Who is Esau?
Esau, also known as Edom, was the elder son of Isaac and Rebekah and the twin brother of Jacob. According to the Hebrew tradition, he was the forbearer of the ‘Edomites’. They were an enemy nation of Israel whose patriarch was Jacob. ‘The Book of Genesis’ illustrates the relationship between the brothers, focusing on the elder brother’s loss of his birth right to Jacob. The book also speaks of the conflict that ensues between their descendant nations as a result of Jacob’s deception of their old and blind father with an aim to claim his twin’s blessing from him. According to the Bible, the brothers competed with each other in Rebekah’s womb, a foreshadowing of their sibling rivalry. It is stated in the ‘Book of Genesis’ that Esau was born before Jacob, thus becoming the legal heir to the family birth right which also included being the heir to the Covenant between God and Abraham. This birth right was a link in the line of descent through which the promised messiah was to be born. The younger twin had come out holding his elder brother’s heel indicating that he was trying to pull him back into his mother’s womb so that he could be the firstborn.
Childhood & Early Life
Esau and Jacob were the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. His father, Isaac, was sixty years old when the twins were born. The boys were born miraculously to Isaac and Rebekah after twenty years of wedlock. Rebekah had been barren but Isaac’s prayers helped her conceive the two sons.
In the ‘Book of Genesis,’ it is mentioned that “the children competed together within her”. When she prayed to God, he told her that “two nations” were competing inside her womb. God said, "The one people shall be stronger than the other people, and the elder shall serve the younger."
He was the first of the twins to be born and came forth “red, all over like a hairy garment”. Before being born, the brothers fought against each other. This led to the prophecy that the “elder shall serve the younger.”
While Esau was the favoured son of Isaac, Jacob was favoured by their mother, Rebekah. According to Rabbinic description of the boys, while Jacob focused on his studies and spent time learning to be a religious person, Esau scorned anything that was good and saw good people as foolish.
Esau was known to be a “man of the field.” Since he possessed rough qualities, he became a hunter. In appearance, too, he had red hair and hairiness - qualities that distinguished him from his younger brother, who was seen as a shy or a simple man. In the ‘Book of Genesis,’ he is portrayed as being superseded by Jacob.
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According to ‘Genesis,’ he returns to Jacob from the fields, completely famished. When Esau beseeches his brother to give him some red pottage, Jacob offers him lentil stew in exchange for his birth right to which the latter agrees. With the help of his mother, Rebekah, Jacob deceives his twin brother to claim his father‘s blessing that was originally reserved for Esau.
When he learns of Jacob’s deception, he implores Isaac to undo the blessing. When Isaac tells him that he had only one blessing to give and it can’t be undone, he vows to kill Jacob. Rebekah intervenes once again and saves her younger son.
At his mother’s insistence, Jacob flees to a faraway place to work for his uncle and leaves behind his inheritance in Esau’s hands.
In the ‘Book of Genesis,’ the two brothers eventually reconcile. When they meet after twenty years, they prepare like warriors ready to fight each other.
Jacob sends his messengers and gifts to his older brother to placate him. At first, Esau refuses to accept the gifts Jacob had sent in the hope of being spared.Jacob never apologises to his elder brother, but bows down before him and insists that he accepts the gifts. The elder twin forgives his brother in spite of their bitter rivalry. It is believed that after this incident, God renames Jacob as “Israel.”
However, Jacob doesn’t trust his elder brother much so he avoids travelling to ‘Mount Seir’ with him. Instead, he travels to Succoth and to Shalen. This is seen as yet another deception by Jacob.
The two brothers meet next time at their father’s burial in Hebron.
Family & Personal Life
Esau got married at the age of forty to two Canaanite women, Judith and Basemath, the daughters of the Hittites Beeri and Elon.
His parents were not happy with this marriage as they did not like their son getting married to Canaanite women. Faced with this rejection as well as the rejection of receiving Isaac’s blessing, he married his Uncle’s daughter, Mahalath.
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’Genesis’ mentions about three other wives that he had – Adah, the daughter of Elon the Hittite; Aholibamah, the daughter of Anah; and Bashemath, the daughter of Ishmael.
As per the Babylonian Talmud, he was killed by the son of Dan,Hushim. Dan was the son of Jacob.
He had prevented Jacob’s burial into the cave of Machpelah and claimed that he had the right to be buried in that cave. After much deliberation, Naphtali was sent to Egypt to bring the document stating that he had sold his right to be buried in the cave to Jacob.
Hushim, unable to comprehend the context of the situation, took a club and killed him. His head then rolled into the cave.
His tomb is believed to be located south of the Palestinian town of Sa’ir on the West Bank. The tomb is in his Arab name, ‘El ‘Ais.’ Some, however, believe that this identification is false and his tomb is actually located in the biblical Mount Seir.
His legacy is a complex combination of being both a blood relative of Israel as well as its enemy. He is said to be the patriarch of ‘Edomites’, a neighbour of Israel, playing the role of both a vassal and an enemy.
’Genesis’ mentioned a genealogical account of the growth of his tribe to become the nation of Edom. Since they were tied to the Israelites by blood, the ‘Edomites’ were exempt from God’s decree that Joshua “drive out” the Canaanites and slaughter anyone who resisted this subjugation.
On the other hand, according to earlier prophecies concerning him, the Israelites saw the ‘‘Edomites’’ as destined to be subservient to them, even though they arrived to the land after the ‘‘Edomites’’ did.
In the ‘New Testament,’ it is mentioned that the ‘Edomites’ were called ‘Idumeans.’ Even though they accepted Judaism, they were looked upon by Jews as racially tainted and religiously dubious. The most famous Idumean Jew was King Herod the Great who was an ‘Edomite’ descendant. However, this stature did not help his popularity in Jerusalem and Judea. Hence, during the time of Jesus, the descendants of Esau and Jacob were still being dared to work out their relationship.