Great Texts of the Bible
The Bartered Birthright
And Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: so Esau despised his birthright.—Genesis 25:34.
In view of the popular misapprehension of the story of Esau and Jacob, and the lessons which that story contains, it is desirable, before approaching the study of it, to draw attention to two things.
1. The writer’s purpose.—The sacred narrator comments only on the heedlessness with which Esau, for the sake of satisfying an immediate appetite, barters away what would otherwise have been an inalienable right: the modern reader is more impressed by the avarice and selfishness shown by Jacob in taking such a mean advantage of his brother’s need. But in truth neither Esau nor Jacob can be called an ideal character. Esau is frank, straight-forward, generous, but without depth of character or farsightedness of aim: he is governed by the impulses and desires of the moment; a “profane” person (Hebrews 12:16), i.e. unspiritual, a man without love or appreciation of worthier possessions, and heedless of what he is throwing away. Jacob is selfish, scheming, and clutches at every advantage; but he looks beyond the immediate moment; he has ambition and perseverance. Jacob’s character is thus a deeper one (in both a good and a bad sense) than Esau’s; it contains sound and genuine elements, which, when purified from purely personal and selfish aims, are capable of consecration to the service of God and of being made subservient to carrying out His purposes. No doubt, if history told us more about the Edomites, we should find their national characteristics reflected in Esau, as those of Israel are reflected in Jacob.
2. The effect of that purpose.—It is the worst side of both brothers that we see. Were this all that we knew of them, we might be justified in saying that Jacob’s was the worse sin. But we cannot fail to perceive both from this and from their after-history that there was in Jacob a constancy, a determination, a perseverance, which Esau had not; and that, while Esau never looked beyond the present, Jacob had his eye always fixed upon the future. Jacob’s faults, of course, cannot for a moment be excused. On the contrary, they were faults deserving the strongest condemnation, and in their own time they brought upon him the severest punishment and shame. Yet even thus early Jacob had become convinced that a great future was in store for him. He saw and appreciated the blessings which belonged to the birthright, and was determined to do all in his power to gain possession of them. But Esau “despised his birthright.” His one concern was with the pleasures of the moment. He could not raise his thoughts above the excitement of hunting, or the gratification of his bodily desires. About the future he did not trouble himself. The present was enough for him.
A crisis arrives in the lives of these two young men which reveals the thoughts of their hearts. Esau comes in hungry from hunting, so hungry that he cannot wait till food is prepared for him. Jacob has a savoury mess of lentil pottage in his hands. Esau greedily clamours for it—you can still hear his greed in his words, “Give me of that red, that red there”; and Jacob seizes the opportunity of making a shrewd bargain with him: “Give me, first of all, thy birthright.” Esau replies, “What good shall this birthright do me?” Probably neither of them knew what good it would do. But Jacob is glad of any chance of securing it. Somehow, in the remote future, it may be of use to him; it may help him to the superior place assigned him by the Divine promise; it can hardly fail to yield him some advantage over his brother. And so, though he too is hungry, he balks his appetite to secure a future indefinite good.
1. The first-born enjoyed the “birthright.” He succeeded his father as head of the family, and took the largest share of the property; this was fixed in Deuteronomy 21:17 as a “double portion.” The right of the first-born, however, was often disturbed, owing to jealousies and quarrels, in the course of Israel’s history. The superiority of Jacob over Esau (symbolizing the superiority of Israel over Edom) is described as having been foretold before their birth (Genesis 25:23), and as brought about by Esau’s voluntary surrender of the birthright.
John Bunyan, the inspired dreamer, has told us that he used to hear voices in his hours of temptation whispering to him, “Sell Christ, sell Christ, sell Him for a pin, sell Him for a pin.” Of course it was not a pin that tempted him; it was something much bigger and more attractive. Possibly it was money, or some enticing form of pleasure; maybe a companion, a woman, the entreaties of his wife, the imperilled happiness of his children, or escape from persecution and suffering in times when it was not easy to be a Christian. It was a big thing, but his conscience measured it properly; it was only a pin compared with the love and saving power of Christ.1 [Note: J. G. Greenhough.]
2. Esau, in virtue of being a few minutes older than Jacob, was Isaac’s natural heir. He had the rights of primogeniture, and believed that no man could wrest them from him. If ever he parted with them, it could only be by an act of his own free will. Esau’s birthright, moreover, meant more than an ordinary first-born son’s privilege. He was in a unique position, which afforded him brilliant prospects and golden opportunities. He was born to an inheritance which all the world’s wealth would not buy. To be in the patriarchal succession with Abraham and Isaac, to be the recipient of great and precious promises, to be the founder of a holy nation, to be the minister of a covenant by which all the families of the earth were to be blessed—this was within his reach. But Esau despised the birthright. If he had been a religious man, if he had been in the least like his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, he would have treasured up this promise as they did, and would have thought it more valuable than all his earthly possessions. But how different was his behaviour from theirs. “He sold his birthright unto Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and went his way.” Well may the holy writer go on to say, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” He could not hold it more cheaply than to part with it, wilfully and knowingly, for a dish of broth.
In Romola, in the picture of the crisis of Tito’s life—Tito, you remember, the genial nature which was gradually led to crime by daily indulgence in little selfishnesses—George Eliot says: “He hardly knew how the words”—Tito had just denied his father, and the denial was useless as well as criminal—“he hardly knew how the words had come to his lips: there are moments when our passions speak and decide for us, and we seem to stand by and wonder. They carry in them an inspiration of crime, that in one instant does the work of long premeditation.” So it happened with Esau.1 [Note: G. A. Smith.]
3. The lost birthright is the one thing that is irretrievable. Esau could never regain it, though he sought it with many tears, though in after life he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, when he found that it could not be recovered. In the history, the Will of God was against Esau’s having back his birthright. The will of the dissembling mother was against it. The better and the worst parts of his brother’s nature were against it. And so it is always. Neither good men nor bad men consent that a forfeited birthright should be restored. There is not one thing in favour of restoration; nothing at least but the weak wish of decrepit Isaac and the passionate desire of Esau, to have back for nothing, as a gift, that which had once been his by right. He had said, “Where was the good of Knowledge as Knowledge? What was the good of Religion as Religion?” And neither God nor Man attempted to demonstrate to him the truth of what he had known by instinct, but what he hid his eyes from seeing.
Then she took up her burden of life again,
Saying only, “It might have been.”
Alas for maiden, alas for Judge,
For rich repiner and household drudge!
God pity them both! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall.
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”2 [Note: J. G. Whittier, Maud Muller.]
There is a very true sense in which what we lose, whether by misuse or by neglect, we cannot regain. How was it with Esau? We cannot forget those verses in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which, often misunderstood, have given unnecessary pain to many, but which, nevertheless, convey a very clear and decided warning: “looking diligently … lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Hebrews 12:15; Hebrews 12:17). We must not suppose—it would be contrary to the teaching of all Scripture—that what Esau sought and could not find was repentance. Repentance is always possible, ever open, to those who seek it aright. The words “for he found no place of repentance” should rather, as in the Revised Version, be placed in a parenthesis, and then we see that “it” after “sought” refers not to repentance, but to the blessing, which, by his careless despising of the birthright, Esau had forfeited. He could not regain lost opportunities. He could not, even with those bitter tears of his, wipe out wholly the effects of past sin. He must abide by the consequences of his folly. And so always. Wasted time, misused opportunities, are gone, never to return. The boy, who at school idles away his time, learns too late, as a man, that he cannot make up for the precious hours of youth misspent. The poor slave to intemperance finds, even when most eager to cast the snare from him, that not all his efforts can bring back the fresh innocence and manly energy he had before he fell. It is one of the most awful consequences of sin that, even when the sin itself is repented of, its effects remain, dogging a man’s footsteps, seemingly utterly unable to be wholly cast off. As the poet Longfellow puts it—
Wounds of the soul, though healed, will ache,
The reddening scars remain, and make
Lost innocence returns no more;
We are not what we were before
Transgression.1 [Note: G. Milligan.]
Jacob and Esau
The story of Esau and Jacob suggests a problem which many have found it hard to solve. Our instincts and sympathies all go with the frank daring hunter, and against the timid crafty shepherd. God’s sympathies go, or seem to go, the other way; He prefers the subtle shepherd to the bold hunter. That is to say, the Divine Ruler of men appears to place Himself on the side of cowardice, dissimulation, treachery; and to oppose Himself to manliness, veracity, courage. And even if we are quite sure that He must be right, we can hardly make out where and how we are wrong: we cannot vindicate His ways to these two boys and men. The question will rise: “Must not morality suffer, must not our faith in goodness be put in jeopardy, if He who is the very Fountain of truth and righteousness favours the man whom in our conscience we condemn, and condemns the man whom in our conscience we approve?”
I know at least one man of some culture and distinction, a perfectly sane and reasonable man, too, in all other respects, who in his earlier days was so disgusted by this apparent Divine preference for the meaner character of the two that he broke with religion altogether, and has never since been quite reconciled to it.1 [Note: Samuel Cox.]
1. Now the first thing to notice is that even in his selfishness and meanness, Jacob showed his sense of the superior value of things unseen and distant, and his willingness to make a sacrifice to secure them. He sinned; but so did Esau sin in casting away the birthright for a momentary gratification. He sinned; but he sinned, not for a sensual indulgence, but for what he conceived to be a future, and in some sense a spiritual, gain—the main value of the birthright being that it made a man an heir of the Covenant. This, indeed, is the point which we have to mark and to remember above all others, since our whole problem turns upon it, that, even in his wrong-doing, Jacob showed that he could prefer the future to the present, the spiritual to the sensual; while Esau showed no less plainly that he was content to sacrifice the future to certain sensual indulgence, a large remote hope to a small immediate gratification. For here we have a true test of character, a test by which we are accustomed to try our fellows; and a test which compels us to admit, whatever our prejudices may be, that in at least one great vital respect Jacob was by far the better man of the two.
This is the power of all appeal to passion, that it is present, with us now, to be had at once. It is clamant, imperious, insistent, demanding to be satiated with what is actually present. It has no use for a far-off good. It wants immediate profit. This is temptation, alluring to the eye, whispering in the ear, plucking by the elbow, offering satisfaction now. Here and now—not hereafter; this thing, that red pottage there—not an ethereal unsubstantial thing like a birthright. What is the good of it if we die? and we are like to die if we do not get this gratification the senses demand. In the infatuation of appetite all else seems small in comparison; the birthright is a poor thing compared with the red pottage.1 [Note: Hugh Black.]
2. In the Epistle to the Hebrews we are told expressly why Esau was punished: it was for being a “profane person.” “Take heed,” it says, “lest there be among you any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright” (Hebrews 12:16). Profaneness: that was Esau’s sin. What is it that we properly mean by profaneness? It is when people know in their hearts that a thing is holy, and ought to be treated with religious reverence, and yet they treat it as a cheap and ordinary thing. It is different from the sin of Sodom, and in one respect perhaps it is worse: as our Lord Himself seems to intimate, when He says to wicked Capernaum, “It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the Day of Judgment, than for you.” The sin of Sodom was unbelief: they knew not God, and would not believe what He told them by His messengers. Esau could not say he knew not God. He had been brought up in Isaac’s family, which was blessed as Abraham’s had been. So far then he was worse than the Sodomites, as he had been better instructed and brought up, and knew more of Him against whom he was sinning.
The profane person is ever the same at heart, but he varies outwardly according to the time and country he lives in. John Earle, Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, in his Micro-Cosmo-graphie (editio princeps, 1628) gives a description of “the prophane man” of his day: “A prophane man is one that denies God as farre as the Law giues him leaue, that is, onely does not say so in downeright Termes, for so farre he may goe. A man that does the greatest sinnes calmely, and as the ordinary actions of life, and as calmely discourses of it againe. Hee will tell you his businesse is to breake such a Commandement, and the breaking of the Commandement shall tempt him to it. His words are but so many vomitings cast vp to the lothsomnesse of the hearers, onely those of his company loath it not. He will take vpon him with oathes to pelt some tenderer man out of his company, and makes good sport at his conquest o’re the Puritan foole. The Scripture supplies him for iests, and hee reades it of purpose to be thus merry. He will prooue you his sin out of the Bible, and then aske if you will not take that Authority. He neuer sees the Church but of purpose to sleepe in it: or when some silly man preaches with whom he means to make sport, and is most iocund in the Church. One that nick-names Clergymen with all the termes of reproach, as Rat, Black-coate, and the like which he will be sure to keepe vp, and neuer calls them by other. That sing[s] Psalmes when he is drunke, and cryes God mercy in mockerie; for hee must doe it. Hee is one seemes to dare God in all his actions, but indeed would out-dare the opinion of him, which would else turne him desperate: for Atheisme is the refuge of such sinners, whose repentance would bee onely to hang themselues.”
3. What did Jacob gain by this offence? Not the fulfilment of the Divine promise; for that would have been fulfilled, had he never sinned. What he gained by his sin was—misery, shame, fear, remorse. As the direct and immediate consequence of his sin, he had to leave his father’s tent. Without Esau’s courage, he had to face perils before which even Esau might have quailed. He, who was destined to rule, had to serve. The cheat was cheated year after year—by Laban, by his wives, by his children. He had to present himself, a suppliant for life, before the brother he had wronged. He had to witness his daughter’s irremediable shame. He was made “to stink” in the nostrils of his neighbours by the craft and ferocity of his sons. His own children repaid on Joseph, his darling, the very wrongs which he himself had inflicted on Esau. As we recall all that he suffered in the course of his long pilgrimage, we no longer wonder to hear him say at the close of it, “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life.”
Wellhausen says: “The stories about Jacob do not pretend to be moral. The feeling they betray is indeed that of undissembled joy in all the successful tricks of the patriarchal rogue.” Now, if ever there was a false statement, that is false. If you wish to test the matter, read a book written about the time this Book of Genesis was committed to writing, the Odyssey of Homer. There we have in Ulysses, a Jacob, an arch-dissembler and accomplished trickster. Like Jacob, he too is a good husband, and his meeting with his son Telemachus after the separation of many years recalls vividly the reunion of Jacob and Joseph. But there the likeness ends. For the story of the lies and tricks of Ulysses is told with gusto. The note of retribution is wholly lacking. Homer’s Jacob is a comic figure; but the note of tragedy goes sounding through the Hebrew story. Jacob’s tricks and deceits serve him like faithful minions, for the moment, but the moment after, they mutiny. Their numbers swell. They become a troop. They lie in wait for him. They chase him from home. They follow him to his new home. They appear at his marriage. They change the wine into wormwood. As the pages of the story follow each other, we hear the gallop of the avengers, we catch the whoop of their war-cry, “God is not mocked.… The soul that sinneth it shall die.”
“It is strange,” says Miss Wedgwood, “that the judgment on Jacob’s perfidy is so constantly forgotten. No professedly moral tale could delineate a more exact requital than that meted out to him.” A cup of cold water given to a brother in a brother’s name shall not lose its reward; nor shall a mess of pottage, sold to a brother at a price he cannot choose but pay, evade the payment of that tax which law levies on selfishness. “Dust shall be the serpent’s meat.”
That person who does an atom of good will see it and find its reward; and that person who does an atom of evil will see it and find its reward.1 [Note: The Koran.]
4. Yet when we take the two brothers from first to last, how entirely is the judgment of the Book of Genesis and the judgment of posterity confirmed by the result of the whole. The impulsive hunter vanishes away, light as air: “he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.” The substance, the strength of the Chosen Family, the true inheritance of the promise of Abraham, was interwoven with the very essence of the character of “the upright man dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27). The word translated “plain” implies a stronger approbation, which the English version has softened, probably from a sense of the difficulty—steady, persevering, moving onward with deliberate settled purpose, through years of suffering and of prosperity, of exile and return, of bereavement and recovery. The birthright is always before him. Rachel is won from Laban by hard service, “and the seven years seemed unto him but a few days for the love he had to her.” Isaac, and Rebekah, and Rebekah’s nurse, are remembered with a faithful, filial remembrance; Joseph and Benjamin are long and passionately loved with a more than parental affection—bringing down his grey hairs for their sakes “in sorrow to the grave.” This is no character to be contemned or scoffed at: if it was encompassed with much infirmity, yet its very complexity demands our reverent attention; in it are bound up, as his double name expresses, not one man, but two; by toil and struggle, Jacob, the Supplanter, is gradually transformed into Israel, the Prince of God; the harsher and baser features are softened and purified away; he looks back over his long career with the fulness of experience and humility. “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the Truth which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant.” Alone of the Patriarchal family, his end is recorded as invested with the solemnity of warning and of prophetic song. “Gather yourselves together, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father.” We need not fear to acknowledge that the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac was also the God of Jacob.
To compare the characters of Jacob and Esau in a sentence is difficult, but the contrast is instantly apparent. Let me use an illustration. You have seen a morning of pure and perfect radiance, passing at noon into a black turbulence of wind or tempest, or a haze of dull and heavy gloom. This is a transcript of the life of Esau. You have also seen the troubled day breaking through thick mists, and you have watched, with almost eager interest, the sun battling his way through heavy masses of clouds, shining feebly at first in faint victory, but at last going down in full and peaceful glory. Such is the life of Jacob.1 [Note: W. J. Dawson, The Threshold of Manhood, 124.]
I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.2 [Note: William Blake.]
5. Three warnings may be given here to the young man of today.
(1) Do not sacrifice your spiritual interests to the appetites of the flesh.—Such fallen creatures are we, it happens every day that the interests of the soul and the desires of the body are in conflict. Your carnal nature, the animal in you, prompts you to that against which conscience protests, and from which the soul recoils. The flesh pulls you one way, the spirit another.
The morsel may have been sweet; but what a price Esau paid for it! It is easy for us, as we read the story, to cry “Fool!”—but this very folly is being committed every day. It is as old as our fallen humanity. For the sake of a piece of fruit, our first parents sacrificed their whole inheritance, “brought death into this world, and all our woe, with loss of Eden.” One look back upon Sodom, and Lot’s wife becomes a pillar of salt! Achan covets a Babylonish garment, and a wedge of gold, and forfeits his life in consequence. For the sake of a woman’s caresses Samson loses his hair, his strength, his sight, his all. David, for the sake of Bathsheba, loses a year’s communion with God, and hands his name down with an ugly blot upon it to all posterity. Ahab, coveting a pretty garden, commits murder, and brings down Heaven’s judgments on his head. Judas, for a few shillings, betrays his Master.1 [Note: J. Thain Davidson.]
(2) Do not sacrifice the future for the present.—This is just putting the same thing in a different form. Esau saw before him the possibility of an immediate enjoyment; his future interests were distant, and vague, and shadowy. “Ah,” he said, “let the future take care of itself; I must have the dainty morsel while I can get it.”
Some time ago a ship went down, having struck a hidden reef. Fortunately there was time enough to get the passengers and crew into the boats, which safely held off from the foundering vessel. Just before the last boat started, the captain and mate, having seen that all were safe, stood upon the gangway ready to leave the ship. She was fast sinking—no time to be lost. The mate said to the captain, “I have left my purse below; let me go and get it.” “Man,” replied the other, “you have no time for that; jump at once.” “Just a moment, captain—I can easily get it”; and away the mate rushed below. But in that moment the ship went creeping down. I hear the gurgling flood! The captain has barely time to save himself, when, swirling in the awful vortex, the vessel disappears! By and by the body of the mate was found, and in his stiffened hand was tightly grasped the fatal purse. When the purse was opened, what do you think it contained? Eighteenpence! And for that paltry sum he risked and lost his life.1 [Note: J. Thain Davidson.]
(3) Do not sacrifice the warmth of faith for the coldness of scepticism.—You are advocates of what is known by a much-abused word, “free-thought.” You have been reading or hearing specious arguments against Christianity; and you begin to talk of the vital truths of religion as only so many exploded superstitions. You are enjoying the luxury of absolute independence of thought, and for that “morsel of meat” you are selling the birthright of the Christian faith that has been handed down to you from a godly ancestry.
In my university days there was no man for whom I entertained a profounder admiration than Professor George Wilson, of Edinburgh. He was then a man under forty years of age, and destined, I am convinced, had his life been spared, to stand in the very foremost ranks of the scientists of this age. His mind, unlike his body, was of a peculiarly healthy order; he was a worshipper of truth, and an ardent student of nature. In a letter to a well-known and Christian man of science in London, bearing date January 1859, Dr. Wilson wrote (I give you his words at length, for they are very striking): “I rejoice to hear of your success with the young men. God bless you in your work! It is worth all other work, and far beyond all Greek or Roman fame, all literary or scientific triumphs; and yet it is quite compatible with both. Douglas Jerrold’s life is most sad to read. In many respects it gave me a far higher estimate of him morally than I had before. But what a pagan outlook! What a heathen view of this world and the next! He might as well have been born in the days of Socrates or Seneca as in these days, for any good Christ’s coming apparently did him. There is something unspeakably sad in his life, and it was better than that of many a littérateur. The ferocity of attack on cant and hypocrisy, the girding at religion, which they cannot leave alone; above all, the dreary, meagre, cheerless, formal faith, and the dim and doubtful prospect for the future, are features in that littérateur life most saddening and disheartening. And the men of science, are they better? God forbid that I should slander my brethren in study, men above me in intellect, in capacity, and accomplishment. But recently I have come across four of the younger chemists, excellent fellows, of admirable promise and no small performance. I was compelled to enter into some religious conversation with them, and found them creedless, having no ‘I believe’ for themselves: standing in that maddest of all attitudes—namely, with finger pointed to this religious body and that religious body, expatiating upon their faults, as if at the Day of Judgment it would avail them anything, that the Baptists were bigoted, and the Quakers self-righteous!”1 [Note: J. Thain Davidson.]
Benson (E. W.), Boy-Life, 190.
Cox (S.), The Hebrew Twins, 2.
Greenhough (J. G.), Half-Hours in God’s Older Picture Gallery, 23.
Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year (Lent to Passion-Tide), 104.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Genesis.
Miller (J. R.), Devotional Hours with the Bible, 136.
Moorhouse (J.), Jacob, 3.
Oosterzee (J. J. van), The Year of Salvation, ii. 348.
Stanley (A. P.), History of the Jewish Church, i. 46.
Strachan (J.), Hebrew Ideals, pt. ii. 13.
Christian World Pulpit, ii. 88 (Brown); xxxvi. 116 (Medley); lxv. 378 (Horne).
Men of the Old Testament (Cain to David), 57 (Milligan); 71 (Gibbon).