A Tale of Two Brothers
August 30, 1992
Several years ago Dr. Kevin Leman wrote The Birth Order Book. You may be familiar with that book because Dr. Leman is a well-known Christian psychologist and has been on Dr. Dobson’s radio program a number of times. The thesis of The Birth Order Book is very simple: When you are dealing with your children, it is important to understand that their personality, their temperament and their outlook on life is greatly shaped by where they appear in the birth order.
For example, first-born children tend to be leaders. He points out that a disproportionate number of presidents have been first-borns. The same is true for most of the great leaders of the military and for many of the leaders of American industry. They usually have a strong sense of personal responsibility. First-borns tend also to be rule-keepers, obsessed with concepts like fairness and justice. They normally have a strong sense of rightness and wrongness and are often very black and white in their thinking. They also are usually the keepers of the family traditions. Many of them are perfectionists, highly demanding—both of themselves and of those around them. Very often first-borns accomplish a great deal in life because their parents have put so much pressure on them to excel.
By contrast, middle-borns tend to be much more relaxed and laid back. Often they make friends very easily. Because they are caught in the middle of the family crossfire, middle-borns learn how to stay out of trouble, how to compromise and how to negotiate. For them, all of life is a trade-off. They learn how to go along to get along.
Finally, you come to the last-born children. These Dr. Leman calls the “bear cubs.” They often are the court jesters who know how to defuse tension by making a joke. They know how to laugh and make people feel good.
What makes such a dramatic difference? Dr. Leman notes that one crucial factor is that parents change over the years. We start out being strict with our first-borns because we don’t want to mess things up. Then we normally loosen up on the second and third child. And by the time you get down to numbers four, five and six, your parenting becomes very relaxed indeed. Which is why the first-born’s lament really is true: “Mom and Dad let you do stuff I couldn’t even dream about.”
Selling Hymnals to Pay the Bills
I learned about this a few years ago when a church I was pastoring went through a financial crisis. It happened that at the same time one of our Sunday School classes was studying birth order from a biblical perspective. One night we had a meeting to discuss ways of dealing with our financial shortfall. Someone pointed out to me afterwards that you could tell the birth order just by how people responded to the crisis. The first-borns all came out of the meeting saying, “We’ve got to do something about this right now!” The second-borns all said to the first-borns, “What are we going to do about it?” And the last-borns were over in a corner cracking jokes about selling hymnals to pay the bills.
There really is something to this birth order business, as any parent will tell you. Children are very different. If you have four or five children, what you really have is four or five very different people. One child will be into athletics, another into music. One will read books, another will play Nintendo for hours. One will be good with his hands, another will love to write. One will be outgoing, another will be shy. One will make friends easily, another will have trouble all his life with relationships. Kids really are different.
And even in the same family, twins can be very different. Even identical twins can be very different. A few weeks ago I was out in the lobby greeting people before the service began. Irma Csakai came up and introduced her twin sister Madeline from California. I shook her hand and welcomed her to Calvary. Then I stood back and took a look. Irma and Madeline share a family resemblance but you would never guess they were twins. So I asked them, “Are you mostly alike or mostly different?” Madeline said, “Oh, we’re very different.” At the same time, Irma said, “No, we’re very alike!”
Twins can be in the same family and raised under the same roof and yet they can grow up to be very different people. Exhibit A of that truth is the story of Jacob and Esau. Two boys, twins, raised in an identical environment, yet they grew up to be polar opposites. Coming out in a dead heat—one grabbing hold of the other—they went two different directions in life. It would be hard to find twins who started out so equally and yet differed so greatly in the course of life.
We pick up the story in Genesis 25:27. The writer of Genesis has skipped over many years to focus on an incident that happens when the boys are in their late teens or early 20s. All those differences which were barely seen at birth now become evident with the passing of youth into adulthood. Jacob and Esau were two very different people, with very different values, and those differences now become manifest.
I. Two Brothers and Their Parents
First we are reintroduced to Jacob and Esau. “The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents.” Esau was an outgoing, gregarious man. He was good with his hands—much more at home out in the fields than staying around the tents. He was, to borrow a modern term, a man’s man. He was strong, athletic and agile. On the other hand, Jacob was a quiet man. The Hebrew word is tam, which in some contexts means “perfect.” Here it means something like “complete” or “competent” or “self-controlled.” He is introspective, a thinker, a man of intellect and insight. Jacob is everything Esau is not; Esau is everything Jacob is not. More opposite brothers could hardly be imagined.
It’s no wonder, then, that the parents chose sides. “Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” This is the beginning of a family dysfunction which will eventually pass down to the second and third generations. Many writers warn of the dangers of parental favoritism. Often it happens so subtly that the parents never realize they are favoring one child over the other. Sometimes it is nothing more than a glance in one direction, the trace of a smile, a casual pat on the head, or a frown or an angry look. But children know instinctively if they are loved and accepted, and they naturally move toward the parent who gives them the outward signs of love.
When Moses says that Isaac had a taste for wild game, he’s telling us more than what kind of food he liked. We’re also learning that the way to Isaac’s heart was through his stomach. He was a man ruled by his physical appetites. He was given over to brute sense appeal. The thing that brought father and son together was the son’s skillful ability to satisfy his father’s appetite.
On the other hand, Rebekah loved Jacob. And why not? He was always hanging around the tents while Esau was out hunting game. Do you see what’s really happening here? It’s one of the oldest principles in the world that opposites attract, and here we have the relatively quiet father (Isaac) teaming up with his athletic son (Esau) while the dominant mother (Rebekah) loves her quiet son (Jacob).
II. Two Brothers and the Birthright
Now we come to the first great turning point in Jacob’s life. It happened so suddenly that no one could have planned it in advance. “Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, ’Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!’ (That is why he is also called Edom.) Jacob replied, ’First sell me your birthright.’ ’Look, I am about to die,’ Esau said. ’What good is the birthright to me?’ But Jacob said, ’Swear to me first.’ So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.” (Genesis 25:29-34)
We need to understand one bit of biblical background in order to fully understand this story. To an oldest son, the birthright was his most prized possession. In those times the oldest son was accorded two distinct honors by virtue of his being the first-born: 1. He was given a double inheritance 2. He was considered the head of the family after the death of the parents. The birthright could be transferred or sold, but only for something of great value. Normally a first-born son would never consider selling the birthright because it guaranteed both his future security and his future leadership of the family.
This is one of those defining moments in life, a moment suspended in time that when it happens seems trivial, but later looms large. Both Esau and Jacob would be changed forever because of a bowl of lentil stew.
I’ve already said that Esau was the hunter, but in this story the hunter becomes the hunted as Jacob springs the trap on his unsuspecting brother. Please note something. There are no heroes in this episode. No one looks very good. There are moral problems on every hand. The Bible puts the emphasis on Esau’s worldly decision, but that doesn’t make Jacob look any better.
Step # 1: Uncontrolled Appetite 29-30
It happened so quickly that Esau doubtless thought little about what he was doing. One day he came home from the hunt, famished after a long day of chasing game in the fields. His hunger was genuine and his request for the red lentil stew was sincere. But the text also tips us off about his basic nature by the words it uses. Liter-ally, it reads “Quick, give me some of that red stuff!” The verbs line up boom, boom, boom. In other places the word means “to gulp.” The word was also used of forcing food down the throat of a reluctant animal. Esau is here revealing the truth about himself. He cares for nothing but filling his stomach, cramming the food in, gulping it down as fast as he can. It’s a picture of his basic animalistic nature. On the outside he seems like a wonderful fellow, but when you get to the inside, there’s not much there. He looks good but he’s empty and shallow and totally controlled by his physical desires.
Step # 2: Unbrotherly Offer 31
I think we have to assume at least one fact that the text doesn’t specifically spell out. I think we have to assume that Jacob had been scheming in his mind, looking for an opportunity to dupe his brother out of the birthright. I don’t think the thought just popped into his mind when he saw Esau coming from the open country. No, Jacob is far too clever for that. This was a premeditated idea, waiting to come to fruition at just the right moment .
I think during all those years while Isaac was favoring Esau, Jacob was dreaming of a way to get the birthright for himself. To be fair, you have to give Jacob credit—at least the thing he desired was worth having. But the way he got it was at the very least unbrotherly. He took advantage of Esau’s weakness to get from him something he couldn’t have obtained any other way.
But, you say, did not God promise to bless the younger over the older? Yes, and God had told Rebekah that before the boys were born. But that’s what makes this so heinous. If God had promised it, then Jacob didn’t need to trick Esau out of it. God doesn’t need that kind of help. He can find a way to give the birthright and the blessing to Jacob in his own time.
So even though Jacob got what God wanted him to have, he did it in an unbrotherly fashion. For that he can hardly be praised.
Step # 3: A Short-Sighted Decision 32
This is the heart of the matter. “Look! I’m about to die.” Oh, poor baby, he’s so hungry. He’s been out hunting all day and now he wants something to eat. Give the boy his food or else he’ll die. He hasn’t eaten in eight hours.
So Esau said, “What good is the birthright to me?” Here’s a man whose sensual desires so control him that when he sees the red stew, that’s all he can think of. Nothing else matters. Not even the sacred birthright. He’s ready to trade the most important possession in his life for a bowl of lentil stew.
What can we say about Esau?
1. He is impulsive
2. He lives for the moment
3. He demands immediate gratification
When Credit Cards Talk
“I see it, I want it, and I want it right now.” We live in a world that encourages us to think that way. That’s basically what American advertising is built upon. “You need this and you need it now. You won’t be happy till you get this, so you better put everything else aside.” “Don’t have the money? Don’t worry. Charge it, and pay for it later.” “Go for it, buddy, because this will make you happy.”
All of us are susceptible to that lie, aren’t we? We buy whatever it is, and then we’re happy for awhile. But pretty soon it breaks, or it wears out, or (as in Esau’s case) we’re hungry again. To me the most bizarre thing about this story is that after Esau sold his birthright for the bowl of stew, in six hours he was hungry all over again!
That’s the way the world works. “Do this, try this, buy this, and it will make you happy.” So we do it or try it or buy it and it works … for awhile. Then we have to buy something else to keep ourselves happy.
Often you’ll be watching an ad on TV when that credit card in your wallet starts talking to you. “Use me. Use me. Don’t leave me alone back here. Pull me out and use me.” So like zombies we go out to the car and the credit card says, “Turn left here. Go straight now. Stop here. Highland is going out of business. Get a good deal. Go for it now. You’re already over your limit. What difference does it make?” That’s exactly how most of us get into so much financial trouble.
Time is Short – Eternity is Forever
It happens the same way in the sexual arena. Men and women get into certain situations where they begin to feel intense desire so they say, “I want this (person or thing) now.” So they trade their morality for a few moments of gratification.
When someone hurts us, a little voice says, “Get even. Don’t let them get away with that. Don’t just sit there. Don’t let them walk all over you. Stand up for your rights. You better get even, and you better do it right now.”
The world says to us, “Live for today and forget tomorrow.” That was Esau’s problem. God says, “Use today to get ready for tomorrow.” When we were on vacation I heard a man say it this way. He said, “We’ve got time and eternity all mixed up. Most of us live as if time is going to last forever and eternity is going to be very short. That’s backwards. Time is very short, but eternity lasts forever. The only purpose of time is to get ready for where you’re going to be and what you’re going to do for all eternity.”
But the world says, “Go for the gusto. You only go around once. You’re going to die anyway. Eat, drink and be merry. Go ahead, sell that birthright, for tomorrow you may die.” That’s exactly what Esau did.
Step # 4: The Sacred Oath 33
Before Jacob will give Esau some stew, he makes him swear an oath to actually sell him the birthright. Do you know what’s going on here? Jacob, like any shrewd businessman, is closing the deal. He’s getting Esau’s signature on the dotted line before he delivers the goods.
All Esau could see was that bowl of soup, that red stuff, that “mess of pottage.” Nothing else mattered to him. So he swore an oath, thus giving away his birthright.
Step # 5: Flippant Unconcern 34
“Here, brother, eat all you want, take your time, I have plenty of stew.” In the Hebrew text the verbs are piled up on top of one another as if to imply that it happened very quickly. He ate … drank … got up … and left.
Boom … Boom … Boom … Boom. And it’s over. The point of the story is that Esau is so stupid that he goes off, not realizing what he has done. That’s a sweet deal for Jacob. He’s gotten the birthright, he’s sup-planted his brother, and Esau doesn’t even know what hit him.
He’s been taken to the cleaners, but all he can think about is how good that stew tasted. Verse 34 gives us the final word: “So Esau despised his birthright.” To despise means “to count as nothing, to treat with contempt.” Esau treated with contempt his most important possession.
Bishop Desmond Tutu
When the story began, Jacob had the soup and Esau had the birthright; in the end Esau had the soup and Jacob had the birthright. Who got the better part of that deal?
Bishop Desmond Tutu is a noted black clergyman from South Africa. Several years ago, while speaking to a Christian workers conference, he made the following statement: “When the white man came to Africa, he had the Bible and we had the land. Now the white man has the land, but we have the Bible. We shall see who got the better part of that deal.”
There are some things in life that are more important than other things. So many of us spend our days trading away the things that really matter for things that amount to nothing more than a bowl of “red stuff.”
III. The Moral of the Story Hebrews 12:16
We’re not left to wonder about what this story means. Hebrews 12 tells us in no uncertain terms. Here is God’s divine judgment on what Esau did. “See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.” The King James uses the word “profane” instead of “godless.”
Read Genesis 25. See if you can find a single place where Esau acts like a godless or profane man. He never curses. He doesn’t blaspheme God. How in the world can you call Esau “godless”? All he did was make a deal for a bowl of soup. He ate it, then he went on his way. What’s the big deal? Where’s the godlessness? What’s so profane about a bowl of soup?
Answer: In the Bible profanity is an attitude, not just an action. Profanity is treating lightly that which God says should be taken seriously. You are godless when you treat lightly the most important things of life. And when you sell the things that matter for the things that don’t matter, you are not only a fool, you are also godless and profane.
You don’t have to swear to be profane. You don’t have to be an atheist to be godless. You can be godless and come to church every Sunday morning.
Esau sold it all for a “single meal.” The King James calls it a “single morsel.” Matthew Henry called this “the most important meal since Eve ate the forbidden fruit.” This profane and godless man—who is really just like us—threw it all away for the price of a bowl of soup.
Why is this story in the Bible? Because all of us are like Esau. Is this story not the flip side of the words of Jesus: “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36) All of us stand in the place of Esau every single day. We face repeated temptations to sell that which means the most to us for that which is worth so little.
Every day we are faced with decisions that seem trivial to us. What to wear, who to call, what to eat, how much money to spend, where to go after work, what books to read, what shows to watch, what jokes to tell. Each day we make hundreds of tiny decisions. Each one leads us in one of two directions—either toward God or away from him.
If you had been there that day, you would hardly have dreamed that something momentous was happening. But from this tiny event, the course of the world changed. After this day, Esau went one way and Jacob another. Just as a tiny rivulet becomes a mighty, rushing torrent, even so from the smallest decisions of life great conse-quences flow. Esau just didn’t know it.
Two Penetrating Questions
Let me end this study by asking several penetrating questions:
1. What are you willing to trade in order to get what you want in life?
What kind of deal are you willing to make to get where you really want to go in life? How much are you wil-ling to give up? Your family? Your friends? Your marriage? Your integrity? Your purity? Your Christian testimony?
2. Have you ever felt that somehow the best things in life have slipped away from you because you were so busy grabbing for something else?
You may feel like that right now. Perhaps you went so hard for what you wanted that somehow you lost the things that matter the most to you. And one day you looked around and your family was gone, your marriage was over, your career in ruins, your integrity destroyed, your purity vanished and your friends nowhere to be found.
When you got to the top of the mountain, you discovered to your horror that you had made a deal with the devil to get there. You sold what was most important for a bowl of red stuff. You cry out to the devil, “Is that all there is?” He laughs and says, “That’s it, kid. That’s all you get.” You say, “Can I get it back?” “Sorry. No refunds.”
This story stands as a solemn warning to the people of God. “Be not like Esau” who in a moment of weakness sold that which was priceless for that which satisfied him only for a moment. We’re all in danger of doing it. It happens so quickly, in the small decisions, when we live for today instead of for tomorrow.
Esau stands forever as a man who threw it all away and never got another chance. Don’t let it happen to you.
One final question. Have you despised God’s gift of salvation? Maybe you’ve said, “Later, Jesus. I’ve got my own life to live.” “Later, Jesus, later. I’m busy climbing the ladder.” “Later, Jesus, later. It’s not convenient right now.” What will you do when the day comes and the invitation is over and the moment is past? What if “later” never comes?
Wanted: A New Contract
Thank God, for those of us who have made bad decisions in the past, it is possible to make a new beginning. Jesus Carrillo lived in the city that used to be Homestead, Florida. Hurricane Andrew destroyed most of the city in August. You saw the pictures. Where once there were nice homes on quiet streets, the rampaging winds and the torrential rains left only rubble and twisted metal. When Governor Lawton Chiles toured Homestead’s Aquarius Mobile Home Park, he surveyed the scene and said, “You can’t tell there was ever anything here.”
Standing in the rubble of what used to be his home, Jesus Carrillo said, “I am actually two days old. We are all only two days old. God gave us a new contract two days ago, and we must make the best of it.” (USA Today, August 26, 1992, p. 5A)
That is the one note of the grace of God at the end of this story. If you, like Esau, have sold your soul for a bowl of red stuff, ask God to give you a new contract. Ask him for a new beginning. Ask him for a new start. He will be glad to give it to you.
One final question to ponder, and then we are through. What will it take … What will God have to do … to wake you up to the most important things in life?
Father, we need the work of the Holy Spirit to go deep into our hearts. Some of us have done exactly what Esau did. Show us where we have sold our souls for a mess of pottage. Give us a new contract so that from this day forward we can live for you, putting first things first. We pray these things in Jesus’ name, Amen.