Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:34)
In today’s reading, we move into the birth and life of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and the child of the promise. His brother, Esau, was a great hunter and Jacob was a plain, sincere man. The same word is used to describe Noah in Genesis 6:9 as a just and perfect man. A contrast between the two men becomes apparent in this short description of them; Esau is a fierce hunter (the word used to describe him could also be translated as “rude”) and Jacob a plain man. Here, we see already that the fruits of a regenerate heart are evident in Jacob, though imperfectly (as we shall see shortly).
And why? God promised to their mother, Rebekah, in v.23 that the elder would serve the younger (Jacob being the younger). This is contrary to the customs of the ancient Near East because typically the firstborn son inherited the property and prestige of the father. However, God is pleased to use that which is weak to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).
It appears at this time that there was a famine in the land (Gen. 26:1) and this may have prompted the extreme hunger of Esau. However, it is unlikely that he was without any access to food; Abraham and his descendants had amassed a great wealth in their time and likely were not destitute of provision during this famine.
Therefore, when Jacob tempts Esau, he is not tempting a man without other means. Esau perceived that the food was delicious by its smell and appearance. He coveted the stew. This covetousness was such that he gave over his birthright to Jacob in exchange (v.33).
In this, Jacob himself had sinned against his brother and against God. There’s plenty of blame to go around here. It is without doubt that God would have given Jacob the birthright with time. However, Jacob sinfully tempted his brother’s weakness and anticipated the plan of God.
Paul takes up the story of Jacob and Esau in Romans 9 when quoting Malachi 1:2-3 “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” The choice of Jacob preceded anything either he or Esau did. It was in the plan of God at the foundation of the world that the promise would come through Jacob. God has mercy on whom he has mercy. Jacob is the elect of God; Esau is the reprobate, outside the saving mercy of God.
However, we must understand that Esau was not under compulsion to make the choices he made. As the Westminster Confession teaches, God is the first cause of all things but this doesn’t obliterate secondary causes; instead, secondary causes are established. God acts efficiently in whatever shall come to pass and yet man acts both formally and subjectively (in addition to efficiently) to make these things come to pass. Man is the physical cause, God is what Turretin refers to as the “hyperphysical” cause. Esau was not compelled to act as he did. He acted according to his will and desire. This perfectly conformed to the will of God.
Finally, we must understand that Esau is instructive for us as an example. Paul tells us in Hebrews:
Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears. (Hebrews 12:16-17)
Esau was profane because he took that which was sacred – his birthright – and sold it for a profane meal. We understand v. 17 to mean that he had a carnal kind of repentance, not the kind of repentance God gives.
Calvin is instructive here. I will end with his commentary on these verses from Hebrews. This Lord’s Day, take time to consider whether your repentance from sin is genuine – the kind of repentance that God gives – or the kind of repentance that cares only for avoiding the just judgment of God.
For the Apostle seems to imply this when he tells us that Esau’s repentance availed him nothing. My reply is, that repentance here is not to be taken for sincere conversion to God; but it was only that terror with which the Lord smites the ungodly, after they have long indulged themselves in their iniquity. Nor is it a wonder that this terror should be said to be useless and unavailing, for they do not in the meantime repent nor hate their own vices, but are only tormented by a sense of their own punishment. The same thing is to be said of tears; whenever a sinner sighs on account of his sins, the Lord is ready to pardon him, nor is God’s mercy ever sought in vain, for to him who knocks it shall be opened, (Matthew 7:8;) but as the tears of Esau were those of a man past hope, they were not shed on account of having offended God; so the ungodly, however they may deplore their lot, complain and howl, do not yet knock at God’s door for mercy, for this cannot be done but by faith. And the more grievously conscience torments them, the more they war against God and rage against him. They might indeed desire that an access should be given them to God; but as they expect nothing but his wrath, they shun his presence. Thus we often see that those who often say, as in a jest, that repentance is sufficiently in time when they are drawing towards their end, do then cry bitterly, amidst dreadful agonies, that the season of obtaining repentance is past; for that they are doomed to destruction because they did not seek God until it was too late.