Jacob and Esau

There is something of the artful dodger in the popular view of Jacob, something of the born loser in Esau. This may not be completely wrong but it is certainly not completely right.

If we pay attention to the way their story unfolds (from 25:19 to the end of ch. 36), we will find that once again the OT is more subtle and thought provoking than we assumed.

The story of Jacob and Esau, like those of their forebears, has most likely been assembled from once independent traditions. However, the final product is rather different.

Here the account of the birth of Jacob’s 11 sons and daughter Dinah (29:30-30:24) forms the centrepiece around which revolves a dramatic tale of hostility between Jacob and Esau and their reconciliation, of rivalry and intrigue between Jacob and his uncle Laban and its resolution.

The report of the birth of the 12th son, Benjamin, lies outside this structure, in 35:16-21.

Sibling Rivalry

The opening lines in 25:19-34 provide plenty of ingredients for the potent brew that fuels this story. Jacob and Esau are in conflict even in the womb; their troubled mother receives a troubling oracle, the parents are divided in the children they love, the boys pursue competing careers, and a savvy Jacob takes advantage of his seemingly dimwitted brother to reverse the elder’s birthright.

With this kind of start, one wonders whether any of the key players will reach the finish. But, they do make it in unexpected ways, and in doing so, manage to further God’s purpose as well.

Sibling strife reaches a crisis in ch. 27 where Jacob steals the elder son’s blessing from his blind father. The real instigator here is of course Rebekah, perhaps driven by the oracle of 25:23.

But, as we saw earlier, taking God’s word into one’s own hands can be dangerous. Rivalry between mother and father embroils their sons and threatens to destroy the family.

There are distant echoes here of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Blessing is a power that is meant to give life and build the human family: in the wrong hands it can do just the opposite.

According to the logic of the story, once a blessing is bestowed, it cannot be reversed. As Jacob flees from Esau eastward, questions arise.

How will the blessing unfold in the life of this devious character; will the dysfunctional chosen family survive?

God’s Loyalty

God is loyal to his chosen ones, however disloyal they may be, and in 28:10-17 reaffirms for Jacob the promises made to Abraham.

In response, Jacob lays out the conditions for his loyalty to God (28:18-22). He aims to get the better of everyone, even God.

Arrived in Haran, Jacob is soon in competition with Laban, himself a master of deception. Laban wins the opening round in the famous tale of the two wives: Leah and Rachel (ch. 29).

From this troubled union, the sons of Jacob emerge; the majority of them children of ‘unloved’ Leah—an ironic twist. God’s promise of a nation is on track, albeit in surprising ways!

A striking feature is that the centerpiece of the story casts Jacob in a passive, rather minor, role. The women dominate and they name the children.

Once again, the text builds up expectations and then subtly displaces them, presumably in favour of something or someone else. What might it be here? Is the text signaling that Jacob may be less than a devoted father?

A Turning Point

The arrival of the children constitutes a turning point in the story, and one would next expect Jacob’s return home, with family, for a showdown with Esau. To achieve this, the story has first of all to detach him from Laban and it does so by portraying Jacob the winner in a series of entertaining and clever thrusts and parries by key players (30:25-31:55).

One can imagine Jacob’s innovative breeding techniques and Rachel’s quick thinking with stolen household gods delighting an Israelite audience.

Laban complains he cannot do much against someone who has God’s protection. The narrative leaves unresolved how much is due to Jacob’s cleverness, how much to God’s protection.

Jacob’s encounter with Esau in chs. 32-33 is a masterpiece of storytelling that again turns the tables on expectations. Jacob thinks Esau is bent on his destruction: he informs God that he is a killer and prays for deliverance, all the while creating a series of buffers between himself and Esau.

He even seems prepared to sacrifice wives and children for his own safety (32:22-23). Very bad shades of Abraham and Isaac!

The crunch comes with the night-long wrestling match in 32:24-32; God’s apparent answer to his prayer for deliverance. In this strange and fascinating story, Jacob is indeed delivered—from his plans to escape!

Crippled by a wrestler who can fight just as dirty as Jacob when needed, our patriarch can no longer run from Esau and his 400 men. He now limps in front of his family to face his fate (33:1-3).

When the brothers meet, Jacob is embraced and kissed by the man he so feared. It is Esau who has changed, not Jacob—at least not until the mysterious wrestler works him over.

Jacob even calls Esau ‘my Lord’ (33:9), surprising in view of the promise of 27:29 (‘be Lord over your brothers’). The promise will be realized, but in God’s way and in God’s time; not, it seems, this time.

The OT springs a further surprise by having the brothers separate after embracing. Reconciliation is there but not complete. The crafty Jacob gives Esau the slip and travels to Shechem (setting for the sorry story of Dinah). Biblical realism seems wary of happy-ever-after endings.


With Genesis 33 the dramatic arc of the story comes to rest.

Chapters 34-36 form a supplementary collection.

In ch. 34, Jacob’s boys have suddenly become dangerous men who pay in murder for the rape of their sister. Not a good omen.

Chapter 35 preserves varied material and concludes with the death of Isaac and his burial by Jacob and Esau, while ch. 36 lists numerous descendants of Esau, legendary ancestor of the Edomites.



Copyright © Mark O'Brien, OP. Catholic Institute of Sydney