Isaac's Children: Jacob and Esau
Beginning with the second half of Genesis 25:19, we start the records of Jacob. His account of the events in his life ends with the first half of Genesis 37:2. As with the other records, the account starts with a brief history of the writer's grandfather and father.
For twenty years, Rebekah and Isaac had no children (Genesis 25:20, 26). Isaac turned to God for help and God answered his prayer. Rebekah became pregnant, but she began to suspect something unusual was happening when she noticed more movement in her womb than would be expected. It was unusual enough that she went to the Lord to ask about her condition. We do not know if she went to a prophet or if she simply prayed on her own behalf. We also do not know how God chose to answer her -- whether through a prophet, a vision, or a dream.
God told Rebekah that she was to have twins, but twins with very different personalities. They would go their separate ways and found two different nations. One of the two would be stronger, but more importantly, the older child would serve the younger. In other words, the control of the family would pass on to the second-born child. This right to lead the family is generally referred to as the blessing. Do not confuse the blessing with the birthright. The birthright was a double portion of the inheritance when the father died.
This proclamation of a change in who would receive the blessing is similar to what happened between Ishmael and Isaac. Even though Ishmael was Abraham's first-born son, the birthright and the blessing went to Isaac. The general practice is for the blessing to go to the first-born son, but it did not happen all the time. God looks at things differently from men (Romans 9:10-13, Malachi 1:2-3). God foresaw that the blessing would need to follow the second-born son. Isaac was aware of God's choice, but over time, he began to favor his eldest son.
The first son to be born was covered with red hair, so he was named Esau, which means "hairy." The second son was born holding on to his brother's heel, so they named him Jacob. Jacob means "heel-catcher" like one of those nasty kids at school who stick their foot out to trip you. Jacob's name becomes prophetic of how he behaves in later life.
As the children grew, Esau became an outdoors man and a noted hunter. Unfortunately, he also took to laying with women and treating righteous living with contempt (Hebrews 12:16). Unlike his notorious brother, Jacob stayed closed to home. He is described as a plain or peaceable man. The Hebrew word here literally means he was a complete man. Unlike his brother, Jacob grew up to be spiritually mature (Malachi 1:2-3, Micah 7:20). We can see that God was accurate in his choice of who was to received the blessing. Yet, we find that Isaac was partial to Esau -- not because of Esau qualities of character, but because he liked the taste of the food Esau brought home from his hunts. At the same time, Rebekah was partial to Jacob.
Customarily, the eldest son received a double portion of the inheritance, which was called the birthright (Deuteronomy 21:17). For Isaac's family, this means that Isaac's possessions would be divided into three parts. Two parts would go to Esau and one part would go to Jacob. While this is the general practice, it could be altered (I Chronicles 5:1-2). The second item the eldest child received from his father was the blessing (Genesis 27:29). The child receiving the blessing became the patriarch of the extended family when his father died. The blessing was particularly important in families descending from Abraham because with it came the covenant God made with Abraham. While the blessing normally goes to the eldest child, the selected child can be changed.
One day, Esau comes back hungry from his hunt. Seeing the red-bean stew that Jacob was cooking, he begs for a bowl. The literal wording is interesting in this passage. Esau asks to gulp down some of that red stuff. It shows that Esau is impatient and doesn't care what he ate, he just wants something to eat right now. Jacob, perhaps in jest or in earnest, offers him a bowl in exchange for Esau's birthright. The shocking thing is that Esau accepts this offer! Isaac is an extremely wealthy man. Esau's birthright in today's terms must have been worth millions of dollars, yet he flippantly gives it way for a single bowl of soup. Esau's reason for this casual disregard for his inheritance was his belief that he would die young -- not because he was so hungry, but because his lifestyle was not conducive to a long life.
When Jacob realized Esau was serious, he made Esau take a formal vow to bind the agreement. Many people condemn Jacob for taking advantage of his brother, but notice that the Scriptures consistently condemn Esau, not Jacob. Jacob did not starve his brother to force him to give up his birthright. It was Esau who came back from a hunt hungry. Perhaps Jacob should not have asked for the birthright, but Esau freely sold it for a bowl of red-bean stew.
Because of this incidence, Esau picks up the nickname "Edom," which means red. Everyone called him "Red" because he despised his inheritance enough to sell it for a bowl of red-bean stew. He never lived down his bad decision. The nation which descended from Esau was known as the kingdom of Edom.
Some time thereafter, a famine spread through the land of Canaan. Isaac moves his family to the area of Gerar, which is closer to the coast. He considers going farther, down into the land of Egypt, but God forbids it. God reaffirms the covenant he made with Abraham with Isaac. However, notice that God does this for Abraham's sake, not Isaac's sake. Here is a hint that Isaac is not the man his father was. Since Esau and Jacob is not mentioned in this account, some commentators assume they stayed behind in the Negev.
While in Gerar, Isaac repeats the lie of Abraham. He tells everyone that Rebekah was his sister and does not mention that she is his wife. While Sarah was Abraham's half-sister, Abraham deceived everyone by not mentioning that she was his wife. In Isaac's case, Isaac told an outright lie. The king of Gerar, whose name is also Abimelech, discovered the lie when he happen to see Isaac and Rebekah caressing his wife -- an action one would not take with one's sister. This Abimelech is not the same man as the one Abraham knew. It appears that Abimelech is a title, like Pharaoh in Egypt (I Samuel 21:10-15 and the heading of Psalm 34).
Abimelech rightly rebukes Isaac for lying. He points out that he could have caused one of his people to commit adultery and bring God's wrath upon them. Notice that in this point Abimelech is more righteous than Isaac. Here Isaac is lying because he is afraid of being killed so someone can steal his wife and Abimelech is concerned that Isaac is going to make one of his people sin. Abimelech further shows his goodness when he issues a decree placing Isaac and Rebekah under his personal protection.
That year, Isaac's crops returned a hundred-fold. He prospered so well that his Philistine neighbors became jealous of Isaac. The people plugged up Isaac's wells to force him to move away. Abimelech, too, asks Isaac to leave. Perhaps he felt he could no longer protect Isaac, or perhaps he, too, felt that Isaac was becoming wealthy at the expense of his own people.
Isaac could have stayed. There was an earlier agreement between the kings of Gerar and Abraham, which allowed Abraham and his descendants to use the wells and reside in the area (Genesis 20:15). However, Isaac chooses to move on.
Isaac moves further east and reopens some of Abraham's wells. However, the Philistines laid claim to the water, even though the wells were unused and had been filled in. Isaac names the well "Quarrel Well" and moves further east.
Here Isaac and his men dig a new well at the second spot, but the same thing happens. The Philistines claimed the water was theirs. So, Isaac names the well "Hatred Well" and moves further to the east. At the third location, no one bothers Isaac or lays claim to the well he had dug. He names this well "Well of Ample Room."
Some time later, Isaac moves back to Beersheba. God appears to Isaac again and reaffirms His covenant with Abraham. In tribute, Isaac builds an altar to God at that place and digs another well near it. This is the only altar the Scriptures mention that Isaac built. From this we conclude that Isaac is more material minded than his father Abraham. As Abraham moves, we find the first thing he frequently does is to build an altar. When Isaac moves, the first thing that is mentioned is that Isaac digs a well.
After Isaac settles in at Beersheba -- a long distance from Gerar Abimelech and his captain visit Isaac to make peace. Isaac is too rich and powerful to leave as an enemy encamped on the boarders of Gerar. This is especially true when it is obvious that God is on Isaac's side. Once again, an oath is made on this spot. The name Beersheba means "the well of the oath."
At the close of this reading, we learn that Esau takes two wives from the Hitite nation. Not only is Esau a fornicator and a profane man, he is now a polygamist as well. Esau's wives are not believers in God and they become a constant source of grief for Isaac and Rebekah. Notice that Esau chose his own wives. This is a strong contrast to Abraham's desire for a godly wife for Isaac.