When did Esau “break off the yoke” of Jacob?

Q. Isaac promised his son Esau that even though he had made his younger brother Jacob his “lord,” someday “you will throw his yoke from off your neck.” Did the yoke get broken off from Esau in the later episode when Jacob bowed down to Esau and called him “lord”? Was Esau saved?

As you suggest, I think it would be accurate to say that Jacob’s yoke was broken off Esau when Jacob returned from being away for 20 years and bowed down to Esau and called him “lord.” We may conclude this not just from the events of the narrative in Genesis, but from the very shape of the narrative itself. The episode in which Jacob cheats Esau out of his position as the family leader in their generation and the episode in which Jacob returns and makes restitution are parallel elements in an elaborate arrangement. Here is how I illustrate that in my study guide to Genesis. (You can read the study guide online or download it free at this link.) Note how episodes marked with the same letter balance each other:

A Jacob deceives his father and steals Esau’s blessing

B Jacob flees towards Harran and encounters God at Bethel

C Jacob arrives in Harran

D Laban deceives Jacob

E Jacob’s children are born

D Jacob deceives Laban

C Jacob leaves Harran

B Jacob returns towards Canaan and encounters God again

A Jacob returns Esau’s blessing and they are reconciled

So the narrative in Genesis is put together in such a way as to indicate that when Jacob came back home and returned Esau’s blessing, bowing down to him as his “lord,” that was a fulfillment of the promise that their father Isaac had made to Esau that he would eventually “throw off” the yoke of servitude to Jacob.

I talk more about how Jacob made restitution to Esau in this post.

As for whether Esau was saved, the Bible does not say specifically. I do not believe we should take Paul’s comments in Romans to mean that Esau was not saved. Paul is speaking specifically of which brother the covenant line would continue through, not of individual salvation, when he says that “in order that God’s purpose in election might stand,” Rebekah was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Paul also quotes the statement from Malachi, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” but we need to appreciate that the Hebrew language uses the term “hated” in contexts like this to refer to a son or wife who is not favored, by contrast with one who is favored. The meaning is, “I favored Jacob, but I did not favor Esau.”

So, we do not know for sure whether Esau was saved. But we might conclude from the fact that Esau did not attack Jacob when he returned, even though he had said earlier that he was going to kill Jacob, that Esau somehow found the motive and power to forgive, and so perhaps he had experienced God’s forgiveness himself.

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.

One thought on “When did Esau “break off the yoke” of Jacob?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.