The Book of Genesis begins, as the name suggests, with the beginning of the universe. The story moves on to the creation of the human race, humanity’s fall from grace, the Flood of Noah, and the nations established by his sons. Starting with chapter twelve, the focus of the book narrows from the whole of humanity to a single family and three patriarchs who are to create the Jewish nation. These patriarchs were Abraham, his son Isaac, and his sons Jacob and Esau.
Jacob was the ancestor of the Jews and his sons were the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Esau was his twin brother and he was the ancestor of the Edomites, a nation related to Israel and was often an enemy to the Israelites. Jacob was, to be perfectly honest, scum. He was a clever and rather unscrupulous man who cheated his brother out of his birthright and his father’s blessing. Esau, quite understandably wanted to kill Jacob, so he was obliged to flee Canaan and return to their ancestral home in Mesopotamia to work for his uncle Laban. Laban was a bit of a con artist too and when Jacon agreed to work for Laban for seven years to marry his daughter Rachel, Laban had Rachel’s sister Leah take her place on the wedding night and made Jacob work an additional seven years for Rachel. Meanwhile, Jacob engaged in a selective breeding program that ensured that he ended up with the best of Laban’s flocks. The two got along famously.
I want to go back, however, to how Jacob aquired Esau’s birthright.
27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)
31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.
34 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 25:27-34)
That red stew is often referred to as a mess of pottage, even though that particular phrase does not appear in any English translation of the Bible. A mess of pottage is any bargain in which something that gives a short term advantage is exchanged for something that may not mean much in the present, but in the long term is far more valuable.
Jacob cheated his brother Esau, but Esau must bear some part of the blame. Perhaps Esau did not believe that Jacob was really serious in suggesting the bargain, in which case, he was a fool. More likely though, Esau was simply the sort of man who saw only the advantage of something tangible, like a bowl of stew, while dismissing something as abstract as his birthright. Esau valued only what was right in front of him, and gave no thought to the future.
We can’t really condemn Esau, however. We Americans also have a birthright which many of us are all too willingly surrender for a mess of pottage. Our birthright is our tradition of liberty and the mess of pottage is anything that we are ready to give up that birthright for, Obamacare, Obamaphones, a false sense of security, anything. Let us not make the same foolish choice Esau did.
- T is for Twins; Esau and Jacob (jimlwright.wordpress.com)
- On Genesis 27-29 (reflectingchristian.wordpress.com)
- Jacob vs. Esau (andrewheegeman.wordpress.com)