Genesis 25:29-34 “Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, ‘Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!’ (That is why he was also called Edom.) Jacob replied, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ ‘Look, I am about to die,’ Esau said. ‘What good is the birthright to me?’ But Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.”
Here is a man who made a big decision at a bad time, and it was the wrong choice. He was the older son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the inheritor of the covenant and the promises, the one who appeared to be destined to be in the line of the seed of the woman, the one whose descendant in the fulness of time would be the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. The man’s name was Esau and he was a hunter. Since dawn he’d been out in the fields and mountains having had nothing to eat. He was famished and then he came across what must have been a temporary shepherd camp where his brother Jacob was supervising the scattered under-shepherds who were watching over their flocks. He was cooking the simple evening meal for these herdsmen as they were returning with the sheep and goats for the night. You might remember the scene in the life of Joseph when his father sends his son with food for his ten brothers who are staying in a similar camp. When he gets there he becomes the focus of their jealous rage because he is their father’s favourite and he boasts about his power. They want to kill him – they hate him that much.
Esau arrived at a similar shepherd’s camp and he is faint with hunger. The Holy Spirit tells us he was famished (v.29), and then in the next verse the Spirit tells us that he made a beeline to his brother at the campfire and tells him that he is famished (v.30). He even says, “I am about to die” (v.32). He is light-headed with hunger while the sight and smell of food is overwhelming. See how impatient he is, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew!” (v.30). He is like a cry baby. He can’t wait five minutes. His language is gross, of a man more at home with animals than with people, a man of the open country (v.27). His speech is uncouth, blunt, and ill-mannered. He says literally, “Let me swallow some of that red, that red . . . Let me gulp it down.” It is the attitude of a man whose habit is to gratify his fleshly desires. He was not the sort of man to be the father of a great nation, or of anything else great. He was a hasty man, impatient and careless; he liked nice things and he wanted them straight away. We see it all around us. We see it in the people who walk the streets of this town Friday nights and Saturday nights. What is the unchallenged fact for many in our generation is this; urges are irresistible and sacred, and must be followed for fear of damaging yourself. The model for these people is the animal that does not hesitate when faced with food or drink or a mate. I say that Esau’s number is legion and every one is a lost man or woman. We live in a culture dominated by these Epicureans. Their slogan is, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Jacob’s reply was this; “No problem. Just give me your birthright and you can have this food.” Jacob had longed to be the firstborn and have the birthright even when he was in Rebekah’s womb. He failed then, but that ache for the birthright was still on his mind here, maybe twenty years later. He seized a sudden, unplanned opportunity like this, the arrival of a hungry brother, to get his birthright. Jacob was single-minded in his determination to have it for himself.
- BEWARE OF ALL WHO’D ENCOURAGE YOU TO A BAD CHOICE.
We are presented here with Jacob utterly obsessed with having the birthright. This is what he ached for more than anything else in the world. As far back as he could remember this was the one thing he wanted. His obsession with it had made Jacob an opportunist. See this unattractive man in our text.
i] Jacob became a pitiless man. Here was a hungry man coming to him, not waking him up at midnight, not asking for the fatted calf, but coming to him at meal time as he stood or knelt beside a pot stirring the soup as it bubbled. It was the easiest thing to give him a bowl full. It was no effort and no sacrifice whatsoever. This man begging for food was not a child of a servant; this was not a wandering stranger; this was his only sibling, his twin brother. This man was his neighbour and he was to love his neighbour as himself. Didn’t he know about the first man born by natural birth into this world – not so very long before these events – whose name was Cain, and that he became a murderer and killed his own brother? Beware Jacob! That mean spirit in your heart is not that far from murder! Wouldn’t it have been the way of grace and wisdom to put his brother in his debt? Wasn’t their grandfather Abraham (who perhaps was still alive if these men were about 18 years of age at this time or who had only recently died – surely they were at his funeral) wasn’t Abraham a model to them and all his descendants for his excellent hospitality to strangers? Can you imagine Abraham acting like Jacob?
What did he do when ravenous Esau said, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished” (v.30) adding, “Look I am about to die” (v.32)? What did Jacob do? He used that opportunity of his brother’s vulnerability and need to demand in exchange for the bowl of stew his birthright – “First sell me your birthright” – it was the act of a pitiless opportunist. There are men who’ll make money out of the misfortunes of others.
He saw Esau’s weakness and capitalized on it for his own personal gain. It was a base act for a man to take let alone a brother. Instead of saying, “Welcome brother Esau, and sit down. I’ll get a servant to bring some oil and water. Here is a bowl and you can have as much stew as you desire . . .” rather Jacob took advantage of him. How unkind and unfeeling! The world is full of people who will take advantage of the helpless and the elderly and weak. They wait until someone is down and then they will pounce. I had a friend in Philadelphia named Leroy Oliver whose son worked in a forest on the west coast. He had one week off in six and he walked miles through the forests and got a bus into San Francisco. He was walking along the sidewalk when he had a heart attack and died. Someone came up to him on the ground and stole his wallet so that the police had no knowledge of this dead man’s identity. He was not good in keeping contact with his parents and it was not until many months had passed, almost a year, before LeRoy went to a California mortuary and identified his son. There are people who’ll steal from a man lying on the pavement, who’ll rob the injured in car accidents. They loot buildings after earthquakes or fires. They rob wounded soldiers on the battlefield. They will turn on Christians who are going through ill health and the loss of jobs or family members and discourage them from trusting in God. They are pitiless men, like those who not only nailed Jesus’ hands to a cross but mocked him as he hung crucified. That is the heart of man. It is a desperately pitiless heart.
ii] Jacob became a ruthless man. “First, sell me your birthright.” Esau only wanted a bowl of the cheapest bean stew; peasants’ food. Jacob’s price for giving it to his brother was sky high, Esau’s birthright. Now I know that he tossed in some bread as well (v.34) – a generous man – but what a price to ask! Can you believe it? Was there not some sacredness in a man’s birthright? Is there not some sacredness in a person’s virginity? As boys they had listened often to their father Isaac and their grandfather Abraham talking of the extraordinary lives they had led. How God had met with Abraham at Ur and made such promises to him that he and Sarah would have a son and through the line of his son a Man would one day be born through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Abraham’s seed would one day possess a great rich land. How often did they talk about this with Esau listening and knowing that he was the first born and through him the desire of all nations would come and his children would possess the land? That was his birthright. That is what Jacob wanted more than anything else in the world, and he would use anything to get it, demanding, even at a time of Esau’s pain, that the price had to be the birthright. Jacob did nothing to help his brother. Putting stew on a plate is nothing. It cost Jacob nothing. Taking the birthright was like taking an Old Master for a fiver from a pensioner who has no idea that it was worth millions. This was virtual theft. Esau’s birthright becomes a commercial transaction at the level of a bowl of bean stew!
Aren’t some religious people utterly unattractive people? There are men who claim that they have the gift of healing the sick, but they require what they call ‘seed-faith money’ to be handed over before their healing machine will move in your direction. You’d think that if it were genuine they’d say, “Freely we have received this gift of healing from God and so freely we give.” Did Jesus ever set a price before he gave sight to the blind or cleansing for the leper? How much did each one of the 5000 men have to pay to have loaves and fishes in abundance for supper? Not a penny. It was all free. What is the price God sets for eternal life, for entry into his heavenly kingdom, for the new birth? It is simply this, do you see your need of Christ, your need of forgiveness and cleansing from the guilt of sin? Then come and ask God to give it to you. That is all. Just as you are without one plea, O Lamb of God I come. Jacob became a ruthless man.
iii] Jacob became a demanding man. The stew bubbled away, its odour filling the air much to the increased longing of Esau, his saliva ducts working overtime. Jacob stood between him and the pot: “First sell me your birthright . . . swear to me first . . .” (vv. 31 & 33). “‘First of all’ or ‘this day’ you sell me your birthright. I am buying it from you.” The agreed price for the birthright was a plate of bean stew, and Jacob insisted that Esau officially swear, “I have sold it to you; it is now no longer mine but from this moment on you own the birthright.” Jacob is ruthless; he is prepared to physically prevent his brother taking a bowl of stew until Esau had sworn an oath. Could Esau at first believe that his brother was serious? But he could see from his whole body language that Jacob was not in the mood for negotiating. To take this stew from Jacob’s outstretched hand meant Esau had forfeited his birthright. So he swore in the name of Jehovah that he made no claims any longer or at any time in the future upon his birthright, that he had rendered it to his brother and henceforth it would be his. Amen! That is what Jacob demanded because he knew that Esau could change his mind in a few days and try to take back his birthright, and so Jacob made him swear an oath that would make it impossible for him to wriggle out of this commitment. Esau could seek it carefully with tears, but he could never retrieve what he had so lightly forfeited.
Are there not religious men who demand everything from you before you can enter into the alleged ‘full salvation’ they are offering? You have to allow their hands to rest on your head and have a formula spoken over you before you are saved; or they will insist that they have to immerse you by their rites for the inheritance to be yours; or they require that you must hand over all your property and possessions and bank account to them as leaders before you can be declared as one who possesses eternal life. They are the Jacobs of religion today, pitiless, demanding, ruthless men. How generous God is in comparison! How free his grace! How rich his love! He says, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare” (Is. 55:1&2).
- ESAU’S CHOICE WAS TOTAL FOLLY.
Let’s look at Esau’s response, the big decision that he took at a bad time. Didn’t he know what he was being asked? He couldn’t have, or he wouldn’t have responded as he did. He actually said, “What good is the birthright to me?” (v.32), and he sold it there and then to his young brother Jacob. He dissed his very birthright; he trashed it; it was worthless; a bowl of stew was more valuable in his eyes. That is the attitude of Esau’s generation; “what good is religion?” men say. What they think is important is to satisfy earthly desires here and now. “What is this ‘birthright’? It is so nebulous. Can it kill a deer fifty yards away? Can it fulfil my needs? I can’t eat my birthright. Can a birthright fill the hole in my stomach? Can religion soothe my pangs of hu
nger? It can do none of those things. What’s more important than having my ravenous hunger met here and now? I ache for food and I must have it. I have no ache about a birthright. What do I want? Satisfaction. When do I want it? Now!”
So Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. No one ever made a worse deal. No one ever bartered away more. Bean stew was the food of the poor. It was proverbial food. If a man sold his land very cheaply then people would say, “He sold it for bean stew.” If a man was being paid lower than the basic wage for arduous toil and sweat people would say, “He’s doing that work for a spoonful of bean stew.” If a learned man fell into hard times and was reduced to stacking supermarket shelves then people would say about him, “He has fallen into the bean stew.” A beggar would say, “Sir can’t you give me a dish of bean stew?” If a person were saving money by pennies the saying was, “He is saving money by bean stew.” When a man gave excessive praise for something quite normal and kind then the saying would be, “He praises him for his bean soup.” If a man speculated in the stock market and lost all his money then the saying would be, “The speculation has broken his bean stewpot.” You can see how humble and basic this food was.
A leader in camp was impressing on the children that if you buy the truth you’ve made a great bargain. So he asked them where do you find in the Bible an example of a bad bargain. The first teenager said, “Judas Isarliot sold Jesus and got thirty pieces of silver.” Another teenager spoke about this incident before us, “Esau gave up his birthright in order to get bean stew.” The third teenager commented, “Jesus said, ‘What does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and yet loses his own soul?’” They are bad bargains, all of them. Jew-jaws taken and the Messiah given away. Judas and Esau traded Christ and his kingdom for trivia and what will you give in exchange for your soul? A man gives up his soul’s salvation to get more pounds and pennies. No one is poorer than the man who is without Christ. Men won’t come to church to hear the loveliest story ever known, and so what do they do with that time not spent under the good news of Jesus Christ? They stay in bed, or they watch TV, or they do a bit of bargaining, or some D.I.Y. or they play golf, or they cook a meal – stuff like that rather than being with God the Son teaching, soothing their sorrows, driving away their fears, healing their broken hearts, making them wise, giving them joy, gaining his inheritance, one which is incorruptible, undefiled and that fades not away. What a bad choice, washing the car instead of having their guilt and shame washed away through the blood of Jesus Christ. What a foolish decision!
Spurgeon tells the parable of the lion holding a banquet and inviting all the beasts of the jungle and the animals of the farm. The table groaned with the number of delicious dishes that were laid on it, but then the pig asked, “Have you any acorns?” I think that Spurgeon got that illustration from Luther, because the German goes on to speak of our grief as preachers today. We set before men and women a wonderful gospel feast, we fill their cups to overflowing. We offer them everlasting salvation, the forgiveness of all their sins, a friend who sticks closer than a brother, eternal life, the adoption of sons, the glorious grace of God, but they turn up their noses and say “Do you have any money for us?” Offer a cow a nutmeg and it will reject it for old hay!
Esau had no second thoughts about his action, “He ate and drank, and then got up and left.” (v.34). Matthew Henry says, “He went on his way without any serious reflections upon the bad bargain he had made, or any show of regret.” He shrugged; he didn’t give his loss of the birthright a second thought. I think of the adulteress of Proverbs 30. We are told about her, “She eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong’” (Provs 30:20). That is the heart of the worldling; it is a hard heart; it is an impenitent heart; it is an unenlightened heart; it has no tinge of shame challenging it.
The chapter ends with God’s judgment on Esau’s action; Esau despised his birthright, and that is why the New Testament warns us not to be “godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son” (Hebs. 12:16). Food is more important to most people than God himself. How many cookery books in the house? Twenty. How many Christian books? None. I was talking to an Ulster pastor earlier this month who told me that on one of his early Sundays in a new church (where he was to have a long and blessed ministry) a woman had spoken to him on her way out from the morning service and said to him in reference to what she thought was an excessively long sermon, “You weren’t thinking of the Sunday dinner this morning were you?” “No, I wasn’t” he said. Then the next Sunday morning he said in the notices, “Mrs. Campbell said to me last Sunday that I wasn’t thinking of the Sunday roast that morning, and indeed it was the last thing on my mind, but I could see it was the last thing on her mind too, because after she spoke to me she went to the car park and she spoke for twenty minutes to her friends before going home.” That courageous man added that neither she nor anyone else complained about the length of the sermons again.
Did Esau understand what he’d done in selling his birthright so cheaply? How could he or he wouldn’t have done it. Did the people now in hell understand what they were choosing so thoughtlessly? Think of the worse decisions you took in your life; did you know all that was involved in doing what you did that day? “And now the end is near; I have reached the final curtain . . . and I did it my way.” What did you do? What were the choices you made? We know what choice Esau made. He sold his birthright – something inexpressibly precious – for a mess of pottage – worth a few pennies. What a fool. Esau gave away wealth that couldn’t be counted. He turned his back on blessings beyond number. He disdained the kingdom of heaven and eternal life with God.
We are in the book of Genesis. You know what it is about. Adam defied his Creator and lost paradise; he lost fellowship with God; he lost entry into God’s rest; he lost eternal life. He was thrown out of the Garden and prevented ever entering it again. He had no more access to the presence of God. Now the rest of the book of Genesis – yes, the rest of the Bible – is about getting back to that place and regaining what Adam lost. God gave this land to Abraham as a picture of that heavenly rest. Abraham came there from the east, from east of Eden where God had driven man, away from God’s presence. In that place east of Eden God had met with Abraham and blessed him and made extraordinary promises to him. He had cut an everlasting covenant with Abraham, and the old patriarch received it. Abraham believed the divine promises and off he set to the land God was to give to him and his seed. In that land he buried Sarah his wife; that was a sign of his faith that this was going to be their land and the place of her resurrection. Although she was dead yet God’s covenant was an everlasting covenant. His covenant would not fail her. She would rise again. God could do this. Abraham’s fellow patriarch, Job, expressed it perfectly, “I know that my redeemer liveth, and tha
t he shall stand at the last day upon the earth and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me” (Job 19:25-27). God had shown his power to bring life out of death when he brought Isaac from the bodies of Abraham and Sarah, both of them so ancient they were as good as dead. God can sustain and revive our mortal bodies even when they cry, “I’m perishing with hunger! Food! I must have food or I die!” Abraham’s faith in the covenant and the promises was not shaken though waiting decades for his son to be born to his Sarah. He passed the covenant on to Isaac. God would be faithful to Abraham and to Isaac and would fulfil all he had promised. God’s everlasting covenant would be confirmed. Abraham would rise again. Isaac would rise again and all their line. That is what Esau was throwing away in order to fill his belly!
What can we compare this to? To Adam giving up God in order to bite a piece of fruit. Esau’s grandfather Abraham had been given a choice; there was Ur, the most important, bustling city in the world, and all Abraham’s wealth and position there, or Abraham would set out through life living in tents all his days, following God and believing his promises. Abraham chose to believe in God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness. Abraham had made a good choice, but Esau had made a wretched choice! He gave everything away for some soup, and not even good, meaty stew. Lentil stew. Bean stew! Esau was more stupid than Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk fame. In that fairy story Jack did get magic beans in exchange for a cow. Esau got spoonfuls of regular beans, and he traded heaven for them! The man is a fool; he is led by his instincts; he is common. “Feed me with the red stuff!” he blusters. “And if you want the birth-right you can have it, I’m not interested in that.” He had no interest in the future, in the promises of God, in a covenant God had made with Abraham and his seed, in the one coming who’d bruise the serpent’s head, in the place where God lives and blesses his people, in a new heavens and a new earth. None of that stuff moved Esau. It was the ‘red stuff’, food for his belly; that was the only thing that moved him. He swore so easily to give up any claims to the birthright, devoured the mess of pottage until he was full and then walked away. He was clueless, but Scripture is not. Esau despised his birthright. He gave up eternity for a bellyful of food.
- CHRIST’S CHOICE WAS COMPLETELY WISE.
How does the New Testament begin? “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob,” (Matt. 1:1&2). Esau is not mentioned; but the 27th word in the New Testament is ‘Jacob’ because Jacob got the birthright. The Lord Jesus was connected through the umbilical cord back and back to Jacob. This lovely Son came into the world in covenant with God, sent to do God’s will, to know eternal blessedness at the right hand of God. He came for no other purpose. “Behold I have come to do your will, O God!” He came to fulfil all righteousness. He came to experience the contradiction of sinners against himself, and to endure the cross. In the wilderness he fasted for forty days and forty nights. When Esau came back from the hunt was he hungrier than Jesus in the wilderness? Of course he wasn’t. He had endured one day without food; Jesus had gone without food for forty days and nights. Esau didn’t have Satan coming and urging him to satisfy his hunger with a miracle, but to Christ Satan said, “Turn the stones into bread and feed yourself.” But Jesus resisted all the pains of hunger and temptations of Satan, and he tells us today that man doesn’t live by bread alone. For sure man can exist by bread and water, but that’s not much of a life, but he can live abundantly and doxologically in fulness of joy only by feeding on the truth that God gives us so richly to enjoy. Listen! “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn.3:16). I believe that. I live on that promise of Jesus. Those words keep me going; they keep me sensible; they give me joy and peace. ‘Stuff’ – all and any ‘stuff’ – is not that important; maybe to get by, yes, to survive and to sleep stuff is necessary, but to live life in its fulness you must know the God who speaks and is not silent, the God who tells us who we are, how we are to live, and what we must do to be saved. That is life, feeding on every word that the living God has given to us. Jesus hungry in the wilderness wouldn’t take short cuts and dodge the suffering that lay before him. “Thy will be done,” he said to his Father. He chose God’s will though it was a way of cross-bearing. Satan tempted Jesus again in the wilderness, and even again, but Jesus kept trusting God and doing his will. He wouldn’t worship Satan. He’d take the path that Father and Son had planned together in heaven; he’d go to Golgotha and he’d despise the shame in order to save his people from their sin. And he kept going on and on along the narrow path he and his Father had chosen. He ran with patience the race that was set before him.
Esau fell at the first hurdle! He had gone through life huntin’ and fishin’, giving his old man pleasure, enjoying his father’s enthusiastic support, and then one day his life was tested. He wasn’t a dying man on that day. He hadn’t been mauled by a mountain lion. He hadn’t fallen off the edge of a cliff. He hadn’t been captured and tortured by a gang of outlaws. Esau was simply very hungry, and just those pangs of hunger made all his vague thoughts of religion disappear. His belly was rumbling and he’d give up everything and anything for some grub. Nothing was too precious for him to discard for food, glorious food, but not a banquet, just bean stew.
We hear of these falls again and again; men and women with great parents, people who know the gospel, people who have sat under the best biblical ministry, but selling all of that – for what? There is the seduction of the intellectual pleasures of belonging to the in-crowd; “ . . . we want to be accepted . . . we’re weary of bearing this label of ‘fundamentalist’ or of being ‘extremely religious.’ What a burden it is to be stuck with that. Will we get on in life as ‘Calvinistic Baptists?’ Will we be accepted to teach at a university or get promotion if we’re known like that? Will they take our opinions seriously? We don’t see things in terms of black and white any longer – as we did in our naïve days when we thought we knew everything. It is much more complicated . . .” and many think and speak like that. They have sold their birthright for acceptance in the world, for its glittering prizes. Esau fell the first time he was tested.
Jesus cleared every hurdle. He overcame every temptation and you know how on every day he was tried and tested, but he set his face like a flint towards Jerusalem. There he was initially welcomed with enthusiasm. “Time for change,” the people thought. The crowds lined the road and they tore down branches and scattered the palm leaves on the road which he went along slowly on the back of a donkey. They wanted Jesus to be king, to set him on a throne and feast
at his investiture and surround him with power and riches. This was far more than bean soup, but Christ refused. He was going to be a king, but it was via a cross. He wanted a heavenly kingdom not fame and an army and ambassadors on earth. He was the very opposite of Esau. Esau gave up the throne of Mount Zion above for a molehill of beans. Jesus wouldn’t give up heaven for anything. If it meant everyone leaving him he wouldn’t give it up. If it meant scourging, nails through his hands and feet, abandonment by his Father, dereliction and hellish agony he was determined to ascend to heaven via the darkness and pain of Golgotha and in that way be with his Father for ever. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross and despised the shame. He would love to have avoided Calvary. He prayed that he might avoid the cross. Yet his great prayer was, “Not my will but thine be done.” He wouldn’t come down from the cross. He wouldn’t send for a thousand angels to rescue him. His enemies mocked him saying, “If you are the Christ, come down!” but he wouldn’t come down because he wanted you and I to go up, and for us to go up he had to stay up on the cross and go down into the dereliction and abandonment. He has left us an example that we should walk in his steps.
In our text are two young brothers, the age of students today, and there is little to choose between them, Jacob, ambitious, covetous and unkind, and Esau, short-sighted, foolish, sensual and reckless. They had little experience of life; they were finding their way, just like the handsome young men whose pictures are on your study walls, sportsmen and singers with little understanding of what life is all about. They are the alternatives to Christ that the world has. Men – human beings – that’s all. Aren’t you mighty glad that you have the sinless Lamb of God as the Seed of the woman and the son of Abraham, the one whom you worship, the one who has saved you by the great sacrifice of himself, blessed holy Jesus, a Lamb without spot and without blemish? Thank God for him. Muslims you have none but mere men. Come to Jesus Christ, away from all your worship of ancient men. Here is the only sinless one, the blessed God incarnate. He alone is willing and able to save us.
20th June 2010 GEOFF THOMAS