Esau [Heb.,=hairy], in the Bible, son of Isaac, who sold his birthright to his younger twin, Jacob, for lentil stew and who was tricked by Jacob out of his father's blessing. Also known as Edom [Heb.,=ruddy], the disinherited Esau settled on Mt. Seir, which became the home of his descendants, the Edomites, a tribe consistently hostile to the Jews. In tradition, Esau is represented as a rough hunter, deemed unworthy to inherit the mission of Abraham. The New Testament calls Esau "immoral and godless." Yet his descendants do become a nation, protected by God.
Esau (Hebrew , Standard Hebrew Esav, Tiberian Hebrew ʿĒśāw) is the brother of Jacob (whom God renamed Israel) -- the patriarch and founder of the Israelites -- in the biblical Book of Genesis. Esau was the oldest son of Isaac and Rebekah and the grandson of Abraham. Jacob and Esau were fraternal twins, with Esau born minutes before Jacob (Israel) and thus entitled to lead the family and obtain a preferred inheritance after Isaac's death.


Esau's name in Hebrew means "hairy", and, according to Genesis 25:25, it is a reference to his hairiness at birth. He is also called "Edom", which means red. Genesis relates this directly to his selling his birthright for some "red lentil stew" (Gen. 25:30). However, Genesis makes a point of mentioning that he was red when he emerged from the womb (Gen 25:25). However, this may be an example of retroactive nomenclature, as the land which was supposedly inhabited by his descendants, Edom, contains a great abundance of red rock, and some believe that the name of the land is a topographical reference. However, this is speculation, and has no basis in the biblical text.


Genesis 36 & 28:8-9 detail Esau's family. He took two wives from the women of Canaan: Adah or Basemath, the daughter of Elon, Aholibamah, the daughter of Anah. Esau married his cousin Mahalathor another Basemath, daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebaioth upon hearing of his parents' displeasure with his marriage to Canaanite women. Adah bore a son named Eliphaz, Basemath bore a son named Reuel, and Aholibamah bore sons named Jeush, Jalam and Korah.

Biblical description

The Bible depicts Esau as a hunter who prefers the outdoor life, qualities that distinguished him from his brother who was a shy, or simple man depending on the translation of the Hebrew word "Tam" (which also means "relatively perfect man"). According to the Bible, Esau is the ancestor of the Edomites. In the Book of Genesis, Esau is frequently shown being supplanted by his younger twin Jacob (Israel).

Genesis 25:19-25 narrates Esau's birth. He emerges from the womb with Jacob grasping his heel. He is described thusly: "Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau."

Biblical significance

Genesis 25:29-34 shows him willingly selling his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a "mess of pottage" (meal of lentils). Controversy has surrounded this scripture, in that some have noted that Esau may have been in danger of starving to death and was taken advantage of by Jacob in a vulnerable moment. Certainly, Jacob's refusal to share his food without exacting a high price from Esau is in conflict with Biblical principles for moral living such as charity and goodwill. However, others suggest that among the large entourage of Isaac's wealthy household, death from starvation would not likely have been a genuine danger simply on account of Esau not having caught anything while hunting that day. Owing to the strict law concerning draining the blood from an animal before eating it, Esau would not have expected to immediately eat what he killed and would probably have carried food while hunting. According to the Bible the food laws were given later to Moses. Rather, Esau's words about being close to death may have been dramatic exaggeration of the type frequently found in the Old Testament and that selling his birthright indicated Esau's lack of appreciation for the long-term value of such an intangible right when he was more interested in fulfilling his immediate needs.

Curiously, the Old Testament of the Bible does not tell us which of these views is correct, whether in God's eyes Esau was cheated by Jacob or whether Esau carelessly sold his birthright to Jacob. However, the New Testament Book of Hebrews in Chapter 12, verse 15-16, depicts Esau as unspiritual for thoughtlessly throwing away his birthright. It appears that in Isaac's eyes, at least, the deception was not wrong, as he not only refuses to take it back after learning he was tricked, but also will not give a second blessing to Esau (Gen. 27:34-40). He then reiterates his blessing of Jacob shortly before Jacob flees (Gen. 28:1-4).

In Genesis 27:1-40, Jacob uses deception to trick their father Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing normally due to the eldest, instead of giving it to Esau. Jacob's deception also engenders controversy, while motivated in fact by Rebekah, the mother of both Jacob and Esau and Isaac's beloved wife. In Genesis 25:22-23, And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to enquire of the LORD. And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.

Genesis 25:28 explains the conflict between the parents and their children: "Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob." (emphasis added).

In Genesis 27:5-7, "Rebekah was listening while Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game to bring home, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, "Behold, I heard your father speak to your brother Esau, saying, 7 'Bring me some game and prepare a savory dish for me, that I may eat, and bless you in the presence of the LORD before my death.'". Rebekah then instructs Jacob in an elaborate deception through which Jacob pretends to be Esau, in order to steal from Esau Isaac's blessing and birthright -- which in theory Esau had agreed to give to Jacob. As a result, Jacob becomes the spiritual leader of the family after Isaac's death and the heir of the promises of Abraham (Gen. 27:37).

Esau, naturally, is furious and vows to kill Jacob (Gen. 27:41). Once again Rebekah intervenes to save her youngest son Jacob from being murdered by her eldest son, Esau.

Therefore, at Rebekah's urging, Jacob flees to a distant land to work for a relative, Laban (Gen. 28:5). To engineer Jacob's escape unharmed, Rebekah invents a story about not wanting Jacob to marry a local Heth-ite woman (Gen. 27:46).

Esau married Canaanite women, but, upon hearing that this greatly displeased his parents, Esau married his cousin Mahalath, the daughter of Ishmael (Gen. 28:6-9). Esau thus demonstrates loyalty to his parents and their wishes. However, the Bible portrays Rebekah's expression of displeasure with the women of the region as actually being only a ruse to facilitate Jacob's escape from Esau's murderous threats.

Jacob does not immediately receive his father's inheritance after the elaborate deception aimed at taking it from Esau. Jacob having fled for his life, leaves behind the wealth of Isaac's flocks and land and tents in Esau's hands. Jacob is forced to sleep out on the open ground and then work for wages as a servant in Laban's household. Jacob, who had deceived and cheated his brother, is in turn deceived and cheated by his relative Laban concerning Jacob's seven years of service (lacking money for a dowry) for the hand of Rachel, receiving Leah instead. However, despite Laban, Jacob eventually becomes so rich as to incite the envy of Laban and Laban's sons.

Meanwhile, Esau also shows forgiveness and reconciliation. In spite of this bitter conflict, Genesis Chapters 32-33 tells of Jacob and Esau's eventual reconciliation. Jacob sends multiple waves of gifts to Esau as they approach each other in hopes of Esau sparing his life. Esau refuses the gifts, as he is now very wealthy and does not need them. Jacob never apologizes to Esau for his actions through the sending of these gifts. Jacob nevertheless bows down before Esau and insists of his receiving the gifts. (After this, God confirms his renaming of Jacob as "Israel.") Nevertheless, commentaries through the ages have read - between the lines - of an animosity only superficially concealed.

According to Jewish tradition, Esau was a rebellious son. He kept this life secret until he was 15, when he sold his birthright to Jacob. Abraham died earlier the same day, so that he would not witness the demise of his grandson Esau. The lentils Jacob was cooking were meant for his father Isaac, because lentils are the traditional mourner's meal for Jews. Jacob coerced Esau to sell his birthright, because he knew that Esau wasn't responsible enough to receive it.

Book of Jubilees

In the Book of Jubilees (which is neither part of the Jewish nor most Christian canons), Esau's father, Isaac, compels Esau to swear not to attack or kill Jacob after Isaac has died. However, after the death of Isaac, the sons of Esau convince their father to lead them, and hired mercenaries, against Jacob in order to kill Jacob and his family and seize their wealth, (especially the portion of Isaac's wealth that Isaac had left to Jacob upon his death). In the ensuing battle, Jacob kills Esau with an arrow. The sons of Jacob then defeat the rest of the attackers despite overwhelming odds.

Some of the sons of Esau are spared, but they are sworn to serve and pay fealty to Jacob.

Later History of Edom

Genesis Chapter 36 lists some of the early descendants of Esau and describes his people as settling in the hill country of Seir. His death is not recounted in the Bible. However, during the time that the Israelites were in captivity in Egypt, the Edomites established their own kingdom and had several kings before the Israelites established their monarchy.

Hundreds of years later, when the Israelites returned from captivity in Egypt during the Exodus, God commands the Israelites to honor and respect their "brothers" the Edomites, the descendants of Esau. The Israelites are commanded to be careful not to provoke the Edomites or take anything from them without paying for it. However, although the Bible does not record it in connection with those events, later God expresses anger at the Edomites for not showing the Israelites hospitality, such as in Numbers 20:14-22.

There are several Biblical references to hostility between the people of Israel and the people of Edom (e.g., 2 Samuel 8:12-14; 2 Kings 8:20-22; Psalm 137:7), and it is possible that some of the narrative of Genesis is intended to explain the origins and justification of that hostility. The Edomites (also known as Idumeans) came to be dominated by the larger kingdom of Israel, but from time to time fought wars with Israel throughout Israel's history.

Approximately 1000 years after Esau's and Jacob's common birthday, God expresses extreme anger and condemnation upon the Edomites such as in the prophesies of the Book of Malachi Chapter 1 and the Book of Obadiah Chapter 1. However, although the Bible follows the convention of describing the Edomites by the name of their long-dead patriarch Esau, the specific reasons given for God's anger involve then-recent sins of the Edomite people, not of the individual man Esau. Id.

The prophesies of Obadiah and Malachi indicate that the Edomite race will be destroyed during the end times. In Obadiah Chapter 1:18, it is declared: ' "But the house of Esau will be as stubble. And they will set them on fire and consume them, So that there will be no survivor of the house of Esau," For the LORD has spoken. ' (Emphasis added.)

According to Jewish tradition, Edomites were the progenitors of Rome. Because the Romans adopted Christianity as their religion, Christians are sometimes referred to as Edomites. Thus the prophecies in Obadiah and Malachi refer the Messianic age, where Edom will be punished for their cruelty to Israel during their exile.



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