The Story of Jacob and Esau

The fascinating Old Testament biblical story of twin brothers Jacob and Esau is one of sibling rivalry, favouritism, and deceit.

It is a story found in Genesis of the Bible that evidences a rivalry between the twins from the very beginning. They were already fighting in the womb of their mother, Rebekah. God reveals to Rebekah that “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (25:23). Esau was the firstborn: “The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau” (25:25). Jacob followed with his hand clinging to Esau’s heel. The two brothers grew and developed different personalities. Esau grew to be a hunter, but Jacob preferred to stay home and was much quieter,

“The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob” (25:27-29).

One day when Esau returns from his hunting, he discovers Jacob cooking a stew. He asks his brother for some and Jacob agrees on the condition that Esau gives up his birthright to him. A birthright is the older son’s entitlement to a double portion of the inheritance. Esau surprisingly agrees to this rather strange deal.

Esau becomes is his father’s favourite son and Jacob his mother’s. When Isaac is old, nearly blind, and close to death, he instructs Esau to go out and hunt. The meat he catches must be cooked and given to Isaac so that he can bless his favourite son. This is a ritual believed to confer God’s presence and protection on the recipient of the blessing.

But Rebekah overhears this and, wanting Jacob to receive the blessing, instructs her favourite son to kill two kids from their flock. She will cook the meat and give it to Jacob to take to Isaac. But the catch is that he will do so pretending to be his brother, Esau. To fool Isaac, Rebekah covers Jacob’s hands and neck with a goatskin so that he feels hairy likes his brother. She hands to Jacob the food and the trick works. Jacob receives his father’s blessing.

Esau later returns to discover that he has been robbed by his brother’s trick. He had been cheated: “When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!” But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing” (27:34). But the blessing had already been given and it cannot be revoked. Esau is so angry that he wishes to murder Jacob once Isaac is dead,

“Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob” (27:41).

Warned by his mother, Jacob flees his home. He is told to go to where Rebekah’s brother, Laban, lives. While on his journey, Jacob has a dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending a stairway between Earth and heaven. God is present in this symbolic bond of the divine and the human. God promises Jacob protection and informs him of the covenant he made with his grandfather, Abraham, and his father Isaac. The covenant will extend to Jacob and his offspring who will be a blessing to the whole world.

But Jacob also becomes a victim of a trick. When he arrives at Laban’s house, he falls in love with Rachel, his cousin. Laban promises Jacob that he can marry Rachel after seven years, but when the seven years pass Laban substitutes his other daughter, Leah, at the ceremony. Jacob must work another seven years if he wants to marry Rachel.

Jacob is later told by God to go back to Canaan (31:3) and along with his wives and servants, he plans to escape. However, unknown to everyone else, Rachel steals Laban’s heirloom idols. A few days later Laban discovers that his heirloom idols are missing and that Jacob has fled. Angry, he gives chase and catches up to Jacob after seven days. Jacob allows Laban to search his tents but Rachel hides the idols in her camel saddle and tent. When Laban searches her tent, she excuses herself for not standing by pretending to be menstruating. Jacob rebukes Laban for his mistrust, but then they form a covenant before God and make a sacrifice (31:43-55).

On his way to Canaan, Jacob discovers that his brother Esau is riding to meet him with 400 men (32:6). Jacob, hoping to avoid conflict, then sends his brother gifts of camels, sheep, goats, and cattle. He has his wives and children taken across the ford of the Jabbok while he thinks through the situation.

This is when Jacob has an unusual wrestling encounter with a stranger (32:22-31). This encounter lasts through the night and neither of them can get the better of the other. But when daybreak arrives the stranger touches the socket of Jacob’s hip and dislocates the bone. Despite this Jacob refuses to let go of his opponent until the stranger blesses him. The stranger then says to him that his name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel (“He struggles with God”). Jacob had struggled with God and prevailed. The stranger blesses Jacob and vanishes. The following day, Jacob meets his brother for the first time since his flight. He bows before Esau and the two are reconciled.

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