Genesis 25:19-28

24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. [1]

Last week we began a new toledoth, the longest one in the book of Genesis. It is the account of the life and times of Isaac and his son Jacob. We saw that Isaac, compared to his half-brother Ismael, didn’t marry until he was 40 and didn’t have children for twenty more years. Ishmael fathered 12 sons, whereas Isaac had only two. God’s spiritual blessings to the patriarch in the line of the Promised Seed looked outwardly paltry compared to Ishmael’s material blessings – just as they appear outwardly paltry to Esau in our text. Something else we learned last week was how the rest of the Bible gives significance to the birth of these twins.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul appeals to God’s free will to choose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau as proof of God’s sovereign electing saving grace (Rom. 9:6-12). Both Jacob and Esau had the same father and mother, descendants of the blessed line of Shem. The twins’ father was the chosen patriarch of the Promised Seed. Yet, before either was even born God exercised his free will to choose Jacob over Esau. God’s choice plays out with the sale of Esau’s birthright in our text. God’s free will to choose works in the context of freely-made human choices. God’s free will is the primary cause of every condition and action. Jacob and Esau’s free choices and actions are the secondary causes.

Bruce Waltke and Cathi Fredricks sum up this toledoth of Isaac and Jacob by writing:

Overarching the entire story is God’s sovereign good pleasure (Rom. 9:10–12) and blessing on Jacob. He opens Rebekah’s barren womb, predicts the supremacy of Jacob over Esau, contravenes the primogeniture rights of human beings, and overrides Isaac’s patriarchal authority, Laban’s social position, and Esau’s military might.

Election …entails the gift of faith to Jacob, not Esau (Gen. 25:27–34). In contrast to Esau, Jacob shows covenant fidelity and vision by desiring the birthright and blessing and by remaining loyal to the promised seed and land. Covenant, however, rests on God’s faithfulness. Though the chosen are often unfaithful, God always abides faithful to his elect.

At the same time …each reaps what he or she sows (cf. Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob). Isaac’s sensuality will cost him his family and his full place of honor in the genealogical accounts. Esau’s impatience, greed, and lack of covenant vision will cost him his birthright and blessing. Rebekah’s deception will draw her into anonymity. Jacob’s deception will bring him deception and alienation. Throughout this account is God’s hand blessing and rebuking his chosen people.[2]

As we saw last week, the account opens with the story of Isaac and Rebecca. Moses has not told us much about the miracle child born to Abraham and Sara. Moses assigns him little dialogue. Up to this point, Isaac’s great distinction came from his willingness to be obedient to death when he submitted to Abraham’s sacrifice on Mount Moriah. In the opening lines of this toledoth, we see that he prays twenty years of prayers for his wife Rebecca to bear children. What we know of Isaac is that (up to this point) he submits to God. Perhaps he was a quiet and retiring personality.

By contrast, Rebecca was certainly not shy and retiring. She volunteered to water ten camels of the bridal caravan, a sweaty two-hour job. She agreed to marry a man she had never met and journey over many months and miles to do so. When she met Isaac he shared with her God’s patriarchal promise of descendants as numerous as the stars.

She must have assumed she would be cranking out kids in no time flat. But twenty years went by and still no children. God was teaching his tiny two-person congregation that the promised blessing through the chosen Seed of the Woman was not a matter of human effort. It was entirely of God and entirely of his timing.


After 20 years of waiting on the Lord and twenty years of relentless prayerful intercession, Rebecca became pregnant. By God’s direct action, Rebecca’s womb was no longer a rocky ground where Isaac’s seed could find no purchase. Isaac – whose name means May God Take Joy in Him and is also a pun referring to his parents’ laughter at God’s announcement of his birth – must have been overjoyed. Rebecca must have felt great relief, until her pregnancy progressed. Moses writes beginning in verse 22:

22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her, “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.”

The verb Moses selects to convey the action taking place in Rebecca’s womb is a strong one and means “to abuse, crush”; several times it is used as a parallel alongside the verb “to oppress” (1 Sam. 12:3, 4; Hos. 5:11; Amos 4:1).”[3] Rebecca’s prayer, as the children smash themselves inside of her (a pre-natal WWE Smackdown), is short and alarmed: “Why this, me?” Her question has the sense of “Why did I yearn to be pregnant?” or even, “Why do I even go on living with this pain?” Recall that Rebecca was no wimp – at least not in her early camel watering days. In her pain and bewilderment, she turned to the Lord from whom she received a perplexing prophecy. She learned she was carrying twins who, from birth, would oppose each other as would their respective descendants. “The prophecy concerning the twins extends beyond their births. It is fulfilled throughout Israel’s history (2 Sam. 8:13), even to the birth of Christ during the days of Herod, a descendant of Esau.”[4]

There is a considerable amount of wordplay in our text. Some of it centers around the color red (Esau, Edom, stew). The home of Esau is elsewhere called Seir (śēʿîr), but the one from Seir is to be usurped by his younger brother (ṣāʿir). The two words sound alike, and suggest literary artistry on the part of the author.[5] Some wordplay centers around the names of the twins: “will serve,” [yaʿaḇōḏ; cf. yaʿaqōḇ “Jacob”] “the younger” [ṣāʿîr; cf. śēʿār “hairy”].[6]

Rebecca was told the firstborn’s covenantal rights would be overturned and the twins’ roles reversed by God’s free will choice. Her pregnancy and her children were part of God’s divine plan working out for his purposes and his glory. “The abiding fact is: ‘The order of nature is not necessarily the order of grace’” (W.H. Griffith Thomas).[7]

Genesis repeatedly emphasizes this fact. From the very first, the older brother Cain had his offering rejected while younger Abel’s was accepted. The line of Seth, the even younger brother, was the chosen line (4: 26— 5: 8). Young Isaac was chosen over Ishmael (17: 18, 19). Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s sons, was chosen over his brothers (37:3). And Judah was likewise chosen over his older brothers to be the tribe to bear the Promised Seed (49:8). The New Testament is clear that the order of nature does not determine the order of grace (1 Cor. 1:27-31):[8]

27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” [9]

Jacob become the heir by God’s free will choice. But God’s choice was national as well as individual. We know that because the context of Malachi’s prophecy, “Yet Jacob I love but Esau I hated” (Mal. 1:2,3) is a reference to the nations of Israel and Edom. The Edomites spent many years in bondage to the Jews. Notice God offers no explanation and no apologies for his free will to choose. “His merciful election is a fact whether we understand it or not. God’s purposes are as set as they are incomprehensible.”[10]

The twin’s birth was as dramatic as their gestation. Moses tells us in verses 24-26 that:

When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

First came the furry redheaded brother, Esau. The color of his hair supplies the root for the name of his kingdom, Edom. His appearance (furry, śēʿār) lends its name to his future home, Seir. “One wordplay (v. 25) is followed by another. The second son to be born was Jacob (yaʿaqōḇ), so called because at birth he was grasping Esau’s heel (ʿāqēḇ). The older brother is named in accordance with his appearance, and the younger brother in accordance with his actions. Esau is born ruddy, and Jacob is born grabbing.

Even the very infantile Jacob is acting out the oracle of Yahweh announced in v. 23. Scholars agree that the name Jacob is an abbreviated name, of which the longer form is “Jacob-el,” or yaʿqub-alel. The meaning would be “May El protect (him).[11] To be at someone’s heel is a form of protection in the normal instance, to “have your back.” But, in the context of God’s oracle concerning the twins, it means Jacob is struggling, grabbing at, trying to sneak up on his brother.


The twins were opposites, as the nations that came from them would eventually be. “27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” Esau was an outdoorsman who spent his time in the wilderness. His was an Early Bronze Age version of a mountain man. From what we see of him in this toledoth, we can speculate he was gregarious, outgoing, plainspoken, and likeable. The kind of guy with whom you would like to have a beer. Certainly, he was his father’s favorite.

Jacob, on the other hand, is described as “Plain or (RSV, ESV) quiet; [the translation] represents the Hebrew tām which has a suggestion of ‘sound’ or ‘solid’, the level-headed quality that made Jacob, at his best, toughly dependable, and at his worst a formidably cool opponent.”[12] He was self-contained, conventional, practical, and controlled. He was his momma’s favorite. The parental favoritism only served to increase the differences between the brothers. Through absolutely no merit of his, Jacob was also God’s chosen patriarch for the line of the Promised Seed. Rather than trusting God to act in God’s timing, Jacob took an opportunity to buy his brother’s birthright. Birthright was the designation of the family leader that, under the later Mosaic Law, would also include inheritance of a double portion of the estate. Whether birthright entitled either twin to a double portion isn’t known. What IS known is that birthright included a spiritual aspect, a special relationship with God.


The bargain for birthright does not make either brother look good, but Esau is certainly the more sympathetic figure. Esau was an easygoing guy, completely indifferent to getting ahead. Many years later following Jacob’s miserable experience with Laban, when Esau had Jacob at his mercy, Esau was astonishingly kind and generous to Jacob. “But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (33:4). “Esau said, ‘I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself’” (33:9). It is probable that he was more likable than Jacob. He clearly didn’t care whether he got a double portion of inheritance from his father (if such were the case at that time) because he could support himself. He was a country boy. And a country boy can survive. But the birthright also brought with it the role of spiritual leader of the family, something Esau also rejected. He had no interest in spiritual things. He could worship God in the great outdoors perfectly fine on his own.

That is why St Author of Hebrews sees Esau as an unholy man:

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. [13]

Likeable or not, Esau was a shallow man who lived by his feelings and appetites. He wasted the splendid manhood God gave him and he sold his special relationship to God for a bowl of lentils in a moment of extreme hunger. Jacob is far less likeable in this story. He is a coldly calculating, opportunistic, self-seeking, self-serving, heartless, ambitious, cheater. When you view these two brothers side-by-side, it is remarkable that God could set his love upon either one of them. But, between the two, we would probably award Esau much more relative morality.

Coming in from the wilderness exhausted, Esau appeals to Jacob who’s tending a pot of lentil stew (possibly a blood and lentil stew, or a chili and lentil stew). Esau pleads (literally translated), “Please let me gulp some of the red stuff, this red stuff. I am starving![14] We noted that the color red is prevalent in the passage. Esau is a redhead. Jacob’s stew is red. Now, we read that Esau earns the nickname “Red” (Edom) from his voracious lusting after Jacob’s meal. The way Jacob pounced on Esau suggests a well-planned trap. Esau led with a “please” (in the literal translation). Jacob’s response lacks a “please.” He says only: “Sell me your birthright now.”

Esau reasons that his special relationship to God as the spiritual head of the family is worthless compared to food. This is reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s choice to ignore God and please themselves for a bit of food. As one of my friends likes to observe, “It all goes back to the garden.” We always assume the problem is outside of us, not inside of us. Esau believed his greatest problem was a lack of red stuff, not a right relation to God. Jacob believed his greatest problem was the birthright he didn’t yet have, not his lack of trust in God’s promise to deliver it (along with his place in the line of the Promised Seed that would come through Isaac’s blessing). Whatever your situation is today, your problem is inside of you; not outside of you. It is your lack of trust into the promises of God in whatever situation you find yourself, not the situation itself, that is your fundamental issue.

Moses closes his account simply. “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” The closing line does not begin with “Jacob took advantage of his brother.” Esau had little regard for God’s promises. He alone is guilty of his sins, regardless of Jacob’s scheming. King David would later sing the same principle:

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.[15]

Birthright to Esau was intangible, unreal to him. Jacob believed in the birthright and chose to pursue it by his own selfish means. He refused to believe God’s promise could be his without his own sinful manipulation. Despite his sin, Jacob stands as a man of faith and his twin brother – nice and jovial fellow though he is – stands as unholy.

Don’t you find that just a little bit offensive? The likeable guy is damned and the scheming, uncaring predatory brother gains God’s special blessing. Outrageous! When we start to get offended, it’s because we have forgotten that the problem is not OUTSIDE of us but INSIDE of us. When life outside of us enrages us, it’s because we’ve forgotten (yet again!) how profoundly sinful we ourselves are in every dimension of our being – mind, speech, actions.

The apostle Paul diagnosed each and every mind, all our speech, and every one of our actions by quoting Old Testament scriptures to the church of Rome. MIND: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.[16] SPEECH: “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.”  “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” [17] ACTIONS: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.”  “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” [18]

We don’t get to judge Jacob or Esau with our relative morality because, the truth is, WE DON’T HAVE RELATIVE MORALITY no matter how desperately we deceive ourselves into believing we do. The problem is inside of us; not outside of us. Left to yourself, there is no way you ever would or could turn to God. Enemies of God cannot find grace, unaided.

Second, if you are scandalized by Jacob receiving God’s love, then you don’t really understand God. He is the sovereign Creator King. Not us. He writes the story. Left to ourselves, we are the pathetic actors. God alone has the free will to do as he pleases. Daniel 4:35, “…all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’[19]

God is not bound by human self-moralizing. He is not bound by time, not bound by lack of knowledge, and not bound by our cultural conventions. He is not tame. He does not submit to human idolatrous ideas of who he is or should be. “He is loving, righteous, just, and good in all that he does. And because we are so sinful and helpless to save ourselves, the only possible hope for us is the perfect life and atoning death of his risen and ascended divine Son.” Jesus did not want to drink the cup of God’s wrath against our sins, but he did— because it was the only way we could be redeemed from sin (cf. Luke 22:39-46). God, in Christ, lovingly suffered and paid the price for our sin.[20]

Finally, if you are scandalized by scheming, heartless Jacob becoming the recipient of God’s special blessing, then you do not understand grace. Grace earned by the fantasy of human relative morality is not grace at all! God’s grace cannot be earned. Grace is ONLY for hopelessly bad people. Grace comes at God’s discretion. And grace is there waiting for anyone who will but trust into the perfect law keeping life of Christ lived out for us, and the substitutionary, blood-shedding death on Calvary the risen and ascended Christ died on our behalf.

To those who consider their badness and are weighed down by it, smashed under the weight of all its guilt Jesus calls this morning:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.[21]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 25:24–34.

[2] Waltke and Fredricks, 349.

[3] Hamilton, 2:176.

[4] Waltke and Fredricks, 360.

[5] Hamilton, 2:177.

[6] Waltke and Fredricks, 358.

[7] Hughes, 334. Kindle Edition.

[8] Id.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 1:27–31.

[10] Hughes, 335. Kindle Edition.

[11] Hamilton, 2:178.

[12] Kidner, 1:162.

[13] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 12:15–17.

[14] Hamilton, 2:182.

[15] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 51:4.

[16] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 3:10–12.

[17] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 3:13–14.

[18] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 3:14–18.

[19] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Da 4:35.

[20] Hughes, 338. Kindle Edition.

[21] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 11:28–30.