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Genesis 36:1-43

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As we have said before, Genesis is divided into ten chapters, called “toledots.” That is the Hebrew word translated “generations” in v.1. It can also be translated “family history.” The first of these toledots begins in Genesis 2:4, with the account of creation in Genesis 1 serving as a prologue to the book and to the entire Pentateuch. The last of them begins in 37:2, the toledot of Jacob, which will be, as we have seen, not the story of Jacob but of his sons, as, for example, the toledot of Terah was about his son Abraham and the toledot of Isaac was about Jacob and Esau. A toledot is an account of one’s descendants. The passage before us this morning is the ninth of these ten toledots. We will have the same word again in v. 9, but in this one instance in the Book of Genesis, this is a recapitulation of its use in v. 1, not a new chapter heading.

A family history or a genealogy of Esau is expected here in any case because the genealogy of the rejected line is characteristically given first in Genesis. We have the genealogy of Cain in Genesis 4 before that of Seth in Genesis 5. Ishmael’s toledot comes before that of Isaac. And, now, we have Esau’s before Jacob’s. In each case the genealogy of the rejected line is much shorter, mostly a list of names only.

v.1       Esau had a national name just as Jacob did with Israel.

v.8       This statement is balanced with 37:1 where we read that Jacob remained in the Promised Land. It is a deliberate contrast and shows us again, as we have already seen in other ways, that Esau did not have Jacob’s taste for God’s covenant. Esau moved out of the Promised Land without a thought and so moved out of salvation history. And he didn’t move because there wasn’t room for him. In 34:21 we learned that there was plenty of room. He could have found somewhere else to live within the Promised Land. The same attitude lying behind his decision about a place to live lay behind his decision to marry Canaanite women rather than women of the covenant family, as we read in vv. 2-5.

v.12     Amalek would become Israel’s sworn enemy.

v.15     In vv. 15-19 the list of chiefs is almost identical to the list of sons already given.

v.20     Once again you have a similar repetition. The sons are mentioned first. That they were also chiefs is mentioned in v. 21 and confirmed again in vv. 29-30. These Horite sons or chiefs were inhabitants of Seir that were not dispossessed by the sons of Esau but who remained in the land and eventually intermarried with Esau’s descendants. In other words, vv. 9-19 give us the predominantly Edomite (or “Esauite”) clans and 20-30 the predominantly Horite clans. Together they comprised the principle families of the nation of Edom.

v.31     You will notice that in these verses that give us the Edomite kings, we do not have a father-son succession. Usually that is explained by violence. We don’t know all the facts about these particular kings or how it was that they came to rule, but you will notice that the capitol of Edom changed from time to time as one king succeeded another.

v.40     In this case there is no overlap of names. These chiefs are not the same men as the kings already listed.

Now the natural questions a reader of Genesis has at this point are: what could be less interesting and what could be less spiritually helpful than a genealogy? Aren’t genealogies the standing illustration that there are dull and questionably useful parts of the Bible? Even some of the commentaries, including one that I have found very valuable, brushed by chapter 36 with hardly a comment.

But I have been too often reminded in my study of Genesis of the literary and theological sophistication of this book of the Bible. Nothing is here by accident; everything has a purpose. And increasingly scholars have realized that the author intended to teach us something important in each succeeding paragraph of this grand epic of the beginning of the world and of the salvation of mankind.

When I was in seminary, a very different view of Genesis dominated biblical scholarship. It was thought, building on the work of some 19th century Germans, that Genesis was a patchwork, composed of a variety of sources stitched together, not always in a very skillful way. Sections of the book, it was thought, could be quite easily broken down into what were thought to be their original parts – this verse or part of a verse from this source dating from this century, that one from some other source much later – before the editor, whoever he was, rather clumsily stuck them together. If anything was said twice, for example, it was always a sign that the editor had simply stuck two different accounts together, and so on. Evangelical scholars wrote their books defending the unity of Genesis and exposing the prejudice and false assumptions lying beneath this theory but to no avail.

Thankfully, that patchwork view of Genesis, though it still has its defenders, is largely disappearing. Ironically, it has not been evangelical, Bible-believing scholarship, by and large, that has produced this change. And few have admitted publicly that the entire project that dominated the scholarship of the Pentateuch for three generations was a house of cards, that they wasted 40 or 50 years of their lives on a theory that was not true. Rather, more and more scholars have come to realize that Genesis is a masterpiece of narrative art. They realize that the author skillfully taught the highest and deepest theology by means of an artfully crafted narrative. Further, they now see that, whether or not there are identifiable sources underlying the finished product, and no one ever denied that entirely, the final product is a remarkably cohesive and sophisticated employment of those various sources to present theological truth in a faithful historical narrative.

Nothing appears in this book that does not serve a purpose. The book itself, from the general divisions to the specific details, reveals the hand of a master communicator as well as a practiced theologian. And that is all besides the fact that, as Christians have always believed and as we believe, the whole of this great piece of human literature and theological writing was the achievement not merely of the human author but of the Holy Spirit himself, superintending the process until what was written was at last precisely what God intended to say to the church and the world in this first and most important book of Holy Scripture.

That fact ought to convince us that chapter 36 must be worth our attention. Therefore, it must be worth our asking: Why is it here? What did the author of Genesis want to teach to us by this means? What truth for our lives are we to find in this account of Esau’s descendants? And, as soon as the question is put answers emerge.

  1. For example, you remember that the Lord had promised Rebekah, before the birth of her twin sons, Esau and Jacob, that two nations were in her womb not just two sons, but two nations. Here we are taught that promise was fulfilled. Jacob became the nation of Israel and Esau the nation of Edom. God was as good as his word.
  2. Or consider this. This genealogy takes us far beyond the time of Genesis itself. As verse 31 indicates, the genealogy extends to the time of the Israelite kings, centuries after the history covered in Genesis itself. The developed structure of vv. 9-43 has suggested to many scholars that all of this material was a later addition to an original narrative that ended at v. 8. Anyone can easily see that 36:8 would have naturally led directly to 37:1. Esau settling in Seir would have led immediately to the statement that Jacob remained in the Promised Land. What is more, 36:1-8 as the genealogy of Esau would be roughly parallel in size and scope to the genealogies already given of Cain and of Ishmael. Finally, the fact that the heading “This is the toledot of Esau” is repeated at v. 9 and the fact that the material in 36:1-5 about Esau’s wives and sons is also repeated in vv. 10-14 further suggests that 36:9-43 was a separate account, inserted as a whole much later. Perhaps this was the very last part of the Book of Genesis as we know it to have been added.

Genesis, you may remember, is formally anonymous. No author is identified. No author of the first five books of the Bible is ever mentioned in those books themselves. We know that it is generally the work of Moses, for we are told that elsewhere in the Bible. But we know that there were later additions made after the time of Moses. The account of Moses’ death and burial, for example, was obviously not written by Moses. And no one disputes this. The final form of the book may not have been reached until sometime later, as v. 31 indicates, during the time of the Israelite kings. No doubt one of the Lord’s prophets was responsible for the final form of the book.

By that time, of course, Israel and Edom had a long history of bitter rivalry and antagonism. They were not only two nations, they were ancient enemies. Indeed, if vv. 9-43 were written during the days of David or Solomon, when Edom had been incorporated into the Israelite empire, it would be a further demonstration of the fact that, as God had promised, the older of Rebekah’s two sons did, in fact, serve the younger. Remember, the original readers of the Book of Genesis, the readers for which the Book was first written, were the citizens of the nation of Israel who were being taught the origin and the meaning of their national history. They knew the nation of Edom as an ancient nemesis.

  1. But, clearly, there is a greater theological purpose in this genealogy than simply to demonstrate that God’s promises had come true or to explain how the bitter relations between Israel and Edom had come about. For Edom and Israel do not simply represent two families, or even two nations. They represent, as Cain and Seth or Ishmael and Isaac before them, the only two peoples that exist in the world, the only two nations that have ever existed in this world: the kingdom of this world and of unbelief on the one hand, and the kingdom of God and of his Christ on the other.

From the very beginning of the book, in chapter 4, we have witnessed this division of mankind into the communities of faith and unbelief. Already at the beginning of human history, right after the fall, men in rebellion are found seeking to build the city of man and men who have faith in God are found building his city in the world. The story of Genesis, and so the story of the world and all of its history as it unfolds, is primarily the story of God calling a people out of rebellious and fallen humanity to be his very own, bearing with that people through all the vicissitudes of their lives, and using them to bring light and life to the rising generations until finally God’s people as a whole will be regathered in the paradise from which they were driven by sin. But alongside of that story is its mirror-opposite, the story of the kingdom of man – born in rebellion against God, marked by violence, pride, and, at last, by futility. They build their towers of Babel, but always in the end, God frustrates their hope to find peace and life apart from him. They trouble the saints, they carry out their rebellion against God by seeking the harm of his kingdom and people and city. But God is seen, through it all, protecting his people and securing them in his salvation. This was, as you remember, the great theme of the toledot of Isaac, the story of Jacob and Esau.

Consequently, all through the book, the divinely inspired author challenges his readers to answer this question: to which nation, to which kingdom, to which people, do you belong? And though he puts it in terms appropriate to his time – Esau and Jacob; Edom and Israel – the question is precisely the same today and just as urgent.

Think of this genealogy of Esau. It could be the genealogy of any nation at any time. It is the bare-bones history of a people, a nation, in the form of the names of its most prominent citizens. Bela, or Jobab, or Hadad might just as well be Roosevelt, Rockefeller, Kennedy, or Bush. And like Edom our nation soon will be old news and forgotten by all except the people who read ancient history. Who can doubt this? Nations have always come and gone. Edom hasn’t existed for thousands of years. Few people today could locate where it once was on a map. But the church of God has endured from Jacob’s time to our own and is larger now than it has ever been!

Like the Kennedys, these families listed here in Genesis 36 had their stories to tell, their triumphs and their tragedies. No doubt there were young princes who turned out well and others who turned out badly. Some lived to old age, others died young. From time to time there were assassinations and intrigue. These families had their day, but like all great families before and after them, their sun set almost as soon as it rose. Though they were newsworthy at the time in their land, they are remembered today by almost no one. But not so Jacob and his family. His name will be hallowed forever; the names of his sons are found on the gates of the City of God in heaven. Their family history, Jacob’s toledot, which will begin at 37:2, has been read with eager interest and attention by generations of human beings who have read it, whether Jews or Gentiles, Eastern or Western, ancient or modern, as their own family history. No one thinks of Hadad or Jobab as his or her ancestor. But vast multitudes of have thought and think today of Jacob, Joseph, and Judah as the patriarchs of their own family tree.

The division of mankind illustrated in the genealogies of Esau and Jacob side by side is made still clearer by the antagonism that existed between Edom and Israel when this part of Genesis was written. Such antagonism has always existed between these two lines and these two peoples. It existed in the days before and after there were kings in Israel and it has existed ever since. The subsequent history of the two nations is dotted with fierce wars between Edom and Israel culminating in some of the bitterest denunciations in all of the prophets and some of the severest prayers for judgment upon the enemies of God to be found in the Bible.

            “Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. ‘Tear it down,’ they cried, ‘tear it down to its foundations!’” [Psalm 137:7]

            “‘The house of Jacob will be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame; the house of Esau will be stubble, and they will set it on fire and consume it. There will be no survivors from the house of Esau.’ The Lord has spoken.” [Obadiah 18]

            “‘I have loved Jacob,’ says the Lord, ‘but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.’” [Malachi 1:2-3]

You know and I know that this antagonism still exists. It is more often than not papered over in silence. The one question that was never asked in all of the media attention to the terror attacks recently in Manchester and London is the only question of real importance to the author of Genesis: to what people, what kingdom did the victims belong? On what family tree will their names be found? All of us must die sooner or later. But do we live, did we live, as citizens of the city of man or the city of God? To which kingdom did our destiny belong? That is the question. That is why Genesis continually divides the human race into these two nations, these two peoples. The world largely ignores this division but even we often forget that it exists. The media completely forgot, if it ever knew, and so missed the only story really important to tell about these people who died so young or in the prime of their lives. But then imagine the howl of protest, the hatred, the bitterness, the fury if that question had been raised by some media outlet or some reporter; if an effort had been made to discover if the victims belonged to Edom or Israel.

It is, of course, easy to ignore this division and the antagonism that divides the two kingdoms. People of both kingdoms look the same, talk the same, dress the same, do many of the same things with their time, earn their living in the same way, and so on. The generations come and go in Edom just as in Israel. There are good kings and bad kings in both places. We have seen over and again in Genesis so far that, in terms of outward behavior, often there is little to choose between the people of God and the people of Edom. The lines that separate them are not easily drawn by observation or from the outside. There are people of the world who live undetected in the city of God. And there are people of the city of God who appear at times to belong to Edom. It is not always so, of course. Sometimes the line is or becomes very clear. I remember years ago a young man, a new Christian whose wedding I officiated. Just before we entered the church he turned to me and said that over that past few days the line – that was his term – the line between the Christians and the non-Christians had become very obvious to him.

But all the while the author of Genesis, brilliant theologian as he was, forces upon us the recognition, however unwelcome, that everyone in the world belongs to one line or another, to one people or another, to one master or another, and, so, to one future or another – to live in Eden remade and renewed, or forever to live outside of Eden, to live in the Promised Land or to live in the desert wastes of Edom among the Edomites. The world’s dream is to unite all people in one kingdom, one family. It refuses to acknowledge the antithesis between the two very distinct and different peoples who inhabit the world. The Bible, on the contrary, is forever reminding us of it! The world’s philosophy is monistic—we’re all in this together – the Bible’s is dualistic: it is one or the other.

There are many disadvantages to living in the age of the internet and of social media, when everyone is sharing his or her opinions about everything all the time. But for Christians there is also a great advantage. We are reminded every day and in every conceivable way how vast is the chasm that separates the kingdom of this world from the kingdom of God. At the most fundamental and decisive level Christians think about life – its origin, its meaning, its destiny – about the purpose of human existence, and supremely about God in a profoundly different way than unbelievers think about these things. Esau and Jacob managed to be brotherly in the later years of their lives, but they lived in two different moral and spiritual universes. Their outlooks on life were so contradictory that of course they sired different peoples.

But, then, there should be nothing surprising about that for a Christian and a reader of the Bible. It has been so from the very beginning of the human story. Cain had an utterly different view of God, of himself, and of the world than did Abel, Lamech had a perspective on life at polar opposites to that of Seth. The Bible does not deny that people of this world, that unbelieving people can be immensely gifted and sophisticated and, even in a certain narrow sense, admirable. The Bible is unembarrassed to acknowledge that it was the descendants of Cain who were the fathers of animal husbandry, metallurgy, and musical instruments. No doubt, some of these men from Edom, whose names we read in Genesis 36, were gifted men: scholars, scientists, warriors, politicians, and the like.

And so it remains today. Some years ago Richard Dawkins, a high priest in Edom, wrote a book entitled Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder. It is still in print today. Dawkins, if you remember, is the outspoken Oxford professor and champion of atheism.  The book is part of his project to debunk the religious, what he calls the superstitious view of life, and to rebut the charge that atheism is a cold, dark, bleak, and hopeless view of life and the world a charge, by the way, made famous by a number of atheist whose philosophical sophistication exceeds that of Richard Dawkins by several orders of magnitude. It is a learned book, a clever book without a doubt. Dawkins writes well. The argument of the book is now familiar to readers of the so-called new atheists. Science has revealed the basis of the wonders of nature that, heretofore, people thought had to be explained by the existence of a Creator of infinite power and genius: the sonar system bats use to see, the way a cricket’s chirping is “cunningly pitched and timed to be hard for vertebrate ears to locate but easy for female crickets, with their weathervane ears, to home in upon,” and so on. But, as one reviewer points out, “what people object to in Dawkins is not the science but the atheism. Because he cannot see the difference, he writes a book that is a 300 page non-sequitur.” That is, it misses the point. No one denies that there is wonder in nature that science has disclosed or explained to some degree. What is denied is that we have nature to thank for that wonder, or science, and not the God who made such wonderful things. But Dawkins is sure that nature is all there is. We scratch our heads as we listen to the argument and wonder how in the world he can actually believe this.

Florence and I were in the Atlanta airport the other day, walking down one of the immense concourses of what is the busiest airport in the world, handling well over 100 million passengers per year. If you’re interested, Sea-Tac comes in at 28th with a paltry 45 million passengers handled per year. But as I watched the endless flow of people walking toward me or away from me, I was suddenly gripped by how utterly absurd it was to suppose that all of this pulsing human life, these multitudes speaking different languages, traveling from place to place in airplanes flying miles above the earth at 500 miles per hour, had ascended accidentally from a chemical accident in some warm pond several billion years ago. How can Dawkins, clever man that he is, lie in bed at night and not see how absurd that is? How can he not realize how utterly unproven his fabulous theory remains? How can he not see the punishing problems with it, the lack of evidence at precisely those points where evidence ought to be easiest to find? How can he not see how vast is the distance that separates chemistry from a living cell, the distance that separates non-life from life? Well here’s how.

Dawkins is an Edomite; that explains everything. He doesn’t know God, he’s never seen the Promised Land and has no taste for it. He has no inkling of the life of God in the soul and so no hope for the world to come. He has no fear of God and no love for him. The Bible never says Edomites are stupid, or that they are not, in many ways, very impressive people. But, at the last, they belong to a people whose life is defined by their ignorance of the living God. Their lack of faith in God and submission to God colors and warps everything they think, say, and do. So it has always been, so it will always be until the end of the world. As a Christian you cannot explain the world apart from this fundamental reality: that there are descendants of Esau in it as well as descendants of Jacob.

Chapter 36 of Genesis is a powerful reminder to us of what we are always tempted to forget or, at least, to neglect bearing much in mind. There are two peoples occupying this world, two and only two: the people of Edom and the people of the Promised Land, the people who live their lives in rebellion against God and the people who walk with God. There is no other alternative.

And you and I are to spend our lives faithful to this fact, careful to live as becomes the children of God, eager to draw those who are still in the world into the family of God before it is too late for them to erase their names from Esau’s family tree, and, above all else, grateful, always grateful beyond words, and seeking to demonstrate that gratitude in life and worship and service. And why grateful? Because out of all the people of this world, so many more clever, more gifted, more interesting, even outwardly more virtuous than I, my heavenly father, numbered you and me, me of all people, among the descendants of Jacob instead of among the descendants of Esau. That God introduced us to the King of Kings and put in our hearts a desire to live with Christ in the Promised Land. There are a great many people, multitudes without number, who, like Esau, had the opportunity to live there and chose to go elsewhere. And I would have, and you would have as well, were it not for the grace and mercy of God.

Here is the great lesson of this long list of names. Read them one by one. Think of the lives they lived, the children they bore, the things they accomplished, and the death they died. Just like countless other human beings. And then remember: there, but for the grace of God, go I.