Esau’s Apostasy and the Abrahamic Covenant

In Genesis 12 God initiates his three-fold covenant with Abram, promising him land, descendents, and a worldwide blessing. By Genesis 13 Abram and his wife left Lot and went to Haran where God once more promises land and descendents. In Genesis 15 God confirms His covenant with Abram by the sacrifice of three animals. Then in Genesis 17 Abram renews the covenant with God, changing his name to Abraham, as God promises a son through Sarah, who would be the beginning of his descendents. This is where the sign of the Abrahamic covenant is found—that circumcision would be given to males on the 8th day after their birth. Following this, in Genesis 22, is “God testing Abraham”—that is, the confirmation of the Abrahamic covenant through Abraham’s obedience in the binding of Isaac, as Moses writes in Genesis 22:16-18:

“By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

However, just like the other covenants mentioned so far, the Abrahamic covenant also has an apostate linked to it. As previously there was Cain and Ham, a major apostate would also come—though a bit later—after this covenant: Isaac’s son Esau. Although both of Isaacs’s sons seem to have issues during their days, it was Esau that took much for granted; including his father’s blessing, being part of the covenant, and his birthright. Because of this, he would live a life apart from the God of the covenant. In Genesis 25 Rebekah gives birth to twins: Esau and Jacob. There are two major events that take place relating to Esau’s apostasy. One is found in Genesis 25, after Esau comes in from his hunting; he takes some stew from the ever sly Jacob in exchange for his birthright. Due to this, Esau would lose his covenant blessing, and that would forever haunt his life. The second event is found two chapters later, in Genesis 27, when Jacob actually steals Esau’s birthright by lying to his elderly father. Esau’s apostasy lies in the second event more than the first, as he reacts by threatening to kill Jacob.  Although these events alone tell us very little as to whether or not Esau was an apostate, the New Testament gives a little more light on the life of Esau in relation to his soul.

Besides the above-mentioned verses in the book of Genesis and three other short notes of him throughout the Old Testament, Esau’s next important revelation, dealing with the covenant and apostasy, is in Malachi 1. Here, the prophet brings the sovereignty of God and His election into play relating with the apostates of the covenant. Malachi starts his book making mention of Esau, saying in 1:2-3, ““I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” Malachi’s theology saw that God had a plan for redemption that involved electing some to be part of His covenant in order that they may live in obedience to Him. Here Malachi shows that God’s love is in control and is in all ways unconditional; and it is God’s love that is a blessing to those that are in the covenant. This is seen throughout all of Israel, including through Abraham, Moses, and David. When Malachi says in verse three “Esau I have hated[1],” he does not mean that God does not bless him, but rather is referring to the fact that Esau awaits the judgment of God because he is not part of the covenant that was given to his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. Understanding this then brings to light that the God who comes into covenant with mankind has elected both those that come into that covenant and those that do not. Which brings an important question to surface: “Does the God of the covenant made with Adam, Noah, and Abraham elect those that would become apostates?”

Pauline theology answers exactly that question as it explains that God, even before the birth of Esau and Jacob, had planned what was to happen in and out of the covenant. Paul quotes Malachi in Romans 9:13-18:

“As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”

What does Pauline theology give us in this text that Malachi’s does not? Here in Romans, Paul shows that the love of God is rooted in Israel and His covenant made to them through Jacob and not Esau. Paul’s theology places more importance upon God’s election looking at the fact that it was not because of Jacob that his seed was chosen, but it was because of the plan of God. With this said, if Esau was not chosen, did God plan for Esau to be hated, to be hardened, and to be an apostate? The answer is both yes and no. No, God did not have Adam fall in Genesis 3 for all of mankind, which resulted in Esau’s fall; but yes, God did know and has allowed for covenant breakers to differ from Him and His will for humanity. However, God has allowed and planned that some of mankind fall into apostasy in order to make Himself known among His people in His covenant.

Esau is very importantly mentioned in the New Testament once more, in the book of Hebrews, where the author says in chapter 12:15-17:

“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.”

Here the writer focuses on the fact that Esau wanted to be part of the covenant and part of the blessing promised to Abraham in Genesis 22. However, by selling himself short he never gave himself a chance to repent, and therefore was led away into apostasy from the covenant that he had wanted so much, but couldn’t live under. Here the writer places Esau as the one who despised the covenant, never repenting once of his sin. Because of his hunger, he sold his soul to the devil and would never know the God of the covenant—the God that his brother, his father, and his grand farther knew. Even though Esau was born of the people of God, despising God only led to an unholy life of apostasy.


[1] Cf. on the usage of “hate” Ps. 5:5; Is. 61:8; Hos. 9:18; Amos 5:21; Mal. 2:16.

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