Esau’s Lost “Death-right”

Today’s Western Christian culture has a habit of using Bible stories to justify rules and traditions humans have created. This is ironic, as Scripture describes how God Himself habitually violates societies’ expectations in the advancement of His Kingdom. One tradition He frequently ignores (especially in the Old Testament), is our law of primogeniture (the idea that the firstborn inherits all or most of his father’s estate). God has a habit of exalting and favoring younger brothers (whether or not we think they deserved such special treatment!).

The Cenotaph of Jacob at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

In Genesis 25, twin brothers Esau and Jacob are born to Rebekah. Esau enters the world first, but under the prophecy that “the older shall serve the younger” (v. 23). What follows are stories of how Esau sells his inheritance to Jacob for a bowl of lentils (v. 29-34) and then misses his father’s deathbed blessing when Jacob and his mother conspire to steal it (Gen. 27).

We can’t help but feel sorry for the twice-duped Esau, the firstborn who was the favorite of his father, Isaac. He wasn’t perfectly innocent–he had married two Canaanite wives (which would have mortified his dead grandfather, Abraham)–but the way he is outwitted by his mother and “weaker” brother feels unfair, mostly because it is easy to miss that he and Isaac had conspired to do the exact same thing to Jacob.

In the Old Testament, fathers on their deathbeds called all of their sons to their sides for blessings, but Isaac only called Esau (27:1-4). Isaac seems to be playing favorites, attempting to circumvent the prophecy, and cutting Jacob out of any blessing. Esau goes along with Isaac’s plan enthusiastically! It is only because Rebekah overheard Isaac’s plan (27:5) and outwitted him that Esau was left with nothing.

A deep exegetical study of these stories reveals that not one of these four family members is perfect or heroic, and no one escapes the negative effects of his or her actions. It also shows how God–once again–overturned human convention to exalt Jacob no matter where he came from or when he was born. The stories aren’t in Genesis to exemplify justice but to explain why the prophecy of 25:23 was necessary.

Esau did okay for himself. He married a third woman (a daughter of Ishmael of whom Abraham would have approved), and he made peace with Jacob (Gen. 33). He became the father of the Edomites (Gen 36), a sometimes-friend sometimes-foe of Israel. Then he disappeared from Scripture–but not tradition.

The cenotaph honoring either Joseph or Esau.

According to Jewish tradition, Esau’s frustration with Jacob did not end in Genesis 33. In a midrash (which is ancient, revered Jewish rabbis’ commentary about Scripture), Esau challenged the sale of his birthright as Jacob’s body was being interred in the Cave of Machpelah with his parents’. Read the story in Sotah 13a:7-10:

Once [Jacob's sons] reached the Cave of Machpelah, Esau came and was preventing them from burying Jacob there. He said to them, "It says: 'And Jacob came unto Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiryat Arba, the same is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac sojourned.'" . . . Esau said, "Jacob buried Leah in his spot, and the spot that is remaining is mine."
     The children of Jacob said to Esau, "You sold your rights to Jacob."
     Esau said to them, "Though I sold the birthright, did I also sell my rights to the burial site as an ordinary brother?" 
     The brothers said to him, "Yes, you also sold to Jacob those rights, as it is written that Joseph stated: 'My father made me swear, saying: "Behold, I die; in my grave that I have dug for me in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.”'"
     Esau said to them, "Bring the bill of sale to me" [i.e., you can’t prove your claims]. 
     They said to him, "The bill of sale is in the land of Egypt, and who will go to bring it? Naphtali will go, for he is as fast as a doe, as it is written: 'Naphtali is a doe let loose, he gives goodly words.'”
     Hushim, the son of Dan, was there and his ears were heavy [i.e., he was hard of hearing]. He said to them, "What is this that is delaying the burial?"
     And they said to him, "This one, Esau, is preventing us from burying Jacob until Naphtali comes back from the land of Egypt with the bill of sale."
     He said to them, "And until Naphtali comes back from the land of Egypt will our father’s father lie in degradation?" He took a club and hit Esau on the head, and Esau’s eyes fell out, and they fell on the legs of Jacob. 
     Jacob opened his eyes and smiled. And this is that which is written: “The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.”

This gruesome story (and subsequent slightly different versions of it) began the legend that Esau’s head–and only his head–rests in the Cave of Machpelah with his brother and ancestors. It is honored with a cenotaph on the synagogue-side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

However, the very Muslims who constructed that cenotaph in the late 14th century disagree about whom it memorializes. Islamic traditions hold that Joseph’s body was removed from Shechem and reburied in Hebron’s Cave of Machpelah.

Learn more about the Tomb of the Patriarchs by listening to S2E9 of my podcast!

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