Sermon: “A Tale of Two Brothers” (Genesis 36:1–37:1)
Before Jacob and Esau were born, God told Rebekah that her two sons would eventually become two nations, and that the older would serve the younger (Gen. 25:23). Before, during, and after being born, the two wrestled with one another, with each trying to gain the upper hand over the other. Esau eventually gained Isaac’s love, while Jacob gained Rebekah’s (Gen. 25:28). This was more than a simple case of sibling rivalry, however, for the Scriptures demonstrate that each brother lives according to fundamentally different values. Jacob, then, is a “blameless man” (ESV: “quiet man”; Gen. 25:27; cf. Job 1:8; 2:3). This, of course, does not mean that Jacob never does anything wrong, for, as we have seen, Jacob lives a usurping, manipulative scoundrel.
Instead, this tells us something of Jacob’s heavenly-mindedness in contrast with Esau, who lived as a worldly, earthly-minded “man of the field” (Gen. 25:27). So, in an act of sensual gluttony, Esau “despised his birthright” so much that he sold it to Jacob for a bowl of stew (Gen. 25:34). Notably, the text of Genesis 25 does not condemn Jacob for driving this hard bargain; rather, we see Jacob’s heavenly-mindedness in his willingness to exchange his worldly goods (the stew) for the birthright. Later, Esau forfeited God’s blessing by foolishly marrying two of the Canaanite women whom God had promised to dispossess from the land (Gen. 26:34–35; cf. Gen. 15:18–21; 24:2–4). Even when Esau realized that his Canaanite wives did not please his parents, he only exacerbated his error by marrying a daughter of Ishmael, whom God had also excluded from the promise (Gen. 28:6–9; cf. Gen. 17:19–21; 21:12–13). Certainly, Jacob was wrong to deceive his blind father to steal the blessing in Genesis 27, but the text is very clear that Esau had already disqualified himself from receiving it.
Elsewhere, we read of God’s election of Jacob and his rejection of Esau contrasted in the strongest possible terms: “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated” (Mal. 1:3). Why does God choose one over the other? Importantly, God declared his choice before either was born and did anything good or bad (Gen. 25:23). By this, God demonstrated that he chose Jacob over Esau purely for the sake of his purposes in election (Rom. 9:10–13). We have seen how extensively the Genesis emphasize God’s undeserved grace toward Jacob as well as the road of suffering that God has used to discipline Jacob. Additionally, Genesis has demonstrated that Esau’s worldliness disqualifies him from any claim of merit before God. So, the Scriptures teach both that God excluded Esau from the promises before Esau was born and that Esau’s worldliness disqualifies him from receiving the promises.
Even so, Genesis 36 tells us that Esau’s story cannot be summarized purely as a story of God’s rejection. Certainly, we will see that God does exile Esau away from the land of Canaan in order to establish Jacob there. Nevertheless, we will also see that God blesses Esau with a tremendous amount of temporal, worldly blessings: large numbers, great influence, kingly strength, and a land for his possession in Seir. Esau, after all, is a son of Isaac, even if he is not the elect son of Isaac. Indeed, Esau’s worldly blessings will far exceed what God gives to Jacob in the short-term. Most importantly, however, this passage also sets up the larger story of Esau’s descendants, the nation of Edom, in the Scriptures. The message of Genesis 36:1–37:1, then, is that God excludes the worldly from his promises in order to enroll the whole world as his people.