Saturday, September 5, 2009

Esau: Don't Be Like Him

Sometimes a few sentences tell you all you need to know about a man. Consider this little snippet about Esau from Genesis 25:

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.

Esau and Jacob were twin sons of Isaac, an extremely wealthy man who had inherited the Abrahamic covenant of God's blessing. As the older son, Esau was entitled to the birthright - that is, when Isaac died, Esau would get a double share of the inheritance. For some families the birthright didn't amount to much, but when your father is possibly the richest in the world, a double share translates to a ton of wealth.

But one day Esau had been out hunting, and when he got back to the camp he was hungry. His deceitful brother Jacob offered an utterly ridiculous trade - some lentil stew for the birthright. Can you imagine, say, two of Warren Buffet's kids making a trade like this? "Sure, I'll buy that bowl of chili for thirty billion dollars. I'd be stupid not to!" It's not even like Jacob was out in the middle of nowhere - he hung around the camp and was cooking. Which means Esau could have easily just called one of their many servants and had food brought to him (and probably something better than lentil stew). Honestly, it's tough to imagine that Jacob wasn't kidding when he made the offer, and tough to believe he kept a straight face while doing so. How absurd can you get, asking for immeasurable riches for a measly bowl of stew?

Esau traded in a heartbeat.

No wonder the text says he "despised his birthright." There's simply no other way to explain such a foolish trade. No rational defense for Esau's idiocy can possibly be offered - even the slightest bit of thought reveals this trade to be beyond lunacy. We read this and wonder how Esau could possibly do something so stupid.

And yet, how many of us have done infinitely worse?

Consider this warning from Hebrews 12. Esau's reprehensible trade is an illustration of the sheer lunacy of making an even worse trade:

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

The book of Hebrews is a massive warning to Jewish believers who, largely because of persecution, were considering abandoning the faith and returning to the old system. The author systematically shows the superiority of Jesus to the old system, proves that since Jesus came the old system is obsolete, and warns about the exclusivity of Jesus - if you abandon him, there is no hope to be found anywhere else. Writing to those who have lost family, property, power, freedom, and reputation, he encourages them to continue in faith, that is, to be so assured of their glorious future in Christ that current troubles pale in comparison, to count the riches of Christ as more valuable than all the pleasures of sin, and to persevere whatever the cost. Continue in Jesus because he's worth it, and to turn back is to abandon all hope.

With that backdrop, he introduces Esau as a model of what not to do. Esau looked at all the incredible wealth that could one day be his. He looked at a bowl of soup that would satisfy his hunger for a few hours. And he decided he would rather have the soup. Utter foolishness - and a perfect picture of what we do when we abandon Jesus.

We could have eternal glory and riches in heaven far beyond our imagination. Yet we decide we would rather enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. We would trade eternal glory for a few months of illicit sex. We would abandon heaven for a little money. We would deny God so we can enjoy a better reputation among peers or family or the intelligentsia. We denounce our faith to avoid persecution and live more comfortably. In all this, we are making a trade far worse than Esau's lunacy.

What is your bowl of stew? What is so precious to you that you would gladly abandon eternal joy and embrace eternal wrath? What in this world could possibly be so great that you would deny Jesus to have it?

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