Roots of BitternessWorld Events

Roots of Bitterness: Esau’s Self-Inflicted Wound

In the previous post, we explored the strained relationship between Abraham and Ishmael, and how Ishmael’s birthright was stripped away in favor of Isaac.

There is little doubt that Ishmael would have been bitter, and we find trace evidence of that bitterness at the end of Abraham’s life.

“These are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s servant, bore to Abraham…twelve princes according to their tribes…  They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria. He settled over against all his kinsmen” (Genesis 25:12, 15, 18 ESV).

Immediately following that passage, the story transitions into the birth of Esau and Jacob, accompanied by a profound prophecy.

“And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. And the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived.  The children struggled together within her, and she said, ‘If it is thus, why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger'” (Genesis 25:21-23 ESV).

Continuing the story, we know Esau was born first.

“The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob” (Genesis 25:25-26 ESV).

Since Esau was the firstborn, he should have been the heir to God’s promise to Abraham and Isaac, but he relinquished his birthright to Jacob.

“Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!’ (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright now.’ Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me now.’ So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:29-34 ESV).

In Genesis 27, Jacob deceives Isaac into thinking he is Esau in order to secure the birthright blessing he “purchased” from Esau.  Although Isaac was originally skeptical, he gave Jacob his blessing.

“Then his father Isaac said to him, ‘Come near and kiss me, my son.’ So he came near and kissed him. And Isaac smelled the smell of his garments and blessed him and said, ‘See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed! May God give you of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you'” (Genesis 27:26-29 ESV)!

Almost immediately after Jacob received Isaac’s blessing Esau approached his father seeking his own blessing, but Isaac told him it was too late, that Jacob already received the blessing, and that he would, indeed, be blessed.

Esau was beside himself.

“As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, ‘Bless me, even me also, O my father!’ But he said, ‘Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.’ Esau said, ‘Is he not rightly named Jacob? [meaning he cheats] For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.’ Then he said, ‘Have you not reserved a blessing for me'” Genesis 27:34-36 (ESV)?

It was too late.  The blessing was irrevocable.

“Isaac answered and said to Esau, ‘Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?’ Esau said to his father, ‘Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.’ And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. Then Isaac his father answered and said to him: ‘Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restless you shall break his yoke from your neck'” (Genesis 27:37-40 ESV).

Esau was clearly bitter.  He hated Jacob (Genesis 27:41).

But, he had no one to blame but himself.  He willingly sold his birthright to Jacob.  The end result was simply the fulfillment of the prophecy given to Rebekah: The older would serve the younger.

Esau, also known as Edom, eventually intermarried with Ishmael’s family and settled between Canaan and the Wilderness of Paran, or present-day Jordan.


“So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please Isaac his father, Esau went to Ishmael and took as his wife, besides the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth” (Genesis 28:8-9 ESV).

Take a moment to reflect on the significance of Esau’s decisions.

He was already bitter after losing his birthright blessing, so he chose — intentionally or unintentionally — to compound that bitterness by marrying into Ishmael’s clan.

Are the roots of bitterness starting to take shape?

Ishmael and Esau each had their own reasons for despising God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Understanding their combined history, the simmering hatred their descendants still harbor today starts to make sense.

As we’ll explore in the upcoming installments of this study, there are more elements that adds to the roiling bitterness driving modern-day Middle Eastern conflicts.  Read more here


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