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A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[Gen. 25:20–27:41]

ISAAC and Rebecca remained twenty years without children. At length God heard their prayer, and gave them two sons. The first-born, Esau, was red and hairy, and of a rough, harsh temper. Jacob, the second, was smooth in appearance and gentle in his bearing. Esau became a skilful hunter and husbandman. Jacob was a plain man, and dwelt in tents. Isaac loved Esau, and ate with pleasure the game that he had killed. Rebecca, on the other hand, loved the mild and gentle Jacob. She loved him the more, because she knew by God’s revelation (Gen. 25:23) that he, instead of Esau, had found favour with God. One day Jacob was cooking a mess of pottage, when Esau, coming home from the field, faint with hunger, said to his brother: “Give me of this pottage, for I am hungry.” Jacob said to him: “Sell me thy first birthright.” Esau replied: “Lo, I die of hunger: what will the first birthright avail me?” Jacob answered: “Swear, therefore, to me.” Esau swore and sold his birthright. And taking bread and the mess of pottage, he ate and drank and went away, making little account of having sold his birthright.

Now Isaac was old and had lost his eyesight. One day he called Esau, his son, and said to him: “My son, thou seest I am old, and I know not the day of my death. Take thy arms, thy quiver and bow, and go abroad; and when thou hast taken something by hunting, make me savoury meat thereof, as thou knowest I like, and bring it that I may eat, and my soul may bless thee before I die.” Esau promptly obeyed the command of his father, and went to the fields to hunt. Rebecca had overheard the words of Isaac, and fearing that, contrary to the will of God, Esau might be preferred to Jacob, she said to him: “Now, my son, follow my counsel. Go to the flock and bring me two of the best kids, that I may make of them meat for thy father, such as he gladly eateth; so that, after having eaten it, he may bless thee before he die.” Jacob hastened to the flock and brought two kids. Rebecca prepared them as though they were game, and then clothed Jacob in Esau’s best garments, and covered his neck and hands with the skin of the kids, and sent him to his father with the meats she had prepared. Isaac asked: “Who art thou, my son?” Jacob answered: “I am Esau, thy first-born; I have done as thou hast commanded; arise, sit, and eat of my venison that thy soul may bless me.” Isaac said again: “Come hither that I may feel thee, my son, and may prove whether thou be my son Esau or no.” Jacob then drew near to his father, and Isaac touching him said: “The voice, indeed, is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” And he gave him his blessing.

Scarcely had Jacob gone out when Esau came with the game he had taken and cooked for his father. “Arise, my father, and eat,” said he. Isaac, in surprise, asked him: “Who art thou?” and he answered: “I am thy first-born son Esau.” And Isaac saw that Jacob had deceived him. Then Esau roared out with a great cry, saying: “He hath already taken from me my birthright, and now he hath robbed me of my father’s blessing.” Then he said to his father: “Hast thou kept no blessing for me?” And as he continued to cry out and lament, Isaac, moved with compassion, said to him: “In the fat of the earth, and in the dew of heaven from above, shall thy blessing be. Thou shalt live by the sword, and shalt serve thy brother; but the time shall come when thou shalt shake off and loose his yoke from thy neck.” From this time Esau hated his brother.

Jacob’s selfishness. Jacob did not behave either nicely or rightly when he turned his brother’s desire for the pottage to his own advantage, and asked such a high price for it. He behaved very selfishly, and not at all like his unselfish grandfather, Abraham.

Lies and dissimulation. Jacob sinfully deceived his father in a twofold way. To begin with, he told a direct lie; but he also lied to his father in another way, by dissimulating, putting on Esau’s clothes which smelt of the field, and covering his hands with the hairy skins. It is quite possible to lie without speaking a word. When you dissimulate, and lie by your actions, you sin against the eighth Commandment quite as much as if you told a lie in so many words.

Sharing the guilt of another’s sin. The fact that his mother induced him to deceive his father, was a partial excuse for Jacob. Jacob, indeed, carried out the deception, but Rebecca instigated him, so that she shared in his sin. But Jacob was not compelled to obey his mother when she told him to act thus deceitfully.

The end does not justify the means. Rebecca and Jacob’s intention in deceiving Isaac was good. They knew that Almighty God had chosen Jacob to be the heir of the promises, and they feared that His will would not be accomplished if Esau succeeded in obtaining the blessing of the first-born. True; but ought they to have committed a sin to attain this end? No! sin remains sin even if you have the best of intentions in committing it, and the noblest of ends to attain. Rebecca and Jacob ought, like Abraham, to have had confidence in God, and said: “The Almighty and All-wise God will carry out His own will even if we cannot see how.” Instead of this, they took divine providence into their own hands and committed a sin. Thus, want of faith and confidence in God was the real cause of their sin.

Temporal punishment. Esau’s indifference was punished by the loss of the rights of the first-born, not only to himself, but to all his descendants, the Edomites. Rebecca and Jacob were also punished in this world. Jacob confessed and repented of his sin, therefore God forgave him, but he did penance for it during many a long year. As you will read in the following chapters, he had to flee from his brother, and serve for twenty years in a strange land. Later in his life he was caused much grief by his own sons, who deceived him even more cruelly than he deceived Isaac, making out that a wild beast had devoured his dear son Joseph. Thus severely had he to expiate his one sin! Rebecca, who had sinned through love of Jacob, was punished by having to part with him, and she never saw him again in this life. In all this the divine justice is most clearly seen.

The Wisdom of God, which makes good come out of evil, can be learnt from this story. Almighty God had from the beginning, or rather from all eternity, chosen Jacob to be the heir of His promises. The faults of men (such as Isaac’s preference for Esau, Jacob’s deceit, and Esau’s hatred) could not alter what He had ordained; on the contrary, they served, under the divine guidance, for the accomplishment of it. Jacob, especially, was strengthened in confidence in God, and purified by the very consequences of his deceit, his long exile and servitude. He was by them confirmed in humility and piety, and trained to be a holy man of God, and the worthy heir of the promises.

The frivolity and greediness of Esau. The elder brother sinned by longing too greedily for the mess of pottage, and by selling, in order to gratify a desire of the moment, his birthright, to which were attached such great privileges. He ought not to have given up his right to be the heir of the promises, and the forefather of the Divine Redeemer, for any price which the world could offer him. By giving way to a momentary and sensual desire, he proved how little he valued the good things of a higher kind which were held out to him. St Paul, therefore, calls him “a profane person” (Hebr. 12:16). Esau should have overcome his inordinate appetite. In order to attain to the virtue of temperance we must carefully deny ourselves.

Sinful oaths. Esau also sinned by lightly taking an oath which was not necessary.

Anger is a capital sin. Even as Esau was outwardly rough and hairy, so also was his character harsh and ungovernable. He conceived a great anger towards his brother; his anger turned to hatred; and hatred induced him to form the wicked project of killing his brother. In his blind passion he quite forgot how the murderer Cain had been punished, and gave no thought to the grief which his hatred was causing his parents (compare Commentary on the envy of Cain. Chapter V).

The prophecy of Isaac. While blessing Jacob he said: “And let peoples serve thee and tribes worship thee; be thou lord of thy brethren and let thy mother’s children bow down before thee. Cursed be he that curseth thee, and let him that blesseth thee be filled with blessings.” This promise has found its most complete fulfilment in our Divine Saviour who, by His human nature, was descended from Jacob. To Him all Christian nations bow down as to their supreme Lord.

The folly of sinners. Many men, alas, imitate foolish, frivolous Esau, who sold such great treasures for a mere mess of pottage. Every Christian who commits a mortal sin acts more foolishly than Esau; for he barters away treasures which are priceless and eternal for a passing, sinful desire. He renounces the grace of God, inward peace and joy, and all his merits; and draws down on himself the curse of God and eternal damnation. Therefore St Paul says: “Look diligently, lest any man be wanting in the grace of God, lest there be any profane person like Esau who for one mess sold his birthright.” (Hebr. 12:15 &c.). Esau wept loudly for the loss of his father’s blessing; but how will the children of this world mourn and wail on the great Day of Judgment? Stupefied by their passions, they bartered away their claim to heaven and all the imperishable treasures of the children of God, for the passing pleasures of sin; and on that day they will find themselves, in very deed, shut out from heaven and condemned to everlasting torments.

APPLICATION. Esau sinned through his greedy desire for the pottage. Have you never sinned by gluttony? Try for the future to overcome your greedy desires. Bear hunger and thirst for a short time with cheerfulness; and be not dainty about your food. He who does not tame his appetites, and deny himself, cannot be virtuous or happy.

Jacob ought to have given the mess willingly to his hungry brother. Have you never been selfish towards your brothers and sisters, and wished to keep everything for yourself, or chosen the best or largest portion for yourself?

Do you ever tell lies? Some day you must make satisfaction for every lie. God hates lies, because He is the very truth. If you wish to be a child of God, always tell the truth. “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 12:22).








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