Bible Commentary: Genesis 25

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Bible Commentary

Genesis 25

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From Abraham to Jacob

This chapter presents a rapid transition from Abraham to Isaac, whose life will be presented very quickly and with little detail. The narrative of Genesis is dominated by Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, with Isaac’s history serving as a brief interlude between the lives of Abraham and Jacob. In fact, the majority of the narrative concerning Isaac serves mainly as a prelude to the life of Jacob. For this reason some have called Isaac a shadowy figure.

The chapter begins with a list of Abraham’s sons and descendants by a later wife, Keturah. The descendants of many of these sons have apparently become peoples of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Then follows the list for the descendants of Ishmael; most of these peoples live in various countries of the Middle East. The list for Isaac begins in verse 19 and moves directly into a narrative about the birth of Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob. As can be seen, the purpose of the chapter is to distinguish between the sons of Abraham, with the story line being passed along through Isaac to the father of the Israelites, Jacob. Comparing patriarchal ages, it is interesting to note that in spite of the order of verses, Abraham’s life overlapped that of Esau and Jacob by about 14 years (compare Hebrews 11:9).

The Genesis 25 narrative is continued by relating the events surrounding the births of Esau and Jacob. The fundamental theme in the narrative of these two sons is that of competition for supremacy. Even in the womb of their mother, Esau and Jacob struggled—and this would be continued throughout their lives and on into the histories of the nations descended from them.

It is interesting to note that Esau is described as a “skillful hunter, a man of the field,” while Jacob is called a “mild man, dwelling in tents” (verse 27). These descriptions are intended to draw a maximum contrast between the two brothers. The mention of Jacob dwelling in tents is intended to show him to be a civilized and more refined person than his elder brother. That Jacob dwelt in tents, whereas his brother was a hunter in the field, also seems to imply that he showed more interest in the family’s mercantile and herding business. Moreover, the word translated “mild” (verse 27) is the Hebrew tam, which is normally translated “blameless.” Jacob was a blameless man—blameless as far as the letter of the law went. But Jacob was also a cunning man, one who would manipulate people and events in order to obtain what he wanted. This character trait would cause him years of grief before it was rooted out of him—before he became more truly blameless in his character and motivation.

The purchase of a birthright has been documented in several contracts of the ancient Hurrian people, and thus Jacob’s actions can be seen in the light of cultural precedent. That Esau would so lightly esteem his birthright is just another story element showing the great contrast between the two brothers. At least Jacob rightly appreciated its great value—and his dealings with Esau show him to be the more business-savvy of the two brothers. The Scripture tells us that Esau, in connection with the sale of his birthright, was a profane person (Hebrews 12:16), and Paul also makes use of the phrase “whose god is their belly” (Philippians 3:19) when describing those who set their hearts and minds on earthly things—an interesting phrase given Esau’s coveting a mere bowl of stew. The intent is to get us to understand that man often forfeits spiritual realities for the temporary pleasures of physical things, and that such misordered priorities and behavior render a person profane and indicates who that person’s god truly is. The result in such cases is the loss of the spiritual reality, and the inheritance of a curse rather than a blessing.