Commentary on Genesis 25:19-34

Last updated: September 1, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

19These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 20and 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. 21And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. And the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23And the LORD said to her,

Two nations are in your womb,

and two peoples from within you shall be divided;

the one shall be stronger than the other,

the older shall serve the younger.”

24When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

27When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Notes

19-20 These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 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.

The phrase “Abraham father Isaac” was hardly necessary after the foregoing “Isaac, Abraham’s son.”

Moreover, such a usage is never found in the other ‘elleh toledot examples. Yet the Chronicler later followed the pattern of this verse in recording, in 1 Chronicles 1:28, that the sons of Abraham were Isaac and Ishmael, and then stating, in verse 34, that “Abraham begot Isaac.” The redundancy, therefore, is not a gloss but a literary device for emphasizing Isaac’s role as the sole successor to the patriarch, in fulfillment of the promise of 21:12: “It is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued.” Some commentators see a desire to underscore the fact that Abraham is the father of Isaac – in light of Abimelech’s kidnapping of Sarah, as told in chapter 20.1

The marriage of Isaac and Rebekah was narrated in chapter 24. It occurred 35 years before Abraham’s death. Laban will feature prominently in chapters 29-31.

21 And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. And the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived.

Rebekah was barren like Sarah (11:30) before her and Rachel (29:31) after her, however she and Isaac did not resort to concubinage.

22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD.

The verb translated “struggled” (va-yitrotsetsu) literally means “they crushed, thrust, one another.”2 Wenham takes Rebekah as having such a painful pregnancy that she asks what the point of living is.3 Matthews says she is asking what good her pregnancy is, whether the children will survive, and whether she will survive.4

23 And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”

Abraham was promised that nations would descend from him (17:4-6, 16). This saying foretells Israel’s subjugation of Edom (2 Samuel 8:12-14; 1 Kings 11:14-16).

25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau.

It is unclear whether Esau’s skin or hair was red. It is quite possible that merely a ruddy complexion is meant.5 “Red” (admoni) contains a play on Esau’s other name, Edom (v 30).6 Esau’s hairiness must be taken into account in 27:11. “Hair” (se’ar) contains a play on Seir, the name of the territory of Edom.7

26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

The struggle in the womb continues and sets the pattern for the rest of the Jacob/Esau narrative. Grabbing the heel was an attempt to forestall the prior birth of his brother (Hosea 12:4).8 The name Jacob is thought to be a shortened form of ya’qob-el, “may El protect/reward.”9 Here the name was chosen as a play on “heel” (aqeb).10 Contrary to one’s initial impression after reading verse 21, a twenty year period elapsed between Isaac’s intercession and the birth of his children.

27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.

The word translated “quiet” is problematic for it usually means “perfect/blameless.” It seems unlikely that is the meaning here because Jacob was not blameless and such a description would provide a meaningless contrast to Esau the hunter. Wenham suggests that in this context it means Jacob was complete in himself.11

28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

The problems between Jacob and Esau were fueled, in part, by the favoritism of their parents. “The ‘love’ each parent shows for his or her respective favorite does not suggest that the other is unloved. Rather, the verb translated ‘love’ is indicative of favor, choice and preference (cf. its use for an alliance between kings in 1 Kings 5:1).”12 The reason for Rebekah’s love of Jacob is not stated but may be tied to the oracle (v 23). “Whatever her motives, the scene is now set for chap. 27, where Rebekah uses her husband’s appetite and Jacob’s tractability to acquire the blessing for the son she loves, yet thereby losing him.”13

29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted.

Ironically the skilled hunter (v 27) was exhausted.

31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.”

Brotherly kindness would demand that Jacob immediately meet his brother’s needs. Therefore the reader gets the impression that Jacob had been waiting for a moment like this. Did he know about the promise God made to his mother? Since there was no universal practice in the ancient Near East concerning the rights of the firstborn we cannot know exactly what was at stake here. Deuteronomy 21:15-17 says the firstborn shall receive a double share of the inheritance but that law was written down after the events described here.

32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?”

It is impossible to tell whether Esau is exaggerating. “Nevertheless, the original reading audience would react to Esau’s blunt statement (‘What good is the birthright to me?’) with horror, regardless of his extremity. There was intrinsic value connected to a birthright, not just utilitarian value.”14

33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob.

Jacob’s actions were immoral (Leviticus 25:14, 17; Job 22:7; Psalm 146:7; Proverbs 25:21; Ezekiel 18:7, 16).

34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

[W]hy does the text make the point that Esau despised his birthright? The inheritance distribution is not directly associated with the covenant, and we never hear of Jacob actually receiving the double share of the inheritance or doing anything with it. In fact, when he returns to Canaan and meets with Esau (Gen. 32-33), it can easily be inferred that he renounces his claims to the birthright insofar as he expresses to Esau that he is content with the blessings and prosperity that the Lord has given him and has no intention of taking anything that is Esau’s. In Genesis 13 it was important to see that Lot left the land of his own choice in order to clarify Abraham’s claims. There is nothing in the birthright, however, that gives Esau claims in the land that the text insists belong to Jacob.

We must conclude, then, that the purpose of the narrative is not to establish a claim that is lost or gained by the parties involved. Instead, it provides an explanation for why Jacob is more suitable as the covenant heir. Esau is shown to be a utilitarian type of person. Genesis 25 ends with a striking sequence of five straight verbs: ate, drank, got up, left, despised. Perhaps the author is suggesting that it was just as routine for him to despise his birthright as it was to do the others. It is not that Esau trades the covenant blessing away (remember that the birthright relates to material inheritance), but rather he shows his attitude toward heritage. If he so lightly esteems his material birthright, what reason is there to believe that he will value a covenant birthright?15

[I]t is highly significant that the text only mentions Esau’s sale of the birthright but does not state that Jacob bought it. This is contrary to the usual biblical legal style as, for instance, in the case of Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, Jacob’s acquisition of a field, and David’s buying the threshing floor from Araunah. The omission in the present story is another way of dissociating Jacob’s eventual ascendancy from the means he adopted.16

Bibliography

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 178.

2Ibid., 179.

3Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 175.

4Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 387.

5Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 180.

6Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 176.

7Ibid.

8Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 180.

9Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 176.

10Ibid., 177.

11Ibid.

12Walton, Genesis, 549.

13Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 177.

14Walton, Genesis, 551.

15Ibid., 558.

16Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 182.

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