Esau, Isaac’s older son, is slick. He is skilled. He studied in one of the world’s elite universities. He travels all over the world signing big deals. He is a gym buff. His body makes ladies drool – you should see his calves. He is single. Oh, yes, red meat for the ladies. Everyone wants to hang out with him. He is a cool dude. He is the apple of his father’s eyes. When he is in town, he takes his father to five-star Michelin restaurants. To get a table in these restaurants, you need to book six months in advance. He knows a few people. He can pull some strings. No big deal. He is a man of action. He is a man’s man.
Esau has a brother. His name is Jacob. Jacob is a quiet guy who loves to stay at home with his mum. We rarely see him in public. That’s all we know about Jacob.
One day, Esau comes home after his long travels abroad, exhausted and hungry. He finds Jacob in the kitchen cooking a sumptuous vegan stew. It seems Jacob is vegan. “Hey J, give me some that of that. I’m starving”. The bible tells us at this point his name changed to Edom. “Dude”, Jacob, his quiet brother replies, “sell me your birthright”. Esau hesitates. His hunger pangs grow louder. “C’mon J, I can’t give you that. You know I’m the eldest son. Dad would kill me”. Jacob gives him a blank look. “Dude”, he says, “sell me your birthright or you aren’t having my vegan stew”. Esau hesitates but gives in. “Okay, okay, I will. Here’s my plate. Quick”. “Not that quickly”, Jacob replies. “Let’s shake hands. This agreement is as good as death. Cool?” “Okay, okay. Here’s my hand. Shake it quickly. I’m starving”. Esau swears to Jacob and gives him his birthright. Jacob serves Esau his vegan dish. Esau eats, drinks and off he goes. By this act, Esau had despised his birthright.
What is a birthright?
In ancient times and in traditional communities, they conferred the birthright to the eldest son. When the father died, all the family’s wealth went to the eldest son. 21st-century liberals would call this patriarchy and attribute to it every negative connotation. Nothing could be further from the truth. This was primogeniture. The eldest son inherited his father’s wealth so that the family’s wealth stayed within the family. In those days, the only way to secure your legacy as a father and as a family was to make sure the wealth stayed within the family. The eldest son was then to take care of all his brothers and their families. Their wives and children would work for the family and increase the wealth in that family.
When Esau gave up his birthright, he had committed an egregious crime. He had surrendered his power, position and privilege to his younger brother, something unheard of. He had done it in such a glib manner. He gave it up for a plate of vegan stew. It wasn’t even a meat dish. It was bread and lentils. C’mon. Sorry vegans.
Imagine the horror his father felt when he heard what Esau had done. He must have silently screamed his heart out. Esau had let him down colossally. This was an unforgivable sin in his eyes.
Meanwhile, Jacob couldn’t believe what had just happened. Even by his own standards, this was unexpected. He must have planned it as a prank, but the prank had become real. He knew what lay ahead. His father would hate him and his mother disappointed, but mother’s get over things quickly, he reasoned. He perhaps didn’t know the significance of what he had just done.
Esau is you and I. No way, you say. You doth protest too much. Yes, he is you and I. Esau looked good on paper but superficial on the inside. You and I are the same. Like Esau, we value what makes us look good. We love lights, camera, action, cut, but lurking within us is superficiality, a fakeness. We don’t value deep things. We don’t value real important things. At a moment’s notice, when the chips are down, when we are hungry, we can abandon meaningful things like Esau did.
Jacob is you and I. No way Schulter, you are pushing this too far. You doth protest too much. Yes, he is you and I. The quiet among us are the same. Our quietness is a camouflage to connive. When people look at us they think we are humble because we don’t talk too much, we don’t parade our achievements. We are not as humble as they think. We secretly hate Esau but love Esau’s stuff. We then plan how to get his stuff. We know how to play Esau. We are liars and cheats. We play the game and win.
This is us.
But Jesus comes and changes the story.
Here’s how he did it.
Jesus was an elder brother. He was God’s only begotten son. In Matthew 4:1–11, Mark 1:12, 13, and Luke 4:1-11, the devil tempted Jesus to give up his birthright. Jesus was in the wilderness and was hungry. The devil came to him and repeated this refrain. If you are the son of God… Jesus faced the same test that Esau faced. He had a choice. He could give up his birthright and have what the devil promised him. Three times the devil prodded him. If you are the son of God. Why did the devil test, Jesus? For the same reason he tests us. The tests that come to us are to reveal what’s inside of us. And what is in us? Sin – superficiality, fakeness, pride, conniving, camouflaged as quiet.
When I think of Esau, I usually think I’m better than him. That if I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t give up my birthright. I’d pass the test. That’s how arrogant I am. That’s how arrogant you are. The truth is even if we knew what Esau did, we would do the same, we would have failed the test. We are incapable of making the right choices because the pull of sin inside of us is too powerful. Paul alludes to this. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. Romans 7:19-20 (NLT)
The bad news is that we are Esau and Jacob at the same time. We are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Depressed? I am.
Now here’s the good news—the gospel of grace.
In Jesus’ wilderness temptations, Jesus passed the tests. He did and with flying colours. Good news? Nah, Schulter, that’s not good news because that means I must pass all my tests, and yet you’ve alluded earlier that we can’t pass any of these tests, right? Oh wait, I am not done yet.
Here are two aspects of the good news.
First, Jesus passed the test, and God imputed his success to you. Imputed to me? Yes. Because we will never pass the test, like never, Jesus took the test for us, and his success credited to us. When God looks at us now, he sees us in his son and sees us as having passed the test. Now, this imputation is permanent. It has to be permanent because our actions fluctuate – sometimes we are good and most times we are bad. So, when we are proud Esau, we are still righteous. When we are conniving Jacob, we are still righteous. God gave our righteousness to us as a gift, a gift given to us on account of Jesus and his work on the cross for us.
Second, Jesus, our elder brother when tested by the devil did not cede his birthright. He did it so that his father’s wealth might stay within the family. Wow. Like Jacob, we don’t have to connive to get God’s blessings because Jesus has secured those blessings for us. Jesus goes much further than what ancient culture did. Remember, in ancient culture, it was only the firstborn who got the inheritance. With Jesus, we are joint heirs and have equal rights to our heavenly father’s blessings. (Romans 8:17)
Christian, if this is true, which it is, then live out your life from this truth. Non-Christian, this could also be true to you. How would your life be if you knew Jesus secured the birthright for you? How would you live? I know how I’d live. I would live with freedom and abandon. I would live a life of gratitude and joy. I would not be afraid of failure. If Jesus has secured my birthright for me, I’d live my life to the fullest.
That’s what grace looks like.