My study today takes me to Gen 25 where I find the story of Jacob and Esau, and Esau’s selling his birthright for a bowl of red lentil stew that his fraternal twin brother, Jacob, was cooking.
Genesis 25:27 When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field, but Jacob was a peaceful man, living in tents. 28 Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 When Jacob had cooked stew, Esau came in from the field and he was famished; 30 and Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.” Therefore his name was called Edom. [Edom means “Red”] 31 But Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?” 33 And Jacob said, “First swear to me”; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Exodus 20:1 Then God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before Me.
Mark 12:28 One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; 30 AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’ 31 “The second is this, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (See Deut. 6:4)
The story is a familiar one and is popularly preached under the admonition of “don’t despise your birthright.” Even the scripture notes this in verse 34. What is this “birthright” the author of Genesis is talking about? The birthright, also called “primogeniture,” (primo = first; geniture = birth) is the right by custom or law of the firstborn to inherit the entire estate, to the exclusion of the other siblings (males implied). This is not a general custom here in the U.S. today, but was common in ancient times and the main purpose was to prevent the subdivision of the estate, which then was primarily land and animals.
This event was obviously important to the author: he could have written about hundreds of things in Esau’s life, but he chose just a few, this lentil/birthright event being one of them. Furthermore, this story stands alone in the midst of a narrative about Esau’s father, Isaac. It is preceded by the recounting of Abraham’s death and Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, and her pregnancy and the birth of their twins, Esau and Jacob, and it is immediately followed by an entire chapter describing several events in Isaac’s life. The placement of this story is distinctive, attracting attention, and so I believe the author wants us not to miss it.
As I mentioned, verse 34 seems to be the writer’s summary and moral conclusion. Every talk I’ve heard about this event focused on Esau’s disdain for his legal inheritance. However, I am going to look at the story from a different angle. Instead of looking at what Esau gave up, I will examine what was of primary importance to him. This story is important, not just for explaining how the younger son received the inheritance that was always given to the elder son, but also for telling us something about the character of each of them. At this moment in Esau’s life, food was the most important thing to him; more important than the right of primogeniture and all the privileges and the role that came with that. He was choosing a plate of food and forsaking the role of head of the family. He was opting to be on his own after the death of his father so he could get something to eat in that instant.
So, what do I learn from this story? Did God care what Esau ate and that he traded his legal inheritance for a bowl of soup? Certainly verse 34 implies that Esau was godless, because at the heart of the inheritance from Isaac were God’s covenant promises that were passed on from Abraham to his son, Isaac. Also implied is that Esau valued the physical over the spiritual, and that, at least in this instance, he would do anything for food. At that moment food was more important than anything else.
It reminds me of myself when I was eating with abandon despite being overweight. I was willing to trade my self-esteem, my energy, my looks, my self-discipline, and the birthright of my health for any food at the moment. Food, for Esau then, and for me, had become primary, usurping God’s rightful place of being first. For me food took God’s proper and merited place as Comforter, and I was transgressing the first commandment.
There are several lessons I gain from studying this story:
1. An undisciplined use of food can reveal a possibly undisciplined character.
2. When I use food to fill God’s role I displease God and jeopardize my health and contentedness.
3. I should be on guard to make sure that having any food (even chocolate!) never becomes primary in my life.
4. God cares how and what I eat because He always intended to be the most important thing in my life, and certainly more important than food.
Next up: more about Jacob and Esau.