When God granted Isaac and Rebekah twin boys, He prophesied that they and their descendants would be at odds. This was true even within the womb. They fought and caused Rebecca great pain. At birth, Esau emerged first followed closely by Jacob who was grabbing Esau’s heel. The competition continued as Isaac favored Esau who was a skilled hunter while Jacob was favored by Rebekah who dwelled among the tents.
The first biblical interaction between the boys as they got older occurs when Esau came back from open country famished. He asked for some red food that Jacob was cooking and Jacob agreed as long as Esau gave up his right as first born or birthright. Esau agrees with little resistance and the trade is made. Yet, Jacob’s deception is only beginning.
As Isaac gets older, he loses his sight. He calls upon Esau to hunt and prepare a meal. When this is completed, Isaac will give Esau his blessing (not to be confused with birthright). Rebekah, hearing this and favoring Jacob, told Jacob to get two choice goats and Esau’s clothes. Rebekah prepared the food the way Isaac liked, and Jacob donned Esau’s clothes and placed the goat skins on his arms (for Esau was a hairy man). As Jacob served Isaac the food, Isaac was suspicious of Jacob’s voice. However, the taste of the food, the feel of the hair on Jacob’s arms, and the smell of Esau’s clothes convinces Isaac to give the blessing to who he thought was Esau.
Shortly after Jacob receives the blessing, Esau returns with the game he has hunted and asks Isaac for the blessing. Isaac is greatly troubled and tells Esau that he has already given the blessing out. Esau immediately realizes that Jacob has stolen not only his birthright, but also his blessing and he begs Isaac to bless him, too. Isaac gives him a blessing of sorts, but it affirms that Esau will serve his brother Jacob. Esau then resolves to kill Jacob after his father’s death.
Rebekah, catching wind of Esau’s intentions, desires to send Jacob to her brother Laban for safety and to find a non-Canaanite wife (Rebekah and Isaac despised Esau’s wife from Canaan). Isaac sends Jacob away to find a wife, and Jacob is able to flee Esau’s wrath for the moment.
In this story, it may seem that Esau got the short end of the stick, and in a way, this is true. It also may seem like God blesses Jacob’s deception, which can confuse us. But if we understand the meaning of birthright and blessing, we can start to understand God’s actions in the story.
In the tradition at that time, the birthright was usually given to the oldest son as a spiritual sign of leadership of the clan once the patriarch passed away. It was a sign that the current patriarch was passing his spiritual authority to the next. The blessing was given by the patriarch to his heir, confirming leadership of the clan and bestowing a double portion of inheritance. For example, if a man had two sons, the inheritance would be split three ways. The son with the blessing would receive two shares while the other would receive one.
Esau, who the letter to the Hebrews calls a ‘profane person,’ sees little value in the birthright. He has no care that he has given up the spiritual gift for a meal. However, whenever it comes to the blessing (size of inheritance), we see him burst into tears and is inclined to murder his brother. These reactions show us where Esau’s heart was. He disdained the spiritual gift, yet coveted the material wealth so much that it drove visceral reactions out of him. It would seem that God allowed Esau to lose his inheritance because Esau showed he would not follow God faithfully like his father and grandfather for his concern was in material wealth and not faith.
This is not to say that Jacob was perfect in his intentions. Rather, the opposite could be said. But God worked with him despite his failures. God will not excuse his treachery. In fact, Jacob will be on the short end of trickery when he works for Laban and eventually his sons. But ultimately, we will see the purification of Jacob, and the promises God to Abraham will begin to be fulfilled through him.