The Lookout | 11.9.08
By Alan Dowd

“Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?” The words were Esau’s, and the answer was no.

It is one of the most heartbreaking episodes depicted in scripture—a brother stealing from his brother, a father at the end of his power, a mother conniving to hurt one son and help another.

Over the centuries, we have come to an unspoken consensus that Esau got what he deserved, that anyone willing to trade a birthright for a meal has forfeited his father’s farewell blessing. But Esau deserves credit for more than a growling stomach, and others in this sad story deserve more of the blame.

Profiles in Cowardice

The story of Esau and Jacob is all the more tragic when we consider how it began. Genesis 25 reminds us they were miracle twins, the evidence of a faithful God.

They struggled with one another even before they were born, foreshadowing the struggles that would come. Scripture tells us Esau was a hunter, “a man of the open country.” His twin was “a quiet man, staying among the tents.”

Scripture also tells us that Rebekah, the family matriarch, favored Jacob, while Esau was loved by his father Isaac, “who had a taste for wild game.”

Isaac saw in Esau his own reflection. And like any dad, it delighted him to know that his child shared his interests and talents. Scripture is silent on what, if anything, Isaac saw in Jacob.

Doubtless, he saw Jacob’s scheming side, like the time he made a deal with his hungry brother over a meal. Coming in from the country, Esau asked his little brother for some hot stew. But Jacob wanted something in return, something big—his big brother’s birthright. 

The price was high, but the shortsighted Esau paid it—all his inheritance for a bowl of stew and some bread. Esau’s god was his stomach, and it cost him dearly.

“How could Esau do such a thing?” we ask. The author of Hebrews offered his answer by calling Esau “godless.”

But we might also ask, “How could Jacob do such a thing?” Recall his first reaction to a brother in need was not to offer a helping hand, but to find the angle that lined his own pocket. Not exactly the stuff of a saint.

And Jacob wasn’t done. Genesis 27 recounts how Isaac, at his deathbed, asks Esau to “go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.”

Rebekah overhears Isaac’s request and orders Jacob to choose two goats from the flock so that she can prepare the meal Isaac has requested. Jacob dutifully complies, but only after reminding his mother that he is smooth-skinned, while Esau is hairy. “What if my father touches me?” Jacob asks. In other words, his only concern is getting caught.

But Rebekah has that covered—literally. She covers Jacob’s arms in goatskins.

Jacob carries out Rebekah’s plan perfectly. He even ad-libs when his father asks how he caught the game so quickly. “The Lord your God gave me success,” he explains. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.

Jacob somehow succeeds at committing the sins of blind ambition and craven cowardice at the same time. And yet he also succeeds at getting what he wanted. Isaac blesses Jacob with what belongs to Esau.

Just a moment later, Esau returns. But it is too late. When father and son realize they have been tricked, Isaac trembles in anger and Esau weeps. “Bless me—me too, my father!” he cries. “Do you have only one blessing?” he asks. But Isaac tells him he has nothing left to give. “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing,” the feeble father concedes.

To hear Esau’s helpless despair, his hopeless appeal for justice, is almost too much to bear. All Esau wanted was what was rightfully his, but it has been stolen. To add insult to injury, his brother and mother did the stealing.

Esau ultimately decides to repair the harm on his own. “I will kill my brother Jacob,” he promises himself.

Broken Branches

Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you have worked hard to earn something, only to have it snatched away at that last moment. Whether you “had it coming,” as so many of us say about the shortsighted Esau, or it came out of the blue, it hurt.

It’s a feeling, thank heavens, most of us don’t feel too often—a helpless, hopeless feeling that leads to hard questions about whether God really cares about justice. He does, by the way. And you are not the first to think otherwise. Just ask Joseph or Job or Esau.

Or perhaps you haven’t been the victim, but rather the guilty. I am embarrassed to admit that I can relate to all of the guilty parties in this sordid story. There have been too many times when I have, like Isaac, put a limit on the number of blessings I can give. Like Rebekah, I have schemed to orchestrate events so that they will go my way. Like Esau, I have sacrificed the eternal for the momentary. Like Jacob, I have failed to speak up when injustice is done.

But the story of Esau and Jacob reminds us there is good news for me and the rest of the broken branches in God’s family tree.

God blesses us despite our flaws

God looks past our past and sees what we could be, what we were meant to be. He loves us in spite of the flaws. And He blesses us in spite of the brokenness.


Jacob would flee to avoid Esau’s wrath. His self-imposed exile led him far from home but closer to God. In fact, it was during his flight from all the things he schemed to steal that he turned to God and asked for help.

Genesis 28 recounts Jacob’s desperate prayer for the very basics of life, “food to eat and clothes to wear.” And in this desperate hour, God blesses him: Jacob finds a welcoming family to shelter him. His fields teem with flocks. And he marries a beautiful woman, but only after he learns what it’s like to be on the other side of deception.

Then, when Jacob is forced to flee again, he is led directly into the path of his embittered brother. The thought of encountering Esau leaves Jacob “in great fear and distress.”

Guilt-ridden and fear-struck, Jacob gathers up hundreds of animals as tribute. “I will pacify him with these gifts,” he convinces himself. And then, at the darkest hour, he encounters God yet again. He struggles with God all night until he receives an eternal blessing—a new name that countless generations will call their own. Because of his encounter with God, he is prepared to meet Esau, no matter what happens.

Jacob bows low in deference to his brother. But Esau will have none of it. He doesn’t want Jacob to pay him back or pay him off. He just wants his brother.

Foreshadowing the prodigal’s father racing to embrace his wayward son, Genesis 33 tells of that joyous moment when “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.”

Forgiveness heals

They were tears of redemption. It seems the intervening years had changed Esau as well. Not only has God blessed him beyond measure with flocks and territory; God has blessed him with the healing balm of forgiveness.

The story of Esau and Jacob could have ended in a darker tragedy. But unlike Cain, Esau never laid a hand on his brother, except to embrace him. God blessed Esau with a grace that overtook his anger and a mercy that overlooked his imperfections. And Esau blessed his brother by sharing these precious gifts.

If to err is human and to forgive divine, then Esau was transformed from godless to godly.

God’s blessings are boundless and bottomless

Isaac was too blind to see the fractures dividing his family, too feeble to comfort his son, too weak to right the injustice. But God is none of these.

He sees all things, even when a sparrow falls, even when you fall. “Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.” (Luke 12)

Esau’s father left him un-consoled, but the Lord promises one day to wipe away every tear. He wants to comfort us like a mother. “How often I have longed to gather your children together,” as Jesus put it, “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” (Luke 13) 

And though we may question His timing and even His strength, God’s power is beyond description and His timing is perfect. He created creation with a few breaths. He is the timeless One who makes all things new. He gives orders to the morning and sends lightning bolts on their way. He is the author of life and conqueror of death. His angels defeat armies, divide the seas and defend the helpless. And His son came to earth “at just the righttime” to rescue us—and bless us.

Isaac may have run out of blessings, but God never does.