Did Jacob receiving the birthright have more advantages than disadvantages?

Q. Jacob receiving the birthright had more advantages than disadvantages. How far do you agree?

(This question is about the story of Jacob and Esau, which is found in Genesis 25–33.)

I think we feel there are disadvantages to Jacob receiving the birthright because of the way he obtained it, by cheating his brother Esau out of it and deceiving his father Isaac into giving him his blessing. It seems disadvantageous for God to allow someone who did such things to keep his ill-gotten gains.

In response, I would say that it was not necessary for Jacob to receive the birthright by these means. Rebekah, the mother of Esau and Jacob, could tell that Esau was a man of bad character, and she could have shared her concerns with their father Isaac and encouraged him directly to bless Jacob instead. Esau, for his part, does not seem to have been interested in the birthright, so Jacob didn’t necessarily have to take advantage of Esau’s venality and impulsiveness, bringing out the worst in him, to get it. Ideally, the two of them could also have spoken directly, with Jacob suggesting, “Look, I’m interested in this, while you’re interested in that, why don’t we both do what we’re interested in?”

If things had happened that way, I don’t think we would see many disadvantages in Jacob having the birthright. He was God’s choice to carry on the covenant line, and he ultimately proved to be a man of faith and character.

But as God works out his plan through the free choices, good and bad, of human moral agents, things are rarely as neat as they could be if people always made the best choices and brought out the best in one another. I am not so much disturbed by the way Jacob receives the birthright despite his cheating and deception as I am amazed at the way God is able to carry his purposes forward even as people act in immature and sinful ways.

In the end, even though Esau swore he would kill Jacob for what he did, the two were reconciled and Jacob made restitution. I think it would still have been better if everyone in the family had acted consistently in a godly and mature way. But to see what God was able to do even as all of them needed to learn and grow has advantages of its own. It certainly gives the rest of us hope that despite the brokenness and frailty of which we are only too aware, God can still bring the stories of our lives to beautiful conclusions.

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.

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