Jacob and Esau Part 1: The Danger of Holding a Grudge
Many brothers fight. But few rivalries are as long-lasting or as vicious as Jacob and Esau's. Their conflict began in their mother's womb; it won't end until Christ's return.
Christians can learn a lot from these two. This post is the first of a two-post overview of all the relevant Biblical material regarding the rivalry between Jacob and Esau and their national descendants, Edom and Israel.
Jacob and Esau's rivalry began in the womb. When Rebekah became pregnant, the Bible says, "the children inside her struggled with each other" (Genesis 25:22). It must have been an unusually intense struggle, because next, we read that "she went to inquire of the Lord" about it. I doubt priests were commonly asked about babies' activities in the womb. But, because their fight was so intense, it seems Rebekah suspected there was a deeper, spiritual problem. When she asked the priest about it, Yahweh Himself replied that two nations would come from her womb and that the older brother's descendants, Edom, would serve those of the younger brother, Israel (25:23).
What was the root cause of this conflict? In Malachi 1 and Romans 9, the Bible teaches that God chose to bless Jacob over Esau with the promise passed down to him through Abraham and Isaac: "...though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that the purpose of God according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, 'The older shall serve the younger. Just as it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." (Rom 9:11-13). We aren't told why He chose Jacob over Esau. God's sovereign will is often mysterious to us; but Scripture is adamant that God's choice was not based on any good or evil done by either brother.
Typically, a family's firstborn son would naturally acquire the possessions and blessings of the family patriarch. But Jacob would use subterfuge to gain an upper hand on Esau. We see the first sign of this at birth: when Esau came out first, "his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob" (Gen 25:26). Grabbing the heal gives the second child leverage to exit the womb at the expense of the first. This was a foretaste of the future relationship of Jacob and Esau.
As they grew up, by means of Rebekah's favoritism (25:28), Esau's gullibility (25:29-33), and Isaac's senility (27:1-40), Jacob stole the birthright and blessing from Esau. Afterward, we read that, "Esau held a grudge against Jacob...'I will kill my brother Jacob.'" (27:41)
God didn't let their paths meet again for several chapters. In the meantime, Esau married a few more women (26:34; 28:8-9) and moved south of Canaan to the land of Seir (32:3; 33:16). Similarly, Isaac took two wives (Genesis 29), grew his herds (30), and roamed with his family throughout Canaan: Mizpah (31), Mahanaim (32), Peniel (32), Succoth (33), Shechem (33), Bethel (Gen 35), Bethlehem (35), Hebron (35), Haran (37), and Beersheba (46).
After both had achieved financial prosperity, God led them to meet in Genesis 33. Chapter 32 shows us that this happened when Jacob lived in Mahanaim, a region north of the Dead Sea, while Esau lived south of the Dead Sea, in Seir. Each was aware of his proximity to the other, so they tensely journeyed to meet in the middle, uncertain of how the meeting would go. After a cautious approach, Esau apparently let go of his grudge and warmly embraced Jacob (33:4-20). But though they seemed to be reconciled at this point, the grudge of the past lived on in their descendants, just as God had prophesied.
After his death, Esau's family stayed and expanded from Seir to include the whole country of Edom. Jacob's descendants thrived in Egypt until the time of the Exodus. Despite centuries with little to no contact, both nations remembered their bitter history.
We see the reemergence of Edom's grudge in Exodus. After God delivered Israel through the Red Sea, Moses led Israel in a song of praise that foretold the frightened response of the Edomites: "Then the chiefs of Edom were dismayed; the leaders of Moab, trembling seizes them; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away." (Exodus 15:15) This meant that Edom would respond to the Israelites' liberation with deep concern just like the rest of the Canaanites. As the author of Genesis, Moses understood that Edom still resented Israel because of Jacob's deception of their nation's founding father.
Indeed, the Edomites were fearful when the Hebrews finally reached their land. Despite Israel's gracious request for passage through Edom into Canaan (Numbers 20:14-17), the Edomites replied, "You shall not pass through us, lest I come out to meet you with the sword." (20:18) After all Jacob had done to Esau, Edom wasn't going to risk getting fooled again by the up-and-coming Israelites.
After this rejection, the Israelites travelled north through the regions bordering Israel on the eastern side of the Jordan. In fear, Balaak, king of Moab, asked the prophet Balaam to curse Israel. Instead, Balaam gives a stunning prophecy that a future king will rise up and conquer Moab and Edom. "I see him, but not now; I perceive him, but not near. A star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel. He will smash the forehead of Moab and strike down all the Shethites. Edom shall be a possession, Seir, its enemies, also will be a possession, while Israel performs valiantly." (Numbers 24:17-18)
The root of Balaam's prophecy traces back to God's word in Genesis 25, "The older shall serve the younger." But Balaam added more details: Israel would overtake Edom by the power of a future king who would lead Israel in victory over the nations. Who would this Israelite king be? We will address that in the next post.
What do we learn from this?
This story teaches us about the sovereignty of God and the arrogance of man.
The Bible teaches that God has planned all events that happen. No passage is more clear about this than Isaiah 46:8-10. It says, "Remember this, and be assured; cause it to return to your heart, you transgressors. Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My counsel will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure.'"
Every moment of our lives is controlled by our Creator. And like Jacob and Esau, He gives us real moral choices every day; yet He does not give us control of our own destiny. We cannot overpower God's will, but we can get into a lot of trouble if we believe we can.
Both Jacob and Esau tried to take their destinies into their own hands. Jacob wanted to gain Esau's blessing by manipulation; Esau wanted to destroy Jacob with brute force. If either had stopped trying to win and simply trusted God to work out His plan, they could have had a peaceful friendship. But God, knowing their sinfulness, foretold that this wouldn't be the case. Consequently, even when they repaired their relationship, they left a legacy of bitter rivalry to their offspring.
I'm reminded of Paul's simple encouragement in Philippians 4:2, "I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to agree in the Lord." Paul wants both women, both trusted coworkers in Christ, to humbly recognize that they can find agreement in the Lord Jesus Christ. By submitting their disharmony to Him and seeking to understand His will, they could find peace.
As long as it depends on us, Christians should be at peace with each other and with outsiders to the church. When we fail at this, the church experiences consequences that can be long-lasting. But as Jesus said, when the church loves each other as one, their unity enables the world to see and believe in Jesus (John 17:21). The stakes couldn't be higher; the church needs to pursue peace within, and outside of, its doors.