Jacob and Esau - Bible Story

Jacob and Esau - Bible Story

Bible Story of Jacob and Esau

Jacob and Esau were twin brothers born to Isaac and Rebekah. The Bible tells us that they struggled together in Rebekah's womb, a foreshadowing of their troubled relationship. Esau was born first and thereby became legal heir to the family birthright which included, among other things, being heir to the Covenant between God and Abraham. This birthright was a link in the line of descent through which the Promised Messiah was to come (Numbers 24:17-19).

In contrast with Esau who was a skillful hunter and his father's favorite, Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents (Genesis 25:27), and his mother's favorite. The Hebrew word for plain is the same word translated in other Scripture as perfect, upright, undefiled. So the word plain refers to Jacob's character as a man of God. God records His highest praise and blessing for Jacob: The LORD hath chosen Jacob unto Himself (Psalm 135:4).

Esau came from the field, and he was faint: And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me . . . with that same red pottage (stew); for I am faint (Genesis 25:29-30). Knowing the character of his brother, Jacob replied: Sell me this day thy birthright (25:31). Esau had no interest in spiritual things so he agreed, saying: I am at the point (about) to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me? (25:32-34). Esau could not have been at the point to die by missing one meal but he revealed how worthless he considered the birthright.

When Issac was close to death it became time to give Esau his blessings. Issac asked Esau to go hunt for a special meal after which he would pass the blessing. Rebekah overhead and helped Jacob disguise himself as Esau and bring Issac the meal instead while his brother was still hunting. Because Issac had poor sight he was tricked into giving the blessing to Jacob. Esau was enraged and Jacob had to run away to save his life. 

The writer of Hebrews referred to Esau as a profane (godless) person (Hebrews 12:16). Before their births, God knew that Esau's descendants would become enemies of Israel for generations to come and He knew Jacob was a man of integrity. He had preordained that Jacob would be in the lineage of Jesus. Read the Biblical account of these two important Old Testament brothers in the Scripture below, followed by helpful commentary and video, audio Bible studies.

Lesson from Jacob and Esau

In the New Testament, Esau’s decision to sell his birthright is utilized as an illustration of ungodliness—a “godless” person who will put worldly attractions over spiritual blessings (Hebrews 12:15-17). By his instructive example, Esau warns us to hold firm to what is truly valuable, even if it means rebuking the desires of the flesh. The Bible uses the account of Jacob and Esau to represent God’s calling and election. God chose the younger Jacob to carry on the Abrahamic Covenant, while Esau was providentially excluded from the Messianic lineage (Romans 9:11-14).

Why Is There So Much Hope in the Story of Jacob and Esau?

As famous siblings go in the Bible, Jacob and Esau rate up there with Cain and Abel. While their competition with each other is legendary, the fact that they forgave and reconciled is an equally powerful story.

Who Were Jacob and Esau in the Bible?

Jacob and Esau were the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, and the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham, a descendent of Noah, had been told by God to leave his family and move to Canaan, as well as that his family line would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-4). Isaac was born when Abraham was over 100 years old, and Isaac married his wife Rebekah when he was 40 years old (Genesis 25:20). Like Abraham, Isaac lived in tents—a nomadic herder who moved around to wherever fields were available.

Like his parents—Sarah couldn’t have children and laughed when God announced she would finally have one—Isaac and his wife initially struggled to have children. After various prayers, Rebekah gave birth to twins (Genesis 25:21).

Even before Jacob and Esau got out of the womb, it was clear that there would be problems. Rebekah felt the babies “jostling each other within her” (Genesis 25:22) and when she asked God was what happening, his answer was that her sons would be the founders of two separate nations (Genesis 25:23). Not only that, but one of the sons would be stronger, and while one would be older, he would serve the younger one (Genesis 25:23).

This competition continued even when Jacob and Esau were coming out of the womb: Esau came out first, but Jacob came out a moment later, grabbing his brother’s heel (Genesis 25:24). It was also clear from the moment of birth that the boys would look very different. Esau was “red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment” (Genesis 25:24) and grew up to be an outdoorsman. Jacob was more interested in staying at home and developed into a clever, conniving man.

What Happened between Jacob and Esau before Jacob Ran Away?

As it’s clear above, Jacob and Esau were set up from before birth to be two very different men, which would create problems if they weren’t careful. The fact that their parents picked favorites—Isaac preferred Esau, Rebekah preferred Jacob (Genesis 25:28)—made things more complicated.

Jacob also showed that he wasn’t above taking advantage of situations to get ahead of his brother: one day, Esau came home hungry from hunting and asked Jacob for some stew he was cooking. Jacob made Esau swear to give up his birthright (the firstborn son’s share of the estate), and then gave him the stew (Genesis 25:27-34).

However, the trouble between Jacob and Esau really came to a head when Isaac became old enough that his eyesight was gone, and he wasn’t sure how much time he had left. At that point, he asked Esau to make him a wild game meal, and then he would give Esau his blessing (Genesis 27:1-4). This blessing was separate from Esau’s birthright and had more long-lasting implications. It was about which of the two sons would inherit Abraham’s mantle, continuing the covenant that God had made promising Abraham many descendants and other blessings (Genesis 17).

Urged on by Rebekah, Jacob put on a disguise that made his skin feel hairy like Esau’s and went to Isaac posing as his brother. Isaac was initially confused since this man talked like Jacob (Genesis 27:21-23) but decided to believe the evidence of his hands. He then blessed Jacob, a blessing that promised a number of things: Abundant food from the land (Genesis 27:28), dominance over other people (Genesis 27:29a), dominance over his brothers and deference from his mother’s family (Genesis 27:29b), that whoever cursed him would be cursed, that whoever blessed him would be blessed (Genesis 27:29c).

Esau came shortly afterward, and it quickly became clear what Jacob had done. Isaac told him that he could not bless him, and when Esau demanded something and wept, Isaac said the following:

“Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live the sword and you will serve your brother. But then you will grow restless, you will throw his yoke off your neck”Genesis 27:39-40.

Whether this was meant as a rebuke to Esau or a prophecy of what would logically follow since Jacob had gotten the blessing, is hard to say. Either way, Esau stayed angry and plotted to kill Jacob sometime after their father had passed away (Genesis 27:41). Fortunately for Jacob, Rebekah learned about his plans and convinced Isaac to send Jacob away on the pretense of finding a wife among her people.

During the next few years, Jacob had a wide variety of strange experiences. Early on, he had visions in his sleep, of a ladder leading to heaven (Genesis 28:10-22). When he reached his mother’s country he met his uncle Laban and worked for Laban for seven years to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel. Due to some trickery on Laban’s part, Jacob married Rachel’s sister Leah first and had to work another seven years to get Rachel (Genesis 29:15-30). After Rachel had her first son, Joseph, Jacob planned to return home, but Laban convinced him to stick around longer. Jacob finally left when it became clear Laban’s sons resented him (Genesis 31:1-2). Taking the herds and servants he had acquired, his two wives, and the 11 sons he had between those wives, Jacob traveled back home to face Esau.

What Happened between Them When Jacob Returned?

After leaving Laban, Jacob sent messengers to Edom, where Esau had settled. His messengers came back with the news that Esau was coming to meet Jacob…and bringing 400 men with him. Worried this was an army coming to kill him, Jacob sent out a gift of livestock to Esau and cautiously began moving toward a place where they could meet.

After his party had crossed the Jabbok River, Jacob sent his family and possessions ahead and spent a night alone. A man appeared, they wrestled, and Jacob refused to let go until after the man had blessed him. The man replied that Jacob was wrestling with God himself (Genesis 32:24-32).

The next day, Jacob returned to his party, and say Esau arriving. He then moved Leah and her children to the front of his group, Rachel and Joseph to the back, and approached Esau in a humble pose (Genesis 33:1-3). Jacob approach bowing and moving slowly, but Esau ran to him and embraced him. They wept, and Esau asked about the animals Jacob had sent, protesting that he didn’t need a gift (33:4-9). On Jacob’s insistence, he took the gift and returned home (Genesis 33:10-12). Jacob traveled further into Canaan and bought some land that he settled on, naming it Elohe Israel (33:18-20).

Why Is There So Much Hope in Their Story?

There are many things we could take from the story of Jacob and Esau, but maybe the most important one is how hopeful their story is. Jacob and Esau literally were fighting each other from before they could remember. One of them cheated the other in a massive way, and it looked for a while as if revenge was going to settle their rivalry permanently. Instead, Esau forgave Jacob and they reconnected.

Contrary to how it’s often explained, forgiveness doesn’t act like wrong things didn’t happen. Depending on our situation, it may not always be possible to make restitution (which may be what Jacob was aiming for with his gift of livestock). However, this does not mean we should not repent of our wrongdoing, forgive our wrongdoers, and work toward reconciling. We may find that just when it looked like someone couldn’t care less about forgiving us, they are actually prepared to reach out and give grace.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/hjalmeida

Genesis 25

1 Abraham had taken another wife, whose name was Keturah.
2 She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah.
3 Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan; the descendants of Dedan were the Ashurites, the Letushites and the Leummites.
4 The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanok, Abida and Eldaah. All these were descendants of Keturah.
5 Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac.
6 But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.
7 Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years.
8 Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.
9 His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite,
10 the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah.
11 After Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac, who then lived near Beer Lahai Roi.
12 This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Ishmael, whom Sarah’s slave, Hagar the Egyptian, bore to Abraham.
13 These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, listed in the order of their birth: Nebaioth the firstborn of Ishmael, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam,
14 Mishma, Dumah, Massa,
15 Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah.
16 These were the sons of Ishmael, and these are the names of the twelve tribal rulers according to their settlements and camps.
17 Ishmael lived a hundred and thirty-seven years. He breathed his last and died, and he was gathered to his people.
18 His descendants settled in the area from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt, as you go toward Ashur. And they lived in hostility toward all the tribes related to them.
19 This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac,
20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.
21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.
22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD.
23 The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb.
25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau.
26 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.
27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents.
28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished.
30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom. )
31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.
34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.

Genesis 26

1 Now there was a famine in the land—besides the previous famine in Abraham’s time—and Isaac went to Abimelek king of the Philistines in Gerar.
2 The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live.
3 Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham.
4 I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed,
5 because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.”
6 So Isaac stayed in Gerar.
7 When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” because he was afraid to say, “She is my wife.” He thought, “The men of this place might kill me on account of Rebekah, because she is beautiful.”
8 When Isaac had been there a long time, Abimelek king of the Philistines looked down from a window and saw Isaac caressing his wife Rebekah.
9 So Abimelek summoned Isaac and said, “She is really your wife! Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac answered him, “Because I thought I might lose my life on account of her.”
10 Then Abimelek said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the men might well have slept with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.”
11 So Abimelek gave orders to all the people: “Anyone who harms this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”
12 Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the LORD blessed him.
13 The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy.
14 He had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him.
15 So all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth.
16 Then Abimelek said to Isaac, “Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us.”
17 So Isaac moved away from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar, where he settled.
18 Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.
19 Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and discovered a well of fresh water there.
20 But the herders of Gerar quarreled with those of Isaac and said, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek, because they disputed with him.
21 Then they dug another well, but they quarreled over that one also; so he named it Sitnah.
22 He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarreled over it. He named it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the LORD has given us room and we will flourish in the land.”
23 From there he went up to Beersheba.
24 That night the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.”
25 Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the LORD. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well.
26 Meanwhile, Abimelek had come to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his personal adviser and Phicol the commander of his forces.
27 Isaac asked them, “Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?”
28 They answered, “We saw clearly that the LORD was with you; so we said, ‘There ought to be a sworn agreement between us’—between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you
29 that you will do us no harm, just as we did not harm you but always treated you well and sent you away peacefully. And now you are blessed by the LORD.”
30 Isaac then made a feast for them, and they ate and drank.
31 Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other. Then Isaac sent them on their way, and they went away peacefully.
32 That day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug. They said, “We’ve found water!”
33 He called it Shibah, and to this day the name of the town has been Beersheba.
34 When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and also Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite.
35 They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.

Genesis 27:1-45

1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, “My son.” “Here I am,” he answered.
2 Isaac said, “I am now an old man and don’t know the day of my death.
3 Now then, get your equipment—your quiver and bow—and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me.
4 Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.”
5 Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back,
6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Look, I overheard your father say to your brother Esau,
7 ‘Bring me some game and prepare me some tasty food to eat, so that I may give you my blessing in the presence of the LORD before I die.’
8 Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you:
9 Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it.
10 Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.”
11 Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man while I have smooth skin.
12 What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.”
13 His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.”
14 So he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she prepared some tasty food, just the way his father liked it.
15 Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob.
16 She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins.
17 Then she handed to her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made.
18 He went to his father and said, “My father.” “Yes, my son,” he answered. “Who is it?”
19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”
20 Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?” “The LORD your God gave me success,” he replied.
21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.”
22 Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”
23 He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he proceeded to bless him.
24 “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked. “I am,” he replied.
25 Then he said, “My son, bring me some of your game to eat, so that I may give you my blessing.” Jacob brought it to him and he ate; and he brought some wine and he drank.
26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come here, my son, and kiss me.”
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.”
30 After Isaac finished blessing him, and Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting.
31 He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, “My father, please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”
32 His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?” “I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.”
33 Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!”
34 When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!”
35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”
36 Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob ? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” Then he asked, “Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?”
37 Isaac answered Esau, “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?”
38 Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” Then Esau wept aloud.
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.”
41 Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”
42 When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you.
43 Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran.
44 Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides.
45 When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”