Genesis by Gary DeLashmutt (1998)

Esau's Free Choice

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Gary DeLashmutt

Genesis 25-27



One of the unique features of human beings is our ability to learn vicariously. This means we don't have to learn everything "the hard way;" we have the capacity to watch others and learn by their choices and the outcomes of those choices. Because of this capacity, much of the Bible's instruction comes to us through real-life models. And God's Word, as the master teacher, provides us with both good and poor models. Good models show us what godly attitudes, values and choices look like--and what they lead to. Poor models show us what ungodly attitudes, values and choices look like--and what they lead to. This morning we will study one such poor model--Esau.

Let's begin with the author of Hebrews' reflection on Esau (read Heb. 12:15-17). What was it about this man that he could seek repentance, even with tears, and yet still be rejected? Today we study the sobering story of Esau's free choice. It teaches us some sobering lessons about the relationship between our decisions, consequences, and the will of God. Let's begin by taking a closer look at Esau and his choice . . . 

We pick up the story around 2006 BC as Rebekah, Isaac's wife, is having her first birth. Read Gen. 25:24-26. She had fraternal twin brothers: Esau ("ruddy") and Jacob ("supplanter"). Because Esau was born first, he had the birthright. In those days, the father usually passed on the entire estate to his eldest son rather than dividing it up equally among his children as is more customary today. In this case, Esau's birthright consisted of more than some money, property and possessions. It also consisted of a promise made by God to Esau's grandfather, Abraham. This promise, known as the Abrahamic Covenant, involved the privilege of being used by God in a special way to fulfill God's purpose for humanity. Certain descendants of Abraham would form a nation through which God would give the Bible and his Messiah to the world.

Read 25:27,28. You can see how different these two men were. Esau was a "man's man"--hairy, an expert hunter, and his father's favorite ("BURLY BOY"). Jacob was smooth-skinned, "a peaceful man, living in the tents" (where the women and children spent their time). He excelled in cooking, and was his mother's favorite ("MAMA'S BOY").

Now we come to the event referred to in Heb. 12 (read 25:29-34). The thing that gets me is Moses' commentary in vs 34b: "Thus Esau despised his birthright." Heb. 12:16 goes even further and calls it an immoral and godless choice. Esau didn't exactly make a good deal, but it seems like the one who should be condemned is Jacob for exploiting and manipulating his brother! What Jacob did was wrong, and God teaches him a lesson about this later on (NEXT WEEK)--but what Esau did was far worse. Why? Let's look closer . . . 

Why was Esau's choice so reprehensible?

Let's analyze Esau's choice, first by examining some of its most obvious features.

He was under duress. Esau was hungry--very hungry! He didn't have the luxury of being at ease, in his study, after a good meal and a night's sleep. He had to make this decision under a lot of pressure. This is the way it often is in real life.

Nevertheless, he was impulsive. Do you think he took even five minutes to think this over and weigh out the implications? No--he lunged.

And he was dishonest. Do you think he was literally going to die unless he ate the soup right then? He doesn't act like a man on the verge of death (ate & drank himself; rose & went on his way). Esau lied to himself in order to justify his decision. He could have trusted God to provide a meal for him.

Now let's take a closer look at the values revealed by Esau's choice, and contrast them to the values that are esteemed by the Bible. When analyzed in this light, the Bible's verdict on his decision becomes clearer.

Esau's decision was made on the basis of his physical need (hunger), rather than on the basis of his spiritual considerations (to play a role in God's plan). This is in direct contrast to Jesus' decision (Matt. 4:2-4). Even though he was much hungrier, Jesus turned down the opportunity to eat because it meant trading away his role in God's plan.

His decision prioritized instant gratification (a full belly) over future fulfillment (becoming the father of the twelve tribes of Israel much later in his life). Contrast this to Moses (read Heb. 11:24-26).

Esau's decision was based on a self-centered and temporal value system. This is why it was "godless" and "immoral." What if a cafeteria worker said to you, "Trade me your child for this bowl of soup?" It wouldn't have mattered if he got two bowls of soup, or two years worth of soup for that matter. His birthright was so much more important than soup that no amount of soup could make up for it.

We learn a very important lesson here: No hunger is so severe that it justifies trading away the will of God in order to satisfy it. No amount of loneliness ever justifies sexual immorality. No amount of desire for some object ever justifies stealing it. No amount of embarrassment or fear ever justifies lying. No amount of depression or homesickness ever justifies deserting your ministry post (2 Tim. 4:10).

What were the results of Esau's choice?

Let's not forget that he got to eat the soup. If Esau were here, maybe he'd remind us of this! And he'd probably say it was good soup--and he got bread and wine(?) with it, too!

But he lost his birthright. His choice was irreversible in this respect. Evidently, Esau figured he could reverse this decision, but God held him responsible for his choice and worked providentially to allow him to reap this consequence in his life. We read the dramatic and heart-rending account of this in Gen. 27. Many years later, as Isaac lay blind and on his death bed, Jacob disguised himself as Esau and Isaac discharged his birthright to him. Verbal oaths, like signed contracts, were binding. (Again, God does not condone Jacob's behavior.) Read vs 30-38.

So even when Esau realized he'd made a poor choice and did everything he could to reverse its consequences, he was unable to do this. He had to live with his decision. This is what the author means in Heb. 12:17. The "repentance" that Esau sought but could not get was not that God wouldn't let Esau repent to him and be forgiven. In fact, there is good evidence that Esau did come to saving faith in God, and that we will see him in heaven. It was that Isaac couldn't change his mind and return the birthright to him. This choice altered the rest of his life and his impact on history (FATHER OF 12 TRIBES & ANCESTOR OF MESSIAH vs. LEGACY OF EDOM).

From this we learn another sobering lesson: We cannot choose the consequences of our decisions, and they are sometimes irreversible.

This is part of the fabric of reality which God has designed, and it works this way whether we like it or not. One of the most basic aspects of wisdom and maturity, therefore, is to understand and accept this fact. The essence of immaturity is to insist on the freedom to make your own choices without also accepting responsibility for those choices and the consequences that flow from them. This is why wise parents start to teach this to their children at a very early age (NATURAL & ARTIFICIAL CONSEQUENCES), so they don’t have to learn the hard way in the real world.

This truth obviously underscores the importance of making wise choices. Existentialists acknowledge this truth, but lament that we cannot know the consequences of life's most important decisions in advance. This is what turns life into a cruel joke--we are totally responsible, but also totally without guidance. But Christianity disagrees. Through his Word, God tells us what life's most important decisions are and (at least generally) what the consequences are that flow from those decisions.

By receiving Christ, you can make a decision with irreversible positive consequences: complete forgiveness by God and eternal life with him. But by the same token, if you do not receive Christ by the time you die or he returns, you have also made an irreversible decision--to spend eternity under his judgment and alienated from him. This is Hebrews' application of Esau's free choice (read 12:15,25; see also 9:27). Some complain that this is a scare tactic designed to pressure people. It certainly can be used that way, but that doesn't make such a warning illegitimate. If I knew that your house was on fire, and if I knew the only safe escape, and if I knew you had only 15 minutes to get out, would it be a scare tactic to warn you of this and urge you to escape??

By learning God's Word and paying heed to his warnings and promises, you can avoid much needless pain in this life and reap much joy and fulfillment in this life and the next life. This is not to say there will be no pain or suffering, but you don't have to learn everything the hard way!

Pay heed to God's warnings! The consequences for consistently spurning them can be drastic and irreversible (Prov. 29:1). For example, stay away from sexual immorality (Prov. 6:24-29) and materialism (1 Tim. 6:9,10).

Follow God's direction! He promises that his path is the path that leads to life (read Ps. 34:12-16; 1 Tim. 6:17-19; 2 Tim. 4:5-8).

God's grace tempers this truth, but it does not cancel it out.

I suspect that some of you who are Christians are perplexed or even upset at this point. "But what about God's grace? Doesn’t the fact that we're under grace change all this?" Not really. God's grace tempers this truth, but it does not cancel it out. I don't fully understand how these two truths interface, but I know the following ways in which they temper each other.

If you have received Christ, God will never reject you no matter what you do (Rom. 8:1). This is because God's acceptance isn’t based on our works for God, but on Christ's finished work for us.

But it is not true that God will always spare you from the negative consequences of your wrong decisions. If you make a poor marriage choice, you can experience real marital pain. If you get into habitual drug use, you can experience long-term relational impairment and vulnerability to temptation.

If you have received Christ, God will continue to initiate his healing discipline in your life regardless of your response (Heb. 12:6). He will never say, "Forget it! I may be stuck with you for eternity, but I'm through with you in this life."

But this does not mean that God will eventually heal and mature you regardless of your response to his discipline (Heb. 12:12,13; BROKEN BONE). Those who experience God's healing power are the ones that take responsibility for their poor choices and start making wise choices.

If you have received Christ, God will still have a role for your life even after years of disregarding his will. Esau exemplifies this fantastic expression of God's grace.

But this does not mean that God's role for your life will never be diminished by your disregard of his will. Esau's role was diminished by his wrong choice (TWO DIAMONDS).

If you have received Christ, God is willing and able to work for good even from your wrong choices. Peter exemplifies this amazing grace (Lk. 22:31,32).

But this does not mean that God will bring as much good from your wrong choices as from your choices to obey his will. If this were true, there would be no point to obedience!


Life is made up of a series of moments that can never be lived again, and the choices we make today will affect us and others in the future--advancing God's purpose or hindering it. One day we will see the full significance of our choices, but today we can only see this in part. Such a realization should make us thankful for God's grace, and it should motivate us to learn God's will and follow it even when this is costly.

Copyright 1998 Gary DeLashmutt