Jacob or Esau? Take Your Pick!

We have argued that Canaan is a symbol of Eden. Be this as it may, Jacob never found paradise in Canaan. Rather, it was a place of darkness for him and for his family. We find that we cannot even entertain the idea that Jacob, linked to God as he was through promise, was all that good or godly of a man. In fact, we are hard pressed to find anyone in his family that strikes us as “spiritual.” What we find are individuals laboring under their own darkness and illusions.

We begin with the birth of twins, Jacob and Esau, whose pre-natal warfare made the womb, otherwise the safest place in the human cycle of life, a battlefield (25:19-34). Jacob fails in his desperate attempt to beat his brother to the door, but, possessed with an offensive stubbornness of character, grasps his brother’s heal on the way out, thus earning for himself the unattractive name ya`aqob meaning “insidious one,” or “he takes by the heel,” which may have carried the English connotation, “a heel.” As for Esau, there is something freakish about his début reminiscent of tabloid magazines; a hairy infant with an unusual red, or earth-toned color. His outward appearance paralleled his earthy character. He preferred hunting and the outdoors, and to his parents distress, Canaanite women (26:34f.). Jacob was a predator of a different sort. He is styled as urbane and cunning, possessing insight into the weaknesses of others so as to gain advantage. He understands his brother’s sensual appetite and concocts a “red” stew that conformed to his brother’s physique and temperament. True to his character, Esau grunted, “Let me jaw down some red stuff, this red stuff here,” selling his first-born status to Jacob for a pot of stew. Later, Jacob steals his blind father’s blessing from him (Chapter 27). This episode likewise centers on appetite. Isaac is reduced to a mere omnivorous biped in his old age, granting his blessings on the basis of his craving for wild game. He is not the grand old patriarch we would expect, blind in more ways than one. Esau had much more in common with his father than one would think.

Esau symbolizes sensual man and the animal urge for immediacy, but overall comes off as a decent guy. He is a “man’s man,” the kind one could “kick back” and enjoy watching a football game with. In the end we see his good nature come out when he forgives his brother for his crimes, a thing not common in a land where enemies are enemies forever, and curses are hurled through generations. He even made an attempt to smooth things over with his parents by marrying a “good girl” of Abraham’s stock, albeit through Ishmael the outcast (28:9). The fact that Isaac preferred him to Jacob may well have had something to do with the fact that he was the more likable of the two, apart from the old man’s appetite.

Esau’s great illusion was that he thought that he could ignore spiritual matters. When we compare this failure with Jacob’s vices─a man who simply operates with no integrity, who would stab his own brother in his back, moving about with no morals, manipulating by deceit, pestering and grabbing from birth, and anxious to get to the top whatever it takes─we are tempted to treat Esau’s lack of interest in spirituality as a slight oversight. After all, if someone is basically a “good guy”, what’s the problem if he doesn’t take interest in spiritual things? When we consider, however, that from this “oversight” came the nation of Edom, the fountainhead of a race that would forever be hostile to God’s people throughout its history, we find that there is no such thing as a “slight” illusion. Illusions are dangerous in whatever form.

Personally, I find it a hard matter to choose between the two. If pressed, I think I like Esau better. The more important question is, on what basis does God choose Jacob over Esau? The text makes it clear that there is little in Jacob that makes him attractive at all. True, he possesses a desire for the birthright that links him to Abraham and Isaac, and for the blessing that would link him to creation, but achieves these by cunning and deceit. But all this speculation ultimately falls to the ground; It was all settled, as far as the text is concerned, in the womb before birth.

2 Responses to “Jacob or Esau? Take Your Pick!”

  1. Hi Fr. John, Is there a motif of “choice”? God chose each of the patriarchs, Saul, David, prophets, Mary, the disciples, etc., even the land itself, just to mention a few. Jesus said, “You haven’t chosen Me, I have chosen you, and ordained you…”. Did Jacob, perhaps, have a perspective or vision for life that was missing in Esau, one that was above earthly and more noble, in spite of all his vices and not-so-noble ways of attaining it? I’m thinking that God could have cast Jacob away as being unworthy to inherit the blessings and promises; but instead, He chose to encounter him and break him in such a way that Jacob eventually chose to abandon his own futile ways and rely solely on God ‘s grace. Esau, in trashing his birthright, cast away the pearl of great price – and Jacob bought the field.
    I choose Jacob AFTER God chose a new name for him – Israel.

  2. Jacqui – You are absolutely right-on. I want to develop Jacob more over the next few posts, but you help clarify the problem of Jacob with this comment, especially with the question, “Did Jacob, perhaps, have a perspective or vision for life that was missing in Esau, one that was above earthly and more noble, in spite of all his vices and not-so-noble ways of attaining it?” I would add that Jacob possessed a non-moral draw to God. By “non-moral” I mean that he had a draw to God and the Eternal that Esau did not possess, but it did not seem to make much of an impact on his moral actions.

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