Too often the Bible is reduced to morality-based-lesson-fodder for memes, sermons, and TED talks. This is even more true for stories that are a bit less straightforward. Don’t commit adultery as David did with Bathsheba, but also, be brave like David was with Goliath. Be ready to do crazy ark-building things in faith like Noah, but also don’t drink wine and fall asleep naked in the sun like Noah. See? Lessons abound. I once sat under a teaching that had the speaker doing interpretational gymnastics to turn Peter’s miraculous escape from prison in Acts 12 into a simple message on the importance of hospitality. But there are greater treasures to be found in these stories than the next right thing to do. There are echoes of a cry that poured itself from Christ’s lips as he hung on the cross. There are aftershocks of the veil tearing and the stone being thrust aside. In every story in the Bible lies the imprint of Jesus and the cross, even (and often, especially) in the odd ones.
The story of Esau and Jacob’s deceit-filled meal is one such story (Genesis 25:29-34).
It opens with Jacob cooking stew. Esau then storms into the kitchen, exhausted from his hunting trip. He’s literally about to die (his words), and in his famished state, he asks Jacob for some of the red stew. Jacob, perhaps without even hesitating, offers him a deal. Esau can have the stew if he relinquishes any right he has to the birthright of Isaac, their father. This is no small ask, as the birthright would bestow on the one who inherits it (normally the oldest son, which Esau is by about a millisecond) the technical ownership of the family upon the father’s death. He would own the land, animals, servants, and any type of monetary holdings they have. He would be the decision-maker, protector, and literal head of the family. And in this case, with Abraham’s family line, he would also inherit the blessing bestowed upon Abraham by God himself, which promised God’s faithfulness throughout the generations. Whew! I mean who would give that up? But, guys, Esau is, like, really hungry. So the deal is made. Esau swears that Jacob can have the blessing, and Jacob hands over the bread and red stew. It says in verse 34 that Esau ate and drank and rose and went his way. Deal done, hunger satisfied, Esau left Jacob alone in the tent, Jacob now the rightful bearer of the birthright.
Such an interesting look into family dynamics, isn’t it? I’m sure my therapist could do wonders with it. But there’s more going on here, just below the surface.
Jacob and Esau, like many pairs in the Bible, represent two different things, more specifically, two different testaments, or promises. The Bible is chock full of pairings like this, even apart from counting the main division of the two parts, the Old and New Testament. Jacob and Esau’s own grandmother Sarah was in such a pair with her counterpart Hagar. Paul unpacks this in Galatians 4, where he says that these women (and the sons they bore) represent two covenants, one of works/slavery and one of grace/freedom.
The same comparison can be made with Jacob and Esau, and we see it very early on in their lives. The twins struggled in Rebekah’s womb, but the one that fought his way out first was Esau, Jacob literally riding on his coat-tails. The boys grew up, and, so it seems, grew apart. Esau was “a man of the field”, one that would hunt and toil. Jacob, however, was “a quiet man,” who stuck to the tent. Even in their parents’ love we see this dichotomy. Esau was loved by Isaac “because he ate of his game.” Esau had to work for it. But Jacob was just loved by Rebekah. No qualifier. Just loved. We see early on that Esau represents the law: the make-sure-you-do-it-right-so-you-can-be-loved type of covenant. But Jacob, like his grandmother, represents grace, rest, and no-strings-attached love. We see from their relationship that these two cannot cohabitate. They run up against each other their entire lives, but that strife is meant to teach us something.
Picture the scene again. In this tent, in this place where Jacob resides, we have the man of the law, the man of works, storming in famished, needing sustenance. Esau was born first, so he naturally holds the birthright of the family. He is panting at the door of the tent, needing red stew to satiate him and send him on his way. Jacob, in what seems like a mental wrestling match that he will physically recreate later in his life (Genesis 32:22-32), holds the stew at bay and demands the birthright. The man of works relents, eats the stew offered by the man of rest, and leaves the headship of the family behind.
This story is about a transference of ownership. But even more: it’s about the how behind the transference of ownership.
It moves us from Esau to Jacob, from old to new, from law to grace by way of a meal. Christ, the new and better Jacob, offers up the red stew of his blood, the bread of his broken body, and demands a trade with the law: the birthright of his family for the meal of his death. The law, you could say, feasts on Jesus, the only meal that could have satisfied (or fulfilled) it, and just like Esau, it “drank and rose and went his way.” Now Jesus alone has become the head of our family. The tent of rest is our home. We no longer have to toil in the fields and work for the love of our father. It is given freely, without any strings attached.
These 5 verses are the entire story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Much more than an overly-simplified moral tale about not being deceitful like Jacob, or lazy like Esau, this story portrays for us the battle between the testaments, and yet the symbolic and theological unity between them at the same time. It reverberates for us the echoes of God’s mercy and grace that ultimately spill like red stew from the cross and meet us where we are, most notably in our exhaustion over our tireless attempts at working for God’s favor.