Hebrews 11:20, 21
Faith is believing that even sinful acts and seeming “mistakes” can fulfill divine purposes.
“20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. 21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (Hebrews 11:20, 21).
There are other examples of faith demonstrated in the lives of Isaac and Jacob, but the writer to the Hebrews chooses to mention two of the most obscure—both having to do with covenant promises and future blessings.
The blessing on Jacob: Genesis 27:27-29
“27 So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed. 28 May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness — an abundance of grain and new wine. 29 May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.”
The blessing on Esau: Genesis 27:39, 40
“39 His father Isaac answered him, “Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. 40 You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.”
When we read Genesis 25:19-26 we see that Jacob and Esau’s relationship was unusual from the time they were born.
“…Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord. The Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from with you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.’ When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first came out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.”
Notice how the two boys are described, particularly in the case of Jacob. “Jacob” might not be such a good name to saddle your child with since it means, “heel holder” or “supplanter.”
God would later rename Jacob and give him a name that would remind him of past promises made first to his grandfather, Abraham. The new name, “Israel” would also carry over into the future and become the name by which God’s people would define themselves. In essence the sorry story of Jacob the supplanter becomes pivotal in the story of God’s redemptive mission. Jacob is the first truly “evil” person we have met in the scarlet thread that flows through Hebrews 11. If God can redeem him and make him a man of faith, He can do the same for anyone.
The first-born son always inherited the biggest share, a double portion, of his father’s estate. Deuteronomy 21:15-17 reads: “If a man has two wives , and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, when he will his property to his son, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not live. He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.” Though the case mentioned here is a specific one, there was a general principle stated—the firstborn was to receive a significant share of his father’s possessions and privilege. This inheritance was referred to as a birthright.
Birthright is the right which naturally belonged to the firstborn son. Where there were more wives than one, the firstborn was the son who in point of time was born before the others, apparently whether his mother was a wife or a concubine. Sarah protests against Ishmael being heir along with Isaac, but it is possible that the bestowal of the rights of the firstborn on Isaac were not due by law, but rather by the influence of the favorite wife (Gen 21:10). The birthright of the firstborn consisted in the first place of a double portion of what his father had to leave. This probably means that he had a double share of such property as could be divided. We have no certain knowledge of the manner in which property was inherited in the patriarchal age, but it seems probably that the lands and flocks which were the possession of the family as a whole, remained so after the death of the father. The firstborn became head of the family and thus succeeded to the charge of the family property, becoming responsible for the maintenance of the younger sons, the widow or widows, and the unmarried daughters. He also, as head, succeeded to a considerable amount of authority over the other members. Further, he generally received the blessing, which placed him in close and favored covenant-relationship with Yahweh.
According the accounts which have come down to us, all these rights and privileges could be diverted from the firstborn son. This could happen with his own consent, as in the case of Esau, who sold his birthright to Jacob (Gen 25:29-34), or by the decision of the father, as in the case of Reuben (Gen 48:22; 49:3, 4; 1 Ch 5:1, 2) and of Shimri (1 Ch 26:10). In the Deuteronomic version of the law, a provision is made, prohibiting the father from making the younger son the possessor of the birthright, just because his mother was specially beloved (Dt 21:15-17). The blessing also could be diverted from the eldest son. This was done when Jacob blessed the children of Joseph, and deliberately put the younger before the elder (Gen 48:13, 14, 17-19); even when the blessing was obtained by the younger son in a fraudulent manner, it could not be recalled (Gen 27). Jacob does not appear to have inherited any of the property of his father, although he obtained both the birthright and the blessing.
Later, the special privileges and advantages of the elder son were more specifically defined. The elder son would become the priest of the family. For example Reuben, as Jacob’s oldest son, would have become the priest of the family, but that honour was passed to Levi (Numbers 3:12, 13; 8:18). The first born was to receive a double portion of the inheritance, Reuben lost that blessing because of his disgraceful conduct (Genesis 49:4; 1 Chronicles 5:1) The firstborn inherited the judicial authority of his father (2 Chronicles 21:3). David excluded his firstborn, Adonijah in favour of Solomon.
So we ask ourselves if there was a reason why God would want Jacob to take precedence over Esau even if Esau was the firstborn.
According to Genesis 25:27, 28 the boys took different routes to manhood.
Esau thought poorly about the privileges and responsibilities that came along with being the firstborn—whatever they were before they were actually ordered by God during the early days of the nationhood of Israel. Though Jacob was no prize spiritually, he did prize the advantages of being the firstborn.
As well, Esau would go on to marry two Hittite women, which caused grief to both his father and his mother. That this was not acceptable was something that had been passed down from his grandfather, Abraham, and illustrated by the history of his own father, Isaac. Sarah, of “pure” bloodlines, was the mother of Isaac, the child of promise, not the Egyptian woman, Hagar, even though her offspring, Ishmael, was the firstborn. Abraham went to great lengths to get his son, Isaac, a bride from among his own people and to prevent his son from picking a bride from among the pagan nations. This culture of keeping separate from those whose influence would pull God’s people away from their commitment to Him, is something of which we are reminded constantly throughout the Scriptures. Not only were the Israelites to be prohibited from marrying unbelievers, they were often told to drive them out of their lands and even to kill them. This latter was essential if they expected to take full possession of the land God had promised them. Later, when the land was not an issue, New Testament believers were warned not to join forces with unbelievers and to marry only another believer. Esau showed no respect for the stories or the lessons handed down to him from his forebears.
Esau’s attitude toward his privilege as the firstborn from the story related to us in 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 have Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.”
Esau’s disdain for what was legitimately his inheritance looks remarkably like what often happens in our instant society—we want our immediate needs met often at a cost to our long-term benefits. Esau exaggerated his immediate need by saying that he was about to die—hardly likely. But at that moment the immediate took precedence over everything else and Jacob took advantage.
“A quiet man like him would not otherwise have thought of reversing the order or nature and custom. In after times the right of primogeniture consisted in a double portion of the father’s goods Deuteronomy 21:17, and a certain rank as the patriarch and priest of the house on the death of the father. But in the case of Isaac there was the far greater dignity of chief of the chosen family and heir of the promised blessing, with all the immediate and ultimate temporal and eternal benefits therein included. Knowing all this, Jacob is willing to purchase the birthright, as the most peaceful way of bringing about that supremacy which was destined for him. He is therefore cautious and prudent, even conciliating in his proposal.”
This particular viewpoint almost makes Jacob sound like a hero. What captures my attention from these comments are the spiritual implications of being the priest of the house. Neither Esau nor Jacob could win any prizes in that category at the moment, but we can see the hand of the Lord in this. Jacob, though he is no prize spiritually right now, will be in the future. It would appear that Esau will not be! And the priesthood over the family, particularly as the covenant family is vitally important.
I like lentil stew, but not THAT much! Both Rebekah and Isaac committed the same error: Rebekah loved Jacob more because he was a homebody and liked to cook, and Isaac loved Esau more because he was “a man’s man.” Because she loved Jacob more, Rebekah, ambitious for her favourite, no doubt made sure that Jacob was aware of what God had told her when the boys were born: that the older son would serve the younger.
Should we blame Jacob for bargaining for Esau’s birthright?
“He availed himself of a weak moment to accomplish by consent what was to come. Yet he lays no necessity on Esau, but leaves him to his own free choice. We must therefore beware of blaming him for endeavouring to win his brother’s concurrence in a thing that was already settled in the purpose of God. His chief error lay in attempting to anticipate the arrangements of Providence.”
But not content with having gained the birthright which involved the material inheritance and privileges of the firstborn, Jacob is persuaded by his mother to take a further step and gain the covenant blessing (Genesis 12:2, 3) that was Esau’s right as Abraham’s grandson and the firstborn. This is recounted for us in Genesis 27:1-26 and begins with a request from Isaac. Knowing that he was soon to die, he wanted to indulge himself with the wild game that he so much loved, and which Esau, as the hunter, could easily provide. Isaac told his oldest that he would then give him the blessing that was his right as the first born. Rebekah heard the conversation and decided that this might be the only chance she would have to “help” God fulfill the promise that had been made to her at the birth of her sons.
We know that Jacob was to inherit the covenant blessing anyway—the Messianic line would flow through his descendants. Rebekah and Jacob knew that. We don’t know if Isaac or Esau knew though, from events, it would seem that they didn’t. It was to Rebekah that the Lord revealed that the older son would serve the younger (Genesis 25:22, 23). We don’t know if she shared that information with her husband or older son. Let’s imagine “what if…?”
What if Rebekah had not decided to “help” God fulfill His promise by involving her son in a conspiracy to deceive her husband and rob her oldest son? What if Jacob hadn’t been able to persuade Esau to sell his birthright and what if he had decided not to deceive his father into thinking he was Esau in order to get the covenant blessing? Would that have messed up God’s plan to make Jacob the heir of the covenant blessing? Does what actually happen make God at least an “aider and abettor” of sin?
What we have in this story is yet another illustration, or demonstration, of redemption versus rejection. Both boys are lost—equally sinful. But Jacob is representative of those who come to faith and Esau is representative of those who don’t. Neither boy is deserving of salvation. It is not because of his privileged position that “Jacob” was saved (he’s not the firstborn) but because of the mercy of God. The contrast between the two is presented to us again in Romans 9:1-16. In this much misunderstood passage, Paul is explaining the how God chose Israel as the people through which He would reveal Himself to the nations and send His Son. But even within this chosen group there would be many who would fail to demonstrate faith and be lost. Even though they were part of the covenant people, they had no part in the covenant because of their rejection of the God of the covenant. Was God unfair in judging them? Was He unable to save them? Paul’s argument is that God does what only God has the right to do. But in the midst of this discussion he quotes from Malachi 1:2, 3: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Here the prophet foretells that those who are not God’s people will be judged regardless of whether or not they were born under the covenant promise. The “hatred” ascribed to Esau on God’s part is a judicial hatred and judgment of sin. We often make the mistake of thinking that this passage describes God’s arbitrary decision to choose to save some over others when it is a statement of God’s judgment on those who have chosen to reject Him.
I also wonder if these examples of the rights and privileges falling on the second born rather than the first are an illustration of what would happen to Israel, what has happened, what is happening to her. The blessing of that firstborn, Israel, the chosen people of God, has fallen on others because of her disobedience. As Paul carries on his conversation in Romans he speaks about not all those who “descended from Israel are Israel,” about a remnant from Israel being saved as they were in Old Testament times, and how the branches cut off through unbelief can be grafted in again through faith in Christ. Faith is the critical ingredient in salvation, as it always was.
The experience of Esau and Jacob, in terms of their spiritual journeys, could be likened to that of Cain and Abel. It is faith, or its lack, that determines whether or not we relate to God as He chooses, or we don’t. Rebekah, in fear of history repeating itself, urged Jacob to get away from his brother and seek safety within the household of her family.
The passage in Hebrews tells us that it was “by faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.” There was an act of faith here.
“It may be asked, how Isaac can be said to have blessed Jacob by faith, when he was deceived by him? It is certain he took him to be Esau, when he blessed him, wherefore it was the design of Isaac, though it was the will of God that he should bless him, Genesis 27:18, but yet notwithstanding this, Isaac might do it in faith, believing that the person he blessed would be blessed, though he was mistaken in him; and which he confirmed when he did know him. Genesis 27:33 to which the apostle may have respect.”
So we can take it that Isaac’s faith, despite discovering that Jacob had deceived him and that technically he had blessed the second-born son not the firstborn, was in believing that God would indeed bless whoever it was that had received it, and whether or not it had been gained rightly or wrongly from a human standpoint.
Isaac did not “take back” his blessing when he discovered the deception, even though Esau, his favourite son, begged him to do so. This tells us a lot about what Isaac believed about God.
There is a strong sense of sovereignty here, of the belief that God really is in control of even those events and actions that go against His perfect will. We speak of this as God’s permissive will—that which He allows but doesn’t necessarily approve of. He still works through it to produce the result He wants. Isaac’s refusal to try to change anything or take back the blessing is another indication that despite how the blessing came to be given to the second-born son, Isaac believed in the sovereignty of God and His divine design.
The blessing on Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh in Genesis 48:19, 20 marks a similar experience to that of Isaac’s bestowing the blessing of the firstborn on the second son.
The backstory is found in Genesis 48:1-20.
Jacob, now called Israel, has made his way to Egypt where he lived out the last of his years sheltered by his son Joseph’s position as right hand man to the Pharaoh. Joseph has two sons of his own and, knowing that his father is close to the end of his life, comes to Israel for the traditional blessing. He expects that his oldest son will receive the blessing to which the first born is entitled. But when Israel puts his hand on the youngest son to pronounce that blessing, Joseph tries to correct his father and places Israel’s hand on the head of the first born.
“19 But his father refused and said, ‘I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.’ 20 He blessed them that day and said, ‘In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’ So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.”
Jacob names Joseph’s sons as his sons and therefore inheritors of whatever he possesses. He names the youngest of Joseph’s sons as a replacement for his eldest, Reuben, as the recipient of the birthright that belonged to the oldest son. Reuben had taken a course of action that disqualified him from the blessing he might have received otherwise.
1 Chronicles 5:1, 2: “The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (he was the firstborn, but when he defiled his father’s marriage bed, his rights as firstborn were given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel…”
Genesis 35:23-26 and Genesis 49 describes an interesting historical note wrapped up in this passage. Jacob had had twelve sons but Jacob’s twelve sons would not become the twelve tribes of Israel. They would not all make up the nation that the Lord would bless and through whom the blessing would come to others.
We know that the Israel of Moses’s time was made up of twelve tribes. Before he died Moses blessed each of the tribes. Deuteronomy 33 mentions who is missing from the original list of Jacob’s sons.
When we get to the division of the land in Joshua 13-19 we are back to 12 tribes. This time we have Rueben, Gad and one half of Manasseh who did NOT receive an inheritance in Canaan but chose to settle on the east side of Jordan, and Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Asher, Simeon, Issachar and one half of Manasseh. The tribe of Levi did not receive land because the priestly tribe was to live from the offerings of the others (Joshua 13:14). Levi is removed from the equation and Joseph’s inheritance is divided between his two sons, just as though they had been sons of Jacob. Why the switch? Good question. All we know for sure is that Jacob acted in faith in doing it.
Jacob bargained and deceived to get what God had already promised him. Now, on his deathbed, blind, he does God’s will the right way in his blessing of Joseph’s sons.
CONVERSATIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS
1. The acts of faith in the stories of Isaac and Jacob come with the blessings that they pronounced on others. In what ways have you blessed the lives of others as an act of faith?
2. Jacob’s story is not a pretty one. But in what way does it encourage you?
3. We often try to “help” God do what only He can do. And despite the fact that the end result may be the same whether we “help” or not, what are the advantages of not “helping” God fulfill His will in us?
4. Though Jacob and Isaac are central to the faith journeys of Hebrews 11, Esau plays a significant role in the story. What lessons can you learn from his life?
5. Report on how you are doing in strengthening your relationship with God as a vital part of your faith journey.
 Genesis 26:34, 35
 Exodus 34:15, 16; Deuteronomy 7:3, 4
 Numbers 33:55, 56
 2 Corinthians 6:14
 1 Corinthians 7:39
 Romans 9:6
 Romans 9:27
 Romans 11:11-21