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The Book of Esau

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Feb 27, 2000

Genesis 36:1-43

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Genesis 36:1-43
The Book of Esau

If you have Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis 36. Tonight we come to the close of our study of the life of Jacob. Though Jacob still has a significant role to play in the history of God's dealings with his sons. The focus, however, of Genesis shifts hereafter to Joseph. And in our studies in the immediately preceding chapters of Genesis we have seen over and over that God is preparing Jacob to trust Him and to acknowledge Him alone. It's interesting that that preparation continues right up into Jacob's latter days. You know, you might think that, well, that preparation would be something that would take on very early in life and then Jacob would do something significant. But, the very fact of the matter is that God continues to work on Jacob even into the latter years of his life, not necessarily for some great thing that he needs to do in his latter years, but because He's growing him up into His own likeness by teaching him to trust in Him and to acknowledge Him alone.

Now back in chapter 35 verses 1 through 29, which we studied the last time we were together in this passage, we saw the communion and grace and sorrow of that passage. There were three communions and three funerals in that passage. God calls Jacob in that passage into a sweet communion with Him, and yet at the same time he suffers Deborah's death and Rachel's death and then Isaac's death at the end of the passage, so that this sweet communion with God in grace was also a school of sorrow to Jacob.

And we specifically saw two parts in that passage which emphasize God's grace in His dealings with Jacob with Israel in response to God's call finally Jacob completes his pilgrimage to Bethel. And then in the second half of the chapter we saw God complete the number of the twelve tribes. Jacob having fulfilled his house, his vow, journeys on to his father's house, and his own household is completed.

And then we come to Genesis 36. A passage filled with genealogy. And you’re going to need to read it tonight with the interest and the vigor and the excitement of a genealogist. It's seemingly unimportant, isn't it? When you look at it you wonder, what in the world were you thinking, Lord, when you asked Moses to write this down? But remember it's God's word, so let's listen attentively.

Genesis 36:1-43

Father, there's every reason to believe that few of us have even heard this passage read aloud. Certainly few of us have studied it in great detail, and yet you have something in Your word for Your people tonight. I pray that You would remind us again of just how inspired, and just how applicable Your word is even as we study this passage. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

Now after reading the passage you may be still be asking the question: Why in the world did God have Moses write down that long list of Esau's genealogy. But let me suggest to you that a closer look at this chapter reveals it to be surprisingly rich in teaching and significance. We could focus on a lot of things. Let me just say before we look at the passage itself and its main points that there are a number of textural problems. You will have noticed some switching of names between Esau's wives and scholars spend pages attempting to give some sort of explanation. The easiest explanation, the most plausible explanation is textural corruption in some of those cases. But that's another story for another day. If you’d like to follow up on that with me, I'd be happy to do a bible study with you on Genesis 36 and work through the textural difficulties. But I want to focus on three things tonight.

I. Moses reminds us here of the distinction between and brotherhood of Esau and Jacob.

The first thing I want you to see you’ll see in verses 1 through 8. In Genesis over and over before the main story moves on, Moses will recount the subsidiary or the collateral lines. In other words, before he goes on with the main line of the covenant, before he tells you about the descendants of Abraham in the line of Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, before he will go on with the main line, the covenant line, he will spend time telling you about the subsidiary or the parallel lines. And Moses reminds us here of the distinction between Esau and Jacob and their brotherhood. Even by the things that he recounts here in verses 1 through 8. Before Moses moves on to the story of Jacob's son Joseph, he pauses to recount the family of Esau, and that is wholly appropriate because Esau, never forget it, Esau was Isaac's first born. But in the scheme of things he would become peripheral to the center of that line of the covenant. That's it's always appropriate to come back and remember that first born in the nature of things. When you read this chapter, it might strike you as something that is somewhat dry, and you may ask yourself what's it doing in the Bible.

Let me suggest to you two or three things that come to mind immediately. First of all, why would God give all this in terms of the lines of Esau? Remember that Esau and the Edomites would play a very important role in the history of Israel, and Moses is preparing the people of God for that history even by recording this here in Genesis 36. Listen to what Derek Kidner says: "The brotherhood of Esau and Jacob living on the nations of Edom and Israel, is never forgotten in the Old Testament. This present chapter, with its painstaking detail, is a witness to this sense of kinship, which will later come to the surface in contexts of diplomacy, law and national feeling." And Alders goes on to say this: "After having recorded the death of Isaac at the close of chapter 35, the narrator, Moses, obviously intended to provide a brief sketch of Esau's descendants before preceding with his history of God's chosen people.

Did you know that the Herods were descended from Esau? Did you know that Edom, the descendants of Esau rejoiced in the initial destruction of Jerusalem, and that they were condemned for it by God through the prophets? And if Ameleck is the same Ameleck who is spoken of later in this book, he became one of Israel's bitterest enemies. So, for all these reasons it's perfectly appropriate for Moses to recount for us the role of Esau and the Edomites and to give us this genealogy. That's the first reason why it's significant.

Secondly, however, in the Old Testament and in the New, Esau becomes a representation of the reprobate. That is those who are hardened of heart against God, and who are excluded from his saving and loving plans. Esau was given great riches, but Esau was excluded from the covenant line. This is mentioned both in Malachi, chapter 1 verse 2. "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated." And that's repeated again in Romans, chapter 9, verse 13. And so we see in this passage a reminder that God Himself determines not simply the destinies of individuals, but even the destinies of nations in the descendants of Esau. Thirdly, this passage reminds us again. We've learned it already, but this passage reminds us again that even though God is sovereign, Esau acts freely in the decisions that he makes.

Did you notice the passage as we passed through that long list of genealogy, and we got to the end of verse 6, did you notice that it's Esau who chooses to do what? To live away from Jacob. Just like Ishmael chose to live away from Isaac. Esau freely chooses to marry a foreigner. Genesis 36, verses 6 through 8 recounts that. He freely chooses to leave Canaan in verse 6, and so even in this brief account we are reminded that though God is sovereign in His purposes, and Esau is hated and yet Esau freely chooses to leave the land of promise. And so this passage reminds us of and it instructs us in the doctrine of God's sovereign purposes and man's responsibility. God is sovereignly working out a plan in the life of Jacob and in his line. And He's sovereignly working out a plan for Esau, but those two plans are different. Esau does receive certain temporal blessings as this passage frankly emphasizes. But ultimately he is excluded from God's saving plan in the covenant, and he is excluded, we will see again in this passage, because of his own choices.

II. God's fulfillment of His promises to Esau.

Secondly, if you’ll look at verses 9 through 30, glance over those verses, and then again in verses 40 through 43. In those passages we have a long documentation of the proliferation of Esau's descendants and lands. And let me suggest to you that as you read that genealogy, what you see there is God's fulfillment of His promises to Esau. This passage emphasizes that God gave Esau descendants and children. He gave Esau leadership, rule and authority. He gave Esau lands, possessions and wealth. If you go back to Genesis 27, and I'd invite you to do that right now, go back to Genesis 27 and you remember that even after God had commanded Isaac to bless Jacob that Isaac craved to bless Esau. And so when Esau came to Isaac and begged his blessing, Isaac gave him this blessing. "Of the fertility of the earth shall be your dwelling." Genesis 27:39. "And of the dew of heaven above," and you remember we talked about the translational difficulty. Do you translate that as away from the fertility of the earth, or do you translate it of the dew of the earth. It's a participle there and you've got to figure out how to translate that. Do you translate it in a partative sense or do you translate it otherwise? At any rate, we said in light of what God says in Hebrews 11, it is clear that Isaac is not cursing Esau here. He wanted to bless him. He did his dead-level best to avoid God's command and bless Esau. So after the blessing to Jacob, Isaac does not turn around and curse his son. This is a blessing even though it's a different kind of blessing than he gave Jacob. "And by your sword you shall live and your brother you shall serve, but it shall come about when you become restless than you shall break his yoke from your neck."

Now turn over with me to Hebrews, chapter 11 because we're told there, Hebrews, chapter 11, verse 20 that by faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau. It doesn't say, by faith God blessed Jacob and cursed Esau, or that Isaac blessed Jacob and cursed Esau. By faith Isaac blessed both Jacob and Esau even regarding to the things to come.

Now it's very evident if you look at Genesis 27, verses 39 and 40, that God's blessings to Esau that are recorded here in Genesis 36 in terms of family, in terms of land, and in terms of rule, go far beyond the meager blessing that Isaac gave him. In other words, God was better to Esau than Isaac was in the blessing that he had pronounced on him. The emphasis of this section falls on the ownership and the influence held by the leading families of Edom. And you see that's what Esau wanted. He wanted children, he wanted wealth, he wanted land, he wanted authority, he wanted status, he wanted influence, and that is exactly what God gave him. He wanted earthly blessings and that is exactly what the Lord gave to him. That's why we so often quote that parable of the Greeks. They say, ‘whom the Gods would destroy, they answer their prayers.’ And Esau wanted earthly blessings, and God gave him exactly what he wanted. Esau had little regard for spiritual things. He indulged his sensual nature. You can even — if we were to study the names that he gave his children and that his children gave his children, almost every one of them are named after ornaments or named after earthy things. The names are very sensual, they are very earthly sorts of names that he gave to his children and that his grandchildren born. He failed to pass on his spiritual concerns to his own family. And we see in this passage that though Esau is blessed with temporal blessings, it is dangerous to judge the state of a person's soul by outward appearances. Listen to what Jim Boyd says: "If we were to judge the spiritual state of Esau and Jacob by the proportion to each of God's material blessings, we would call Esau the chosen, and we would say that Jacob had been passed by. But that is wrong."

Let me say that right here in the middle of this passage I think we have a thunderous argument against the health and wealth gospel. The idea that the one who is most favored by God will always be blessed most materially or the promise that by faith we can claim to have health and wealth to ourselves, and it's ours for the asking. Tell that to Jacob as he wanders in the desert while Esau reigns in the land of Seir. No, this passage right here is a warning against the falsity of the health and wealth gospel, and it's even a warning against the danger of affluence. Esau wanted earthly blessing, and he got it; and it was the ruin of his eternal soul. And that's a warning for us tonight.

III. God challenges Jacob's trust and warns against compromise.

Now one last thing that we see in this passage. In verses 31 through 39 God challenges Jacob's trust, and He warns us against compromise. Notice how verses 31 through 39 begin. Look at verse 31. Now these are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the sons of Israel. Let me suggest to you that that sentence and the paragraph that it introduces is simultaneously two things. First, it is a test of Jacob's faith. And secondly, it is an argument against our accommodating ourselves to the prevailing attitudes and desires of the culture.

Notice here in this one sentence the challenge to Jacob's faith. Now these are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the sons of Israel. Esau and Edom had kings and a land while Jacob and Israel were still wandering in the wilderness. What a challenge to Jacob and to Israel to believe the covenant promises. They had been told that they had been told that they were going to be a great nation. They were told that they were going to have a land. But here Esau is in his land, here Esau has dukes, he has chiefs, he has great family, wealth, power, influence and there are even kings in Edom. And Israel, meanwhile, is wondering in the wilderness imprisoned in Egypt and then wondering in the wilderness again for thirty years. All the while Edom has kings. Do you see the test to Jacob's faith? Once again God is forcing Jacob to trust in Him alone, to be faithful to his promises. If Jacob had walked by sight and not by faith, he would have said Lord you blessed Esau and not me. You've been good to Esau and not me.

But friends do we not have to live right at that point in our own Christian experience? Every one of us, don't we have to live right at that point? That's exactly what God is calling Jacob to do. Believe him, believe His promises, believe His word. Despite the fact that he looks and he sees his elder brother who supposedly is going to bow down to Him and call Him Lord; and his elder brother has kings in his land, and he's wondering in the desert.

Now we see a test of Jacob's faith here, a test of Jacob's trust in God. But we also see a warning against compromise. Do you see the implicit warning to the Israelites here? You remember Moses in Deuteronomy 17, verses 14 through 20, warned the children of Israel about getting a king for themselves. Turn there and look at that passage. Deuteronomy 17, verses 14 and following. "Moses warns when you enter the land which the Lord Your God gives you, and you possess it and you live on it, and you say I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me. You shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord Your God chooses." And he goes on to express what he's supposed to be like. And then look at verse 14. "Moreover he shall not multiply horses for himself." Verse 17: "He shall not multiply wives for himself." Verse 18: "It shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priest. And it shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life so that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen." Verse 20: "And that he may not turn aside from the commandments, from the right or to the left."

Now Moses is already setting in place safeguards for when the children of Israel appoint their own king. And of course those safeguards prove to be very important when we turn to I Samuel, chapter 8. Turn to I Samuel, chapter 8, verses 1 through 9. What do you find there? You find the people of Israel in the land after the days or in the days of the judges, and they have suffered invasion after invasion and then they decide, you know what, it would be great for us to have a king like the nations around us have kings. And it proves to be a vexation, doesn't it? Saul, the first king, forsaken by God. Then Solomon's sons. The kingdom is divided amongst them. All the kings in the northern kingdom are wicked. Half of the kings in the southern kingdom are wicked, and it proves to be a scourge on the people of God. And even David multiplies chariots, multiplies wives, and walks in some ways out of accord with God's law. And it becomes a curse on the people. And here's Moses pausing to say now by the way, friends, remember that your older brother, Edom, your older brother, Esau, was the first to have a king. Do you not see an implicit warning against compromise? An implicit warning for Israel not to look at what everybody else around them is doing and want to copy it.

And yet that is instinctive for us. You see it in your children. But mom, everybody's doing it. Then you get the classic response. Well, if they were jumping off a bridge would you do that, too? And that's exactly what God is saying to the Israelites here. Don't look at the people around you and decide oh, that's working, that's good, that's a great idea. Let's do it, too. He's warning us against the spirit of compromise.

And we must remember that in the church. Churches are often tempted to copy other churches because what they’re doing works, even if it's not what God says to do. And we must not be tempted to ape the culture around us, even the culture as it penetrates other churches.

Now this is a great passage, and there are many practical warnings for us. We must be warned against compromise, we must be ready to trust God, despite the evidence to the contrary. We must recognize that wealth in this life, not only is a great test, but sometimes is a trial which leads men to love the things of this life more than the things of eternity. And we must remember that God in His wisdom and providence has made a distinction between Jacob and Esau. It's not dependent upon anything in them, it's dependent upon His grace. And by His grace He chooses Jacob to be His man, and to be His line and the covenant head, and that makes all the difference in the rest of this book of Genesis. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for this passage, and we pray that You would teach us by Your word even in these words, these lists of family records, to walk by faith as opposed to sight; and to walk in accordance with Your word and Your command and not in accordance with the wisdom of the world. We ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen.

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