Genesis 36:1-43

These are the generations of Esau (that is, Edom). Esau took his wives from the Canaanites: Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite, Oholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite, and Basemath, Ishmael’s daughter, the sister of Nebaioth. And Adah bore to Esau, Eliphaz; Basemath bore Reuel; and Oholibamah bore Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. These are the sons of Esau who were born to him in the land of Canaan.

Then Esau took his wives, his sons, his daughters, and all the members of his household, his livestock, all his beasts, and all his property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan. He went into a land away from his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too great for them to dwell together. The land of their sojournings could not support them because of their livestock. So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir. (Esau is Edom.) [1]

If a person believes God is unimportant, we naturally think that God would consider that person to be unimportant as well. But that was not the case with Esau. He sold his position as spiritual leader for a bowl of vegetarian chili (again, disgusting!). Never once in his life did he show any spiritual perception or interest in God or God’s gracious covenant. But God did not forget Esau. He was still Isaac’s son and Abraham’s grandson. God prospered Esau materially, but not (so far as we know) spiritually. Esau became the great warrior king of a prosperous dynasty, the Kingdom of Red – Edom.

In this chapter, Moses is wrapping up the story of Isaac and his twin sons with the toledoth of Esau before beginning the final section of Genesis focusing on Joseph as God’s savior of the people of Israel. Every major storyline in Genesis begins with and ends with a toledoth. The phrase “This is the account (or generations) of …” occurs eight times in Genesis 1–35, and two of the three remaining occurrences are in Genesis 36. The phrase introduces the history of the person named, focusing on his descendants. So, the “account of Adam’s line” (Gen. 5:1) is followed by his godly descendants to the time of the Flood. The “account of Noah” (Gen. 6:9) introduces Noah’s life, including the birth of his sons.[2] Two of the toledoths of Genesis occur here in chapter 36, both referring to Esau.

ESSAU’S EULOGY (Chapters 25-35)

The interesting thing about the use of the phrase in Genesis 36 is that its two occurrences apply to the same man, Esau. Its first use here is in verse 1: “This is the account of Esau (that is, Edom).” This is followed by a listing of Esau’s wives and those sons born to them while Esau was in Canaan. It is also found in verse 9: “This is the account of Esau the father of the Edomites in the hill country of Seir.” This is followed by a listing of Esau’s grandsons as well as other persons who rose to positions of power in that country. The difference between these two sections is that in the first case we are given the history of Esau when he was still living in Canaan, the land of promise, while in the second case we are given the history of Esau when he was living in the land of Seir, which was renamed Edom, or “Red”, after Esau.[3]

Even though Esau was dead to spiritual things, God still honored his promise that Esau would become a nation. Human sin does not alter God’s decrees. God had a plan for Esau’s family before the twin was ever born, even as he struggled with Jacob inside Rebekah’s womb. God told Rebekah:

23 …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. [4]

Following Jacob and Rebekah’s successful plot to steal Isaac’s patriarchal blessing, Esau was left only with what seemed to be an anti-blessing from his father:

“Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. 40 By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restless you shall break his yoke from your neck.” [5]

Isaac’s blessing upon Esau doesn’t sound all that impressive. But here in Genesis 36, we see God made Esau into a great nation full of kings and chiefs. If God abundantly blesses the people who are outside his saving covenant, how much more does he bless those who trust into him? If nonbelievers experience such abundant common goodness from God, how great must his grace to the regenerate be?

Moses leaves no doubt for us in the story of Jacob and Esau that, though Jacob was guilty of treachery and deceit, the eternal and spiritual blame was Esau’s alone to bear. In 25:35 we read, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” Esau had an unbridled and attractive nature. Our brief glimpses of him suggest a spontaneous, extroverted, impulsive, happy-go-lucky outdoorsman. He was full of the manliest of interests and pursuits – the kind of guy anyone would love to have at their campfire on a hunting trip. He told great stories and made his fellow manly men laugh and marvel at his exploits. The great 19th-century Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte wrote of Esau:

He was the ruggedest, the brawniest, and the shaggiest of all the rugged, brawny, and shaggy creatures of the field and of the forest, among whom he lived and died. Esau had an eye like an eagle. His ear never slept. His foot took the firmest hold of the ground. And his hand was always full both of skill, and strength, and success. Esau’s arrow never missed its mark. He was the pride of all the encampment as he came home at night with his traps, and his snares, and his bows, and his arrows, and laden to the earth with venison for his father’s supper.[6]

The real tragedy is this was about the sum total of Esau, at least as Moses portrays him. He was not into delayed gratification. Like Eve, the Nephilim, and Prince Shechem, he saw, and he took. He appeared to have no sense of spiritual things, no interest in the unseen, and no trust into God or the Promised Seed. That is why he could so easily sell his birthright (his position as spiritual leader) to his brother. That is why the Promised Land held no interest for him. So, as much as many of us would have loved to hang out with good old Esau, the sad reality was that his dismissive neglect of YHWH was a huge insult to the One, True Covenant Creator God of his fathers. St Author of Hebrews leaves little doubt about Esau’s actions:

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. [7]

As his wealth and family grew, Esau’s anger cooled, and his tears dried. His life moved forward unchallenged by any immediate consequences of his choices. In fact, his choices only prodded him further into sin and away from the God of his youth. First, he married pagan women. Unlike his brother who was duped into polygamy, Esau willingly saw and took two Canaanite wives (24:1-9), making life bitter for his parents (26:35). By age 40, he had disregarded both his birthright and his heritage. Still, he remained his father’s favorite – just as Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph and Benjamin would plague Jacob’s family. Thinking he could rectify his bitter mistake, he took another wife from Ishmael’s line, reasoning that one son of Abraham was just as good as another and proving he had no concept of the lineage of the Promised Seed (28:8-9).

Because Jacob is the possessor of the patriarchal blessing to be in the lineage of the Promised Seed, not another word is written about Esau during the 20 years Jacob is in Mesopotamia. We can only speculate that Esau began to raid and live in Seir as his family rapidly grew, though it’s certainly likely he kept in close contact with his parents, perhaps spending time with them at Hebron. Those twenty years provided Esau time to reflect on his life choices. Whether he did so is a matter for speculation. But certainly, his rage against his brother died away and was replaced by the genuine brotherly affection we witnessed at their reunion on the Jabbok (33:4). As R. Kent Hughes writes:

Esau’s magnanimity shined. His demurrals were real, though he did ultimately accept Jacob’s gift, thus officially erasing the offense. Esau had truly forgiven his brother. He opened both his heart and his home to Jacob. How beautiful the big man was! And when their father died and was gathered to his people, the brothers stood side by side to honor him as they interred him alongside their mother Rebekah and their loving grandparents Abraham and Sarah.[8]

What are we to make of Esau? Did he live his entire life outside the gracious saving covenant of God and die to an eternal death? Certainly, St Author of Hebrews uses Esau as an example of one who fails to obtain the grace of God (Heb. 12:15-17, see above). But he mentions only that point fixed point in time when Esau was 40-years-old. Does St Author’s warning apply to Esau’s entire life? Paul uses Jacob and Esau as an example of God’s free will choice of individual election in Romans 9:13, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” That is a direct quote from Malachi 1:2-3 which is an oracle against the Edomites and their abuse of the nation Israel many centuries after the deaths of both Esau and Jacob/Israel. While Paul seems to strongly imply Esau never had saving faith into the person and work of the Promised Seed, he only touches on the national prophecy briefly in his exposition of the gospel.

What we can say is by Genesis 33, there is no bitterness in Esau. He runs to kiss his brother as they both weep for joy at their reunion. At the end of the last chapter, we saw both brothers standing side-by-side as they buried their father (35:29). Certainly, our last glimpses of Esau picture him loving his brother. The point is that the Old Testament is generally fairly squishy about who is saved and who is not. Esau was not the brother elected to the patriarchal line of the Promised Seed. That did not preclude him from the benefits of the covenant, assuming God chose to grant him repentance and trust.

I mention the question of Esau’s personal salvation because pastors often see this pattern of spiritual ambiguities in the lives of so many. I have been asked to bury a few folks like Esau over the years – people who were raised by imperfect-but-Godly parents. Growing up they were taught God’s word. But spiritual things meant little to them. As they matured, they neglected the benefits of their baptism. They married outside the faith and followed the currents of culture to become de facto pagans as they pursued the great American Dream. Some, through various life crises, came to repentance and returned to faith, but their families never followed. So, these men and women remained on the fringes of church, occasionally seeking pastoral counsel, attending church only sporadically, remaining inarticulate about their faith.

And their children know only that dad or mom would have wanted a church funeral and a “Christian” burial. The spiritually-squishy lives of all those like Esau always provide an opportunity for me to preach the gospel to ignorant, unbelieving hearts – American pagans no different than the Edomites descended from their spiritual question mark of a father Esau, the Red King of Edom. He was a hail fellow well met. But his spiritual life and his salvation are a mystery known only to God. In the City of Man his legacy was impressive. In the City of God, he was at best a spiritual question mark. And Esau’s offspring were completely estranged from the life-giving YHWH. They lived lives of opposition to Jacob’s children – the people for whom God fought.


Esau receives two genealogies. Verses 1-8 focus on his Canaanite wives and children born in the Promised Land. Verses 9-43 focus on the formation and expansion of the Red Kingdom. In Canaan, Esau married three wives from which he had five sons. The names of the wives and their fathers differ from the names given earlier in Genesis 26:34 (two wives named) and 28:9 (one wife named).[9] One explanation for the name changes is that the families had both Canaanite names and, later, Edomite names. Interesting as the name shifts are to textual critics, the point of the first eight verse is that Esau disregarded his family’s covenant relationship to YHWH by taking pagan wives who apparently remained pagan.

Where did Jacob’s sons obtain their wives? There’s no record any of them returned back to Laban’s land to marry into the blessed line of Shem. They, like Esau, must have taken women outside the blessed line. But Jacob’s sons had been made to turn over all their idols before entering the Land. That at least provides a hint that their wives must have been made to put away their idols and profess faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and their father Jacob. The lineage of the Promised Seed is no longer a purely racial matter. It is becoming a lineage of faith. The Jacobites pass on their faith to successive generations. Whatever faith Esau had, he failed to instill into his children. Esau’s materialism cut his family off from the people of God.

The other important event of this genealogy is Esau’s departure from the Promised Land:

Then Esau took his wives, his sons, his daughters, and all the members of his household, his livestock, all his beasts, and all his property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan. He went into a land away from his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too great for them to dwell together. The land of their sojournings could not support them because of their livestock. So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir. (Esau is Edom.)

It seems to me, the likely explanation of the situation is that by this time, Esau had a home base in Seir since that is where he earlier invited Jacob and family to come live with him. But he still retained his tents and flocks in Hebron (with his father Isaac) until Jacob arrived. At that point, like Lot before him, he chose to move his family and flocks permanently to the land he was conquering. Positively, Esau recognizes Jacob’s right to the Promised Land. Negatively, he removes his family from the record of salvation history. As R. Kent Hughes notes:

Tellingly, all this was done with the grace and magnanimity that had come to characterize Esau. There was no hassling over property. No stigma was attached to Esau. Like Ishmael before him, Esau is viewed kindly as a relative who walked out of the line of promise.[10]

The results of Esau’s move are spiritually catastrophic but materially impressive, as verses 9-43 detail. Materially, Esau and his people prospered far beyond the Israelites. The Bedouin Israelites suffered famine, forced migration and captivity in Egypt while Edom expanded, grew wealthy on the trade routes, and developed a succession of kings and a strong national identity. However, Esau’s descendants also assimilated into the pagan culture around them, accepting and worshipping demonic idols. The first three stages of Esau’s national genealogy (vv. 9-30) suggest a progression from a tentative entry into the area to be known as Edom (9-14), to intermarriage with the native population (15-19), to Esau marrying into a prominent family and essentially absorbing the native population into a new identity as descendants of Esau (20-30).

The fourth section of this national genealogy (31-39) is a list of Edomite kings who reigned before the monarchy of Israel. The point being that Edom became wealthy and powerful long before Jacob’s descendants returned to their Promised Land. It shows partial fulfillment of YHWH’s promise to Abraham that kings would come from his lineage (17:16). It also shows God’s common goodness to all his creation. God especially cares for his covenant people, but he holds an interest in all people everywhere because he alone ordains and sustains all things. The fifth and final section of this toledoth (40-43) stresses the geographical ownership and influence of the leading Edomite clans down to the Gulf of Akaba. Esau flourished by the sword just as Isaac’s blessing had prophesied (27:39-40). But he failed to lead his people to the source of their blessings, the God of his fathers.

Sadly, the love that Jacob and Esau rekindled on the Jabbok River did not carry forward to their successive generations. About 500 years after Esau, the Edomites refused Moses’ peaceful overtures and barred the Israelites from passing through their territories (Num. 20:14-21). King Saul fought with the Edomites (1 Sam. 14:47). King David subjugated them for a time (2 Sam. 8:13-14) – the younger brother supplanting the older. But Edom’s greatest shame before God came when Edom blocked the crossroads to prevent Israelites from escaping Babylonian capture. They went so far as to capture escaping Jews and deliver them back to the Babylonians (Obadiah 14). Both Malachi and Obadiah prophesied divine judgment upon Esau’s descendants (Obadiah 1-18; Malachi 1: 2-5; Jeremiah 49: 17, 18; Psalm 137: 7-9). Today, in fulfillment of the prophecies of God, Edom is a wasteland, its people gone. Ezekiel wrote, “I will make Mount Seir a desolate waste and cut off from it all who come and go.… I will make you desolate forever; your towns will not be inhabited” (Ezek. 35:7, 9). The once wealthy city of Petra is now a mere archeological curiosity.

Edom had a tragic place in the poetry of redemptive history. There came a day when two kings confronted one another. One sat on a throne of great earthly power, backed by all the might of the Roman Empire. His name was Herod Antipas, son of the Edomite Herod the Great – the king who slaughtered the children of Bethlehem in an attempt to wipe out the Promised Seed. Herod Antipas had beheaded John the Baptizer. Antipas had everything he wanted. His income, expressed in American currency, would be in excess of six million dollars a year. All the pleasures of life were his. If anyone stood in his way, the life of that person meant as little to him as had the lives of the innocents of Bethlehem to his father. The motto of his reign was: “What will it profit me?”[11]

The other king was Jacob’s descendant, Jesus, the Promised Seed come to crush the head of the great serpent-dragon. He was the King over all kings, natural heir to David’s throne according to his human nature and ruler of the universe according to his divine nature. Like Jacob before Esau, Jesus did not look like a king. He stood in shabby garments, rejected by those he came to liberate. Within hours he would die a felon’s death. Had he wished, Jesus could have destroyed Herod Antipas with one word. But, like Jacob at his best, worldly glory was not his purpose. He did not come to seek a throne that you and I could not share with him. He chose a kingship that came by way of the cross. He died and was vindicated by the Father and Spirit who raised him up from death and seated him upon the eternal throne from which he rules all things. Herod Antipas Herod Antipas, Dr. Luke tells us, was stricken with worms and died for his arrogance (Acts 12:23).

Trusting into the person and work of the Promised Seed was the choice before Jacob and Esau. It was the choice before Herod the Great and Herod Antipas. And it is the choice before you this morning. You may choose Esau’s and Herod’s way, living according to the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life. Or, you may choose Jacob’s way and bury your idols, wash yourself, and put on the clean garments of Christ’s perfect life and sacrificial blood-shedding death to enter into the Land of Promise and reign with the King of the universe. I join with the Apostle Paul in praying for you:

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.[12]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 36:1–8.

[2] Boice, 2:842–843.

[3] Id.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 25:23.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 27:39–40.

[6] Quoted in Hughes, 427. Kindle Edition.

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

[8] Hughes, 430. Kindle Edition.

[9] Boice, 2:843.

[10] Hughes, 432. Kindle Edition.

[11] Boice, 2:855.

[12] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eph 1:17–21.