to the Book of Genesis of the
Hebrew Bible, Esau ( )
(Hebrew , Standard Hebrew Esav,
Tiberian Hebrew ; ) was the fraternal twin brother of Jacob (whom God renamed Israel)—the
patriarch and founder of the
Esau and Jacob were the sons of Isaac
, and the
grandsons of Abraham
. Esau was born first and when Jacob was born, he
held onto Esau's heel ( ). Isaac was sixty years old when they were
born, but Rebekah is believed to have been much younger. Abraham
was still alive at that time, though he would have been 160 years
old by that stage, and would live another fifteen years.
As the first born, Esau was entitled to inherit the wealth of his
father Isaac after his death. However, he sold his birthright to
Jacob in exchange for a "mess of
" (meal of lentils
) ( ).
According to the Talmud
, the sale of the
birthright took place immediately after Abraham died. The Talmudic
dating would give both Esau and Jacob an age of 15 at the
Esau's name in Hebrew
and, according to , it is a reference to his hairiness at birth. He
is also called "Edom
", which means red. Genesis
relates this directly to his selling his birthright for some "red
lentil stew" ( ), and the book also makes a point of mentioning
that he was red when he emerged from the womb (Gen 25:25). The land
which was inhabited by his descendants, Edom, contains a great
abundance of red rock.
details Esau's family. He took two wives from the women of Canaan: Adah or Basemath, the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Aholibamah, the daughter of Anah the Hivite. Esau also married his cousin Mahalath or another Basemath, daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebaioth, upon hearing of his parents' displeasure with his marriage to Canaanite women. ( )
Esau had five sons: Eliphaz with Adah; Reuel with Basemath (or
Mahalath); and Jeush, Jalam and Korah with Aholibamah ( ).
The Bible depicts Esau as a hunter who prefers the outdoor life,
qualities that distinguished him from his brother, who was a shy or
simple man, depending on the translation of the Hebrew word "Tam"
(which also means "relatively perfect man"). According to the
Bible, Esau is the ancestor of the Edomites
. In the Book of Genesis, Esau is
frequently shown being supplanted by his younger twin Jacob
narrates Esau's birth. He emerges from the womb with Jacob grasping his heel. He is described as follows: "Now the first came forth, red all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau."
shows him willingly selling his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a "mess of pottage" (meal of lentils). Controversy has surrounded this scripture, in that some have noted that Esau may have been in danger of starving to death and was taken advantage of by Jacob in a vulnerable moment. Certainly, Jacob's refusal to share his food without exacting a high price from Esau is in conflict with Biblical principles for moral living such as charity and goodwill. However, others suggest that among the large entourage of Isaac's wealthy household, death from starvation would not likely have been a genuine danger simply on account of Esau not having caught anything while hunting that day. Owing to the strict law concerning draining the blood from an animal before eating it, Esau would not have expected to immediately eat what he killed and would probably have carried food while hunting. According to the Bible the food laws were given later to Moses. Rather, Esau's words about being close to death may have been dramatic exaggeration of the type frequently found in the Old Testament and that selling his birthright indicated Esau's lack of appreciation for the long-term value of such an intangible right when he was more interested in fulfilling his immediate needs .
Curiously, the Old Testament of the Bible does not tell us which of
these views is correct, whether in God's eyes Esau was cheated by
Jacob or whether Esau carelessly sold his birthright to Jacob.
However, the New Testament
Esau as unspiritual for thoughtlessly throwing away his birthright.
In Esau's mother and father's eyes, the deception may have been
deserved. Rebekah later abets Jacob in receiving his father's
blessing disguised as Esau. Isaac then refuses to take Jacob's
blessing back after learning he was tricked, and does not give a
second blessing to Esau ( ).
In , Jacob uses deception to trick their father Isaac into giving
Jacob the blessing normally due to the eldest, instead of giving it
to Esau. Jacob's deception also engenders controversy, while
motivated in fact by Rebekah, the mother of both Jacob and Esau and
Isaac's beloved wife. In ,
And the children struggled together within her; and she
said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to enquire of the
Lord. And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and
two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the
one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder
shall serve the younger.
explains the conflict between the parents and their children: "Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob." (emphasis added).
In , "Rebekah was listening while Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So
when Esau went to the field to hunt for game to bring home, Rebekah
said to her son Jacob, "Behold, I heard your father speak to your
brother Esau, saying, 'Bring me some game and prepare a savory dish
for me, that I may eat, and bless you in the presence of the lord
before my death.'". Rebekah then instructs Jacob in an elaborate
deception through which Jacob pretends to be Esau, in order to
steal from Esau Isaac's blessing and birthright—which in theory
Esau had agreed to give to Jacob. As a result, Jacob becomes the
spiritual leader of the family after Isaac's death and the heir of
the promises of Abraham ( ).
Esau, naturally, is furious and vows to kill Jacob ( ). Once again
Rebekah intervenes to save her youngest son Jacob from being
murdered by her eldest son, Esau.
Therefore, at Rebekah's urging, Jacob flees to a distant land to
work for a relative, Laban ( ). To engineer Jacob's escape
unharmed, Rebekah invents a story about not wanting Jacob to marry
a local Heth-ite woman ( ).
Esau married Canaanite women, but, upon hearing that this greatly
displeased his parents, Esau married his cousin Mahalath, the
daughter of Ishmael
( ). Esau thus
demonstrates loyalty to his parents and their wishes. However, the
Bible portrays Rebekah's expression of displeasure with the women
of the region as actually being only a ruse to facilitate Jacob's
escape from Esau's murderous threats.
Jacob does not immediately receive his father's inheritance after
the elaborate deception aimed at taking it from Esau. Jacob having
fled for his life, leaves behind the wealth of Isaac's flocks and
land and tents in Esau's hands. Jacob is forced to sleep out on the
open ground and then work for wages as a servant in Laban's
household. Jacob, who had deceived and cheated his brother, is in
turn deceived and cheated by his relative Laban concerning Jacob's
seven years of service (lacking money for a dowry) for the hand of
Rachel, receiving Leah instead. However, despite Laban, Jacob
eventually becomes so rich as to incite the envy of Laban and
Meanwhile, Esau also shows forgiveness and reconciliation. In spite
of this bitter conflict, tells of Jacob and Esau's eventual
reconciliation. Jacob sends multiple waves of gifts to Esau as they
approach each other in hopes of Esau sparing his life. Esau refuses
the gifts, as he is now very wealthy and does not need them. Jacob
never apologizes to Esau for his actions through the sending of
these gifts. Jacob nevertheless bows down before Esau and insists
on his receiving the gifts. (After this, God confirms his renaming
of Jacob as "Israel".) Nevertheless, commentaries through the ages
have read—between the lines—of an animosity only superficially
According to Jewish tradition, Esau was a rebellious son. He kept
this life secret until he was 15, when he sold his birthright to
Jacob. Abraham died earlier the same day, so that he would not
witness the demise of his grandson Esau. The lentils Jacob was
cooking were meant for his father Isaac, because lentils are the
traditional mourner's meal for Jews. Jacob coerced Esau to sell his
birthright, because he knew that Esau was not sufficiently
responsible to receive it.
Book of Jubilees
In the Book of Jubilees
(which is neither
part of the Jewish nor most Christian canons), Esau's father,
Isaac, compels Esau to swear not to attack or kill Jacob after
Isaac has died. However, after the death of Isaac, the sons of Esau
convince their father to lead them, and hired mercenaries, against
Jacob in order to kill Jacob and his family and seize their wealth
(especially the portion of Isaac's wealth that Isaac had left to
Jacob upon his death). In the ensuing battle, Jacob kills Esau with
an arrow. The sons of Jacob then defeat the rest of the attackers
despite overwhelming odds.
Some of the sons of Esau are spared, but they are sworn to serve
and pay fealty to Jacob.
Later history of Edom
lists some of the early descendants of Esau and describes his people as settling in the hill country of Seir. His death is not recounted in the Bible. However, during the time that the Israelites were in captivity in Egypt, the Edomites established their own kingdom and had several kings before the Israelites established their monarchy.
of years later, when the Israelites returned from captivity in
Egypt during the Exodus, God
commands the Israelites to honor and respect their "brothers" the
Edomites, the descendants of Esau.
The Israelites are
commanded to be careful not to provoke the Edomites or take
anything from them without paying for it. However, although the
Bible does not record it in connection with those events, later God
expresses anger at the Edomites for not showing the Israelites
hospitality, such as in .
There are several Biblical references to hostility between the
people of Israel and the people of Edom (e.g., ; ; ), and it is
possible that some of the narrative of Genesis is intended to
explain the origins and justification of that hostility. The
Edomites (also known as Idumeans) came to be dominated by the
larger kingdom of Israel, but from time to time fought wars with
Israel throughout Israel's history.
Approximately 1000 years after Esau's and Jacob's common birthday,
God expresses extreme anger and condemnation upon the Edomites such
as in the prophesies of and . However, although the Bible follows
the convention of describing the Edomites by the name of their
long-dead patriarch Esau, the specific reasons given for God's
anger involve then-recent sins of the Edomite people, not of the
individual man Esau. Id.
The prophesies of Obadiah
indicate that the Edomite race will be
destroyed during the end times. In Obadiah Chapter 1:18, it is
declared: "And the house of Jacob shall be fire and the house of
Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau shall become stubble, and
they shall ignite them and consume them, and the house of Esau
shall have no survivors, for the Lord has spoken."
According to Jewish tradition, Edomites were the progenitors of
Rome. This may be due to the similarity of the Jacob-Esau story and
Romulus-Remus myth—twins, who turned against each other. Because
the Romans adopted Christianity as their religion and were the
bedrock for western civilization, Christians and/or European
nations and their descendents are sometimes referred to as
Edomites. According to the same tradition through the prophecies in
Obadiah and Malachi refer the Messianic age, where Edom will be
punished for their cruelty to Israel during their exile.
- Metzger & Coogan (1993). Oxford Companion to the
Bible, pp. 191–2.
- Bava Batra