Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
I find it fascinating that the Torah tells us that the man who would someday be named Israel obtained the birthright of his brother by some combination of cruelty and deception. The verses do not give us much in the way of surrounding details. Let’s look into this episode and see what else there is to find.
(29, 30) Jacob sod pottage.—The diverse occupations of the two youths led, in course of time, to an act fatal to Esau’s character and well-being. Coming home one day weary, and fainting with hunger, he found Jacob preparing a pottage of lentils. No sooner did the savoury smell reach him than he cried out in haste, “Let me swallow, I pray, of the red, this red.” The verb expresses extreme eagerness, and he adds no noun whatever, but points to the steaming dish. And Jacob, seeing his brother’s greediness and ravenous hunger, refuses to give him food until he has parted with the high and sacred prerogative which made him the inheritor of the Divine promise.
Therefore was his name called Edom.—Esau may have been called Edom, that is, Rufus, the red one, before, but after this act it ceased to be a mere allusive by name, and became his ordinary appellation.
This commentary gives us a different interpretation of those verses. Esau is viewed not as an actually starving man but is instead portrayed as a ravenous, greedy man.
Mendy Kaminker writes an article at chabad.org titled “Esau Sellls His Birthright for a Mess of Pottage” and provides some textual and extra-textual analysis of this event. I’ll provide some excerpts below:
The rich traditions and explanations of rabbinic literature fill in some gaps in this sparsely worded story, and address the obvious question of why the birthright was so important to Jacob, while Esau thought so little of it that he sold it for a pot of lentils.3
- “I am exhausted!” Esau says. The term “exhausted” (ayef in Hebrew) appears elsewhere in the Bible in the context of murder: “My soul is exhausted from the killers.”4 We thus infer that Esau was “exhausted” because he had just killed someone.
- Why was Jacob cooking the stew? Because his father, Isaac, was in mourning after the passing of his father, Abraham. It is customary that mourners are given round foods, such as lentils, because: (a) they reflect the fact that death is part of the natural order, and like a wheel it eventually rolls around to everyone; and (b) a round shape has no “mouth” (opening), and in the same way a mourner also has—so to speak—no “mouth” to speak, consumed as he is with his grief.
- Why did Jacob want the birthright? Originally, the firstborn were intended to serve G‑d in the Tabernacle and later in the Holy Temple,5 so Jacob wanted to gain that privilege, feeling that Esau’s wickedness made him unworthy of performing this service.
Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra offers another explanation: since by Torah law the firstborn inherits a double portion of his father’s estate,6 Jacob wished to purchase his brother’s rights and thereby eventually receive that greater portion.
- “Here I am going to die, so why do I need the birthright?” What makes Esau think that he’s about to die?
The two answers to the previous question address this one as well. If Jacob wanted the birthright because of the attendant privilege of serving in the Temple, then Esau was observing that failure to perform this service properly is punishable by immediate death,7 and that therefore he’d prefer to forgo it. According to Ibn Ezra’s approach, Esau was the type of person who expected to “live fast and die young,” since he was constantly exposing himself to danger in his hunting activities. Therefore he assumed his father’s estate was no concern of his.
You can see that some of the extra-textual context places this event surrounding Abraham’s death. We know that – assuming the lifespan is described accurately – that Abraham’s death is described within the narrative ahead of the time when he actually dies. Other extra-textual writing gives Jacob a pure motive for getting Esau to agree to such a one-sided negotiation regarding his birthright.
In addition to the above, there is another tradition regarding this event and it concerns what Esau had been doing immediately preceding his encounter with Jacob at the pottage. From weareisrael.org, “Esau Kills Nimrod.”
Relatively few people have ever heard that Esau killed Nimrod, and then despised his birthright. We are going to see today that Esau, like Nimrod, had a desire to rule the world; what would an extra portion over his brother matter to Esau in light of world domination?
Again, it is the book of Yasher that has provided “the rest of the story.”
Esau Kills Nimrod!
And in fact one of Abram’s seed, a wicked seed, did spring up in Nimrod’s latter days and kill him.
Yasher 27:4 And on a certain day Esau went in the field to hunt, and he found Nimrod walking in the wilderness with his two men.
5 And all his mighty men and his people were with him in the wilderness, but they removed at a distance from him, and they went from him in different directions to hunt, and Esau concealed himself from Nimrod, and he lurked for him in the wilderness.
6 And Nimrod and his men that were with him did not know, and Nimrod and his men frequently walked about in the field at the cool of the day, and to know where his men were hunting in the field.
7 And Nimrod and two of his men that were with him came to the place where they were, when Esau started suddenly from his lurking place, and drew his sword, and hastened and ran to Nimrod and cut off his head.
8 And Esau fought a desperate fight with the two men that were with Nimrod, and when they called out to him, Esau turned to them and smote them to death with his sword.
Nimrod ruled with the garments which Elohim made for Adam and his woman
Nimrod had the garments that Yehovah made for Adam and his woman; they had been handed down to him through Ham and made him strong. It was these garments that were coveted by Esau.
Yasher 7:24 And the garments of skin which God made for Adam and his woman, when they went out of the garden, were given to Cush.
25 For after the death of Adam and his woman, the garments were given to Enoch, the son of Jared, and when Enoch was taken up to God, he gave them to Methuselah, his son.
26 And at the death of Methuselah, Noah took them and brought them to the ark, and they were with him until he went out of the ark.
27 And in their going out, Ham stole those garments from Noah his father, and he took them and hid them from his brothers.
28 And when Ham begat his first-born Cush, he gave him the garments in secret, and they were with Cush many days.
29 And Cush also concealed them from his sons and brothers, and when Cush had begotten Nimrod, he gave him those garments through his love for him, and Nimrod grew up, and when he was twenty years old he put on those garments.
30 And Nimrod became strong when he put on the garments, …
Esau stole the garments
Yasher 27:10 And when Esau saw the mighty men of Nimrod coming at a distance, he fled, and thereby escaped; and Esau took the valuable garments of Nimrod, which Nimrod’s father had bequeathed to Nimrod, and with which Nimrod prevailed over the whole land, and he ran and concealed them in his house.
And then Esau despises his birthright
Now we know why Esau was so weary when he came from the field and met Jacob and was so nonchalant about his birthright.
Yasher 27:11 And Esau took those garments and ran into the city on account of Nimrod’s men, and he came unto his father’s house wearied and exhausted from fight, and he was ready to die through grief when he approached his brother Jacob and sat before him.
12 And he said unto his brother Jacob, Behold I shall die this day, and wherefore then do I want the birthright? And Jacob acted wisely with Esau in this matter, and Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, for it was so brought about by Yehovah.
13 And Esau’s portion in the cave of the field of Machpelah, which Abraham had bought from the sons of Heth for the possession of a burial ground, Esau also sold to Jacob, and Jacob bought all this from his brother Esau for value given.
Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary. And Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.” Therefore his name was called Edom. But Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright as of this day.” And Esau said, “Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?” Then Jacob said, “Swear to me as of this day.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose, and went his way, thus Esau despised his birthright. (Gen 25:29-34)
This really brings up a few points of interest:
- The Book of Yasher
* Reference to this book occurs at Joshua 10:13.
* The Book of Jasher (also spelled Jashar, Hebrew: סֵפֶר הַיׇּשׇׁר; transliteration: sēfer hayyāšār), which means the Book of the Upright or the Book of the Just Man is a lost non-canonical book mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The translation “Book of the Just Man” is the traditional Greek and Latin translation, while the transliterated form “Jasher” is found in the King James Bible, 1611.
* The Bible refers to Nimrod in Gen 10:8-10; 1 Chron. 1:10;
* Nimrod is often associated with the attempted construction of the Tower of Babel, the eventual Babylonian Empire, and with Christian Eschatology – particularly concerning the Antichrist.
- Nimrod’s clothes
* The garments allegedly originate with the clothes made by God for Adam (Gen. 3:21)
* These clothes are said to imbue the wearer with power – such that Nimrod could create an empire while wearing them.
* From the Book of Jubilees: 26:11 Rebecca took the goodly raiment of Esau, her elder son, which was with her in the house, and she clothed Jacob, her younger son, (with them)…. [NOTE: This refers to the scene later in the Book wherein Jacob obtains Isaac’s blessing via deceit.]
* Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer (c. 833) relates the Jewish traditions that Nimrod inherited the garments of Adam and Eve from his father Cush, and that these made him invincible. Nimrod’s party then defeated the Japhethites to assume universal rulership. Later, Esau (grandson of Abraham), ambushed, beheaded, and robbed Nimrod. These stories later reappear in other sources including the 16th century Sefer haYashar, which adds that Nimrod had a son named Mardon who was even more wicked. – Louis Ginsberg Legends of the Jews Vol I, and the footnotes volume.
Returning to the text, Esau eats the food and agrees to terms with Jacob. From Ellicott:
(34) He did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way.—These words graphically describe Esau’s complete indifference to the spiritual privileges of which he had denuded himself. There is no regret, no sad feeling that he had prolonged his life at too high a cost. And if Jacob is cunning, and mean in the advantage he took of his brother, still he valued these privileges, and in the sequel he had his reward and his punishment. He was confirmed in the possession of the birthright, and became the progenitor of the chosen race, and of the Messiah; but henceforward his life was full of danger and difficulty. He had to flee from his brother’s enmity, and was perpetually the victim of fraud and the most cruel deceit. But gradually his character ripened for good. He ceased to be a scheming, worldly-minded Jacob, and became an Israel, and in his pious old age we see a man full of trust and faith in God, unworldly and unselfish, and animated by tender and loving feeling. Purified from his early infirmities, and with all his better nature strengthened and sanctified by sorrow, he shows himself worthy of his second name, and becomes “a prince with God.”
When we return to the text again, the narrative will return its focus to Isaac.