your birthright for the pleasures of this life means we will miss out on the blessings in the end. See the value of the birthright and see the foolishness of sin. Give your life to Jesus and submit to him so that you can enjoy the promised inheritance of God.