Jacob & Esau — the Battle for the Blessing

Genesis 27:1-40

30 January 2011

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning Reflective Service


There's nothing that fractures a family quite like an inheritance battle.

You may well have experienced the misery of an inheritance struggle yourself. Here's one example from the past week. A 59-year-old South Florida man hired a hit man to kill his brother after a dispute over their parents' $20 million estate, police said Tuesday. It's extreme, but if you want a direct connection with our passage, have a look at verse 41.

In Genesis chapter 27 the battle is not so much about inheriting the family fortune — that was all sorted out back in chapter 25. The battle here is for the blessing: the blessing that God bestowed on Abraham; the blessing that he confirmed to Isaac; the blessing that Isaac believes is now his to pass on to his son.

The whole of chapter 27 revolves around this blessing: the words bless, blessing and blessed occur twenty-one times in the reading we heard. It is the desire to give and the desire to gain the blessing that throws this family into turmoil.

I want to look at this blessing under two headings, the first being, the Grapple for the Blessing.

The Grapple for the Blessing

In the normal course of events a father's blessing would pass naturally to his first-born son. This is flagged up for us in verse 1. The elderly and blind Isaac summons Esau, whom we are explicitly told is his older sonref. As the story progresses we are reminded of this: verse 19, Jacob goes to Isaac and claims to be Esau your firstbornref; and in verse 32, when Esau shows up he says to Isaac, I am your son, your firstborn, Esauref. Although Esau and Jacob were twins, there was no dispute that Esau was the elder. The blessing is his by right.

If this is so why, then, did Isaac feel the need to act so furtively in conferring the blessing on Esau in secret?

Well, we'll see that one of the key themes of this story is that, in the grapple for the blessing, none of the characters acts particularly well. And Isaac is no exception.

It's important that we know that, before the twins had been born, a prophecy had been given to Rebekah: chapter 25 verse 23, the older will serve the youngerref. It seems that Jacob was destined to receive the blessing, not Esau.

Perhaps Isaac didn't believe Rebekah's account of the prophecy, or perhaps he simply thought he would defy God. In any case, he feels he needs to act in secret, hiding the act of blessing from both his wife and his other son.

You see, both Isaac and Rebekah were guilty of another sin, that of favouritism towards their children. In chapter 25 we're told that Isaac loved Esau, the hunter, the man's man, but Rebekah loved Jacob, the quieter, more refined character. In favouring Esau here by seeking to bless him in secret, Isaac fails to take leadership in his family; he fails to bring his family together; and he fails to listen to God.

But in scene 2, there is a twist in the story. Verse 5, Rebekah has been listening in, and she is not happy that Esau is to receive the blessing. So she in turn summons Jacob and proposes an extraordinary plan: Jacob is to dress up as his brother and present himself to Isaac to receive the blessing fraudulently.

We can credit Rebekah with good motives if we like. Perhaps she is recalling the prophecy from many years earlier — but does she really need to give God a hand? In any case, she ought to have gone to Isaac and reminded him of his reponsibilities. It is a sign of the already fractured relationships in this family that she does not think to do so.

Instead she cooks up this plan for Jacob to masquerade as his brother.

But there is a problem, which Jacob points out to Rebekah in words Alan Bennett made famous, But my brother Esau is an hairy man, and I am a smooth manref.

So follows an almost comic scene where Jacob dresses up in Esau's clothes, and ties goat skin onto his hands and neck — Esau must have been hairy indeed — and Jacob goes in to deceive his father into blessing him, in which he succeeds. And the blessing in verse 29 is lavish, May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.ref In the next chapter, Isaac makes clear that he is indeed passing on to Jacob the same blessing God gave to Abraham, and that Isaac himself received.

In the fourth scene, Esau shows up and finds that the blessing has been snatched away from him.

Now, on the face of this story alone, it's easy to see Esau as an innocent party, a stooge cruelly duped out of what was rightfully his. Esau certainly sees it that way, verse 36, Esau said, Isn't he rightly named Jacob? He has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he's taken my blessing!ref

But, in fact, Esau is probably the worst behaved of them all. Certainly, the New Testament's verdict on him is damning: Hebrews chapter 12 verse 16, See that no-one is... godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterwards, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tearsref. He was godless.

In an earlier incident, Esau, coming in exhausted from hunting, had sold his rights as the firstborn to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew. Far from Jacob deceiving him on that occasion, we're told that, actually, Esau despised his birthrightref.

So, if we are to learn anything positive from the behaviour of this fractured family, it must be to value what is valuable.

However badly Rebekah and Jacob acted, they were at least motivated by a good desire. Rebekah and Jacob were shrewd: they could see the value of the blessing; they valued what is valuable.

Esau's problem was that he had shown previously that he did not appreciate the gift of God: he had despised his birthright. He'd discarded the eternal and valuable in favour of the immediate and tangible, and now it was too late.

So, from all this grappling for the blessing, let's learn this: let's learn to value what is valuable.

If we know Jesus, then we already have the most precious blessing in the world. We have the treasure hidden in a field; we have the pearl of great price.

Don't let the devil deceive you into devaluing this gift! Don't swap your relationship with Jesus for another hour in front of the television. Don't exchange your prayer-life for another half-hour in bed. Learn to value what is valuable.

Perhaps you grew up in a Christian home, and it's all very ordinary for you. You wear you faith very lightly; apart from joining in on Sunday morning, its impact on your life is minimal. Somehow, Jesus has never reached your heart. My challenge to you today, is to do as Jacob later does: wrestle with God. Grapple with God, all night if necessary, until you receive his blessing, until you lay your hands on the most valuable thing in the universe, the blessing of Jesus on your life.

The Giver of the Blessing

If the first heading was "the Grapple for the Blessing" the second is the Giver of the Blessing.

The great irony of it all is that the blessing turns out, initially at least, to be more like a curse. Having gone to all these lengths, Jacob ends up fleeing for his life; he never sees his beloved mother again; and I don't think he's ever truly reconciled with Esau. Some blessing! It's not until years later that the blessing really unfolds.

The problem was, of course, that they were all preoccupied with seeking the gift and not the giver. Nowhere in this whole story does anyone consult with God or acknowledge his hand at work. There's no sense that they are aware of God's purposes, or at all interested in pursuing them.

You see, there is no relationship with God. Jacob makes this clear in verse 20 when, masquerading as Esau, he says to Isaac the Lord your God gave me successref. It is not until years later that Jacob seems to come into a genuine relationship with God himself. Nowhere in this story do any of the characters express any great concern for God's concerns.

But despite all this, despite all the manoeuvrings of the players on the earthly stage — all the scheming and plotting in the front-of-house action — we find that God, after all, is the key player.

In the end, God's blessing was bestowed just as he had determined decades earlier, in the prophecy before the twins were even born. Despite, or perhaps because of, the bad behaviour of his people, God's will was done.

The New Testament picks up on this theme in Romans chapter 9. It's worth turning to if you have a Bible handy: Romans 9 verse 10. It's on page 1136 of the church Bibles.

Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, The older will serve the younger. Just as it is written: Jacob I loved, but Esau I hatedref.

So we see that, in the narrative of Jacob and Esau, God is the key player, as ever. We see a similar thing again later in Genesis, in the story of Joseph. His brothers had intended to harm him, but God sovereignly used that very same act to bless and save many.

We see it too at the cross of Jesus: evil people killed him for evil motives. Yet we find the church praying to God in Acts, They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happenref.

The point is that God is utterly sovereign. Whatever the schemes and manoeuvrings of sinful people, God gets his work done, despite them, and sometimes through them.

Rebekah and Jacob had learnt to value what is valuable, but they were focused only on the blessing itself. They completely neglected the Giver of the blessing. There was no trust, no faith, and no love in their actions, and frankly it turns out badly for them. Nonetheless, God's will is done in respect of his blessing and of his ultimate purpose of building a people for himself.

God will get his work done with or without you and me. The question is, do you want to be part of that work or not? Will you seek the Giver as well as the gift, because he is always the most significant player in any human drama.


Finally, it strikes me that God could have exercised his sovereignty in a quite different way, and spared a lot of strife. He could quite simply have arranged for Jacob to be born first. Jacob would have seamlessly inherited the blessing, and things might have run a bit more smoothly.

But in that case, God's exercise of sovereignty would have been invisible, hidden inside the womb. In the story of Jacob and Esau, our God has chosen instead to reveal his hand to us: his sovereign choice to bless Jacob the younger over Esau the older.

And despite all the human twists and turns of the story, his will is done.

Let that be a comfort to us as we finish. God is sovereign over the events of your life, no matter how chaotic it may seem, just as he is sovereign over the affairs of nations. Whatever happens in Egypt over the next few weeks and months, God is working out his purposes. He is always the most important player in human affairs.

Our role is two-fold. First, we must learn to value what is valuable. And, second, we must make sure that we are seeking the giver, not only the gift.