Jacob and Esau were the sons of Isaac and Rebekah and the first twins mentioned in the Bible. Even before they were born, they were struggling together in the womb of their mother. Their prenatal striving foreshadowed later conflict (Genesis 25:21-26).
The twins grew up very different. Jacob was “a quiet man, staying among the tents” and his mother’s favorite. Esau was “a skillful hunter, a man of the open country” and his father’s favorite. One day, Esau returned from hunting and desired some of the lentil stew that Jacob was cooking. Jacob offered to give his brother some stew in exchange for his birthright—the special honor that Esau possessed as the older son, which gave him the right to a double portion of his father’s inheritance. Esau put his temporary, physical needs over his God-given blessing and sold his birthright to Jacob (Genesis 25:27-34).
When the time came for Isaac to bestow his blessing on his sons, Jacob and his mother contrived to deceive Isaac into blessing Jacob in Esau’s place. When Esau found that his blessing had been given to Jacob, he threatened to kill his brother, and Jacob fled (Genesis 27:1 – 28:7). Years later, Jacob and Esau met and were reconciled (Genesis 33).
Both Jacob and Esau were fathers of nations. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel (Genesis 32:28), and he became the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. Esau’s descendants were the Edomites (Genesis 36). Edom was a nation that plagued Israel in later years and was finally judged by God (Obadiah 1:1-21).
In the New Testament, Esau’s choice to sell his birthright is used as an example of ungodliness—a “godless” person who will put physical desires over spiritual blessings (Hebrews 12:15-17). By his negative example, Esau teaches us to hold fast to what is truly important, even if it means denying the appetites of the flesh. Both Old and New Testaments use the story of Jacob and Esau to illustrate God’s calling and election. God chose the younger Jacob to carry on the Abrahamic Covenant, while Esau was providentially excluded from the Messianic line (Malachi 1:2-3; Romans 9:11-14).