By Rosie Moore.
“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.
Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.
So Esau despised his birthright” (Gen 25:34).
I’ve never seen anyone come close to starvation after a day stalking animals in the bush! All afternoon Esau had been imagining dinner, but he exaggerated his hunger as though it was a matter of life and death. His mind fixated on momentary pleasure and the object of his desire, nothing else.
“GIVE ME WHAT I WANT, AND GIVE IT TO ME RIGHT NOW, OR I’LL DIE!!” It so happened that his brother made an exquisitely delicious lentil stew and Esau was particularly hungry and tired.
Like all addictions and cravings, they don’t just happen out of the blue and they come with a high price tag attached. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you are willing to give up anything to give you what you feel you need right now?
I think Paul’s words to the Philippian believers provide an apt description of Esau’s sin:
“Their destiny is their destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” (Phil 3).
Esau’s trade-off was the culmination of a series of trade-offs, which included marrying Canaanite wives in opposition to his parents’ wishes. These wives worshipped foreign gods that demanded detestable sexual acts and even child sacrifice (Gen 26:34; 28:8). As a son in the covenant family of Abraham, Esau would have known that Yahweh and Baal had nothing in common (Deut 7:3-4; Gen 28:1). But Esau was master of his own destiny and he took whatever his heart desired.
Trading his birthright for a bowl of stew was the clearest example of Esau’s priorities. He valued his own wants above God’s will, and worshipped his cravings instead of Yahweh. He grabbed instant gratification instead of treasuring God’s covenantal blessing.
Verse 34 leaves us in no doubt about how God regarded Esau’s choice to put his temporary hunger pains above his eternal birthright. Moses concludes this story with the loaded statement: “So Esau despised his birthright.”
He sought the blessing with tears.
Because Esau sold his birthright and treated the blessings and privileges of God as worthless, this sin had lasting consequences that could not be undone. In the ancient world, a person’s word was binding, especially a formal oath. No amount of tears, regret, remorse or blame could change the outcome.
But Esau only realized the weight of this choice years later when his dying father blessed Jacob instead of himself (Genesis 27):
“When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!”
But Isaac said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”
Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!”
Now it’s true that while the twins were still in Rebekah’s womb, God had promised that his plan would be worked out through Jacob, not Esau (Gen 25:23). And there’s no doubt that Jacob was a lying, deceiving trickster who didn’t deserve the family birthright either.
But it’s also clear from the text that Esau never takes responsibility for his own sin of selling his birthright. Instead, he rants and rages, implores and begs, blames his treacherous brother and swears to kill him when he realizes that he’s been passed over for his father’s blessing.
Instead of acknowledging his sin, Esau sees himself as the innocent victim of everything that has happened to him. It’s as if a bandit came and stole the birthright right out of his hands! Never once does Esau admit that he chose to satisfy the desire of the moment, while giving up the greatest prize of all—a part of God’s great plan of redemption. He forgets his careless words to his brother, “What good is the birthright to me?”
What good is the birthright to me?
To understand the magnitude of Esau’s sin, let’s consider the significance of this birthright:
Firstly, in the ancient world, a birthright was the special honour given to the firstborn son, which included a double portion of the family inheritance and the leadership of the family.
Secondly, in Abraham’s family, Esau’s birthright meant far more than property rights and status. To be God’s chosen seed was the greatest blessing anyone could hope for. It came with all the promises of God’s everlasting covenant with Abraham and Isaac (Gen 12; 13; 15; 17; 25).
So, by selling his birthright for a pot of stew, Esau was rejecting this covenant and the privilege of fathering many nations; being a channel of blessing to other nations and inheriting the Promised land of Canaan– a land flowing with milk and honey. Esau was treating this treasure as if it were worthless and unimportant.
Moreover, on a personal level, Esau was giving up the extraordinary benefit of God’s faithful presence in his life: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” (Gen 28:15). This was the promise that God made to his brother Jacob instead.
A warning for the privileged.
Esau’s dismissive words are a great warning to all of us who have had the privilege of hearing the gospel, belonging to a church or a Christian family. For this reason, the writer to the Hebrews highlights Esau’s life as a warning to the first century church not to forfeit their spiritual birthright by living a sexually immoral, bitter or godless life:
14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17 Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done (Heb 12:14-17).
How is Esau’s life a warning to us today? Ultimately, we despise the spiritual birthright that God freely offers us when we are unwilling to repent and trust in Jesus, the “mediator of the new covenant, whose sprinkled blood speaks louder than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:24). If we stubbornly reject the gospel invitation in our lifetime, we can never expect to receive God’s blessings in the afterlife. This is the stark warning of Esau’s life for all those who delay or reject Christ’s call to turn to Him in faith and repentance.
But even as Christians, we are apt to take for granted Christ’s great love and sacrifice on the cross. Over many years, familiarity can breed contempt and complacency. The writer of Hebrews urges us to be thankful people, “and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28). Thankful, reverent worship is the only antidote to the sin of contempt.
The big trade-off.
There is something very sobering about Esau’s lost birthright and blessing, as well as the warning in Hebrews 12. I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Esau and his poor choice. I remember many times in my life when I’ve chosen cheap fast food instead of the wonderful banquet that God offers me (Isaiah 55:1-2).
Who of us hasn’t surrendered to cravings to help us forget, to prove our worth, to express anger or just to feel better for a moment? I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to quench some deep thirst with salty water that only makes me thirstier.
Who of us hasn’t preferred, at some point in our lives, that God should leave us alone to live our own lives and be our own God? Who of us hasn’t blamed and nursed bitter thoughts when we’ve been careless with our life? This is the struggle against sin that every believer must fight until the day we die (Heb 12:4-5).
But the gospel is truly wonderful news for those of us who identify with Esau’s sin and turn to Jesus for restoration. Jesus did what we cannot do!
Just consider Christ’s trade-off: Jesus gave up his birthright as the only begotten Son of God, to secure our birthright as God’s adopted children and heirs. This is an irrevocable birthright with extraordinary blessings and privileges attached.
Unlike Esau, Jesus did not take the path of instant gratification when tested in the wilderness. He didn’t grab the instant food, the instant power, approval and protection that Satan offered him. Instead, Jesus did battle with sin and took an aggressive, take-no-prisoners stand against Satan’s deceptive schemes (Luke 4:1-13).
Jesus stayed on course and set his face to Jerusalem. He submitted to the cross and endured the dreadful darkness when his Father abandoned him. “He scorned the shame of the cross and then sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” If Jesus had been like us, he would have chosen instant gratification, instead of the “joy set before him” (Heb 12:2-3).
In our battle against constant craving, let’s keep our eyes on Jesus one day at a time. Let’s give up whatever sin endangers our relationship with God and run patiently in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s never refuse God’s grace or put our confidence in short term gains. Instead, let’s build our lives on Christ and his unshakeable kingdom. What’s a pot of lentil stew compared to a land overflowing with milk and honey?
Lord, it’s sobering to read of how Esau rejected your blessings by trading his birthright for a pot of stew. We too struggle against this same sin and we so often forget that you are good and you offer us joy that’s better than anything on earth. When we are struggling with sin, help us to keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who “endured such opposition from sinful men so that we will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:2-3). Give us thankful, worshipful hearts that fully appreciate your great gift of salvation. “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees, make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled but rather healed (Heb 12:12).