Genesis 36 1&2 “This is the account of Esau (that is, Edom). Esau took his wives from the women of Canaan . . .” [and on to the first verse of chapter 37].
There is the warning often given to those of us who preach through all the Bible week by week. It is put in this way, that a woman had often prayed for her husband but for many years he refused every invitation to come to church with her. Then, to her astonishment and delight, one Sunday he announced he was coming to the evening service. When they arrived at the church the minister read Genesis chapter 36 and she knew to her disquiet that this was the chapter he intended to preach on. She heard the chapter read aloud, the lists of names, and listened to it all through the ears of her husband, and wished he had not come with her to this particular service to hear this particular message on an obscure part of the Old Testament. “It will confirm all his prejudices against the Bible,” she thought.
I will not tell you how the husband reacted to the sermon, but I will tell you that the preacher, as he prepared that sermon had such a person in mind. He had thought to himself, “How will this seem to the stranger who comes in and listens to this message?” He puts his trust in God; he honoured the word of the Lord and those who honour God he believed God himself honours. The preacher also thought all through his preparation of the non-Christians present, and the baby Christians and the troubled Christians.
Though all chapters in Scripture are equally inspired there can be no way in which they are equally important. The first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is incomparably more important than this chapter. The former is the Mount Everest of the Bible while this chapter before us is an interesting and profitable little molehill. Clearly God had his reasons for including these lesser chapters as well as mountains in Scripture.
i] One reason for the Holy Spirit leading Moses to write this chapter was to teach us the meaningless of life apart from the promises of God fulfilled in Christ. When this chapter is read you learn that Esau had wives and children . . . and that he became a mighty nation . . . and so . . .? In the eyes of the world that might be everything. “Who could ask for anything more?” But how utterly insignificant all that is compared to the promises God made to Abraham about all the nations of the earth being blessed through him? This chapter describes the best that mere man can attain, and what we find is a grain of sand compared to the Rock of Gibraltar that is the covenant of grace of God with Abraham. How does Esau’s family and its achievements compare to the coming of the glorious Seed of Abraham? Think of the Lord of Glory and all he has done for the world. How does Genesis 36 serve his glorious coming and immense attainments, the blessings that have come on the world through him? It does not serve the Messiah at all. It’s a dead end. It may look impressive to some, but to those who are waiting for the promises of God being fulfilled it’s zilch. People will say, “Esau had a lot of children and didn’t they do well?” So what? Big deal! And that shrug of faith is one reason it’s in Scripture, to teach us vanity of vanities, all is vanity. But there are other reasons . . .
ii] God keeps every single promise. God had said to Abraham, Esau’s grandfather, “I will make nations of you . . . I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Gen. 6&7). This chapter – remember – is about Abraham’s grandson; he was no nonentity. There were brilliant men in his lineage. He had forfeited his birthright and blessing, but God was determined that Esau would keep his own identity, and nation, and family history. This chapter is a summary of what happened to Esau, not by luck but by providence. Esau . . . never forget it . . . Esau was Isaac’s firstborn son, and yet in the scheme of things he became peripheral to the line of the covenant. However, God didn’t ignore him but honoured his status. So Moses returns to Esau in this chapter. “Let me tell you what happened to him . . .” Having recorded the death of Isaac at the close of chapter 35, Moses obviously considered it a proper place to provide a brief sketch of Esau’s descendants.
iii] The first readers of Genesis, the children of Israel at the time of Moses, had to know who were the descendants of Esau. Remember how the children of Israel were going to enter the Promised Land and were to be the instruments of Jehovah in bringing his judgment on the people of the land, the Canaanites, for their centuries of wickedness. But there were some nations who were not to be destroyed, and among them were the Edomites. God protected them. They were the descendants of Esau, and so, in order that the leaders of the people in particular might know who these Edomites were, this whole chapter is dedicated to spelling out their names and relationships and history to the Israelites. This brotherhood of Esau and Jacob, living on in the nations of Edom and Israel, is never forgotten in the O.T. There is this sense of kinship, and it later comes to the surface in the context of diplomacy, and law, and national feeling.
iv] This genealogy demonstrates that the family of Esau was excluded from the line of the Messiah. Jesus does not come through Esau’s line but Jacob’s. You have generations of the rulers
of Edom named, and then suddenly there is the end; “This was Esau” (v.43). That was it; it’s all over, and there are no more records of Esau and his line. It all fizzles out because Esau’s line is not the line of promise even though they were the descendant of Abraham, and the firstborn of Isaac. Henceforth you simply read the nation’s title, the Edomites. But when you come to Matthew chapter one and Luke chapter three, you are confronted with the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob going on and on, generation after generation, for two thousand years right up to Christ the Son of God. There are actually two famous descendants of both Jacob and of Esau in the New Testament, two kings inhabiting the land at the same time. There is King Jesus of Nazareth, son of Jacob, and who is the famous Edomite King in the N.T. after centuries of silence? It is King Herod. Two very different kings.
v] Even though God is sovereign there are the free actions of men. In all the decisions that Esau made he made them himself. He chose to live away from Jacob, just as Ishmael chose to live away from Isaac. It was not God but Esau who chose to live away from the land of promise. He chose to marry and remarry again and again. God excluded him from his plan in the covenant, but it was Esau’s own choices that caused this divine response, just as your own choices have made you the person you are. You cannot blame God and say that he made you do what you did.
vi] Human life is important. It is a trivial point perhaps, but everyone who reads any of the genealogies of the Bible should finally get that message. God records the names of people just like us in so many places in Scripture. The genealogies can become a bit of a joke. The world grumbles about the Bible and its lists of names, but it was the Holy Spirit who preserved those names, and we read them and we take note. Is your name important to you, and your parents’ and your spouse’s name, and your children’s names? Of course they are. Then you remember that all these names in this chapter are of people who will live as long as God himself. Everyone matters to God. So let us survey this chapter:
- ESAU TOOK PAGAN WIVES.
Esau intermarried with the Canaanites. He already had two Hittite wives and had married Ishmael’s daughter, but now he takes three more. Because of his growing wealth Esau could do what every rich man in the world was doing, build up a harem. Initially three of the new wives are mentioned and they have beautiful names, the name Adah means an ornament, the adorned one; the name Oholibamah means as high as a tent, that is, stately in deportment; the name Basemath means the perfumed one. Each name focuses on some different aspect of women’s beauty. Esau couldn’t resist pretty women, and so we can say that he made his own beds for life. I’ll refer you back to an incident just after his father Isaac had given Jacob the blessing that had been intended for Esau? We read, “Now Esau learned that Isaac had blessed Jacob and had sent him to Paddan Aram to take a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he commanded him, ‘Do not marry a Canaanite woman,’ and that Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and had gone to Paddan Aram. Esau then realised how displeasing the Canaanite women were to his father Isaac; so he went to Ishmael and married Mahalath, the sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, in addition to the wives he already had” (Gen.28:6-9). So Esau was at least trying to please his father and regain the blessing that he had thrown away. “Dad will be glad that I’m not marrying a Canaanite,” – that is how he had been thinking then. He’s not thinking like that any longer. Why? Dad was dead. A father’s restraints were gone. Thank God for the restraints of our parents. We are bad enough even with them, but anyway Esau never understood the nature of the blessing Isaac would have given him. He had thought of it in purely material terms. Land, herds, 400 armed men in a private army, and lots of wives. So Esau thinks that without his father’s blessing he’s done all right for himself. He’s been blessed all on his own, without the patriarch’s blessing.
But why didn’t Abraham and Isaac want their sons to take wives from among the Canaanites? The women would have been strangers to the worship of Jehovah – that was one reason, but there was another. God had promised that one day Abraham’s descendants would destroy the Canaanites. So they would have to sort out who were the Edomites and who were the Canaanites. This wouldn’t be easy with inter-marriage. Here was Esau stepping outside the line of Abraham and Isaac his father and aligning his descendants with the Canaanites. He was blurring the distinction between the seed of the serpent and the Seed of the woman. The fact must have been that Esau didn’t believe what God had said to Abraham. Esau didn’t care about threats to destroy the Canaanites. Let me ask you. “Is anyone in the world worth giving up God for?” You say, “Of course not!” Yet this is what Esau did. You know better than that don’t you? And when it comes time for you to marry then you will seek out somebody who also believes the promises of God, someone whose Saviour is Jesus Christ.
And please notice that there is no mention of infertility in Esau’s wives. Abraham had God’s promise of many descendants, but his wife Sarah was barren for decades. Isaac had the same promise, but Rebekah couldn’t conceive for the first twenty years of their marriage. Again Jacob’s favoured wife, Rachel, was barren for years. But then we are shown in this chapter of the line of Esau, the natural gifts and the common graces in abundance in this family. Five sons and a number of daughters were born without any frustration (vv.4-6). Esau represents the natural man with all that is brilliant and grand in men who yet lack the saving grace of God. They are strong, athletic, independent, able to handle tsunamis and earthquakes, heartaches and illnesses. They have admirable marriages. Who needs to depend on God for the things you can capably do by yourself? But then what is approaching, and coming nearer and nearer? It is death . . . see it coming along, the black cloak, the scythe in its hand to cut the silver cord, daily creeping up on them, to separate them from all they have lived for, and then won’t they think, and won’t they ask, “Is this all there is?” Won’t they be dark and foreboding facing the grave?
- ESAU TOOK HIS FAMILY AWAY FROM THE INFLUENCE OF THE PROMISED LAND.
We next see (in verse six) that Esau gathers his family, servants and everything he has together and he takes them out of the Promised Land. Esau is virtually saying, “This place that God promised to Abraham and his descendants is unimportant and I reject it.” Here we see the vital contrast with Jacob whose sons were born outside the Promised Land but Jacob brought them all into it. Esau’s sons were all born inside the Promised Land but he took them all out of it. This land, you realize, is not simply real estate, a geographical area on this planet, but it is a picture of the heavenly inheritance that is held out to those who have faith in the promises. Esau had erased that picture from his mind. He determined to live in a world without God. He couldn’t care les
s in what kingdom he lived or raised his children, any more than the children of the world worry about such thing Esau turned his back on God.
Why did Esau behave in this way? Because he judged that the possessions of Jacob and himself were too great for both of them to inhabit the same area. There weren’t enough springs and pastures for all their herds, and so the brothers parted – just like Abraham and Lot parted. Many of you are thinking of that parting of the ways aren’t you? It is the obvious biblical parallel, but you also are remembering what happened to Lot. Was it a wise and good move going nearer to Sodom and the cities of the plain? Don’t you know that soon Lot was living in those depraved places and becoming an influential leader of the city and his wife was besotted with Sodom. Many of you had actually thought of that, but Esau didn’t think twice about what happened to Uncle Lot and his wife. I say that he should have. Lot was almost killed. His very daughters became pregnant by him, and his wife looked back longingly at Sodom against the express prohibition of God and was turned into a pillar of salt. This was not something that happened thousands of years before Esau, I am reminding you that these people were his uncle and aunt and cousins. We are told that, “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Roms 15:4). Esau was not teachable; are you? Does your mind go to sayings and incidents from the Bible?
What folly becomes ours if we ignore the Word of God! What hardness of heart! Esau remains true to his character to the end. He sold his very birthright to Jacob for something to eat. Now he leaves God’s presence because he feels he is too rich to dwell in the land of promise. He is a success! He has gained the whole world, but he is losing his own soul, and that is a bad bargain. There was the choice before Esau. On the one hand was the possibility of living in the presence of God; in God’s presence is fulness of joy and at God’s right hand there are pleasures for evermore. Here living with God was offered to Esau as it is to you. But on the other hand there were all his donkeys, and sheep, and goats, and camels, and servants. Esau made his choice, and he chose animals, and he turned down God. And millions of people all over the world are making the same choice today. They want their flocks and herds, their pedigree sheep and bulls, rather than the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a bad bargain. Here is a pearl of great price, it is perfect, flawless and glowing. That pearl is Jesus, and a man with true appreciation and taste, who knows the real value of everything that is worthy, will sell everything he has just to get that pearl. Let nothing come between you and getting the one in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
- ESAU WAS BLESSED WITH SMART SONS.
Then we are told that from his wives came five sons (vv.4&5), and these boys were all achievers, born leaders, gifted and strong men. There is little hint of them knowing the Lord or that Esau saw this as a priority. God was left out of their lives almost entirely. Esau had more sons and grandsons, and they are listed one by one in ten verses (vv.9-19), but as Bill Baldwin says with a sigh, “So what?” None of these sons is the promised Seed. None of these sons is born in fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham that he would have many descendants. According to the flesh, of course they were all the sons of Abraham. They could claim that he was their grandfather or great-grandfather, but they were not God’s children according to the promise, and so this list of names is pretty meaningless. You look for some little signs of hope; you spot that Esau named his first son Eliphaz (v.4), and you ask what that means. It means, “My God is fine gold.” That’s not a good start is it? If you told me, “My God is all the money I’ve got in the bank,” then I’d be very concerned about you. So that’s the name Esau gave to his firstborn son, “My God is fine gold.” Then one looks to see if there is anything in the other names to give a glimmer of light. Reuel (in vv. 4 & 10), his son by Basemath, means “friend of God.” Then Jeush (vv. 5 & 14) his son by Oholibamah, means “the Lord helps.” There are 81 names listed and those two names are slim pickings. They might just have liked the sound ‘Reuel.’ So here are successful men whose sons became chiefs. They were men with authority, maybe great in the eyes of the world, but remember how in the eyes of our Lord Jesus king Herod was as vile as a fox. These leaders are nothing. They are not part of God’s plan to call out a people to himself; through them the Messiah will not be coming and bringing his salvation blessings to the world. God had no part of their lives.
- ESAU WAS SURROUNDED WITH UNBELIEVING NEIGHBOURS.
Who am I talking about? The sons of Seir. “The sons of Seir? Who in the world are they?” Seir the Horite. “Seir the Horite? Who . . . he?” He is there before you, and his sons also. They are listed for you in another ten verses (vv. 20-29). What’s to be known about them? They were the people living in the land of Seir before Esau and his family moved in. They shared the land for years and then Esau’s descendants displaced them. ‘Hor’ may mean a cave, and so they may have been cave-dwellers and inferior to Esau’s family with his 400 armed retainers. The most interesting person among them is one Anah who became famous for discovering hot springs, or perhaps it was merely water, in the desert. Hot or cold water is a great find in the desert. Every community has one or two interesting personalities, even the cave dwellers of Seir.
What’s all this about? Here is chapter 36, and in the midst of Esau’s genealogy you get over thirty names of a bunch of foreigners. Esau is getting inter-mixed with the rest of the world. See how one of the Horite women is taken as a concubine by one of Esau’s sons (v.12). They dressed the same and spoke the same and soon you are not able to tell the sons of Esau apart from the sons of Seir. They are just all together an unbelieving people, worshippers of hills, and rivers, and rain, and moon, and sun. God has rejected them all in favour of the sons of Israel.
You see, the Lord tells us that there are only two ways, one is broad and one is narrow; and there are just two groups, sheep and goats; there is darkness and light; there is heaven and hell. You either belong to the people of God or the people of the world. That is what the book of Genesis says so clearly and again and again, but Esau has jumped ship. He has rejected his identity as a son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. He is becoming indistinguishable from the sons of Seir the Horite, and that means Esau is going to be destroyed along with all the rest. We can tick different boxes on the census forms, and even we get divided as a husband and a wife in strange ways, but God reminds us of basics, that there are only two lines, the seed of the serpent and the Seed of the woman, and if you are not for the Seed of the woman then you have become one of the seed of the serpent. That has happened to Esau, Abraham’s grandson. May it not happen to you! Cling to God’s promises. They are all fulfilled in Christ.
- ESAU WAS RUBBING SHOULDERS WITH CELEBRITIES.
This is the climax of the chapter; Esau was mingling with the super-stars, the movers and the shakers, the people who appeared in Edom’s Hello! All those listed in the last ten verses of the chapter are the kings in Edom, well-established kings, like the ‘royal families’ of middle eastern states today, ‘kings’ for one generation or maybe two, ‘emperors’ who sit on the ‘peacock throne’. We are told that Edom had kings who reigned, “before any king reigned over the children of Israel.” It would in fact be almost a thousand years before King Saul became the first king of Israel. The Edomites got their kings first. Again, so what? God had promised Abraham that kings would come from his body in his lineage. This list does not include any one of those kings promised to Abraham. Let’s all wait for the kings of promise, and particularly wait for the glorious appearing of our blessed God, the one and only Potentate, the King of kings. He commanded winds and devils and disease and death and they all bowed to his words.
Where are the kings of Edom now? They are nowhere. They are not even in the gossip columns of the papers, but Christ, the true king of Abraham, is reigning still, and in him you and I are kings and priests. So the promise God made to Abraham has been fulfilled in us and not in any on the Edom list. So what if Edom had kings a thousand years before Israel first got hers? Our King who comes from Israel reigns for ever. And the more you inspect this list of kings it seems a pretty fragile bunch of men. Are they descendants of Esau or Seir? We don’t know. You can’t tell them apart. Maybe they are alternatively an Edomite and then a Horite because have you noticed that there is no succession. Bel son of Beor reigns (v.32) and when he died what happens? Did his son succeed him at a coronation? No. Joab the son of Zerah follows him, and so on, down, and down. This is not a dynasty. This is not a father king passing on the throne to his son. The king dies and there is a power struggle. This is a group of random leaders taking over and taking the title ‘king.’
This is the opposite of these last 35 chapters in Genesis where the patriarchs are like relay runners and Abraham passes the covenant baton down to Isaac, and Isaac passes the baton down to Jacob, and by the end of the book Jacob will be passing the covenant down to his twelve sons That is a wonderful picture of Christ passing the blessings of his Father down to us. And don’t we pass the blessings of Christ down to our children?
You don’t find that here. You find the title, “The kings who reigned in Edom” but they’re not much like the kings you think of! They’re a rum bunch of men. So Moses informs us, “ Esau was the one who first gets kings,” but again, big deal! When the Messiah is born then . . . Hark! The herald angel sings these words about him, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end” (Lk. 1:32&33).
Esau had the kings and he also had the chiefs. They’re named in the last four verses of the chapter. That was Esau’s line and Esau’s boast. He didn’t have God’s covenant. He had no hope in God’s Messiah. He didn’t have the promised land, but he had kings and he had chiefs, and the world has them today. We look at the media stars, the politicians, the sportsmen, the musicians, the film-stars and the pundits. Their pictures are everywhere, and they have their expenses, and they have their partners and girl-friends, and they holiday in exotic places and eat in the most expensive restaurants. They have got what the world aches to have, money and fame, and it may seem at times that they’ve got the real blessings, but then we think of how death is going to take all that away from them. Every single thing will be stripped away from them; their pampered bodies will rot, and the souls will meet the God whom they hated. Whereas for us death is the beginning of a breath-taking new life death for them is the gateway to a second death. Whatever those kings and chiefs got it was poisoned peanuts compared to what’s reserved for us. They got theirs first, but we get our glory last, and for ever.
The chapter ends with a list of Esau’s descendants that they were chiefs, and where they were chiefs. Not kings now, but it is something to be a chief! That is Esau’s line and Esau’s glory, and it is wanting. What is his family but a set of chiefs? Esau forfeited the covenants and the promises and the land and its glorious future in order to become a little chief.
- BUT ESAU’S BROTHER LIVED AS A STRANGER IN THE LAND.
We are told, “Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan” (Gen.37:1). This is the last verse of this section. Don’t think that it goes with the next passage because verse two starts “This is the account of Jacob” or “this is the genealogy…” or “these are the generations . . .” and in Genesis that’s our signal that a new part of the book has begun.
So Moses, inspired by the Spirit, wants you to consider this first verse of the next chapter as the conclusion of the genealogy of Esau. It’s a breath of fresh air, isn’t it? What a contrast to that tedious chapter 36, long-winded, wearying, self-conscious, name after name of wives, kids, kings, chiefs, people whom the world will never hear of again. This is a history of Esau denying the faith, turning his back on the promises, and seeking his own desires. What a sad boring chapter it has to be.
Jacob, by contrast, lives in the land where his father had stayed, the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. He takes up Isaac's faith. He shows that he is the heir of the promise that God made to Abraham. The covenant has passed down to him. His offspring will inherit this land, and he believes it and so he remains in it. He lives in a tent. He doesn’t go off to build a permanent dwelling place for himself somewhere else. He lives in a temporary sort of shelter here, and by this he testifies that he is not looking for an earthly city or a permanent home on this earth, but he is waiting for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. So he testifies to us across the centuries in the face of all this nonsense that Esau has just pulled us through. Jacob renews your pilgrim identity, that you are strangers in the world, scattered through Wales and England and Ireland and Scotland and Europe and the Americas. This world is not your permanent home, but your citizenship is in heaven and you’re waiting for that kingdom to come down out of heaven at the last day. No longer do we express this faith by dwelling as nomads, living in a tent, moving from place to place, but in our hearts we are pilgrims in a barren land, holding lightly to the things we own and the dwellings we live in. We are ready to leave them at a moment's notice when that which is truly valuable appears.
This is the heart of Jacob, which hearts some of you also bear, in contrast with the heart of Esau. You love the promises of God. You long for the appearing of Christ. You would give
up all your earthly possessions to gain him (for what good are the things that are passing away?) And you confer this pilgrim identity on your children as well. In Jacob will God’s promises be fulfilled. The promises of God are absent from chapter 36; they have passed Esau by, but they have come at last to Jacob. This one man and his family without any armed men to protect him, will become a mighty nation. First the nation of the children of Israel and finally the ‘nation’ of God's people. Kings will come from his body. First David and Solomon and their line, but ultimately Christ and in Christ a whole kingdom of kings. His descendants will inherit the land, first the physical land of Canaan and then his spiritual descendants will enter heaven itself.
This is what Esau rejected and lost out on. This is what Jacob clung to as more valuable than all earthly things, and this is what comes to you who like Jacob cling by faith to what God offers in Christ and wait with hope for the day of his coming. Genesis 36 describes Esau out conquering the land of Edom, founding a nation, fathering kings, and making friends of the good and great, while Genesis 37 begins with Jacob quietly living in a land he didn’t even own, the land where his fathers had sojourned. While Esau’s descendants were mighty chieftains, famous in their day, Jacob’s descendants were down in Egypt, enslaved to Pharaoh. By Moses’ day (over 400 years later), Israel was a fledgling nation of slaves, recently escaped from Egypt, owning no land of their own while Edom was an established kingdom that had the power to refuse Israel passage over their land. You might think at that time Esau and Edom are the winners, but this tour through Genesis 36 shows us that God, not man, writes the final chapter of history. These lists of once-important men and women don’t mean a thing to our world today, but great Jacob’s greater Son, Jesus, conquered death and opened the kingdom of God to every believer. He is the most important person in history still, and growingly so as the years go by. Jacob’s chiefs and kings, successful by this world’s measure, passed off the scene; they were soon forgotten as others clamoured to take their place. Today, we don’t know a single thing more about them than what is written here. Fame is a fleeting thing. The Edomite race endured until the time of Christ, when they were known as Idumeans. They disappeared from history in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed. What really matters I am saying to the strangers and the seekers and the baby Christians reading this today is that God’s eye is on you, and God’s approval, his blessing, rests on your life
27th March 2011 GEOFF THOMAS