“Now these are the generations of Esau, who is Edom.” (Genesis 36:1)
The Bible lists many genealogies. Most of them are relevant to one thing, or rather One Person, and that is that they are connected to the lineage of the Lord Jesus Christ. But in Genesis 36, we have an entire chapter given which does not concern the lineage of the Lord at all. Instead, it follows the descendants of Esau and tells us the origin of the Edomites: a people whose eventual fate we learn about in the short little book of Obadiah. This chapter is parenthetical; a segue away from narrative about the family of Jacob and hardly seems relevant at all. Scarcely a beat is missed when Chapter 37 picks right up where the 35th chapter left off. So why are we given this list of Esau and his descendants?
Esau is a perfect picture of the natural man; the man who cares nothing about the things of God and seeks to live his life as he pleases, giving no thought to the spiritual. He is the man apart from Christ: depraved yet proud, sinful yet boastful, lost but determined. He is the man who leaves the Land of Promise, who turns his face away from the place of blessing (Gen. 36:6), who can have all that his father has intended for him yet values it none whatsoever. “Esau is Edom“, we are told again and again (e.g., vv. 1, 8, and 19). He was born Esau, but he came to be known by another name. The name Edom referred to who he became, it referred to that fateful decision he made when he esteemed a bowl of soup above his birthright (Gen. 25:30). It would serve forever as a reminder that he valued the things of this Earth and not the things of God (Heb. 12:16-17).
Just as Genesis 4:16-24 showed what Cain and his descendants did apart from the Lord, Genesis 36 shows what Esau and his descendants did apart from the Lord. Both men were spiritually dead, mere shells of what God intended a person to be, but both appeared successful and prominent on the outside. Cain’s descendants were pioneers in the Arts and Sciences, people of craft and industry. Likewise were the descendants of Esau men of renown: rulers, chieftains, men of nobility. Yet both groups are only mentioned in passing; their greatest endeavors, their highest aspirations — mere footnotes in the Word of God.
“For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27)
What a stark contrast between these “dukes” and “kings” of the Edomites and the shepherds and nomads the Book of Genesis has been focusing on. How vast a difference between Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — who were strangers and foreigners, owning none of the land on which they stood — and the sons of Esau who ruled the land in which they settled. Looking through human eyes, it would be hard to recognize that God was working through and blessing the group living in tents and tending cattle and not the group sitting on thrones and dwelling in palaces.
Does God not work in like manner even now? As Jesus pointed out concerning John the Baptist: God was working through the man clad in camel’s-hair and eating locusts, not some man adorned in fine clothes and living in a mansion (Matt. 11:8). Whether we are rich or poor, living in a palace or homeless, God does not look on the outward appearance but what is in the heart. And God resists the proud but lifts up those who will humble themselves before Him (Jam. 4:6, 10).
It is interesting to note that Esau’s grandsons are labeled as “dukes” (or “chiefs”) (Gen. 36:15), but who made them so? God certainly did not anoint them as rulers. It seems that they took to calling themselves and each other such; their praise came from man. This was quite different from Abram being called Abraham, or Sarai being called Sarah, or Jacob being called Israel. Those names came from God, it was God Who exalted these people, not man.
In Genesis 37, we return to the family of Jacob and pick up with the story of Joseph. Those who are of the flesh, those who are filled with pride, those who revere not the Lord nor His will fade into the background and out of sight. They will continue to build their palaces, sit on their thrones, and rule their lands, all the while believing that they are great men and women of prominence. But the Spirit of God resumes the narrative about those who are really prominent and important people. Those who seek not the praise of man but the praise of God. Those who refuse to exalt themselves but wait for the Lord to lift them up.