Esau (`SU, hairy), the eldest son of Isaac and Rebecca, the twin-brother of Jacob. The struggle of the two brothers, when still within Rebecca’s womb, was prophetic of the lifelong opposition, deepening at times into hatred, which marked the relations between Esau and Jacob (Gen., xxv, 22 sq.). Esau, who came forth first, when grown up, became a skillful hunter, and was much loved by Isaac, who ate of his hunting (Gen., xxv, 24-28). “Coming faint out of the field”, and much moved by the sight and savor of the pottage boiled by his brother, Esau said to Jacob, “Give me of this red pottage”. No doubt already informed as to the import of the oracle revealed to Rebecca, Jacob was quick to draw advantage from the greed of his famished brother. Consenting to the condition imposed, Esau not only exchanged his first birthright for the red pottage, but even confirmed the sale by an oath, saying, “Lo, I die; what will the first birthright avail me?… And so taking bread and the pottage of lentils, he ate, and drank, and went his way; making little account of having sold his first birthright” (Gen., xxv, 29-34). That this transaction was widely known is justly inferred from the very name (Edom, red), which, though rarely given to Esau himself, is almost universally applied to his descendants. “Esau, being forty years old, married wives, Judith, the daughter of Beeri the Hethite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon of the same place” (Gen., xxvi, 34). This selection of Chanaanite wives, who “both offended the mind of Isaac and Rebecca” (Gen., xxvi, 35), seemed to have caused peculiar suffering to Rebecca, who, speaking with her husband, declared, “I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth: if Jacob take a wife of the stock of this land, I choose not to live” (Gen., xxvii, 46). Old and with eyes so dim he could not see, Isaac ordered Esau to take quiver and bow, so that after having prepared a savory dish with the fruit of his hunting, he might receive the parting blessing, belonging to the eldest son. Esau, yielding ready obedience, went “into the field to fulfil his father’s commandment”. (Gen., xxvii, 1-5.) Meanwhile, clothed with the very good garments of his older brother, with hands and neck so carefully covered under the tender hides of the kids as to resemble the hairy skin of Esau, Jacob, following in every detail the advice of Rebecca, knelt before Isaac, offered the savory dish, and begged and obtained the coveted blessing. Great then was the astonishment, and genuine the indignation, of the disappointed Esau, who “roared out with a great cry”, on hearing the deceived Isaac declare, “thy brother came deceitfully and got thy blessing”. Though sympathizing with his grief-stricken son, Isaac, realizing more fully the import of the oracle communicated to Rebecca, felt impelled to add: “I have blessed him, and he shall be blessed”; “I have appointed him thy lord, and have made all his brethren his servants”. (Gen., xxvii, 6-37.) The restraining influence of the father’s presence is admirably portrayed in the few words uttered by Esau: “the days will come of the mourning of my father, and I will kill my brother Jacob” (Gen., xxvii, 41). That this exclamation revealed a deep-seated purpose, the evident anxiety of Rebecca, the hasty flight of Jacob to Haran, and his long stay with his uncle Laban, clearly demonstrated. (Gen., xxvii, 42-xxxi, 38.) Indeed, even after a self-imposed exile of twenty years, the carefully instructed messengers sent to Esau in the land of Seir (Gen., xxxii, 3) and the strategic division of his household and flocks into two companies clearly indicate Jacob‘s abiding sense of distrust (Gen., xxxii, 4-8).
After extending a cordial welcome to his returning brother, Esau parted from Jacob and “returned, that day, the way that he came, to Seir” (Gen., xxxiii, 1-16), where he and his descendants became exceedingly rich (Gen., xxxvi, 1-8). The very name Edomite, given to the descendants of Esau (Edom), has served to perpetuate the remembrance of the circumstances attending Esau’s birth and the sale of his first birthright. From the noteworthy preference of Jacob to Esau (Gen., xxv, 22 sq.), St. Paul (Rom., ix, 4-16) shows that in the mystery of election and grace God is bound to no particular nation and is influenced by no prerogative of birth or antecedent merit. When Isaac, old and full of days, had died, we find Esau with Jacob at Hebron, there to bury their father in the cave of Machpelah (Gen., xxxv, 28-29).
DANIEL P. DUFFY