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The Old Testament can be so difficult. We can’t know for sure if we’re truly getting all the details or whether we’re getting accurate details. The Old Testament tells stories of wicked people, and it tells stories of righteous people who sometimes did sketchy stuff like the rest of us. Sometimes it appears to teach principles that contradict or make things confusing. That being said, I will do my best to teach gospel principles with examples from the Old Testament.
Jacob and Esau
Two of the stories that we learn this week are about Jacob and Esau, twin brothers who seem to have vastly different temperaments. Esau is the older twin, and this is significant because of a little tradition called the birthright.
During the time of the Great Patriarchs, there wasn’t much of a government. You could almost say that people just lived in tribes with their families and could be quite transient. There was no overarching government, but there were still large groups of people that needed a leader. The dad would be the leader (or patriarch), and he would pass that leadership on to the firstborn son of his first wife. If the second wife had a son before the first wife, it didn’t matter. First born son of the first wife always got to be the leader. The firstborn son could relinquish his right to be the leader by unworthiness or death. If that happened, then the role of leadership would fall to the firstborn son of the second wife. No second sons were able to be the leader until all the first born sons proved themselves unworthy or died. This helps explain a lot of the rest of Genesis and why certain favors were placed with certain sons.
Now, what did it mean to be the “leader”? This is where the birthright and inheritance buzzwords come in. The birthright, or right of birth, was given to the first son of the first wife. It was his right, simply by being born first, to be the leader. He received a double portion of an inheritance because it was his job to take care of the family members who couldn’t take care of themselves (unmarried daughters, widowed mothers, younger sons and grandsons, etc.). He would use those resources to take care of the family. Because of the restored gospel, we also understand that part of the birthright was priesthood leadership. That is very important to understand.
So back to Jacob and Esau. Esau comes in hungry from a hard day’s work and feels like he is about to die if he doesn’t eat right that minute. Jacob offers him a mess of pottage in exchange for his birthright. Esau is starving and agrees. Later on, when their father Isaac is getting ready to die, he asks Esau to go make him some meat so he can give him a blessing. While Esau is out hunting, Rebekah (mom) hatches a plan for Jacob to get Esau’s blessing. Jacob tricks his father and receives Esau’s blessing and is designated as head of the family. Esau get’s home right as Jacob is walking out. When he finds out that his blessing was given to Jacob, he understandably is hurt and angry. Isaac does not choose to rescind the blessing from Jacob but blesses Esau with a different blessing.
Jacob has truly taken the birthright.
I think it’s essential to understand why a son needed to be “worthy” in order to receive a birthright. Some of the reasons are spiritual; for example, they were going to be the spiritual head and priesthood leader of the family. Some of the reasons are temporal, they were expected to be kind and charitable towards family members who needed them. They were expected to make wise decisions and protect the family.
When you read the story directly from the bible, it appears as though Isaac was truly tricked into giving Esau’s blessing to Jacob. Isaac seemed to plan on giving Esau the birthright. However, despite the trickery, I believe that it truly was Jacob who was intended for the birthright. I have a four reasons for this.
Esau had already agreed to sell his birthright to Jacob for a mess of pottage. Perhaps Esau truly was starving or perhaps he was exaggerating a little. What we do know is what he said when he agreed to trade the birthright for food:
Genesis 25:32 And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?
Two of my reasons for believing in Jacob’s destiny as the birthright son come from this previous statement from Esau.
First of all, Esau is looking at his immediate needs without really considering the cost. We don’t know if this is the norm for Esau, but it does seem telling that he would give something so significant for something so small. Jacob made him swear on it, and he agreed.
Think about what that actually means…Esau has most likely been groomed for his position as head of the family since he was born. Isaac probably spoke to him often about the responsibilities he would be taking on in order to care for his mother. He probably learned about what was expected of him, and he was probably taught about qualities he needed to adopt to perform his responsibilities well.
Esau, at least in this instance, disregarded the highest of responsibilities: taking care of his family.
The second thing we learn from this statement made by Esau is that he was focused on himself. He obviously wasn’t thinking about how he needed to take care of the family or rise to the occasion to guide others. He was asking what his birthright could do for him.
This doesn’t mean Esau is irredeemable. However, if you’re looking for someone who is going to be in charge of your life, would you have chosen Esau?
Third reason. Another small detail from this story teaches us more about Esau. He married Hittites. In other words, he didn’t marry into the covenant given to Abraham’s family. That’s essentially what that means. Once again, this is not an irredeemable quality. However, if someone is to be the spiritual leader of the family, it might be important for them to take those covenants seriously. If you’re Isaac, and you want these covenants taught to your posterity, then you want to choose someone who loves and cherishes those covenants. Genesis 26:35 teaches us that these non-covenant marriages grieved Isaac and Rebekah (who had worked so hard for their own covenant marriage), and so we know that Esau had probably been taught and had chosen a different path.
Fourth reason I want to share. This detail occurs after Jacob has received the blessing from Isaac, but I still think it’s important to note. After all this occurred, Esau wanted to kill his brother. Even if the other qualities were to be explained further, it’s hard to believe that Isaac made the wrong choice when Esau had it within himself to murder his twin.
So Jacob, despite his own faults, was the twin who was meant to be the birthright son.
Spiritual speaking, this is all very important.
Christ’s story is a little different than Jacob and Esau’s, but the principles remain.
Christ found himself in a situation a little similar to Esau’s. However, He chose differently than Esau. When Christ found himself struggling physically during the atonement, He held onto His birthright. The physical struggle passed after a time, and at the end of it, Christ had been blessed with His birthright. He had the inheritance of heaven.
We, as his brothers and sisters, are helpless. We are those vulnerable family members that Christ is expected to take care of, and He does. Had Christ given in and sought relief from His excruciating physical pains, we would have found ourselves subject to a different brother. We would have found ourselves subject to a brother who really didn’t care about our well-being.
Christ earned His birthright and stands with hands outstretched towards us to help us with our needs. He took that responsibility when He didn’t have to. He chose to be the good and wise older Brother who stepped up to watch over His family. We don’t have to take His help, but He wants us to.
I’m grateful for a Savior who chose to be the perfect older Brother we so desperately needed. I’m grateful He worked His way through and learned His responsibilities and stepped up to those responsibilities. I’m grateful He has taken the inheritance He was given and offered it to us.