“Selling Our Birthrights”

Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford

We know from the story of the anointing of David that God does not see as man sees. In the case of David, God saw potential where no one else did. However, God is equally likely to judge more harshly than we do.

We see an instance of this in Genesis 25:27-34. It’s one of a frustrating series of stories in this portion of the book featuring Jacob the trickster and Esau the sucker. Repeatedly, Jacob uses his cleverness either to get something valuable belonging to Esau or to protect himself from Esau's very reasonable indignation.

In this case, Jacob swindles Esau out of his birthright, the double portion of the inheritance from Isaac that was due to the firstborn. Esau has returned from hunting, unsuccessful and starving. A decent brother would have fed him out of kindness, but Jacob demands the birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew. Esau takes the deal and loses the double portion.

In this story, Jacob is the villain, right? He schemes to take advantage of his own flesh and blood in a moment of need. However, that is not how the story is treated in the New Testament. In Hebrews 12:16, we are not warned against imitating Jacob. We are warned against imitating Esau!

For all of his questionable morality, Jacob possesses one vital attribute that Esau does not. Jacob looks to the future and does what he must now to receive good things later. Though he is not commended explicitly by the writer here, he falls into the same category as some other sketchy characters who are commended, like Rahab the harlot and the unrighteous steward of Luke 16. We are not to imitate them in sharp practice, lying, or embezzling, but we are to imitate them in looking to the future and acting accordingly.

Esau, by contrast, is so focused on his immediate desires that he forgets what fulfilling them will cost him. For this reason, the Hebrews writer condemns him as immoral and irreverent. This may seem harsh to us, but Esau has failed to keep his eyes on the prize, the very thing that everyone who hopes to inherit eternal life must do.

Certainly, Esau's foolishness was exploited by a trickster, but every one of us is the target of a deceiver who makes Jacob look naive by comparison. Constantly, the devil takes advantage of our moments of weakness to try to get us to give away our birthrights as children of the King. We shake our heads at the short-sightedness of the man who traded away his inheritance for a bowl of lentils, but everyone who surrenders their soul in exchange for earthly pleasure is making a far worse bargain!

When we are tempted, then, we should remember Esau. No matter what delights the evil one is dangling in front of us, they don't amount to a hill of beans next to what we would surrender. Only a Jacob-like focus on our ultimate reward will keep us safe.