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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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E´sau (hairy, rough). The origin and meaning of the name are not quite free from ambiguity; Simon deriving it from a word signifying covered with hair; and some such reason as this implies, seems involved in the passage . Cruden, however, explains the name as meaning one who does, an actor or agent. His surname of Edom (red) was given him, it appears (), from the red pottage which he asked of Jacob. Esau was the eldest son of 'Isaac, Abraham's son' () by Rebekah, 'the daughter of Bethuel the Syrian of Padan-aram, the sister to Laban the Syrian.' The marriage remaining for some time (about 19 years: compare ; ) unproductive, Isaac entreated Jehovah, and she became pregnant. Led by peculiar feelings 'to inquire of Jehovah,' Rebekah was informed that she should give birth to twins, whose fate would be as diverse as their character, and, what in those days was stranger still, that the elder should serve the younger. On occasion of her delivery the child that was born first was 'red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau.' Immediately afterwards Jacob was born.

In process of time the different natural endowments of the two boys began to display their effects in dissimilar aptitudes and pursuits. While Jacob was led by his less robust make and quiet disposition to fulfill the duties of a shepherd's life, and pass his days in and around his tent, Esau was impelled by the ardor and lofty spirit which agitated his bosom, to seek in the toils, adventures, and perils of the chase, his occupation and sustenance; and, as is generally the case in natures like his, he gained high repute by his skill and daring.

A hunter's life is of necessity one of uncertainty as well as hardship; days pass in which the greatest vigilance and the most strenuous exertions may fail even to find, much less capture, game. Esau had on one occasion experienced such a disappointment, and, wearied with his unproductive efforts, exhausted for want of sustenance, and despairing of capturing any prey, he was fain to turn his steps to his father's house for succor in his extremity. On reaching home he found his brother enjoying a carefully prepared dish of pottage: attracted by the odor of which he besought Jacob to allow him to share in the meal. His brother saw the exigency in which Esau was, and determined not to let it pass unimproved. Accordingly he puts a price on the required food. Esau was the elder, and had in consequence immunities and privileges which were of high value. The surrender of these to himself Jacob makes the condition of his complying with Esau's petition. Urged by the cravings of hunger, alarmed even by the fear of instant death, Esau sold his birth-right to his younger brother, confirming the contract by the sanction of an oath. Jacob having thus got his price, supplied the famishing Esau with needful refreshments.

Arrived now at years of maturity, Esau, when 40 years of age, married two wives, Judith and Bashemath. Some unhappy feelings appear to have previously existed in the family; for while Esau was a favorite with his father, in consequence, it appears, of the presents of venison which the youth gave him, Jacob was regarded with special affection by the mother. These partialities, and their natural consequences in unamiable feelings, were increased and exaggerated by Esau's marriage. Even his father's preference of him may have been injuriously affected. The way was thus in some measure smoothed for the transference of the coveted birthright to the younger son.

The time for the fulfillment of the compact between the brothers at length arrived. Isaac is 'sick unto death.' His appetite, as well as his strength, having failed, is only to be gratified by provocatives. He desires some savory venison, and gives the requisite instructions to Esau, who accordingly proceeds in quest of it. On this Rebekah begins to feel that the critical time has come. If the hated Hittites are not to enter with her less favored son into possession of the family property, the sale of the birthright must now in some way be confirmed and consummated. One essential particular remained—the father's blessing. If this should be given to Esau, all hope was gone; for this, like our modern wills, would hand the inheritance and the accompanying headship of the tribe to Esau and his wives.

Isaac, however, had lost his sight—indeed, all his senses were dull and feeble. It was therefore not very difficult to pass off Jacob upon him as Esau. Rebekah takes her measures, and, notwithstanding Jacob's fears, succeeds. Isaac, indeed, is not without suspicion, but a falsehood comes to aid Jacob in his otherwise discreditable impersonation of Esau. The blessing is pronounced, and thus the coveted property and ascendancy are secured. The affectionate endearments which pass between the deceiver and the abused old blind father, stand in painful contrast with the base trickery by which mother and son had accomplished their end.

Esau, however, returns from the field, approaches his decrepit and sightless father, declaring who he is. 'And Isaac trembled very exceedingly, and said, Who? where is he that hath taken venison and brought it me, and I have eaten of all before thou camest, and have blessed him?—yea, and he shall be blessed.' On this Esau becomes agitated, and entreats a blessing for himself—'Bless me, even me also, O my father.' Urging this entreaty again and again, even with tears, Isaac at length said unto him, 'Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; and by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck' ().

Thus, deprived forever of his birthright, in virtue of the irrevocable blessing, Esau but too naturally conceived and entertained a hatred of Jacob, and even formed a resolution to seize the opportunity for slaying him, which the days of mourning consequent on the approaching decease of their father would be likely to afford. Words to this effect, which Esau let drop, were repeated to his mother, who thereupon prevailed on her younger son to flee to his uncle Laban, who lived in Haran, there to remain until time, with its usual effect, might have mitigated Esau's wrath. Meanwhile Esau had grown powerful in Idumaea, and when, after many years, Jacob intended to return within the borders of the Jordan, he feared lest his elder brother might intercept him on his way, to take revenge for former injuries. He accordingly sent messengers to Esau, in order, if possible, to disarm his wrath. Esau appears to have announced in reply, that he would proceed to meet his returning brother. When, therefore, Jacob was informed that Esau was on his way for this purpose with a band of four hundred men, he was greatly distressed, in fear of that hostility which his conscience told him he had done something to deserve. What then must have been his surprise when he saw Esau running with extended arms to greet and embrace him? and Esau 'fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept.' Jacob had prepared a present for Esau, hoping thus to conciliate his favor; but Esau at first courteously refused the gift—'I have enough, my brother, keep that thou hast unto thyself' (Genesis 33).

The whole of this rencontre serves to show that if Jacob had acquired riches, Esau had gained power and influence as well as property; and the homage which is paid to him indirectly, and by implication, on the part of Jacob, and directly, and in the most marked and respectful manner, by the females and children of Jacob's family, leads to the supposition that he had made himself supreme in the surrounding country of Idumaea.

Esau from this time appears but very little in the sacred narrative. He was ready to accompany Jacob, or to send with him an escort, probably for protection, but Jacob's fears and suspicions induced him to decline these friendly offers; and they separated on the same day that they met, after an interview in which Jacob's bearing is rather that of an inferior to his lord than that of a brother, and Esau's has all the generousness which a high nature feels in forgiving an injury and aiming to do good to the injurer. The latter, we are merely told, 'returned on his way to Seir' ().

Jacob and Esau appear together again at the funeral rites which were paid to their deceased father; but the book of Genesis furnishes no particulars of what took place.

Esau is once more presented to us (Genesis 36) in a genealogical table, in which a long line of illustrious descendants is referred to 'Esau, the father of the Edomites' ().





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Esau'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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