Esau: The Firstborn Who Lost His Birthright (Genesis 25:19-34)

Esau: The Firstborn Who Lost His Birthright (Genesis 25:19-34)

Jacob swindled Esau’s birthright.

Prepared and preached by Pastor Steve Rhodes for and at Bethel Friends Church on Sunday, August 18, 2018

My dad was raised in a family of seven. He had one brother who is now deceased. Unfortunately, my dad’s family was, and is, very broken. Most all of his siblings ran away from home as teenagers and my dad moved out at sixteen and was married at eighteen years of age. His brother never drove and did not hold a job. Growing up my dad’s brother was an example of laziness and living off the system. It is sad really. As I was finishing elementary school my grandmother, my dad’s mother, lived with us following a hip replacement. Following that, the same grandmother lived with us off and on until her early death. At one point my dad’s brother came up in conversation. In that conversation my grandmother shared these telling words: Your dad [my grandfather] would work alongside my dad. He would encourage my dad. If my dad worked on the car and fixed something, he could expect a congratulation from his father. However, his brother [my dad’s brother], did not receive the same encouragement. He did not have the same relationship with his father. From this conversation we could see that my grandmother thought that my dad’s brother’s lack of a work ethic goes back to his father, my grandfather.

From everything I have learned about family dynamics, I think she is right. Grandma was right. I was once listening to Focus on the Family and a man said “You raise a son like you raise a good hunting dog. When you have a hunting dog every time you get in the truck you take the hunting dog with you. When you are raising a son, every time you get in the truck you take your son with you.” That was an interesting analogy.

We are in a sermon series on people of the Bible. The sermon today could be an example of certain bad parenting. Today, we talk about Esau. We see that Isaac seemed to favor Esau, while Rebekah favored Jacob. My favorite preacher and author, Chuck Swindoll, wrote about Esau and said that Esau could not win. He makes the case that Esau could not win because of his parent’s favoritism. We see the favoritism in today’s passage, but also in other places.


Meet Jacob and Esau, Jacob swindled the blessing out of Esau, but God works in our sinfulness. The major application: Trust God, He is sovereign and even works in our sinfulness.

Smaller application: Don’t show favoritism.

Let’s read Genesis 25:19-34:

 Now these are the records of the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham became the father of Isaac; 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. 21 Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 But the children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is so, why then am I this way?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 The Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb;
And two peoples will be separated from your body;
And one people shall be stronger than the other;
And the older shall serve the younger.”

24 When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob; and Isaac was sixty years old when she gave birth to them.

27 When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field, but Jacob was a peaceful man, living in tents. 28 Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 When Jacob had cooked stew, Esau came in from the field and he was famished; 30 and Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.” Therefore his name was called Edom. 31 But Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”32 Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?” 33 And Jacob said, “First swear to me”; 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 on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Let’s walk through this passage and learn about Esau.

  1. In verses 19-22 we see the Lord’s words concerning Jacob and Esau:
    1. In context we had just read about Ishmael’s descendants. We have also read about Abraham’s death. Abraham’s death was recorded in the previous chapter, but he is still alive right now. This passage is not in chronological order with the previous chapter. Sometimes that happens. Abraham lived to be 175 years old.
    2. The previous chapter was dealing with Ishmael, but now we are dealing with Isaac.
    3. Isaac was born and that was in the previous chapters. This chapter, verse 20: Isaac was 40 when he was married to Rebekah. This passage gives the details about Rebekah. We know that from Genesis 24. Isaac being 40, this means Abraham is now 140 years old. Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born. his death was recorded in the previous chapter, but he lived to be 175
    4. One source shares: Some valuable information is provided here. We learn here that Isaac married thirty-five years before Abraham died, that Rebekah was barren for twenty years, and that Abraham would have lived to see Jacob and Esau begin to grow up. The death of Abraham was recorded in the first part of the chapter as a “tidying up” of one generation before beginning the account of the next.[1]
    5. In these first few verses we see a dominant Biblical truth, the Lord controls the womb. We see that repeatedly throughout the Bible.
    6. We see another truth here as well. We see the idea of prayer. Rebekah is barren and so Isaac prays. The Lord answered.
    7. There is an application here: Do we pray about all things? We see here that Isaac trusted the Lord to pray.
    8. The Lord answers their prayer and she becomes pregnant.
    9. Then, verse 22: The children are in the womb and they struggled together. The Hebrew word used here suggests a violent struggle that was out of the ordinary.[2]
    10. She was so bothered by this that she asked the Lord about it. How she inquired of the Lord is hard to tell. She might have gone to a priest. It is hard to tell, but it seems as though Isaac represented the family and went to the Lord with this need. It seems as though she said “why even be pregnant if it is like this?”
    11. Rebekah wanted to know what was happening to her, but the question itself reflects a growing despair over the struggle of the unborn children.[3]She Asked theLord. In other passages (1 Sam 9:9) this expression refers to inquiring of a prophet, but no details are provided here.[4]
    12. Swindoll shared how women pick up on things that we won’t pick up on. She could tell that the pregnancy did not seem right.
  2. In verses 23-26: The Lord responds:
    1. The Lord’s response refers to their future. The Lord shares about the future of their nations.
    2. In her womb are the heads of two nations. One is stronger. The older will serve the younger and this was rare.
    3. In verse 24: as the Lord said she gives birth to twins.
    4. In verse 25: the passage describes Esau, red and hairy.
    5. In verse 26: Jacob is born and his hand is holding Esau’s heal. Jacob means one who grasps the heal. One shares: The name Jacob is a play on the Hebrew word for “heel” (עָקֵב, ’aqev). The name (since it is a verb) probably means something like “may he protect,” that is, as a rearguard, dogging the heels. It did not have a negative connotation until Esau redefined it. This name was probably chosen because of the immediate association with the incident of grabbing the heel. After receiving such an oracle, the parents would have preserved in memory almost every detail of the unusual births.[5]
    6. Isaac is now 60 years old and Abraham would be 160 years old.
  • In verses 27-34: Jacob buys the birthright for stew. Really, Jacob swindles Esau out of his birthright.
    1. Esau is a hunter who is very skillful.
    2. Jacob is peaceful and lived in tents. One source shares:
    3. The incident with the stew appears to take place away from home, otherwise Esau could have appealed to his parents. Jacob is not the hunting type, so it would be unusual for him to be out in the countryside alone. He has been described as a man “staying among the tents,” which may indicate he was more closely associated with the shepherding business. The shepherds moved their camps over a broad area of land in order to find water and grazing for the flocks. It is most likely that Jacob would be out supervising some of the shepherds at such a camp when Esau stumbled upon them. Jacob would be the one in charge at the camp, so the decision would be his, and there would therefore be witnesses to the agreement made between Jacob and Esau.[6]
    4. In verse 28 we see that Isaac liked the game which Esau hunted and this caused him to love Esau more. However, Rebekah loved Jacob. This goes back to my opening regarding parenting.
    5. Esau is famished, but Jacob has cooked stew. Esau wants some of the red stew which Jacob has cooked. In Hebrew the name Edom is similar to the word red.[7]
    6. In verse 31, Jacob says “First” sell the birthright. I wonder if Jacob set this up. Maybe he knew Esau would come in very tired and he knew he would sell the birthright… I wonder if Jacob wanted the birthright badly.
    7. I like how Swindoll helps us think this through, he writes: Two very different boys grew into manhood. In doing so, two realities emerged. First, the men were very opposite in their temperaments. Second, Jacob was not a sissy, but a normal man by the standards of his day. He was a cultured, even-tempered, civilized man with clean fingernails. Esau was astudy in contrast. He was unusually rugged, independent, and passionate. He smelled like the countryside where he preferred to live. Jacob lived by his wits; Esau lived by his gut instinct. Jacob became shrewd; Esau remained gullible. Jacob thought strategically, Esau impulsively. You’ve got the picture.[8]
    8. The birthright doesn’t mean much in our modern, Western, Gentile culture. But in that day, to those people, it involved every aspect of family life. The birthright bore incredible significance. James Hastings, one of the reliable early biographers of biblical characters, makes several statements about the value of a birthright:
    9. To the birthright belonged pre-eminence over the other branches of the family. To the birthright appertained a double portion of the paternal inheritance. To the birthright was attached the land of Canaan, with all its sacred distinctions. To the birthright was given the promise of being the ancestor of the Messiah—the “firstborn among many brethren”—the Saviour in whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed. And to the birthright was added the honor of receiving first, from the mouth of the father, a peculiar benediction, which proceeding from the spirit of prophecy, was never pronounced in vain. Such were the prospects of Esau.[9]

Tim Keller shares:  

Many years ago, when I first started reading the Book of Genesis, it was very upsetting to me. Here are all these spiritual heroes—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—and look at how they treat women. They engage in polygamy, and they buy and sell their wives. It was awful to read their stories at times. But then I read Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter is a Jewish scholar at Berkeley whose expertise is ancient Jewish literature. In his book he says there are two institutions present in the Book of Genesis that were universal in ancient cultures: polygamy and primogeniture. Polygamy said a husband could have multiple wives, and primogeniture said the oldest son got everything—all the power, all the money. In other words, the oldest son basically ruled over everyone else in the family. Alter points out that when you read the Book of Genesis, you’ll see two things. First of all, in every generation polygamy wreaks havoc. Having multiple wives is an absolute disaster—socially, culturally, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and relationally. Second, when it comes to primogeniture, in every generation God favors the younger son over the older. He favors Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. Alter says that you begin to realize what the Book of Genesis is doing—it is subverting, not supporting, those ancient institutions at every turn.

When I read Alter’s book, I then reread the Book of Genesis and loved it. And then it hit me: What if when I was younger, I had abandoned my trust in the Bible because of these accounts in Genesis? What if I had drop-kicked the Bible and the Christian faith, missing out on a personal relationship with Christ—all because I couldn’t understand the behavior of the patriarchs? The lesson is simple: Be patient with the text. Consider the possibility that it might not be teaching what you think it’s teaching.[10]

  1. As we look at the rest of the passage, Esau thinks he will die without the stew and living is better than dying so he sells the birthright. So, Jacob made Esau swear this to him. Jacob followed through and Esau despised his birthright. In other words, he was indifferent to it.
  2. One source shares: Esau was contemptuous of his special firstborn status. On the basis of this, Heb. 12:16 describes Esau as “unholy.” Esau did not appreciate that his birthright was linked to God’s plan of redemption for the whole world.[11]
  3. Another shares, Explicit moral commentary is rare in the Bible, so the writer’s inclusion of it here marks something about Esau that he did not want the reader to miss.[12]
  4. As we wrap up this passage let me summarize the next few chapters so that you can get a complete picture of Esau.
  5. Genesis 26 is about Isaac, then chapter 27 comes back to Jacob and Esau.
  6. In Genesis 27 There is a major deceptive account of Jacob stealing the blessing from Esau. Now, Jacob has already paid for the blessing, but now he actually takes it. I guess Esau was not really going to give it to him. In reality, Isaac should have known that the blessings of the firstborn belonged to Jacob, the younger God declared that, yet, Isaac was not obeying God. However, God’s will comes about in the end.
  7. Let me break down chapter 27:
  8. Verses 1-4: Isaac calls Esau and tells him to go hunt some game and they will eat and he will give him the blessing.
  9. Verses 5-17: Rebekah had overheard Isaac’s plan, but she loves Jacob more. So she has her own plan. Jacob is to take a few of the young goats and have them slaughtered and Rachel will prepare them. Jacob will go into his father, Isaac, and pretend to be Esau and steal the blessing. Isaac’s eyesight is failing so this should not be an issue. Jacob will wear Esau’s clothes and use goat skin to make him feel hairy like Esau.
  10. Verses 18-29: the plan works and Jacob is blessed.
  11. Verses 30-38: Esau returns and is upset that the blessing was stolen. Isaac and Esau are beyond upset. Esau gets the secondary blessing.
  12. Yet, notice in all this treachery God’s plan still comes to pass. In multiple places we see parents favoring one over another, multiple times we see deceit and treachery.

Chuck Swindoll writes the following:

What if Isaac had been an involved, proactive father who was obedient to God’s plan, rather than one who allowed his favoritism to passively resist it?

What if Rebekah and Isaac had prepared the boys to obey early in life, saying something like this: “Now, boys, we have some extremely important information about you two straight from the Lord. Jacob is to receive the birthright and blessing, even though he’s the youngest. We don’t understand why, but God is good and all His ways are right. Esau, you will be very, very wealthy and you will have a great nation that can be an ally to the covenant people that will come through Jacob. Your descendants can share in all its blessings.” 

What if Esau had received attention equal to Jacob’s and all the approval he craved from his parents? What if he had graciously released the birthright to Jacob in humble obedience and surrendered to the Lord’s loving, sovereign will? To borrow the idea from Corrie ten Boom shared in the previous chapter, what if he had held his birthright loosely?

What if Jacob had humbly received the blessing and offered to share his wealth and privilege with Esau?

How might history have turned out differently? How much happier would everyone have been? How much more glory would God have received through the obedience of His people? It’s difficult to say, but the story closes with yet another example of how each person’s sinful perspective added further complication. Isaac was passive, uninvolved, and yielding. Rebekah manipulated and spun the truth. Jacob scurried away to avoid owning his responsibility. And, in a move typical of Esau, he reacted with self-destructive impulsiveness to make matters worse.

To save her son from Esau’s wrath, Rebekah sent Jacob packing to visit her brother far, far away. But to gain Isaac’s support, his wife resorted to manipulation and deceit again. She tricked Isaac into thinking that Jacob should find a wife and that she could be found near her brother.[13]

The story continues, mainly with Isaac, in chapter 28, but we will stop there.

  1. Let’s make some applications:
  2. In verse 21, Isaac prayed for a child. We must recognize the Lord is sovereign over the womb. The Lord is in control. We must always pray for every situation. The Lord is in control.
  3. The Lord had already promised greatness for Jacob and his descendants, we must trust the Lord in His promises and not try to make things work out on our own.
    1. We must seek the Lord’s Word to see what His will is.
    2. We must not try to go against His Word.
    3. We must not try to reach the Lord’s will through sin.
    4. We must not try to manipulate things for His will.
    5. We must TRUST the Lord.
    6. We must not try to achieve the Lord’s will through debt.
  4. We must not favor one child over another as Isaac and Rebekah did (Gen. 25:28).
    1. We must spend equal resources with our children to the extent that we are able.
    2. We must support our children emotionally and meet their needs. Every child is different,.
    3. We must support our children spiritually, leading them spiritually. We must not neglect one child.
    4. We must support our children with physical felt needs.
    5. We must not teach one child and not the other.
    6. When we mess up, and we will, we must apologize and repent to God and our children.
  5. We must trust God’s sovereignty as His will came through after this whole mess. In Genesis 25:23 God had declared the older will serve the younger.

Do you know Christ?

Luke 9:23

God created us to be with him. (Genesis 1-2)

Our sin separated us from God. (Genesis 3)

Sins cannot be removed by good deeds (Gen 4-Mal 4)

Paying the price for sin, Jesus died and rose again. (Matthew – Luke)

Everyone who trusts in him alone has eternal life. (John – Jude)

Life that’s eternal means we will be with Jesus forever. (Revelation 22:5)


Confess, Believe, trust, commit: Firmly make the decision to be with Him in order to become like Him and to learn and do all that He says and then arrange your affairs around Him.



[1]Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes(Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Ge 25:20.

[2]Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes(Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Ge 25:22.

[3]Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes(Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Ge 25:22.

[4]Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes(Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Ge 25:22.

[5]Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes(Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Ge 25:26.

[6]Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Ge 25:29–30.


[8]Swindoll, Charles R.. Fascinating Stories of Forgotten Lives (Great Lives Series) . Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

[9]Swindoll, Charles R.. Fascinating Stories of Forgotten Lives (Great Lives Series) . Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

[10]Tim Keller, in the sermon “Literalism” (available on on 5-17-10)


[12]Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible(Galaxie Software, 2003), Ge 25:31.

[13]Swindoll, Charles R.. Fascinating Stories of Forgotten Lives (Great Lives Series) . Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

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