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.
It’s easy to sympathize with Esau. Under extreme duress, on the brink of death, his twin brother seizes an opportunity to weaken him even further. Esau’s reasoning seems beyond reproach: “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” So Esau consents to the exchange, “and sold his birthright to Jacob.” Jacob’s actions are deplorable, but Esau, who could blame?
Well, the narrator blames him. He makes clear a moral judgment against Esau in his conclusion of the scene: “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” That judgment is confirmed by the writer of Hebrews: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God…that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal” (Hebrews 12:15-16). Scripture renders Esau the villain.
So what are we to learn from Esau’s ill-fated decision? Maybe it’s that we should avoid showing any signs of vulnerability, for the world crouches, waiting to take advantage of a weakness exposed. But that can’t be the lesson, for it’s not the weakness in Esau that the narrator condemns. Rather, it’s the choice Esau makes in order to relieve his weakness. There’s something in the choice that deserves our attention.
If we take Esau’s appraisal of his condition at face value, then the choice is between his rights as the firstborn son and the possibility of losing his life. And if that is in fact the choice, then Scripture’s evaluation is clear: There are things worth more than our comfort and momentary cravings. And even more, some things are so valuable that we should not turn our backs on them at any cost, even though holding on to them puts us in mortal danger.
Christian martyrs throughout the centuries have lived as alternatives to Esau, having “held fast the confession of faith without wavering,” even unto death (Hebrews 10:23). Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of theology at Duke University, says that this is one of primary tasks of the Church. He quotes the Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who writes, “The problem with modern society is its sinful presumption that man is born to be happy, when he clearly has to die.” Hauerwas adds, “A truthful [community] is one that teaches us to die for the right thing, and only the church can be trusted with that task.” One lesson from Esau is that we must learn to risk our lives for the right thing.
But there’s something more fundamental here, and it has to do with the birthright itself. As moderns, we don’t live in a world of birthrights anymore, so it’s hard to understand the value. The firstborn son held the position of honor within the family. He was singled out from the rest, given a double portion of the inheritance, and considered the definer of the family’s destiny. In Esau’s case, as the firstborn son of Isaac, his birthright meant more than material wealth and privilege; it involved his calling as the bearer of the Abrahamic promise. Esau was the rightful steward of the Messianic hope through which God intended to bless the world. In selling his birthright, Esau wasn’t merely choosing personal health over personal privilege. He was choosing his own life over his calling to bear God’s life to the world.
Now contrast Esau with the One who Scripture names as the “firstborn of all creation,” Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:15). Throughout all eternity, Jesus experienced the matchless affection of God the Father, singled out in His position of honor and authority. When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert to bow down to him in exchange for all the kingdoms on earth, he was inviting Jesus to despise His birthright, to turn His back on His calling to bless the world. But Jesus refused. He held fast to His birthright until there was something even better worth exchanging it for. That something, the Bible tells us, is actually someone. It’s you. It’s me. It’s the Church.
At the cross, Matthew records Jesus’ final words as an address to God the Father. Only for the first time, Jesus does not call Him, “Father.” He says instead, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” It’s a final cry of dereliction for a Son who has lost His firstborn blessing, for a Son who has exchanged His birthright for a curse in order that we might experience the blessing of becoming the firstborn sons of God (Galatians 4:4).
If Jesus was willing to let go of His birthright to have you, then what does that say about your value in His eyes?
And consider also the evaluation of God the Father. There is little doubt that we all crave the unique affection that falls to the firstborn. In our union with Christ, that is exactly how God feels about us. God the Father loves us as if we were the only one in the world, with a love that is as exceptional as it is cosmic.
If you are in Christ, you are a firstborn son of God, no matter how unexceptional you feel in the moment. The privileges and rights and joys of the firstborn belong to you. And so does the calling. You are a bearer of God’s mercy to a world that desperately needs it. Don’t despise your birthright. Don’t exchange it for a life of momentary comfort and ease. Instead, give your life in service to it, without fear that a life cherished by God can ever truly be lost.