Isaac and Rebekah’s failures as parents contributed to one of their sons being lost for eternity and the other struggling with a debilitating stronghold for the majority of his life. They failed with Jacob and Esau in four ways:


·         They failed to cultivate their godly identities. Jacob possessed intense spiritual ambition and hunger for God’s blessing; Esau had a gift for servanthood and covering the sins of others with mercy and forgiveness.

·         They failed to circumcise their carnal identities. Jacob was full of selfish ambition; Esau tended toward spiritual apathy and abdication of personal responsibility.

·         They fueled rivalry and insecurity by choosing favorites. Isaac favored Esau; Rebekah favored Jacob.

·         They undermined God’s values by esteeming superficial traits more than character. Isaac esteemed Esau’s hunting ability; Rebekah esteemed Jacob’s peaceful, indoor-dwelling quality.


God gave multiple warnings and exhortations to help Isaac and Rebekah avoid these parental pitfalls, beginning during the twins’ pregnancy. Sadly, they all went unheeded. Here is how their story unfolded.


Pregnancy and Birth

In Genesis 25, Rebekah asked the Lord why the sons in her womb, Jacob and Esau, were struggling together. The Lord answered her, saying:


“Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples will be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.”


Although this prophecy was about nations, it also had implications for the boys’ personality types. Additionally, prophetic signs at Jacob and Esau’s birth gave further insight into their natures. When Esau was born, he was hairy like a garment and red all over; when Jacob was born, he grabbed Esau’s heel. 



When God told Rebekah that the older son, Esau, would serve the younger, Jacob, He was pronouncing a blessing on both of them. This was not a curse on Esau as some have supposed; God loved Esau. He was affirming Esau’s gift of servanthood.


Almost every time the word “servant” is used in the Bible, it is either positive or neutral. In some cases, it is even equated with greatness (ex. Mathew 23:11). (An exception occurs in Noah’s Genesis 9 prophecy of Ham’s son Canaan, but unlike all other mentions, this mention is specifically called a “curse”.) Some have interpreted Romans 9:13, which says, “Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’”, to mean that God did curse Esau and predetermined that he would stumble. However, Romans 9:13 is a quotation of Malachi 1:2-3, which was written over one thousand years after Jacob and Esau passed away and is clearly talking about the nations that descended from them, not Jacob and Esau themselves. Furthermore, the overarching context of Romans 9 is God’s sovereignty over nations, which is different than His activity in the lives of individuals.


What was the meaning of Esau being hairy like a garment and red all over? Two of the three times garments are mentioned in scripture prior to this, they are symbolic of a covering for sin – the garments of skin God gave to Adam and Eve, and the garment Shem and Japheth laid over Noah to cover his nakedness. Red also symbolizes forgiveness of sins since it is an allusion to the blood of Christ and, as Hebrews 9:22 says, “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”. These signs symbolized that Esau was self-sacrificial by nature, and had a gift for covering the sins of others through his willingness to forgive – something he would frequently need when dealing with Jacob.



When Jacob was born, he grabbed Esau’s heel. This was a warning of the jealousy Jacob would have for Esau’s birthright and the temptation he would feel to supplant Esau’s position.


In contrast to Esau’s service gift, Jacob’s most prominent attribute was his intense spiritual ambition. He wanted God’s blessing at any cost. However, he was also self-serving, only interested in his own advancement. Esau, on the other hand, was relatively indifferent toward spiritual things, which is why he later sold his birthright for a single meal.


God’s Intent: Partners, not Rivals

Jacob and Esau’s gifts were meant to complement one another. Jacob’s influence could have helped Esau esteem God’s blessing, while Esau could have taught Jacob that it is God’s nature to serve others. God chose Jacob to be younger so he would learn that his inheritance came from God, not through man’s bestowal or through his own striving. And God chose Esau to be older because He knew Esau’s greatest challenge would be taking responsibility for his own relationship with God, since it was more natural for him to be a passive follower. Carrying the responsibilities of the oldest son would help him step up to this challenge.


Jacob and Esau were called to be a duo, to complement each other, like David and Jonathon or John and James. There is something very special and powerful when brothers walk together before the Lord in unity, just as it says in Psalm 133:1-2: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil [anointing] upon the head [Jesus]…” Jesus is magnified and exalted through brothers walking in unity.


Had Esau not fallen away, perhaps God would have led him to voluntarily offer the position of family headship to Jacob, recognizing Jacob’s gift of spiritual zeal and his own gift of servanthood. Imagine how humbling it would have been for Jacob if Esau lovingly handed over the inheritance he so desperately longed for. Imagine Esau promising to do everything he could to help Jacob lay ahold of God’s blessing. Their hearts would have been bound together for life. Isn’t this exactly what Jonathon, the legal heir to Saul’s throne, promised to do for David? 


I wonder how it might have played out. Perhaps when their father Isaac approached death, Esau would have told him he believed Jacob was meant to receive the primary birthright instead of him. Or perhaps they would have received their birthrights in the proper order, but the Spirit, speaking through Isaac, would have given the mantle of family headship to Jacob (which He did anyway) and Esau would have offered his support and approval.



Despite the insights God gave Isaac and Rebekah, their parenting mistakes created a sharp division between Jacob and Esau. First, they chose favorites based on personal preference (Genesis 25:28), which likely fueled their rivalry and insecurity. Then, they esteemed superficial traits above character. Isaac affirmed Esau for being a good hunter while Rebekah affirmed Isaac for being a peaceful man who liked to dwell in tents (Genesis 25:27). This instilled a worldly value system instead of a kingdom value system. They likely felt pressure to seek their parents’ affirmation more than God’s.


Finally, in a life-defining moment for both brothers, Jacob coaxed Esau into trading away his birthright for a meal. Jacob’s selfish ambition played off of Esau’s apathy. Jacob then lied to his father about his identity (Genesis 25:31, 27:32) and went on to struggle with his stronghold for the majority of his life, never fully trusting God to bless him, thinking he needed to strive and deceive. Esau walked away from God completely.


Name and Nature

In the Bible, a person’s name often points to his nature. That is why it is so significant when God changes someone’s name – it symbolizes a change in their nature. Some examples of this are Abram becoming Abraham, Sarai becoming Sarah, Cephas becoming Peter, and Saul becoming Paul.


It is interesting that Esau was named by his parents after his godly nature, but then took on a new name after his carnal nature.


By contrast, Jacob was named by his parents for his carnal nature, but then God renamed him for his godly nature.


Isaac and Rebekah recognized Esau’s self-sacrificing nature and affirmed it by naming him Esau, or red. However, after Esau traded his birthright, his name changed to Edom, which means red of the earth, which meant his sacrificial nature had been stained by worldly-mindedness. Without God directing his life, Esau’s gift could only be used for worldly, temporal purposes and have no eternal impact.


Isaac and Rebekah made a terrible mistake in naming Jacob, or one who supplants, after his weakness. This reinforced his belief that he needed to strive and deceive to obtain God’s blessing. However, in Genesis 32, God wrestled with Jacob all night and afterward changed his name, and nature, to Israel, saying he had “striven with God and with men and prevailed.” (vs. 28) Because Jacob always turned toward God, instead of away from God as Esau had done, God was able to work on him even though his motives were all wrong. In the end, God overcame his carnal nature and bestowed on him the godly nature his parents failed to cultivate.



God tried to set Isaac and Rebekah up for success by giving them insight into their sons’ makeups. With God’s help, they could have shepherded the boys into their godly identities, circumcised their carnal identities, avoided choosing favorites, and affirmed their characters instead of superficial attributes. Instead, they did the opposite, which contributed to the eternal loss of one son and a lifelong character struggle for the other. This was a great tragedy, but it is recorded in scripture for our sake.


What does God think when He looks at our children? What does He think about their weaknesses? What does He think about their potential?


God identifies us according to our godly potential, not our weaknesses. When He spoke to Gideon through His angel (Judges 6:12), He called him a valiant warrior even though he was hiding in fear. When Jesus first met Nathanial, He called him an Israelite “in whom there was no deceit” (John 2:47) even though he was cynical and hardened to the possibility of Jesus being the Messiah. When Ezekiel came to a valley filled with dry bones representing Israel’s spiritual condition (Ezekiel 37), God saw the potential for an exceedingly great army and commanded Ezekiel to prophesy what it could become. Parents must treat their children in the same way. Children believe the messages parents send them about their identities and are shaped by them. Our words are their mirrors. Our affirmation creates their self-portraits.



What is God’s definition of success? How does it vary from the world’s definition? What should parents teach their children about how to live successful lives? This is the topic of the next chapter.