I commented on vv. 19-28 last Lord’s Day so won’t repeat those comments this morning.
v.27 We may well miss the burden of the distinction between the two men. While the Israelites were undoubtedly meat-eaters, it is unusual for the Bible to celebrate a man who spent his life as a hunter. The ideal was the shepherd, not the hunter. Nimrod, who founded cities that rebelled against God, was a hunter (10:9). The phrase “dwelling in tents,” as in 4:20, identifies Jacob as a pastoralist, a shepherd. [Sarna, 181] To a Hebrew reader of the Bible, the distinction here drawn between the two brothers clearly favors Jacob. Jacob was a more civilized man. Indeed, the term here translated “quiet” is perhaps better rendered “fine” or “civilized”, drawn as it is from the Hebrew root meaning “to be complete or finished.” It is used in the Song of Songs to describe the beloved as “flawless” or “perfect.” [Waltke, 361-362]
v.28 The church father, Ambrose, grew up in a family of talented children, all of whom were equally committed to a faithful Christian life. He celebrated his sister in one of his books and his brother gave up his own political career to manage Ambrose’s affairs when he became a bishop. Accordingly he was troubled by what he read here – it did not seem to him to be right that a holy family should practice such favoritism – and excused it by imagining that Rebekah’s favoritism was the result of a command she had received from God. But he went on quickly to assure his readers that they were not to imitate these parents showing love more to one child than another. [Wills, Font of Life, 100-101]
v.29 Don’t read this as exaggeration. The term means “famished” or in dire need of food. The point is that Jacob should not have taken advantage of his brother when he was in that condition.
v.30 The Edomites, a perpetual thorn in Israel’s side, descended from Esau as you know. And as Esau sounds like the Hebrew word for red, so does Edom. It is very possible that Esau, like almost everyone but the Hebrews in the ancient near east, thought that the red color of the stew resulted from the presence of blood in it and that by drinking blood – which the Hebrews were forbidden to do – he would be revitalized – a point of view shared by almost all ancient people. If so, Esau is here presented to us as a pagan man with pagan ideas. [Sarna, 182]
v.31 Jacob exhibited an appalling lack of compassion and hospitality. [Waltke, 363] Birthright is a term that means the rights of the firstborn, both the privileged status and the right of inheritance and succession. In Abraham’s family, of course, the stakes were much higher. The one who possessed the birthright was the heir to the covenant. It would be the possessor of the birthright who would determine the spiritual life of the family in the next generation. [Sarna, 181]
v.33 Esau was a man who lived for the moment because he had no faith, and so no vision of the future. To such a person the birthright and so the covenant were of little consequence. The oath made the transaction irrevocable and Jacob obviously did not trust his brother to be true to his word without it.
v.34 The stew was lentil stew, not blood broth. Jacob would, we suppose, not have cooked blood broth. The staccato of the account of Esau’s actions highlights the broken relationship between Isaac’s two sons and Esau’s sullen attitude: he ate, he drank, he got up, and he left. The picture is most definitely not that of two brothers enjoying a meal together. By the way, we now know from archaeological discoveries that the father had a right to disregard chronological factors in determining his heir and that the heir had the freedom to barter away his future inheritance. [Sarna, 181]
The narrator leaves us in no doubt as to what Esau’s action amounted to. Whatever else may be said about Jacob’s behavior, he placed a premium on the birthright. Clearly, disgusted with Jacob as we may be tempted to be, the narrator is telling us whose sin was the greater!
What we have in the text we have read this morning is an introduction, and a particularly startling introduction, to those fundamental theological perspectives that will dominate the remainder of the book of Genesis, as they dominate the remainder of the Bible. It is not that they have not yet been revealed – they have been – but their striking juxtaposition here provides us a unique opportunity to learn in a memorable way the Bible’s theology of salvation. How does salvation happen? To whom does it happen? Well it is all here before us in chapter 25. We will find these three perspectives everywhere in the Bible and emphatically so, and so it behooves us to get them clear in our minds. No one can understand or appreciate the Bible who does not grasp this theology. What we want to know is how it happened that the blessing of the covenant was granted to Jacob and not to Esau. It is the same thing as asking how and why it is that salvation is given to one person and not to another. And that this text is designed to answer that question is proved by the fact that other biblical writers return to it to answer just that question.
- The first thing to notice in this narrative is the emphasis placed upon the sovereignty of God, the divine initiative, the divine election or the choice of his people.
You remember, I’m sure, that the Apostle Paul preached sermons from this very text and this was the conclusion he drew from the text. In Romans 9 Paul harks back to this history to demonstrate the reality of God’s election, his sovereign choice of only some individuals for salvation. He observes that before Jacob and Esau were born, before either one had done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose in election might stand; not by works but by him who calls, Rebekah was told “the older will serve the younger.” That is a direct commentary on our text and an actual quotation of v. 23. Then he goes on to quote God as saying, through Malachi the prophet, who was likewise referring to this same history, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau I hated.” In other words, the discrimination between these two men, the blessing of one, the rejection of the other, originated in the mind and heart and will of God.
And so it always is in the Bible: “Salvation is of the Lord.” A person is saved because he is appointed to salvation, chosen for it. The sermon Paul preached on Gen. 25:19-34 was entitled “Divine Election” and I’m quite sure he preached that sermon many times. And that sermon was absolutely faithful to the text. God made the distinction between Jacob and Esau; God chose Jacob to be Isaac’s heir even though the ordinary expectation in that time and place would be that Esau would have that honor. And that decision was made before either of the boys had demonstrated either faith or unbelief. The decision was God’s and what happened in their lives was the outworking of God’s plan.
Indeed, the Bible will often assert this point even more strongly than it is asserted here. Here it is said that God chose Jacob before the boys had done anything good or bad. In Ephesians 1 it is said that God chose his people for salvation before the creation of the world. Here is said that God willed that the older son would serve the younger. In Romans 9 it is said that God made out of the same lump of clay both vessels for honor and vessels for dishonor. Whether we are talking about the plan of salvation, or about the accomplishment of salvation in the life and death of Jesus Christ, or about the gift of that salvation to specific individuals in their own time and space, it is God who does it from beginning to end and in all links of the chain. Why did Jacob receive the favor of God when Esau did not? Because God gave it to him but not to Esau.
And the history of salvation ever since proves that this is always and everywhere the cause of anyone’s salvation. It is God’s decision; God’s gift; God’s doing. It cannot be explained in any other way. As Blaise Pascal tartly put it:
“To make a man a saint, grace is absolutely necessary; and whoever doubts this does not know what a saint is, or what a man is.”
And Pascal, disciple of Augustine as he was, meant nothing else by “grace” but God’s sovereign choice of a person for salvation and then God’s sovereign working to save him by Christ and by the Holy Spirit’s transformation of his or her heart. Pascal’s own experience of God’s grace – coming to him from without, unexpectedly, suddenly, powerfully – had confirmed the truth of what he had read in the Word of God. How do we explain anyone’s salvation and, supremely, our own? We explain it this way: God has granted me his grace, the knowledge of himself, the forgiveness of my sins, and a place forever in heaven for reasons I do not know and cannot begin to explain. He has granted this grace to me when he has not granted it to others. I am at a loss to understand this. That is the first of these fundamental perspectives on salvation revealed in this text. Salvation is the Lord’s doing.
- The second, however, is that salvation absolutely depends upon human attitudes and actions, upon our faith or unbelief, upon our willingness, even upon our determination to claim a share in God’s covenant or, on the contrary, our indifference to that covenant.
This perspective on salvation is also emphasized in this text. The promise God had made to Rebekah, came to pass by means of the actions of the two men themselves. Salvation came to pass not in spite of what they said and did but because of what they did or refused to do. It is this reality that likewise lies face up on every page of the Bible.
It is this that makes the covenant so formative to biblical theology and an organizing principal of biblical teaching. The covenant, if you will, is the other pole of the Bible’s doctrine or explanation of salvation. If God’s election of a people and his sovereign grace lie at one end, the covenant lies at the other. We are used to speaking of salvation in terms of sovereign grace and human accountability or responsibility. The Bible does not state the matter in just that way. It speaks instead of grace on the one hand and covenant on the other. The covenant is a matter of God making promises, laying his people under obligation to believe and to obey, and they, in turn, responding in faith and obedience. In the covenant everything depends on what a person does: believe, repent, love, obey, and persevere.
The Bible’s theology of salvation is the furthest thing from some version of fate, as if God determines the ends but not the means; as if those whom God chooses go to heaven, enough said. Not in the Bible! Faith and obedience are decisive, real causes; our faith, our obedience. Salvation does not come to pass without them, and they are our responsibility. The gospel and the summons to believe it, and God’s law and the summons to obey it: all of that is what the Bible calls the covenant.
We tend to think that what Jacob did in trading stew for the family birthright and what Esau did in selling it so cheaply – and, for that matter, what Jacob did later in deceiving his father and getting the blessing Isaac had intended for Esau – shouldn’t, couldn’t have mattered. But the fact is it did matter. The birthright changed hands. The blessing was given to Jacob. The covenant became his rather than his older brother’s. That is clear in the narrative.
And what is clear as well, though modern readers of the Bible might not appreciate this as they should, is that Jacob cared about the birthright and the blessing, and so about the covenant itself, while Esau did not! Strange as it may seem to us, as we view this scene from such a great temporal and cultural distance, any early reader or hearer of this story would have drawn the obvious conclusion that Jacob believed and Esau did not. The covenant is God’s promise of salvation and Jacob believed that promise. He wanted to see that promise fulfilled in his own life. As the personal history of Jacob continues in Genesis we will find throughout that Jacob’s life is oriented to God’s covenant. Esau was a violent man, a man whose attitudes and actions were shaped more by his chosen profession and his culture than by the spiritual culture of his family. He probably wanted to drink blood, the kind of thing hunters would do in those days. We will read later that he married two women, but both were Hittites, pagans. Esau had nothing of the concern for the right wife for a man of the covenant that Abraham had displayed in sending his servant to find Rebekah for Isaac. Later on we will read that he went to live in Edom. He didn’t have to live there; he chose to. The Promised Land obviously meant very little to him.
But most dramatically, here he traded his inheritance in the covenant for some food. You would have had to be an Israelite in the days of Moses fully to appreciate the shocking nature of Esau’s utter indifference to the promise of Yahweh to be his God and the God of his children. The fact is that Esau didn’t care about God’s promise, he didn’t care about the calling he had as a son of the covenant. He certainly was not of a mind to make any real sacrifice on the covenant’s behalf. And that, of course means that he had no real love or reverence for the God of the covenant either, because the covenant is simply a relationship with God.
In some ways it isn’t so hard to understand Esau here. He’s like many of the people we know today, and alas, so much like ourselves too much of the time. The family was to become a great nation? Here they were a hundred years later and all he could see was himself and his brother. Nation my eye! The family was to receive the land of Canaan. After all these years – Abraham had lived a hundred years in the Promised Land – what did they possess? A cemetery plot. That was it and Grandfather had to buy that with his own money, God didn’t give it to him. We don’t own the land our sheep graze on; when are we ever going to own everything between Egypt and the Euphrates! He had no faith in God’s promise. It all seemed highly unlikely to him.
In all these ways he was nothing like Abraham; even as disappointing as Isaac was in some ways, he was nothing like his father Isaac. And he was certainly nothing like Jacob! Esau was concerned with his own immediate gratification. He had no real eye for the future and had no taste for spiritual things. In Genesis the tests of true faith are one’s attitude toward the promised seed and the Promised Land. Esau had no interest in either one; Esau failed that test; Jacob passed it.
And if we had any doubt about the spiritual profile of Esau and of Jacob being drawn in these few verses, the narrator underlines the point with his last sentence: “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” So, if we interrogate this text and a thousand others in the Word of God as to why Jacob and not Esau, the answer given is emphatically that Jacob believed the Word of God and Esau did not; Jacob was a man of faith, Esau of unbelief; Jacob was a man who aspired to be a man of the covenant, Esau had no such aspiration.
And throughout the Bible this is its message. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Or, even more pointedly, in explaining why a person was not or a people were not saved, the Bible unhesitatingly lays the issue at the feet of the people themselves: they did not believe, they would not obey, they had no fear of God, they loved the world, they loved darkness rather than light, and they would not forsake their sins. Their failure was not that God did not choose them but that they would not choose God! This is always man’s judgment in the Bible. The gospel is offered, but it must be accepted; the Savior is presented but he must be believed; the promise of eternal life is made, but it must be embraced in faith. Some will; some won’t.
How that first perspective on salvation and this second are to be reconciled to one another – God’s mighty, discriminating grace on the one hand and man’s responsibility to believe and obey on the other – is the great soteriological mystery of the Christian faith. “Soteriological” refers to salvation and the way of salvation. And this is a mystery; a very great mystery. Be sure of this: no Christian theologian, no matter how faithful to the Word of God, no matter how astute, no matter how personally godly, no matter how learned, can explain how both sovereign grace and human action are both real causes at one and the same time. No one ever has! Nobody ever will! We can’t explain this any more than we can explain how the one God exists in three persons or how Jesus Christ is both truly God and truly man at one and the same time. These realities are too great for us; our minds are not capacious enough to contain them. And the Bible, conscious as it is of the obvious tension between these two assertions – each made a thousand times in its pages, often by the same biblical author, sometimes, as here, on the same page – never attempts to explain to us how both are true or can be true at one and the same time. It asserts, it does not explain. And so it leaves us to believe, even if we cannot explain. And that, after all, is the nature of faith: the confidence we place in the Word of someone we trust. But there is one more fundamental perspective yet to be considered from our text.
- Believers are far too often a huge disappointment. The distinction between believers and unbelievers, the difference between the saved and the lost is, alas, too often hard to see.
The sad fact of this personal history and this history of salvation is that in some ways it is as easy, if not easier to admire Esau. Esau gave up his birthright – a terrible thing to do – but at least he didn’t steal it, as Jacob will his father’s blessing. At the end of the story, as Jacob returned to the Promised Land after his long sojourn in Paddan Aram, he naturally feared his brother’s wrath. He knew only too well what he had taken from him and how angry Esau had been at Jacob’s deceit. But, as it happens, Esau was more magnanimous than Jacob deserved him to be. And, of course, in the text before us this morning, Jacob behaved disgracefully, disgustingly, violating all the canons of hospitality and brotherly love. And he is the believer; the man of God; the heir of the covenant! Here is convincing proof that salvation is the gift of God’s grace; that no one deserves it: those who have it are still so unworthy! Jacob may have had faith, but he was still, spiritually speaking, a mess!
How different it would be if people looked at us and thought, if they were forced to think: “You know, I have problems, great problems with some tenets of Christian teaching, but, my, what grand people they are at Faith Presbyterian Church! What marriages they have! What family life! What kindness they show to everyone! What sympathy they are always ready to share with those who are dispirited or downhearted! What practical help they are dispensing at every turn, to everyone in need! I’ve never seen a people so good, so happy, so much in love with one another, so useful to others, so generous, so effective as husbands and wives, as parents, as children, as friends. How mature, how well-balanced they all are and how wise! No one seems to have any real needs because they are always looking after the needs of others rather than their own. They are so content!
But is that what people think and say about us? I wish. And would it be true if they did say such things? I don’t say that we are not faithful people. I don’t say that that faithfulness doesn’t make an impression on outsiders. I know that it does. Many people have said so through the years. But there is surely as much the bad Jacob as the good Jacob in our life individually and in our life together. Who can deny it?
This too is comprehensively demonstrated in the Word of God. This too is one of the great perspectives of God’s Word on the salvation of man. It is full of the record of the imperfections, the sometimes grievous imperfections of the saints. We are people who believe, but who must always cry out to God, “Help our unbelief.” We are people who obey, but must every day confess our sins to God and plead for his forgiveness. Even some of the Bible’s heroes were, even as believers, at the same time, adulterers, or cowards, or, as in Jacob’s case, thieves.
As Calvin sums up this dismal truth:
“Eternal life is promised to us, but it is promised to the dead; we are told of the resurrection of the blessed, but meantime we are involved in corruption; we are declared to be just, but sin dwells within us; we hear we are blessed, but meantime we are overwhelmed with untold miseries; we are promised an abundance of all good things, but we are often hungry and thirsty; God proclaims that he will come to us immediately, but seems deaf to our cries…. Faith is therefore rightly called…the evidence of things not seen.” [Com. Hebrews, 157-158]
Such is life and such is salvation and such is the covenant of God and such are the three great perspectives of the Word of God on the salvation of sinners. It is so from the beginning of the Bible to the end, it is so in the history of God’s people since the first century, and it is most definitely true in your personal history and mine: the sovereign grace of God, the summons issued to us and our responsibility to believe and obey, and the seriously imperfect faith and life of even the most faithful Christians. Is this not salvation in the Bible? And is this not what we must know and take to heart every day of our lives.
- It is by grace that we have been saved, not by our own works or effort. As Paul, a champion of God’s grace, would put it:
“It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom…righteousness…sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” [1 Cor. 1:30-31]
- It is by faith that we receive the promises of God. As we read in Hebrews 10 and 11:
“By faith Abraham made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country…as did Isaac and Jacob who were heirs of the same promise (11:9-10). … So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.” [10:35-39]
- And, then, we who believe must struggle throughout our lives until we finally attain to the perfection to which we have been called.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Lament and thanksgiving side by side. The Bible, the Christian faith, and the Christian life in a nutshell. Now go and live it with all your heart, your strength, and your mind: Grateful for God’s love pitched on you in defiance of your utter undeserving; pitched on you when it so easily might not have been pitched on you; pitched on you when it was not pitched on so many others; determined to be a faithful follower of the Lord to the end of your days as they must be who would be saved; and willing to bear the trial of your own imperfection and the incompleteness of your salvation until the day, the happy day, when we shall be perfect because we shall see him as he is!