In Genesis 25:23, the Lord tells Rebekah that the reason that the twins in her womb are struggling against one another is because they are “two nations”, and “two manner of people.” They are different in every way. We do not read much farther before we see exactly what He means.
Esau was a hunter: a man of the field. Jacob was a quiet man and spent his days indoors. Esau was brawny, muscular, and athletic; Jacob was fair-skinned and soft. Because of this, the boys’ father preferred manly Esau, while Rebekah doted on Jacob, the “Mama’s boy.” But while these are the initial distinctions between the two young men given to us in Genesis 25:27-28, we learn that there is much more to it than that when we come to Verses 29-34:
“Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.” (Genesis 25:29-34 ESV)
At first glance, it seems that Jacob is blackmailing Esau by threatening to let him die if he does not surrender his birthright immediately. But let us consider for a moment what is actually going on here. First of all, Esau comes in from hunting and is exhausted. I am certain that he was very hungry at this point and it seems that he hadn’t had any luck in his hunt — coming home empty-handed. So, he smells the stew that Jacob is making and asks him for some of it. Jacob tells him the price that he requires for giving him some, to which Esau replies that he is about to die, so what good is his birthright anyway? We should bear in mind that the two boys were living in the house of their father, Isaac, who had inherited all that his own father, Abraham, had (Gen. 25:5). This house was without a doubt filled with food and servants who could have happily brought Esau something to eat. Jacob is not holding Esau captive; he is not the only one who can provide him with something to eat. It is doubtful that Esau was actually in any danger of starving to death at this moment (these were his words, not the writer of Genesis), but even if he had been, he certainly had other options.
So what made Esau surrender something so valuable for such a trivial price? The text says: “Thus Esau despised his birthright” (V. 34). It was of no value to him whatsoever. Why not at least get a bowl of hot soup out of the deal since it was something he didn’t really care about anyway? So we have here a further distinction between the two boys that went beyond their occupations and physical prowess. Jacob valued the birthright while Esau did not. What exactly, then, did the birthright entail? In the days before the Law of Moses was given, the firstborn son in each family would not only inherit a larger portion of their father’s possessions, he would also serve as the priest of the family. God would set apart unto Himself the Levites under the Mosaic Law (Numbers 3:12), but before this the position of priest within each household fell to the firstborn son as part of their birthright. It seems that Esau really had no interest in taking on this role and placed no value in serving God at all. After eating the stew, Esau does not so much as pause a moment to reconsider his oath, but heads off on his way.
Both men were in error that day, but at least Jacob had his eye on receiving the blessing of God. His methods were clearly improper, but his objectives were at least commendable. As his grandfather Abraham had done so long ago when he sought to take matters into his own hands and conceive a son through Hagar (Genesis 16), Jacob sought to circumvent the timing and methods of God by resorting to trusting in his own ingenuity to bring about the promise of God. Never is it necessary to rely on our own strength in order to bring about the promises of God in our lives, especially when it involves dishonesty, trickery, and taking advantage of those who are unspiritual. God had promised that Jacob would obtain the birthright when He assured his mother that “The elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). We can be certain that this maneuver on Jacob’s part was not God’s intended manner for the birthright to be transferred.
Esau, on the other hand, was guilty of being a faithless and carnal man; placing no worth on the things of God. By man’s standards, it might seem that he was the nobler of the two brothers at this point in time, but God knows the heart of man. Lest we are too rash to pass judgment on Esau, however, we must ask ourselves at what price we have been willing to sacrifice our own relationship with God? Our position with God in Christ is secured and upheld by Him alone, that is without question, but have we not at times behaved much like Esau: preferring the momentary pleasures of this world to our eternal “birthright” in Christ Jesus? We smell the stew of sin’s gratification and are so often willing in that moment to forsake the precious priesthood to which God has called us (1 Peter 2:9) that we might partake of it. Esau sold his position with God for the price of a bowl of soup, what are we willing to take for it?