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 a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. 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 Scriptures 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 has an A.B. 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.

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