{10}   Jacob and Esau (Gen 25—26)


Part K. Isaac’s Family (25:1—28:22)

K1.   Death of Abraham (25:1–11)

·         This passage confirms that Isaac was the chosen descendant. The ancestors of the Midianites are enumerated. The exchange of the terms Midianites and Ishmaelites in Genesis can be accounted for by a later assimilation of the two peoples. Abraham died at the age of 175 and was buried with his wife Sarah.

K2.   Ishmael’s family (25:12–18)

·         A list of 12 sons of Ishmael

K3.   Birth of Esau and Jacob (25:19–34)

·         Jacob, like Abraham, received revelatory promises and blessing (Gen 28:13–14; 35:9–12; 46:3–4) and repeatedly benefitted from God’s intervening protection (Gen 31:7,24,29,31,42; 32:11; 33:11), despite repeated moral lapses (Gen 27:35–36; 31:20,27; 34:13,30).

·         Unlike Abraham, the reappearing promise was not an heir, but the occupation of the land. Further, the Jacob narrative is centred on the metamorphosis of his character—from trickster to humbled servant. This was achieved through serial conflicts like concentric circles. The outer circle of conflict was the Jacob-Esau struggle, followed by the conflicts with foreigners by Isaac (Gen 26) and by Jacob’s sons (Gen 34), followed by the Jacob-Laban tussle and the Leah-Rachel race for acceptance. The climatic struggle was between Jacob and the God of Bethel (Gen 28:20–22) that was resolved in the life and death struggle of Jacob and God at Peniel (Gen 32:24–32).

·         For two generations, the father (Abraham/Isaac) perferred the elder son (Ishmael/Esau) and the mother (Sarah/Rebekah) favoured the younger son (Isaac/Jacob).

·         Isaac’s prayer for children, its divine answer, and the oracle received by Rebekah testify to the piety of the couple. But their sons did not exhibit the same measure of spiritual virtue. Three early events showed the battle of wills that eventually fractured the family: the struggle in the womb, the tussle at birth, and the contentious sale of the birthright.

·         Jewish interpretation of the divine election of Jacob attributed to Jacob’s merit—a man “perfecty in good works” and residing in the schoolhouse of Torah instruction (=tents, Gen 25:27). Esau was said to be impious, a murderer, and an idolater.

·         The early Church interpreted the struggle in the womb as the conflict between good and evil by means of its typical allegorical method—the womb representing the Church, and the infants depicting the struggle of the righteous and the wicked within the Church.

·         Ultimately, the choosing of Jacob over Esau was a work of sovereign divine election (Ro 9:11–12). Yet, at the same time, there was human participation through Esau’s voluntary self-degradation.

K4.   Isaac and Rebekah in Gerar (26:1–35)

·         Isaac emerged as a power in the region of the Negeb, southern Canaan. He then fell into the same transgression as his father. Yet he rises to the occasion too, when he trusted God for his protection and needs in the face of trials.

·         There are 3 similarities of this story with the past:

o        Isaac was cast in the image of Abraham as his name appears 7 times in this chapter. Like Abraham, Isaac entered into a treaty with the king of Philistines. While the name of the king is Abimelech in both cases, they were likely different persons as this occurred 60 years later. Both Abraham and Isaac were associated with Beersheba where they dug wells, lived, prospered, and entered into treaty.

o        As in the case of Abraham, God appeared to Isaac repeating the divine promises to Isaac (descendants, land, and blessing). Like Abraham, Isaac responded by obedience and by erecting an altar of worship. King Abimelech’s fortunes vacillated from unwitting threat (wife-sister deception) to hostility (expulsion and strife) and finally to friendship (nonagression pact). Like his father, Isaac lied in fear of oppression.

o        The two chief motifs here are similar to the past: the trickery and the reversal of conflicts. The two conflicts occurred because of Rebekah (v.1–11) and water rights at Gerar (v.14–16,20–21,28–29). Isaac followed Abraham in failures as well as successes. Yet it was God alone who guaranteed the covenant’s outworking. The theme of trickery repeats again with Jacob. Repeatedly, the Jacob story shows that the trickster in turn becomes the tricked.

·         Chiasmus of the story of Jacob. Please observe the parallelism.


A 25:19–34 Struggle at birth and birthright

            B 26:1–35 Deception and strife with the Philistines

                        C 27:1—28:9Stolen blessing and flight to Paddam Aram

                                    D 28:10–22 Promise of blessing at Bethiel

                                                E 29:1–30 Laban deceives Jacob

                                                            F 29:31—30:24 Birth of children

                                                            F’ 30:25–43 Birth of herds

                                                E’ 31:1–55 Jacob deceives Laban

                                    D’ 32:1–32 Struggle for blessings at Peniel

                        C’ 33:1–20 Restored gift and return to Shechem

            B’ 34:1–31 Deception and strife with the Hivites

A’ 35:1–22 Blessing and struggle at birth

Appendix 35:23–29 Descendants of Jacob and death of Isaac




25:1     Keturah: She was a concubine-wife (v.6). Her name means “smoke, incense”, likely to be associated with the incense trade in Arabia.

25:2     Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian: The Midianites lived in northwest Arabia.

25:6     to the land of the east: Abraham dismissed all rival offspring to the east, reminiscent of the expulsion from Eden. The term “sent” is the same for the eviction of Hagar and her son (Gen 21:14).

25:8     died at a good old age: His longevity signals divine blessing.

gathered to his people: joining to his ancestors in the realm of the dead.

25:9     Isaac and Ishmael: Isaac took first place as the chosen descendant.

25:12   account of Abraham's son Ishmael: the 7th of 10 toledots in Genesis.

Sarah's maidservant, Hagar the Egyptian: The description makes it clear that the son was not the legitimate recipient of Abraham’s inheritance. Egypt was also a nation hostile to the chosen people.

25:16   sons of Ishmael: The list does not mention Ishmael’s daughters Mahalath and Basemath who married Esau (Gen 28:9; 36:3–4). The intermarriage of the Edomites and Ishmaelites strengthened the two nations born to the outcast sons. Some thought the members of the Keturah (Abraham’s third wife) and Ishmael lines were probably united since the prophets (Isa 60:6–7; Jer 25:23; Eze 27:21–23) show they are closely related. The Keturah tribes resided generally in the Midian region further south while the sons of Ishmael settled in the northwest area of the Arabian peninsula.

25:18   hostility toward all their brothers: a confirmation of the earlier prophecy (Gen 16:12) about Ishmael’s confrontation against others.

25:19   the account of Abraham's son Isaac: a new toledot section (8th of 10).

25:20   Paddan Aram: Paddan may mean “field”, thus field of Aram; some believe that Paddan was the older name for the city Haran.

25:21   Isaac prayed: While the search for an appropriate mate for Isaac met with no great obstacle, the bearing of a successor by Rebekah was not achieved so comfortably. However, unlike his parents who chose a substitute wife to get children, Isaac turned to prayer, showing Isaac’s piety.

she was barren: Esau and Jacob were born when Isaac was 60 (v.26), 20 years after his marriage.

The LORD answered his prayer: showing the effectiveness of Isaac’s intercession and the responsiveness of his God.

25:22   The babies jostled: The word “jostled” means a violent collision, a crushing or breaking, and reciprocal blowed occurring between the children. The forcefulness of their movements prompted Rebekah’s worries, not only about her children’s survival but also her own survival.

Why is this happening to me?: It expresses her various feeling: What good is my pregnancy? Will the children survive? Will I survive?

she went to inquire of the LORD: The word “inquire” (Heb. daras) commonly describes someone seeking divine direction, often through a cultic mediator (Ex 18:15; 1Sa 9:9; 28:7). There is no evidence of cultic personnel during patriarchal times; it is likely that Rebekah approached her husband who as mediator received and related the oracle of v.23.

25:23   will be separated: Separation was the resolution for tensions as seen in Abraham/Lot, Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau.

the older will serve the younger: Ironically, it was Jacob who would submit to his brother upon his return to Canaan, for Edom was the stronger militarily. The oracle was fulfilled not by the brothers but by their descendants as Edom repeatedly submitted to the Israelites (Ex 15:15; Nu 24:18; 2Sa 8:12–14; 1Ki 11:14–16; Isa 11:4; Am 9:11–12; Ob 1:18).

25:25   red… hairy: The description is not derisive as a reddish complexion and the growth of hair were valued. However, the words “red” (Heb. adom) and “hairy” (Heb. se-ar) anticipate Esau’s sale of his birthright involving the “red” stew and Jacob’s later deception (Heb. sa-ir).

Esau: The meaning of the word Esau (Heb. esaw) is unknown; it is perhaps a reversal of the sounds of “hairy” (Heb. se-ar).

25:26   grasping Esau's heel: Jacob grasped Esau’s heel in an attempt to supersede him.

Jacob: (Heb. ya-aqob) The word means “he grasps the heel”. It could also mean “May God protect”. The word “heel” (Heb. aqeb) is also a play on the word “deceived” (Heb. aqab), or indicates a trusted friends’s deception (“lifed up his heel against me”, Ps 41:9).

Isaac was sixty years old: As Abraham was 100 years older than Isaac and he died at age 175, Abraham lived to see his grandsons.

25:27   a skillful hunter: Like Ishmael, Esau the eventually outcast son also became a hunter. He was at home in the “open country” disassociated from mainstream society. That he was a skillful hunter yet unsuccessful in his hunt gives the first hint that Esau was a failure.

a quiet man: The word “quiet” (Heb. tam) elsewhere refers to a person who is “perfect, blameless” (Jab 1:1,8; 8:20; Ps 37:37; Pr 29:10) but Jacob was hardly blameless.

25:28   Rebekah loved Jacob: The word “loved” (Heb. ahab) expresses affection among family members. Rebekah might have been influenced by the oracle that pointed to Jacob as successor.

25:29   stew: It was clarified as lentil (v.34).

famished: a weakened condition due to thirst or hunger.

25:30   Edom: (Heb. edom) connected with the “red” (Heb. adom) stew.

25:31   birthright: (Heb. bekora) In ancient Near East, the eldest son typically possessed inheritance rights over younger sons. In Israel, the “firstborn” (Heb. bekor) child, whether man or animal, belonged to God. The firstborn son received special honour because he symbolized his father’s power and potency. In Mosaic Law, the firstborn was granted a double share. The sound play of “firstborn” (Heb. bekora) and “blessing” (Heb. beraka) points to Jacob’s reception of firstborn rights and blessing.

25:32   about to die: Esau’s claim was likely exaggerated but Jacob is portraited as the cold, calculating cheat.

25:34   Esau despised his birthright: Esau casually gave up his birthright as he ate and hurried off with indifference.

26:1     Isaac went to Abimelech: Because of the famine, Isaac was on the way of moving to Egypt but he was stopped by God. Abimelech (meaning “my father is king”) is perhaps the throne name among rulers of Gerar (which marked the southern boundary of Canaan).

26:2     live in the land: God told Isaac to stay in Canaan. “Live” means to settle and dwell; it often describes the presence of God among his people by means of the tabernacle (Ex 25:8).

26:3     Stay in this land: “Stay” (Heb. gur) means to sojourn and inhabit. It specifies the alien status of the patriarchs.

the oath I swore: God’s words expressed His presence (“I will be with you”), the affirmation of His promise (“I will bless you”), His assurance that the promise would be fulfilled.

26:4     all nations on earth will be blessed: the repetition of former promise.

26:8     caressing his wife: “Caressing” (Heb. mesaheq) is a wordplay with the name Isaac (Heb. yishaq), meaning “Isaak was Isaaking.” The word means toying with someone (Jdg 16:25) and may also have sexual connotations.

26:9     really your wife: It was an impassioned exclamation “behold!” preceded by the emphatic adverb “indeed” (Heb. ak hinne). Abimelech expressed shock at Isaac’s behaviour and was worried about his people.

26:11   molests: meaning “to strike, touch”.

26:12   reaped a hundredfold: The crop was probably barley and the rich harvest occurred immediately the first year which is not common.

26:16   Move away from us: Abimelech expelled Isaac for his fear of Isaac’s growing power (as shown by words “contined” and “very wealthy” in v.13).

26:17   from there: (Heb. missam) is a recurring term in this chapter, describing the repeated migration and discoveries by Isaac (v.8,17,19,22,23,25).

26:18   the same names: Isaac upheld his entitlement by reassigning the wells the names given by Abraham.

26:20   he named the well Esek: The Gerarites disputed the well probably because it was inside or near their territory. “Esek” (Heb. esek) is a wordplay on “dispute, contend” (Heb. asak).

26:21   he named it Sitnah: “Sitnah” means “accusation”. There were ongoing struggles and Isaac moved gradually inland back to the point of his departure Beersheba.

26:22   He named it Rehoboth: Isaac moved again even there was no dispute, relocating sufficiently far enough to avoid conflicts. “Rehoboth” means “wide, broad, spacious” commemorating God’s provision for his growing wealth.

26:24   Do not be afraid: God comforted Isaac, assuring him of divine protection in the land of promise.

26:25   built an altar: 3 actions showed Isaac’s determination to remain in the land: build an altar of worship, establish his presence in the vicinity, and seek water for his new home.

26:26   Abimelech had come to him: Abimelech came with administrative and military leaders, representing the whole nation.

26:27   Why have you come to me: Isaac’s question put Abimelech in the defensive.

26:28   the LORD was with you: The Philistines realized that their attempts at hindering Isaac’s rise were futile, for they opposed a power greater than Isaac alone.

sworn agreement: nonaggression pact.

26:30   made a feast for them: The ancient custom was the confirmation of a pact by a shared meal.

26:32   That day: Water from the well appeared “on that day” and signalled God’s blessing.

26:33   He called it Shibah: “Shibah” is the cardinal number “seven” as Beersheba is a dual reference to “sworn oath” and “seven” (see Gen 21:31–32).

26:34   he married Judith: Esau married a Hittite showing that his attitude toward his family’s religious heritage was deficient. The incident likely also fortified Rebekah’s preference for Jacob.

The wives of Esau were a topic full of speculation since the records in Gen 26:34–35; 28:9; 36:2–3 appear different. In the first list, Esau’s 3 wives were: (1) Judith, daughter of Beeri the Hittite, (2) Basemath, daughter of Elon the Hittite, and (3) Mahalath, daughter of Ishmael. In the second list, Esau’s 3 wives were: (1) Adah, daughter of Elon the Hittite, (2) Oholibamah, daughter of Anah the Hivite, and (3) Basemath, daughter of Ishmael.

The differences may be the result of 3 important factors: (1) a person could bear two names, (2) a person could undergo a name change, and (3) multiple persons could bear the same name. Therefore, the two sets of names could include references to the same women under different names or even a fourth wife with the same name. Basemath, who was recorded twice in two races, were likely two different people with the same name.

26:35   a source of grief: The source of grievance was not known, possibly their disappointment of the women’s foreign lineage.



·         Isaac pleaded with God for children. God wants to grant our requests but He wants us to ask Him. Even then, as Isaac learned, God may decide to withhold His answer for a while in order to: (1) deepen our insight into what we really need, (2) broaden our appreciation for His answers, or (3) allow us to mature so we can use His gifts more wisely.

·         Esau traded the lasting benefits of his birthright for the immediate pleasure of food. He acted on impulse, satisfying his immediate desires without pausing to consider the long-term consequences of what he was about to do. We can fall into the same trap. When we see something we want, our first impulse is to get it. At first we feel intensely satisfied and sometimes even powerful when we obtained it. But immediate pleasure often loses sight of the future. We can avoid making Esau’s mistake by comparing the short-term satisfaction with its long-term consequences before we act.

·         Esau exaggerated his hunger when the pressure of the moment distorted his perspective. Getting through that short, pressure-filled moment is often the most difficult part of overcoming temptation.

·         Isaac committed the same mistake as Abraham. He probably knew about the action of his father. Parents help shape the world’s future by the way they shape the children’s values. The first step toward helping children live rightly is for parents to live rightly. Your actions are often copied by those closest to you. What kind of example are you setting for your children?

·         The Philistines expelled Isaac because of jealousy for his wealth. Jealousy is a dividing force strong enough to tear apart nations and friends. When you find yourself becoming jealous of others, try thanking God for their good fortune. Consider what you would lose if acting out of jealousy—a friend, a job, a spouse?

·         With his enemies wanting to make a peace treaty, Isaac was quick to respond. We should be just as receptive to those who want to make peace with us.