Imagine if a man received a blank check from Bill Gates. Mr. Gates was willing to give this individual any amount of money upon one condition: The man could not eat for two hours. Mr. Gates showed the man the check, told him the offer, and the man accepted. However, 30 minutes into his two hour fast, the man sneaks a few Ritz crackers out of his cupboard. The man thought nobody would know; but Bill finds out. Mr. Gates shreds the check and informs the man that the deal is over. The man realizes that he just lost his chance at ultimate riches. He could have re-paid all of his debt, bought a new house, and sent his children to college. All he has to show for it is a couple of crumbs around his mouth and a lifetime of regret. He tries to contact Bill to see if there is any way he could try again. Through tears, he hysterically begs Bill Gates over the phone for a redo. Mr. Gates, however, is finished. The deal is over, and the man lost.
If we knew this man, we would probably all agree that he is the most foolish man we know. Was his appetite truly so insatiable that he could not abstain from food for a measly two hours? Is he so bankrupt of self-control that he could not endure minor, temporary discomfort for amazing, long-lasting riches? If this scenario really happened, we would look at this man’s nearsightedness with disbelief. However, we have done, and often do the same thing. Every single time we choose our desires over God’s and commit sin, we become this man. God has promised us eternal glory and true wealth (Eph. 1:3-13; 1 Pet. 5:10), yet we are often willing to trade it all away for a “fun” night with our friends or a time of brief, arousing sensuality.
In Scripture, there is a man similar to the one in our hypothetical situation: Esau. He was the brother of Jacob, the son of Isaac, and the grandson of Abraham. He bargained away spectacular blessings for the momentary pleasure of a full belly (Gen. 25:29-34). In Hebrews 12:16, The New Testament commentary on Esau tells us that we become like him when we are “sexually immoral” (ESV) or “worldly minded” (NJB). Whenever we choose the temporal over the eternal, the physical over the spiritual, sin over sanctification, or hell over heaven, we become Esau. With the New Testament’s somber warning and condemnation of Esau in mind, we will examine who Esau was, what he did, and how we can avoid his miserable mistake.
Esau: The Man
First, to understand the New Testament’s reference to Esau and what it means for us in today’s church, we must examine the Biblical context regarding Esau. Esau (or by his nickname, Edom) is mentioned in the Bible nearly 100 times. His first appearance in Scripture is from within his mother’s womb. Isaac’s wife Rebekah is pregnant with twins when she receives this prophecy from the Lord: “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” (Gen. 25:23). When it was time for her to give birth, the Bible records that “The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau” (Gen. 25:25). Genesis continues, “Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob” (Gen. 25:26).
The names of these boys have special significance. “Esau” is a play on the Hebrew śēʿār meaning “hairy.” Meanwhile, the name Jacob (with which we are more familiar) is a play on the Hebrew words for “heel” (ʿāqēb) and “deceived” (ʿāqab), often being translated as “cheater” or “usurper” (Matthews 389). Both of these names play important roles as we continue our examination of Esau. As does Esau’s future name, Edom, coming from the Hebrew word for “red” (ʾādōm).
The next we read of Esau is that he is a “skillful hunter” (Gen. 25:27). Therefore, he was loved by his father because Isaac “ate of his game” (Gen. 25:28). Chronologically, the next we read of Esau is his grave mistake which will be discussed in further detail later. Esau comes in from a hunt famished and exhausted. His brother Jacob has made some red lentil stew which attracts Esau’s appetite. Jacob is willing to share the stew with his brother on one condition: Esau gives him his birthright. Esau, seemingly overcome by hunger and foolishness, agrees to the terms claiming that his only other option is death from (Gen. 25:29-33). Thus, the Bible records that Esau “despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:34). The way Esau is described and alluded to changes from this point onward, as does the redemptive history of God’s people. This event is why we do not sing songs about the three wandering Jews, “Abraham, Isaac, and Esau.” This event is why when we read the genealogies of the Messiah in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, we read that “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren” without a single mention of Esau (Mt. 1:2 KJV). This event is why there are 10 boys named Jacob in every elementary school class and zero named Esau. Even though Esau was Isaac’s first born, and should be in the songs, genealogies, and baby name books; he isn’t. Esau traded his blessing for a bowl of beans, and a deal is a deal.
Similar to this event, The Bible soon references Esau in an even sadder account. This time, his father Isaac is on his deathbed. Isaac calls Esau and asks him to prepare for him a delicious meal so that he may bless Esau before death. As Esau goes to hunt and prepare the meal, Rebekah (who loved Jacob rather than Esau [Gen. 25:28]) helps Jacob to imitate Esau and bring his father food. Thus, the blessing that is rightfully Esau’s is given to Jacob instead (Gen. 27:1-29). As soon as Isaac finishes blessing Jacob, Esau walks into his father’s room with a prepared meal. The trembling Isaac informs Esau that Jacob received his blessing, and it is he who shall be blessed (Gen. 28:33). The Bible then records the following:
As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” 36 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 37 Isaac answered and said to Esau, “Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept (Gen. 27:34-38).
Isaac then blesses Esau, but this blessing stands in contrast to Jacob’s. Esau is to live by the sword, dwell in odd places, and serve his younger brother until he grows restless and breaks the yoke (Gen. 27:39-40). Thus at the end of Genesis, Esau stands without birthright, lacking blessing, in marriages contrary to the will of God (cf. Gen. 26:34; 28:9; 36:2, 3), and voluntarily leaving the promised land of Canaan to dwell in the hill country of Seir (further despising his birthright [Gen. 36:6-8]). Esau is possibly the best example of how not to live a life pleasing to God.
Through the rest of the Pentateuch, Esau is named only in reference to his descendants, and only in Deuteronomy. While wandering through the wilderness, Moses makes several references to “the people of Esau” (Deut. 2:4, 8, 12, 22), and “the sons of Esau” (Deut. 2:29) who were inhabiting desert place between Egypt and the promise land. Esau gets his final and largest nod of the Old Testament in the prophetic books. God’s impending justice upon the Edomites who claimed Esau as their father is seen in the oracle of Jeremiah (Jer. 49:7-22) and Malachi, where the Lord famously reveals, “I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated” (Mal. 1:2-3). Likewise, the entire book of Obadiah focuses on the justice coming to Esau’s descendants (cf. Ob. 6, 8, 9, 18, 19, 21).
In the New Testament, Esau is mentioned three times: Romans 9:13, Hebrews 11:20, and Hebrews 12:16. His first appearance in Romans 9 is found in the context of Paul discussing God’s purpose in electing nations and how God loved Jacob but hated Esau. Esau’s first appearance in Hebrews is discussing the faith of his father Isaac (11:20), while his second mention is a stern warning to Christians not to be like him (12:15-17).
With the whole of scripture in mind, it is clear that Esau is not a good role model. From his foolishness in Genesis, to the iniquity of his descendants in the prophets, to the warnings to not be like him in the New Testament; Christians everywhere would be smart to strive to be unlike Esau. Specifically, we should strive to be unlike Esau in that he lived for the now.
Esau: The Mistake
Esau’s infamous mistake is recorded in Genesis 25:29-34:
29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 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.
It may be difficult for 21st century Americans to realize how vital this mistake was. We do not live in an agrarian, patriarchal society with the norms and social contracts of the Ancient Near East. The birthright given to the firstborn son was a treasured possession in the life of an Israelite. Under God’s patriarchal system, firstborn sons were given religious, priestly rights which would later be replaced by the Levitical tribe (Sarna 184). Likewise, the firstborn son was “naturally ranked second only to the head of the family whose successor he would automatically become” (Sarna 185). Further, the rights of the firstborn, “entitled [Esau] to the priesthood; to a double portion of his father’s possessions; to dominion over his brethren, and a place in the line of the progenitors of the Messiah. These were among the most noble, honorable, and spiritual advantages which descended upon the sons of the patriarchs” (Seiss 362). When we better understand how great a treasure the birthright of the firstborn son was in the Israel of ancient times, we better understand how foolish Esau was. Indeed, “This trade was no bargain, for lentils were common, whereas the family birthright was unmatched” (Matthews 394). All the blessings of his birthright Esau “reckoned on a par with the pleasure of a half-hours’ gratification of his appetite” (Seiss 362).
Also, when we observe the language in Genesis 25:29-34, it becomes clear how superficial Esau was. Notice Genesis 25:30 in the New American Standard Bible: “and Esau said to Jacob, ‘Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.’” The word translated “swallow” in the NAS is found nowhere else in the Hebrew Old Testament. However, “it is used in later Hebrew for animals eating” and is “very rude when applied to humans” (Cotter 191). Thus, this verb “portrays an awkward Esau wanting just a little bit of stew in order to gratify a base instinct, no matter the cost” (Whitworth 244). Similarly, in Genesis 25:34, “The words ‘he ate, drank, rose up, and went off’ express very clearly [Esau’s] low estimate of [his birthright], and thus present the first proof that he was unfit to share the high calling involved in the birthright… in his state of complete abandonment to sensuality, Esau was in no state to consider the spiritual side of the matter” (Stigers 211). In addition, the final comment of the narrator in Genesis 25:34 (“Thus Esau despised his birthright.”) is important because “explicit moral commentary is rare in [Genesis]. It emphasizes, as has already immerged in the dialogue, that Esau has treated with flippancy something of great worth” (Wenham 178). Within the Genesis account, Esau’s actions portray a “man who is controlled more by immediate appetite than long-term promise… careless and indifferent about things of importance, always interested in the immediate reward, undisciplined, erratic, and wayward” (Williams 197-198). Esau is in truth “the antithesis to the saints in Hebrews 11” (Williams 198).
The portrayal of Esau as a shallow, foolish man extends into the New Testament. Notice the full warning the Hebrew writer gives us through inspiration:
14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears (Heb. 12:14-17).
Here Esau is described in the ESV as “Sexually immoral” (“Fornicator” [KJV]) and as “unholy” (a “profane person” [KJV], “godless” [NIV], “totally worldly” [LEB], “irreverent” [HCSB], “worldly minded” [NJB], “irreligious” [RSV]). These inspired descriptions give us even greater insight to the man Esau was. Beyond that, it gives us even more reason not to live like him. Why? Because he lived for the now. His passions and intentions were not centered upon pleasing God, but pleasing self.
Notice the context in which the warning for Christians not to be like Esau is found. The inspired author encourages Christians to have peace and holiness (“sanctification [NAS]), without which nobody will see the Lord. Then, the writer gives the imperative of seeing to it that we do not fail to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs from our heart causing us to leave the commonwealth of Christ (cf. Deut. 29:18). By this root of bitterness, many can become defiled (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5-8; Gal. 5:9). The author then commands that nobody becomes sexually immoral or worldly minded like Esau, who could not find a chance to repent even though he sought it with tears. So, not being like Esau is directly connected to living a holy life (v. 14), and being on guard against apostasy (v. 15). Thus, this New Testament example of Esau becomes the third point in a four verse warning against falling away (deSilva 460). The example of Esau “puts the value of the course of apostasy in perspective and reinforces the finality of the consequences of making so unwise and intemperate a choice” (deSilva 460-61). While we read of Esau’s mistake in Genesis, the inspired commentary in Hebrews tells us that his mistake ultimately was that he was a fornicator and a worldly minded, ungodly individual. The Greek word translated as “unholy” in Hebrews 12:16 (ESV) literally means “that which is ‘worldly, godless, secular,’ and describes one who has no appreciation for spiritual things and who treats them with contempt” (Matthews 586). Ultimately, Esau’s mistake was valuing temporary pleasure and safety over the promises of God. Esau “would rather take a little in the here-and-now, even if it means surrendering something greater in the hereafter” (Whitworth 245). Esau was “controlled more by immediate appetite than long-term promise” (Williams 197). He was “undisciplined, erratic, and wayward” (Williams 197). Esau is similar to “the enemies of the cross of Christ mentioned by Paul: “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil. 3:19).
Each and every person has a choice to make. We can throw off the restraints of God, ignoring his promises and love in order to recklessly chase temporary pleasure while becoming sexually immoral, ungodly people. Hopefully, we make the decision to avoid the mistake of Esau—to love God, trust in his promises, and deny a little pleasure for a larger reward.
Esau: The Memory
This manuscript and consequent lecture has one ultimate purpose: to encourage all to be unlike Esau. The reader is encouraged to react to the memory of Esau. See his mistake, his pain, ad his rejection by God, and endeavor to do the opposite. To help in this endeavor, three things will be discussed in the section: 1) when we become like Esau, 2) how to prevent becoming like Esau, and 3) what to do if we are currently like Esau.
When do we become like Esau? To answer this question, we must first realize that, like Esau, Christians have a birthright. Everyone who is truly a Christian has been “born again” of “water and the Spirit” (Jn. 3:3, 5). By the mercy of God, Christians have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). When we put Christ on in baptism, we are born again, become members of God’s family, and become heirs according to God’s promise to Abraham: “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:26-29). In the same way that Esau had a birthright as an offspring of Abraham, we have a new birthright as a child of God by faith. We are to be imitators, not of folks like Esau, but of “those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12).
However, in the same way that Esau despised his birthright (Gen. 25:34), we can despise our new birthright. If we choose, we can again be entangled in the defilements of the world we escaped through Jesus (2 Pet. 2:20). Though we have an amazing spiritual birthright in Christ, we can squander it away for the temporary pleasure of sin, similar to Esau with his stew. Even though we have died to sin and should no longer live in it (Rom. 6:2), we are capable of “pulling an Esau” and neglecting such a great salvation (Heb. 2:3), developing an evil, unbelieving heart (Heb. 3:13), failing to reach the rest of God (Heb. 4:1), falling away (Heb. 6:4-8), and continuing to sin deliberately, trampling underfoot the son of God (Heb. 10:26-30). When we do these things, we are making the mistake of Esau. Sure, there is no lentil stew or ancient patriarchal blessing, yet there are fundamental similarities: a promise from God, and an appetite. If we allow our appetite for sin to outrun our faith in God, we will repeat the fatal mistake of Esau.
This realization leads us to our next question: how can we prevent becoming like Esau? The key to answering this question is our perception. We as Christians must keep in mind who we are, where we are, and why we are. As Christians, we are slaves of Christ. As Paul put it in Romans, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (6:16). Esau submitted himself as an obedient slave to his own appetite. However, when we put on Christ in baptism, we submitted ourselves as obedient slaves to God. In Christ, our flesh and its desires have been crucified (Gal. 5:24). Let us keep the proper perception regarding who we are in Christ, striving for the upward calling that is found in Jesus. The Esau-like part of ourselves is dead and buried in the grave of water (Rom. 6:4-6). Remember this to fight the temptation to be like Esau.
Also, to prevent from being like Esau, Christians must remember where they are. Unlike Esau and those like him whose minds are set on earthly things, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). We shouldn’t get too comfortable with the things and appetites of this world. This world shouldn’t really have anything to offer us that is so great we are willing to give up our citizenship in heaven. No amount of illicit sexual gratification, altered state of consciousness, or perceived amount of “freedom” as a godless person should sway us from our heavenly citizenship. We must remember that we are not home, and that nothing in this world we are just passing through is comparable to our true homeland. Certainly, there is nothing attainable here that would be so worth attaining that we should compromise our celestial citizenship. Esau thought that this world was his home. Esau believed that the blessings and promises of God were not worth the satisfaction he could reap from fulfilling his appetite. However, he was wrong. To not make the mistake of Esau, we must remember that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” (Heb. 13:14). We must have our eyes set on what is waiting for us through God’s promises, not on what easy, fleeting pleasure we can attain instead. We must “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). Christian, do not be distracted by the things here that appeal to our physical appetites. The true prize is waiting for us in glory.
Likewise, to prevent us from being like Esau, we must have the proper perception concerning why we are. In other words, what is our true purpose? Is our purpose on this earth simply to go wherever our desires lead us? Are we here to only eat when we are hungry, drink when we are thirsty, fornicate when we are aroused, take when we want, and disregard all but our appetites? Certainly our existence is more than that. When Esau traded away the blessings of God for a single meal, he showed why he believed he was on earth: to please Esau. When we chase one desire after another looking for fulfilment, we are proclaiming that our purpose is only to please ourselves. In Christ, however, our purpose is so much more. In the context of Paul explaining that salvation is by grace through faith, he tells Christians that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). We have a purpose that transcends our fickle desires. God has had works prepared for us since the beginning of the world—good works at that. Walk in them. That is our purpose. To serve God, to respect God, to obey God, to glorify God, and to magnify God (Rom. 12:11; Eccl. 12:13; 1 Cor. 10:31). Our purpose is not to serve self and bow down to our lusts. If we can remember these truths, we can avoid being like Esau.
Lastly, what should somebody do if—while they’re reading this—they realize that they are living like Esau? There are many, even in the church, who live like Esau. These are those who really only care about their own appetites and what they want to do. Sure, they may be present Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, but their god is their desires. If a reader feels like he or she may be living like Esau, there is only one piece of advice to be given: repent. God is merciful and is postponing the coming of his Son because he “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). One day Christ will return. That day will come “like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up” (2 Pet. 3:10). God is giving all time to repent now, but that time will end. When Christ returns, there will be no second chances for repentance. There are many who live their lives like Esau, and on that final day will wish to inherit the blessing of being found in Christ. However, on that final day, their experience will be like Esau’s: “For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Heb. 12:17). There is a time coming when it will be impossible to repent. Do not live like Esau unto that day. While we still have breath and Christ has not returned, we have the opportunity to “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). Otherwise, we too can enter eternity in tears. We can enter the next life as a sexually immoral, worldly minded person eternally separated from the God who loves us, created us, and gave us more than enough time to repent. Do not be an Esau for eternity; repent before it is too late.
Overall, it is the writer’s hope that all who read this manuscript will remember the example of Esau, and endeavor to live their lives in an opposite fashion. Esau was, just like the Hebrews writer describes him, an immoral, unholy man. He lived for the now. He abandoned the promises of God for the rumblings of his belly. We do the same thing when we choose our own desires over God’s commandments. It is especially important that young people understand that they live like Esau when they abandon the principles of God in sexuality: “Sexual temptation specifically appeals to the hunger of the flesh, persuading us to forget about the glory and honor of an undefiled marriage bed (Heb 13:4). But as was the case for Esau, the tradeoff is never worth it, and only leads to many years (if not a lifetime) of heartache” (Whitworth 245). We more than likely all scoffed at the man in the opening illustration. Do more than scoff at him; endeavor to not live like him spiritually. Do not put at risk the amazing blessings of God for some fleeting pleasure. Instead of living for the now like Esau, strive to live like Moses:
24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible (Heb. 11:24-27).
Live not for the temporal now, but for the eternal then promised by God though his Son Jesus Christ.
An edited version of this manuscript will appear in the 2017 FSOP Lectureship Book.
Cotter, David W. Genesis. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003.
deSilva, David A. Perseverance in Gratitude A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews.” Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.
Harris, W. Hall, III et al., eds. The Lexham English Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012. Print.
Mathews, K. A. Genesis 11:27–50:26. Vol. 1B. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005. Print. The New American Commentary.
New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995. Print.
Sarna, Nahum M. Understanding Genesis. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1974.
Seiss, Joseph Augustus. Lectures on Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954
Stigers, Harold G. A Commentary on Genesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001. Print.
The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009. Print.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
The New Jerusalem Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1985. Print.
The Revised Standard Version. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1971. Print.
Whitworth, Michael. The Epic of God. Bowie, TX: Start2Finish Books, 2012.
Williams, Wilbur Glenn. Genesis A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition. Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2000