Abraham’s life comes to an end and the story of Genesis begins to transition to Jacob, the man whose life will fill much of the rest of the book. Interestingly, though he lives longer than any patriarch and is the son of promise and the first member of Abraham’s great nation, the Bible says very little about Isaac. He is essentially a transitional character. Jacob, on the other hand, dominates a large portion of Genesis. His story, however, is unlike Abraham in that his life is marked by scheming and deceit – both by him and by those around him. Chapter 25 marks Abraham’s death and Jacob’s birth, but with both events the story of God’s redemptive plan continues.
The chapter begins with an amazing piece of information – Abraham marries again. He takes a wife named Keturah. Nothing is in the text as to where she is from or when in Abraham’s life they marry. Since he already has Isaac he likely does not worry about marrying a woman who is not from his family (as he forbade his servant from allowing Isaac to do), so she very possibly is a Canaanite. And since nothing is said about timing and Keturah is also referred to as his concubine (6), it could be that she is around even before Sarah dies. What seems to make sense, however – since he never took a concubine except at Sarah’s urging during all the years she was barren – is that he takes Keturah as his concubine/wife after Sarah is gone .
What is incredible – and a little hard to understand – is that they conceive SIX sons together. The man who was continually described as old and unable to father a child when he was 100 now fathers six sons with Keturah when he is presumably decades older. There is nothing in the text as to how this is possible, so perhaps God miraculously intervenes and specifically blesses him with virility. Keturah is likely many, many years younger and of child-bearing age, so her fitness is likely not in question.
Toward the end of his life Abraham makes it clear who is his true son and heir. He establishes that Isaac will inherit all he has and carry on the family name. The other sons – including Ishmael – receive gifts but are not set up as heirs. Even more, Abraham sends the sons of Keturah away to live in the east (never a good thing in Genesis) – away from Isaac. There must be no question as to who the son of promise is. Perhaps Abraham hears Sarah’s voice in his ear – the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac (21:10) – as he ensures that nothing gets in the way of Isaac being the chosen one.
Abraham dies at the age of 175. He lives 38 years after Sarah’s death and 15 years after the birth of his grandsons – Esau and Jacob (he is 140 when Isaac gets married at the age of 40 – Isaac is 60 when the twins are born). God blesses him to the end and fulfills everything He promised. Abraham dies wealthy and with two generations of the great nation God promised him alive. Even more, he dies content. He dies in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life. God gives him comfort, family, and peace. Abraham dies satisfied because he served God faithfully and walked with Him for the last 100 years of his life, all the while looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Heb 11:10). This is the end every child of God aspires to.
There has been no mention of Ishmael since Abraham sent him and his mother away soon after Isaac was weaned (21:14). At Abraham’s death, however, Ishmael comes back and actually helps Isaac bury him in the cave Abraham purchased for Sarah’s burial. It has been over 70 years since Abraham sent him away, but apparently he thinks enough of his father to pay his respects and put aside any animosities with Isaac. For another angle on this, however, see verse 18.
Ishmael has 12 sons. It is interesting that though he is not the son of promise and is not the one through whom Abraham’s great nation will come about, he has six times as many sons as Isaac. And unlike Isaac, none of his wives apparently goes through any barrenness. Where he falls far short of Isaac, however, is length of life. He lives 137 years compared to Isaac’s 180.
The end of verse 18 includes a small comment that is not entirely clear, but perhaps shows the fulfillment of the angel’s prophecy about Ishmael. It appears that Ishmael and/or his descendants settle and live in such a way that they are in constant strife with his relatives. This goes along with what the angel told pregnant Hagar when she fled from Sarah – “And he will be a wild donkey of a man, his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him; and he will live to the east of all his brothers” (16:12 – note that he lives to the east as well). This sheds a different light on Ishmael’s decision to come back and bury Abraham. Perhaps his appearance is even more amazing since he is in constant strife with his extended family.
The story switches back to Isaac and the text says that he is 40 when he and Rebekah marry. Amazingly – in light of God’s promise that Isaac is the first member of a nation that will someday number as many as the stars of the sky – she is barren for the first 20 years of their marriage (Isaac is 60 when she gives birth – 26). She has the promise of descendants just as her mother-in-law did and yet suffers through the same barrenness. God in His wisdom and timing decides to close Rebekah’s womb for two decades after making it clear that she is His choice for Isaac’s wife. (God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways are not our ways. God doesn’t wear our watch.)
We aren’t sure what precipitates Isaac taking action (it takes 20 years before he decides to do something?), but he decides to pray for Rebekah (interestingly, something we never saw Abraham explicitly do for Sarah). He prays and God hears him and enables Rebekah to conceive. She not only becomes pregnant, but becomes pregnant with twins.
The twins inside her struggle with each other continually, to the point that Rebekah thinks something is terribly wrong. The exact meaning of the text in verse 22 is not clear, but it seems to mean that she questions how her pregnancy can be so difficult if it is God-ordained. And how will she and the baby (she may or may not know at this point that she’s carrying twins) survive? The struggle going on in her womb is apparently so intense that she fears for her and the baby’s lives.
Some thoughts to consider at this point in the story. Is Rebekah God’s chosen wife for Isaac? Is her pregnancy with twins from God? The answer to both is ‘yes.’ Yet neither the marriage nor the pregnancy go as planned. Rebekah is barren for 20 years after Isaac marries her – not at all what anyone wants. And when she does become pregnant – what she likely has wished for her entire married life – her pregnancy is difficult to the point where she questions her survival. God clearly acts in both situations, yet neither is smooth and successful as we count success. We must be careful about how we define where God is involved in our lives and not assume success equals God’s presence and failure means He is missing.
Somehow – the text does not explain how – Rebekah goes to God to inquire about her pregnancy. God tells her that two nations are in her womb and that the older will serve the younger. The two boys struggle in her womb because they will struggle their whole lives. They will effectively never get along. And though culturally the older son takes precedent, in their case the younger will be stronger and will have authority over the older. It is likely that both Rebekah and Isaac hear this prophecy (or at least it seems like Rebekah would tell Isaac abut it), but based on the rest of the story it is apparent that Rebekah takes it more to heart and never forgets it.
When she gives birth she does in fact give birth to twins. What is amazing, however, is how different the boys are. They look nothing alike as one is hairy and red-headed, and the other is neither of those things. The firstborn is the hairy one and they name him Esau. The second comes out holding on to the heel of Esau (thus showing already that the struggle of the last nine months is not going to end) and so they name him Jacob. The name Jacob literally means “one who takes by the heel.” To grasp by the heel, however, is a figure of speech meaning “to deceive.” Thus Jacob’s name can also mean “deceiver,” a name that proves to be appropriate throughout his life.
The first recorded event in the boys’ lives shows their respective characteristics and establishes the foundation for their ongoing relationship. Esau grows up to be a man of the outdoors. He is a skillful hunter. Jacob, on the other hand, is a man of peace living in tents. He is much more domestic than Esau. The description of Jacob as a peaceful man seems to imply that along with being a man of the outdoors Esau is boisterous and perhaps even violent or uncouth. Exacerbating the differences between the boys is the fact that the parents play favorites. Rebekah loves Jacob presumably because he spends his time inside with her – he is a mama’s boy. Isaac, on the other hand, really likes the food Esau brings back from the field and so favors him (Isaac comes off as a man of great depth in this description).
[In many ways it is difficult to like Jacob. As a youth he’s a mama’s boy who schemes and deceives. As an adult he continues to scheme and deceive. In his old age he then is victimized by scheming and deceit. He proves to be largely a bad son, a bad husband, and a bad father. He grows up in a dysfunctional family and then presides over an even more dysfunctional family. He grows up with his parents playing favorites, and then as a husband and father makes no secret about playing favorites with his wives and sons. Yet with all this he is probably the most important patriarch next to Abraham. He is the one after whom the nation of Israel is named. Jacob is the perfect example of how the history of mankind is written to show the greatness of God in the midst of the failures of men.]
We do not know when the story of verses 29-34 takes place, but apparently the boys are old enough to come and go but young enough that they live at home and are unmarried. Regardless of how old they are, it happens that one day Esau comes in from the field – presumably after a day of unsuccessful hunting – and finds Jacob cooking lentil stew. Esau is extremely hungry and tired. So hungry, in fact, that he describes himself as about to die (likely an exaggeration – similar to saying “I’m about to starve to death!” to explain how hungry we are). Esau explains that he is famished asks Jacob for some stew. The way he asks makes it sound as if he’s a barbarian. He effectively says, “Feed me that red stuff!” The word he uses is the same word used to describe feeding animals. Because he calls the stew red stuff, his nickname becomes Edom (means ‘red’) from here on (which seems to mean that this story becomes well known and infamous – which you would think is not a good thing from Esau’s standpoint – however, the name Edom becomes so associated with him that the nation that comes from him is called by it).
Jacob responds in an odd way to Esau’s request. Instead of simply saying yes or no, he tells Esau that he will give him some stew only if Esau gives him his birthright. He asks Esau to give up his claim to the firstborn’s place as the main heir and the one who assumes control of the father’s estate in return for something to eat. The bargain is laughably bad. To trade something that affects the rest of their lives in return for lunch would be galactically short-sighted. It is amazing in many ways that Jacob is so brash. That he thinks of this in this situation shows his scheming nature (how long has he thought about the birthright?), his selfishness, and his complete disdain for his brother. While Esau just knows he’s famished, Jacob thinks way beyond food to the opportunity for his own advancement at his brother’s expense. Jacob clearly has no respect or love for Esau.
Esau’s response proves that Jacob knows his brother well and didn’t overestimate his lack of vision. Esau says, “Behold, I am about to die; so what use then is the birthright to me?” He can’t see beyond his own hunger. It’s so important to him that nothing else – even something with lifelong ramifications – matters. He just wants food and the birthright won’t come into play for years. If the choice is between food now or birthright much later, it’s an easy decision.
Jacob doesn’t just accept Esau’s words, however. He says, “First swear to me.” He doesn’t leave anything to chance and won’t allow Esau to come back later and claim it was a mistake. He wants to seal the deal with an oath. So Esau swears to Jacob and sells the birthright. Jacob then serves him bread and stew and Esau eats and then goes on his way. He has just changed the entire trajectory of his life but seems to have no concern about it at all.
The last sentence in verse 34 summarizes the story. Thus Esau despised his birthright. This does not mean that as a result of selling it he now despises it. What it means is that he never thought of it as important, so he sold it with no regrets and no worries. The author of Hebrews (12:16) states that Esau is an immoral and godless person and cites as an example the sale of his birthright. This is because it shows he has no appreciation for God’s blessing on Abraham and the great nation that will come from his heirs. He just gave away the opportunity to continue the line of promise. He also – unwittingly – just fulfilled God’s prophecy about the older serving the younger. Esau is a godless and short-sighted fool who doesn’t care about the special place his family has in God’s plan. He cares only about himself and his own little world. And to his chagrin he has a brother who will be three steps ahead of him throughout their whole lives and will ensure he continually comes up short in the family.
Thought on Esau and Jacob
This story is a good example of God’s sovereignty in action. God told Rebekah before the boys were born that the older would serve the younger. He seemed to say this almost arbitrarily as they obviously hadn’t done anything right or wrong (Rom 9:10-13). Yet in this story we see Esau acting out God’s plan on his own volition. Does anyone make Esau treat his birthright as a meal ticket? In the birthright conversation between the boys, does it seem like they have no choice in how they act or speak? God designated Esau as the son outside the line of promise, so from one standpoint it seems as if he has no chance for redemption. Yet when we read through the events of Esau’s life we see him repeatedly making choices that take him away from God. Is God sovereign? Absolutely. Does it seem somewhat unfair that Esau is ruled out before he’s even born? Perhaps. But when we see the direction of his life it is hard to sympathize with his plight or feel that he has been shortchanged. Where man’s will stops and God’s sovereignty begins is extremely difficult to understand. Yet from a horizontal perspective it almost always appears that unbelievers choose their own destiny.