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A Tale of Two Brothers

Genesis 25:29-34 - Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary. And Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.” Therefore his name was called Edom.  But Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright as of this day.”  And Esau said, “Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?” Then Jacob said, “Swear to me as of this day.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.  And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose, and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.”

The second half of Genesis 25 could be entitled, “A Tale of Two Brothers.” It’s the story of the birth and early years of two brothers, Jacob and Esau. In this account we see the hand of God at work to accomplish His sovereign plan and purpose for His chosen people. We also see how human choices have far-reaching effects. This “tale of two brothers” has many practical lessons for our lives today, especially concerning the important matter of decision making.

Background Notes

How old were Jacob and Esau when this event recorded in Genesis 25 took place? We don’t know for sure, but probably they were in their teens or early twenties. Jacob, who liked to stay around home, had evidently become a pretty good cook. One day Esau came in from a long day of hunting and he was famished. He caught a whiff of the lentil stew that Jacob had cooked up, and it smelled so good! Jacob may have planned this scenario, knowing that Esau would be famished when he came in from a day of hunting. In any case, Esau wanted that food so much that he was willing to sell his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew!

Jacob and Esau were twins, but Esau had been born first, so the birthright belonged to Esau. Can you sell your birthright? Yes, in those days you could transfer the benefits and the responsibilities of the birthright. In the Nuzi Tablets, extra-biblical records that date back to patriarchal times, the selling of birthrights is mentioned. The transaction was legal, and it was binding.

In those days the birthright consisted of three things: one, a position of supremacy in the family; two, a double portion of the inheritance (this later became part of the Mosaic Law); and three (and this is the significant point here), the spiritual privileges and responsibilities in the family.

Remember, back in patriarchal times there was no priesthood. The priesthood came much later, under the Mosaic Law. So the priestly rights and privileges and the responsibilities, that is, the pastoral responsibilities within the family, were part of the birthright, and the birthright belonged to the firstborn. It was a position of privilege, and a very responsible position. In addition, the birthright in this particular family carried with it the promise of the Messianic lineage -- a very important point here.

Esau couldn’t have cared less about this third aspect of the birthright! He was a man of the moment, and at that moment he was famished! “And Esau said, “Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?” (v32). Essentially, he said, “What good is this birthright to me? Who cares about those spiritual privileges and responsibilities? I’m famished! Just give me that stew!” So Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a single meal.

Doctrinal / Teaching Points

1. Despising the things of God is a serious sin.

“And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose, and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright”(v34). Esau looked down on his birthright -- he held it in contempt. He treated it as worthless. Because of the spiritual aspect to the birthright, this negative attitude was very serious -- in fact it was sin, serious sin. Hebrews 12:16 warns us not to be like Esau, who for one morsel of food -- a single meal! -- sold his birthright. For this he was called a profane or godless person. “See that no one is... a godless person like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.”

Esau had little or no appreciation for godly values or the priority of God in his life. Is it possible that you are an “Esau”? You may say, “No way am I like Esau! I would never despise the things of God!” Well, if we think we’re not like Esau, let’s take a look at our priorities. If we would prefer to spend Sunday morning playing golf, or staying home to watch TV or read the Sunday paper, rather than worshiping God with fellow believers, could this be an indication that we “look down” on the things of the Lord? If we would much rather read a magazine or a good novel than God’s Word, aren’t we “looking down” on the things of the Lord? This is not to say that it’s wrong to play golf or read newspapers or magazines or good novels! The point is that our priorities may indicate what we esteem and what we despise. It’s our priorities that are the point.

What are your priorities? What are my priorities? Is it possible that we are “looking down” on the things of the Lord? We may not be “100 per cent Esaus,” but is it possible that we are “partial Esau’s”? We all need to take a good look at our priorities. We need frequent evaluation of what comes first in our lives.. Do our priorities in life need some adjusting and some straightening out? Despising the things of God is a serious sin.

2. Scheming for the things of God is a serious mistake.

Jacob didn’t despise the things of God. He wasn’t like Esau. In fact, it appears that Jacob appreciated the things of God, at least to some degree. Jacob wanted the birthright. He was willing to assume the spiritual responsibilities in the family. That’s the good news about Jacob. But Jacob went about getting the birthright the wrong way.

Jacob was a schemer. (Just take a look at his life in later chapters of Genesis!) So it’s quite likely that Jacob had been scheming for some time to obtain the birthright, and he was ready to pounce when the perfect opportunity came! He may have planned to have that stew ready and waiting when Esau returned from hunting, and his plan worked. He caught Esau in a moment of weakness and quickly made a bargain in order to get the birthright.

It’s a serious mistake to obtain the things of God by scheming. All Jacob had to do was wait on God. God had clearly declared before the boys were born that the older brother would serve the younger, and it’s possible that Isaac and Rebekah had communicated that fact to the twins. But Jacob couldn’t wait for God. He rushed ahead of God and schemed in order to obtain the things he wanted. Because this was a serious mistake, Jacob had to reap serious consequences. Jacob had a long way to go in “the school of God.” Scheming to obtain the things of God is a serious mistake.

There are many applications of this principle today, but an obvious application would be in the area of schemes for fund-raising in the church or in Christian ministries. Every one of us could give examples of fund-raising schemes -- in fact, most of us have probably received at least one fund raising letter from a Christian ministry in the mail this past week. Now not all fund raising for ministries is wrong, but there are many unbiblical schemes for fundraising today, and unbiblical schemes are certainly wrong.

For example, there are agencies that do fundraising, and they guarantee a certain return because they know how to manipulate people to give! Some Christians hire these agencies, even non-Christian agencies, to raise funds for their church or ministry. Emotional appeals for support are used to “crank the faucet open,” and the money flows in. Raising funds in a manipulative way is a form of scheming to obtain the things of God.

We need to do God’s work in God’s way. When we wait expectantly, in faith, for God to supply the needs of the church or ministry, He will supply the needs -- in His time and in His way and with His right amount! If Jacob had waited for God, he would have received the birthright as well as the blessing (Genesis 27) without scheming! Scheming for the things of God is a serious mistake.

Unfortunately, Jacob’s first scheme was not his last scheme. In obtaining the birthright, Jacob took advantage of Esau’s weakness. In Genesis 27, Jacob schemed with his mother, Rebekah, to deceive his father and gain the patriarchal blessing. Jacob’s scheme took advantage of Isaac’s weakness, and he obtained the blessing by deception and lies. This sinful scheme had serious results. Jacob had to run for his life from Esau’s vengeful wrath, and he was unable to return to his home for over 20 years.

A pattern of scheming characterized Jacob’s life until God finally put a stop to it. Jacob spent his entire life striving, scheming and struggling to prevail over Esau and then over his father-in-law, Laban -- until he found himself literally struggling with God Himself (Genesis 32)! God had to bring Jacob to the realization that his life was not in his own hands, but in God’s hands, and all his struggles and schemes to get what he wanted, including the blessing of God, in his own way were serious mistakes. Scheming for the things of God is a serious mistake.

Practical Applications

1. Will you sell your birthright for a single meal?

Hebrews 12:16 says that Esau sold his birthright for a single meal, for one morsel of food. How short-sighted can you be? That’s really the point of the passage in Hebrews. How foolish to sacrifice spiritual blessing for a brief moment of physical satisfaction -- but it happened to Esau, and it can happen to us as well. It is possible to trade spiritual blessings for momentary physical or material pleasure. King David did it! For one moment of pleasure with Bathsheba, David brought shame on himself, on God and on God’s people. David reaped the sad conseqiences of what he had sowed for the rest of his life. Although God “picked up the pieces” in his life, David experienced life-long sorrow and heartache and the loss of blessing, all for that “single meal” of pleasure. Will you sell your spiritual birthright for a single meal? This is quite a warning for all of us.

When I went to seminary, I was looking forward to studying under a particular professor whom I had come to admire and respect. When I arrived on campus, I discovered that this professor was no longer on the faculty. He had been forced to resign for moral reasons - he had indulged in an extra-marital affair and left his wife and family. For earthly pleasure, he removed himself from an area of great spiritual blessing in his own life and in the lives of many others. He essentially sold his spiritual birthright. He didn’t lose his salvation, and the Lord eventually picked up some of the pieces in his life, but he brought shame upon the Lord, upon the Christian community, upon himself, and, of course, great grief in his family.

Every Christian is vulnerable, and we can fall victim to strong desires in many different areas, not just in the area of sex. Some Christians trade their spiritual blessings for material gain and earthly wealth. Some Christians sell their spiritual blessings for positions of power, even within the church. Some Christians trade their spiritual blessings for the perfect retirement set-up.

We are never immune. Age doesn’t deliver us from vulnerability. Will you trade off your spiritual blessings for momentary, short-lived, physical or material benefits? Will you sell your birthright for a single meal?

2. Don’t expect to find happiness if you cheat to get it!

In Genesis 25, Jacob cheated his brother to obtain the birthright. In Genesis 27, Rebekah and Jacob schemed, lied and cheated to obtain what they thought would bring them happiness, but it only brought heartache and long-lasting problems. Even though God overruled Jacob’s sinful wheelings and dealings, there was no lasting happiness in Jacob’s life.

When Jacob was forced to flee from home because of Esau’s murderous rage, Rebekah thought he would be gone for a only few weeks or months. But Jacob was gone for more than 20 years. Rebekah never saw her favorite son again.

Jacob had trouble and unhappiness all his life. One sad event was followed by yet another sad event in Jacob’s life and in the lives of his family members. This unhappiness was a direct result of Jacob’s constant scheming and cheating to do his own thing in his own way. Although God blessed him materially, and eventually Jacob did grow up spiritually, Jacob was forced to take “courses in the school of God” that were difficult, turbulent and sometimes filled with great pain and sorrow.

On several occasions during my years of teaching at a Christian college, students came to me to confess that they had cheated on an exam. Sometimes the confession came years later! These students thought that getting a higher grade would bring them happiness and success, but they discovered that they could not be happy and at peace with themselves and with God until the matter was settled.

If you cheat by exaggerating your educational attainments or experience on your job resume, don’t expect to find happiness in that job. If you cheat others in business deals, don’t expect to find happiness and fulfillment in your career or company. If you are untruthful or cheat your spouse in any way, don’t expect to find joy in your marriage. Teens, if you cheat and lie to your parents, you can expect to have an unhappy family relationship.

If you cheat other people in your efforts to find personal happiness, don’t expect to find anything but disappointment, bad fall-out, trouble, guilt and unhappiness. Don’t expect to find happiness if you cheat to get it!
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