Why didn’t God give Esau back the blessing that Jacob stole?

Q. I appreciated your post on “Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wresting match?” but I have another question. This one has been disturbing me for quite a long time. Why did God allow Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing and get away with it? Why did God continue to bless Jacob? I expected that at some point, because we are dealing with an omnipotent being, God was going to reverse the blessings, but that doesn’t happen. Please answer.

Let me respond by offering a series of observations. First, the blessing  that Jacob stole from Esau was specifically the blessing of primogeniture, that is, the blessing Esau would have been given so that he could fulfill his responsibilities as the first-born son of Isaac.

Primogeniture (which simply means “first born”) was one of the existing cultural institutions that God incorporated into the Law of Moses to promote order and provide for those in need. The book of Deuteronomy commands that when a father dies and his inheritance is divided, the firstborn son is to be given a “double portion,” that is, twice as much as the other sons. In this culture women didn’t own property and so they were dependent on male relatives, typically their fathers and then their husbands. But any unmarried sisters, or widowed sisters without children, would have to depend on this oldest brother after the father’s death. That’s why he was given a double portion, so he could care both for his own immediate family and for his extended family in his late father’s stead.

It was customary for a father, on his deathbed, to bless the firstborn son, asking God to give him material abundance so that he could care for the extended family, and to make his brothers come under his authority so that order would be preserved within the clan. Accordingly, when Isaac blesses Jacob (thinking that he’s Esau his firstborn), he says, “May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness—an abundance of grain and new wine,” and, “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.”

A further observation I’d like to make is that, paradoxically, God repeatedly did not follow the custom of primogeniture as He carried out His program of redemption. The Old Testament is full of examples of God choosing younger brothers over older ones: Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau (even before they were born, God told their mother, “the older will serve the younger“); Judah over his three older brothers as the ancestor of the royal line; David over his seven older brothers as king; and so forth. It seems that God simply looks for the person who can best fulfill his purposes, regardless of that person’s social standing. And so the judges, for example, include both men and women (Deborah), even though this was a patriarchal society that privileged men, and they also include an illegitimate son (Jephthah) and a youngest son (Gideon).

My next observation is that God works through the free choices, both good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish his purposes. We get an indication of this when Joseph tells his brothers, who sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” God does not take away our free will; God lets us choose, and God is always able to work with our choices to advance his own positive purposes, although there can also be negative consequences for people who makes bad choices.

Genesis tells us that “Esau despised his birthright,” that is, his responsibilities as the firstborn son weren’t important to him and he was likely to neglect them. Jacob, on the other hand, was hard-working and ambitious—a real hustler. He was much better suited to assume the leadership of the Israelite family as it began growing rapidly into a group of tribes that would become a nation. Ideally, Esau would have recognized Jacob’s abilities, and his own disinclination, and offered Jacob the role of family leader voluntarily. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Jacob was a “hustler” in another sense—a con artist. He took advantage of a weakness in Esau’s character to defraud him. The book of Hebrews describes Esau as “profane,” meaning literally that “nothing was sacred to him.” (Clearly these were two young men who both needed some character development!) One day Esau came home famished at the end of a day of hunting and saw that Jacob had made stew. He pleaded for some, and Jacob “sold” it to him in exchange for his birthright, which he knew meant nothing to Esau.

But Jacob still had to get the blessing that went with the birthright, and so he also deceived his father Isaac, pretending to be Esau once his father’s eyesight had grown so dim that he couldn’t tell the difference. (Though smooth-skinned Jacob also had to put on Esau’s clothes and wrap his arms and neck in goatskins, so that he would smell and feel like his hairy older brother!) As a result of this deception, Jacob received his father’s blessing, in God’s name, of both material abundance and family leadership.

So why did God honor this blessing, when it was obtained under such fraudulent circumstances? As I said earlier, God works through the free choices, both good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish his purposes. Unfortunately we often don’t give God good choices to work with, and that seems to be what happened in this case. There were plenty of negative consequences for Jacob: He had to flee from his brother’s anger at this deception, leaving with nothing but a staff and spending twenty years in exile. But through the hardships of those years, his character was shaped and he became a man who could lead the tribes of Israel into their future. The same thing could have been accomplished much more positively, but I think that everyone involved (not just Esau and Jacob, but their parents Isaac and Rebekah, who each showed favoritism towards a different son) didn’t give God enough good choices to work with to allow things to happen any better. As I said, God doesn’t take away our free will.

One final observation I’d like to offer is that when Jacob returns from exile a wealthy man, rich in flocks and herds, he does make some restitution to Esau for the material abundance he stole from him when he took his firstborn blessing. Jacob sends Esau hundreds of goats, sheep, camels, and donkeys, and when they meet in person, he says to him, “Accept the gift I have brought you.” This is literally, “Please accept my blessing that has been brought to you.” Jacob is making restitution by providing Esau with a “blessing” in place of the one he stole. Jacob also bows down to Esau and calls him “My lord,” even though Isaac’s blessing to Jacob had been, “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.”

These actions on Jacob’s part don’t undo Esau’s surrender of his birthright; that was an permanent transaction between the two of them, even though it wasn’t concluded under the best of circumstances. But it does seem that Jacob, now that he is more mature, at least tries to return some of the benefits of their father’s blessing to Esau.

Sometimes this kind of thing is best we can hope for. It’s a messy world, even with an omnipotent God actively working to bring about its renewal.

Raffaellino Bottalla, “Meeting between Esau and Jacob,” c. 1640. Esau and Jacob ultimately were reconciled later in life.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

47 thoughts on “Why didn’t God give Esau back the blessing that Jacob stole?”

    1. Well, I am grateful having had such an explanation though it makes it certain our God is a God of authority and choices, no matter what nothing changes his choices.
      Thank you for your studied sharing

      1. Thank you very much for this. It not only makes great sense but also perfectly agrees with the mind of the author of the book of Genesis as he narrates the story.

    2. I think Jacob gets a bad rap. Esau was a big, dumb oaf, of whom came the Caananites, who God foresaw what kind of people Esau would produce. Esau SOLD his birthright for a lousy bowl of lentils. Interesting how God allowed Jacob and his mother to trick Jacob’s father, but more than one of the patriarchs were untruthful…Abraham lying about Sarah being his wife…
      But it was obviously God’s will. Jacob is magnificent! One of the greatest in the Bible, and God was with him. I love the story of how God increased him with the speckled goats or sheep (?). He was used badly by that manipulative Laban, and loved Rachel so much ,served twice as long as he should have had to in order to marry her. What a love story! Jacob gets a bad rap. I think he was absolutely fabulous, and not the “trickster” people like to call him. Laban deserved nothing after his deceit. Laban was quite a despicable human being.
      Not so sure how worthy Rachel was of Jacob’s love though, having stolen an idol from her father.

      1. Have Godly wisdom because it enables you to judge a case righteously. You sang Jacob’s praises, not seeing anything wrong with his deceit, yet condemned Laban, who did the same thing. God promised that Jacob would rule over Esau, but Jacob moved with manipulation to cease it. Both brothers were flawed: one didn’t respect his own birthright; the other would not share a bowl of lentils with his own twin unless he gave up something as precious as a birthright.

    3. Jacob was a deciver and God at the garden punished the serpent but why was Jacob spared.
      Secondly God for told before they were born that the eldest one will serve the youngest one. Is God not partial

      1. God punished the serpent for leading the innocent first human pair into disobedience against God. The means the serpent used was deception. Jacob used deception for his own selfish ends and he did suffer much as a result, 20 years in exile. God’s sovereign choice of Jacob over Esau to continue the covenant line had to do with God’s plan of redemption. But God also blessed Esau; when Jacob returned and offered him flocks and herds, Esau told him, “I already have enough” (although he eventually accepted the gift). Their father Isaac blessed them both, and Isaac’s blessings on Esau came true.

      2. God is not partial Jacob came under the Covenant of Mercy God says ” I will have mercy on those I will have mercy on
        Inspite of the mercy of God that Jacob enjoyed He laboured hard for twenty years for the love of his life. David enjoyed the mercy of God he also suffered the consequences committing adultery with Berseba and killing Uriah
        God is merciful and also a consuming fire Avoid sinning because you may not enjoy same mercy

      1. Jacob continued to live in the land where Abraham and Isaac had lived, but Esau moved to Edom. The Bible explains, “Esau took his wives and sons and daughters and all the members of his household, as well as his livestock and all his other animals and all the goods he had acquired in Canaan, and moved to a land some distance from his brother Jacob. Their possessions were too great for them to remain together; the land where they were staying could not support them both because of their livestock. So Esau (that is, Edom) settled in the hill country of Seir.”

  1. After their reconciliation, was the yoke on Esau’s neck removed? Was he blessed by his hard works.?
    Also, before Jacob and Esau both died, who had the greater blessing?

    1. (1) The reconciliation, particularly since Jacob addresses Esau as “my lord,” may indeed be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Esau that “you will serve your brother. But . . . you will throw his yoke from off your neck.” (2) It’s possible that there was change in Esau as well as in Jacob to make this reconciliation possible, and that may have included Esau becoming harder-working than he’d been as a younger man. When Jacob offered Esau so many flocks and herds, Esau told him, ““I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.” (3) And so it seems that both men were “blessed” in the sense of having large families, material abundance, etc. But Jacob continued to have the spiritual blessing passed down from Abraham and Isaac.

      1. I’m not sure how useful it is to speculate what the case would have been if things that did happen had not happened. However, as I say in many places on this blog, I believe that God accomplishes his purposes by working with the free choices, both good and bad, that human moral agents make. God said when these twins were born that he had sovereignly chosen Jacob to continue the covenant line. In the best case scenario, Esau may have recognized and accepted this, and given Jacob his birthright.

  2. I just can’t seem to feel that Esau was treated right.i would read this over and over again until I hope and pray I get closure from this Thanks.

  3. The blessing was to go to Jacob according to God and not according to tradition. Issac was aware of that; however, it does not seem he was going to obey God in this situation. Everything came to pass as God had intended even if it was done in less than ideal circumstances. God knows everything that is in each person’s heart. Perhaps, had Esau not sold his birthright, Issac could have persuaded God to choose Esau instead. Either way, it didn’t happen that way.

    Jacob was a trickster with his father. I find that he eventually has the tables turned on him with Leah and Rachel. He works seven years for the youngest daughter Rachel. Her father agrees to the terms, but Jacob is tricked into marriage with the older daughter Leah.

    I guess I find his situation with his wives a little humorous for lack of a better word.

  4. from my understanding God had two blessings for both sons to be given trough their father. One of wealth and prosperity and the other is the one he promised to Abraham, that he will be a father of all. The first one was meant for Esau, and another for Jacob. Jacob was blessed with Esau’s blessing, yes, but the blessing had no effect on his life. For us he is the father of all, which means that one can never steal what God has promised or prepare for another. Thank you

    1. God has given us the freedom to make moral choices, but the purpose of that is for us to freely make good choices that honor God and bless other people. God will certainly be with us and help us when we make positive, beneficial choices. But stealing and other sins go contrary to the very purpose for which God gave us free choice, and so God would not be with us or help us in activities like those.

  5. Amen i celebrate God for all the exposition according to that story may u be blessed in Jesus name Amen

  6. i can’t get it all i know they both bless God bless the just and the unjust that’s the God we serve

  7. It seems the reason God did not reverse the blessing that Jacob deceived Isaac to receive was that this was in line with the prophecy God gave to Rebekah in Genesis 25:23,”… the older shall serve the younger.” The position of Esau serving Jacob did not occur in a manner honoring God but God used the deceitful actions of Isaac, Rebekah and Jacob as well as Esau’s disrespect of his birthright to fulfill His word and bring Himself glory.

  8. Hum? I, like the others above, was impressed with your understanding of this piece of history. My original quest was to understand why God told Saul to wipe every trace of the Amelakites from the face of the world. I thought that it was because they were decendants of Esau and that God favored Jacob,{perhaps because he was more reverent to God. So, you say, that God’s anger with the Amelakites was caused by the trouble that they caused Moses when he was trying to lead the Israelites to freedom in the Promised Land. Sounds reasonable but a little harsh. David drove the Philistines from what was to become Israel, possibly part of the Promised Land given to Moses in the Mosaic Covenant, but God didn’t order their extermination as opposed as they were to the Hebrew God. Supposedly, the Philistines respected, even feared the Hebrew God. They had their own God so they could not share the Hebrew belief. David simply drove them away. Why such godly hatrid towords the decendents of Esau?

    1. The Amalekites were not descendants of Esau. They were a different group not related to the Israelites. The Amalekites also did not live in the land of Canaan. They were desert marauders. So they should not be compared to any of the groups that the Israelites defeated in order to settle in the land of Canaan. In recent years we have unfortunately seen crowds of refugees seeking safety and security in new lands. Imagine if there was a group that attacked and killed the little children and frail elderly among these refugees to take what little clothing and possessions they had. We certainly would not want that group to stay in existence, whatever the fate of its individual members.

  9. it is a blessing to be apart of these critical minds. my kind regards to all that shared and most of all Christopher smith for your scholarly attitude and patient to read all our comments and respond to them amicably. God bless you so much.
    Thank you.

  10. Thank you for that outstanding explanation. Esau despised his birthright. He did not want the responsibility that came with being the firstborn. There’s so much in this explanation. Blessings to you.

  11. Thank you so much for your thorough explanation to this question. I have been pondering over the situation/ issues between the brothers but you did an excellent job in putting my mind at ease.

  12. Are we saying that God knowing the future made this promise that the older would serve the younger based on deception? I want to believe that God had another and better plan, but our human involvement interfered with God’s original plan. I think we as humans have altered God’s plans in many instances

    1. I believe God made a sovereign choice of Jacob, the younger brother, to carry on the covenant line, just as he sovereignly chose younger brothers such as Joseph and David to advance his purposes. But it was not necessary for that choice to be carried out by deception. I don’t think that was implicit in God’s plan. Please see this post for a further discussion of how and why God often chooses younger siblings in redemptive history: https://newcreationwomen.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/32/.

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