Thursday, June 10, 2010

What did Esau sell?

I recently got involved in a strange conversation on Facebook. My joining AARP to get the discounts was compared to Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of soup.

This got me thinking – what exactly did Esau sell?

Genesis 12:1-3 (New International Version)
1. The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.

2. "I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.

3. I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you."

Even before he had any children, Abraham was promised:

Genesis 22:17
New American Standard Bible (©1995)
indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies.

I think these blessings can be best summarized as “being born Jewish” even though that word is based on Judah, Abraham’s great-grandson, who had not been born yet. And many would say that being born Jewish is not a great blessing. It means being born into the most hated religion in the history of the world. I am a descendant of Jacob. I am allowed to say this.

To me, this looks like the entire line of Abraham’s descendants was to receive these blessings, if you can call them blessings.

You get to go on a long trip and never come home and never see your family again.

Your descendants will grow to be a great nation – all great nations wind up in wars.

Your name will be great – all great people have enemies and people who are jealous of them – and lots of problems, and no privacy.

People will curse you.

You will have enemies. You may own their gates, but they will still be out to get you.

All the peoples of the world will be blessed through you – nothing about being appreciated or loved.

Yes, I think that about nails what it is to be Jewish – the most hated group on the planet.

Two of Abraham’s lineage escaped this “blessing.” Abraham’s first born, Ishmael, by his wife’s servant Hagar, was sent away with a different set of blessings. His son Isaac, who was born to his wife Sarah, got them all to himself.

Abraham may have valued the blessings, but he didn’t value his children. He sent Ishmael out out into the desert where he nearly died. Then he took Isaac up on a mountain and raised a knife to slice his throat. It’s a miracle this bad dad has any descendants at all.

Isaac had two children by the same mother. I’d have expected both these children to inherit the blessings. Why only one? They were twins. Why deny the blessings to one? How are you going to get this uncountable line of descendants if you keep limiting the promises to one child in each generation?

Yet, as the story is told, only the firstborn was to inherit the blessings. And Rebecca, their mother, much preferred Jacob, her younger twin. She plotted to get the blessings for her favorite child.

When the twins were about 15 years old, Esau came home empty handed from hunting. He was hungry. Rebecca and Jacob got Esau trade the promised blessings, which at this point in the story look like a family folktale, and not such great blessings anyway, for a bowl of soup.

Later, when it was time for blind old Isaac to bless his children and officially pass on Abraham’s blessings, Rebecca dressed up Jacob to make him feel and smell like Esau. Esau was much more hirsute than Jacob. She cooked her husband’s favorite meat dish and had Jacob bring it in as if he’d just gone hunting. In other words, Jacob obtained these dubious blessings by trickery.

And when Jacob figured out that he’d been tricked, he did not take away the blessings he had given. Maybe he didn’t mind being tricked.

So, what did Esau give up, when he sold his birthright? He gave up the right to have his children born Jewish. Being Jewish didn’t mean then what it means now. Judah hadn’t been born yet. The exodus hadn’t happened. Nobody knew what it would mean to be Jewish. If you were to ask a no-Jew today – which would you rather have – your children be born Jewish or a bowl of soup? I think a lot of them would pick the soup.

Being Jewish isn’t a bad way to live your life, but it’s no great honor, either. I’m Jewish. I can get away with saying this. Maybe this trickery put a jinx on the blessings.

There is no reason the blessings could not have gone equally to the grandsons of Abraham, as was seemingly implied in the promises themselves. All of Jacob’s children were counted as inheritors of the promises. And so it has been in every subsequent generation.

I’m also sure that Esau’s descendants had an interesting heritage. They, too, were promised to become a great nation. According to Wikipedia, they became Romans who converted to Christianity.

I fail to see how that relates to getting discounts by joining AARP. But if joining AARP turns out to be a mistake, I can undo it by not renewing my membership. I only joined to get the discounts.


  1. Well, I did think his "birthright" referred to the more traditional idea of just his inheritance (from his father) as the oldest son: the farm, animals, equipment, buildings, etc. (I read on Wikipedia where the old promises are part of his birthright too.) So then the problem is, Esau was foolish to "sell" his inheritance, a wealthy farm, for a bowl of lentils and onions. He wanted short-term gain over long-term. However, his mother and brother planned a second method, fooling Isaac, so maybe the lentil story was just overkill to make it look like Esau deserved what he got.

  2. Alison, I think you are right that the soup story was added to make it look like Esau was responsible for losing the blessing, even though Jacob got it by lying to his father at his mother's instruction. But the point I was trying to make is that maybe he saved himself a lot of trouble -- maybe the blessings are no great honor.