Question: Did Jacob steal, or cheat his brother Esau out of the birthright (Genesis 25: 29-34)?
Answer: The birthright consisted of special privileges to which the firstborn son was entitled in Bible times. Israel and the rest of the ancient world recognized this favored position of the firstborn male child. The birthright consisted of: (1) a double portion of the father’s estate upon his death (Deuteronomy 21: 17). For example, if the father had two sons, his estate would be divided into three portions, and the older son would receive two, etc.; (2) a special blessing from the father (Genesis 27: 27); and (3) leadership in the family upon the father’s death, or in his absence (Genesis 43: 33).
Esau, the older twin brother of Jacob, was entitled to the birthright. Many Bible teachers and others claim that Jacob stole or cheated Esau out of his birthright, but Hebrews 12: 16 tells us plainly that Esau “for one morsel of meat sold his birthright”; and Genesis 25: 33, 34 states clearly that he “sold his birthright unto Jacob” and bound the sale with an oath, for “Esau despised his birthright.”
An Ancient Oriental Custom
Archeologists and historians have shed much light on the duty of a firstborn to fast and the afterborn to feast on the birthday anniversary of a notable ancestor, especially one in which the bulk of his wealth was to be transmitted to a firstborn descendant. For a firstborn to feast on such an ancestral birthday anniversary was a renunciation of his birthright, while any younger brother who fasted in his place would thereby gain the birthright. Accordingly, Esau evidently asked Jacob to fast in his place on Abraham’s birthday anniversary, while Esau feasted in Jacob’s place, thus forfeiting the birthright!
Jacob knew of the great blessings of God’s Covenant that He had made with his grandfather Abraham. He appreciated the Covenant greatly and discerned that his brother Esau did not appreciate it, so he bought it from his brother at the latter’s own estimation of its value. Jacob, doubting Esau’s willingness to give up such a valuable birthright for such a poor return, said: “Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him” (Genesis 25: 33).
No wonder that God said in Romans 9: 13: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated [loved less; compare Deuteronomy 21: 15-17].” No wonder that Esau’s unbelief in God’s Oath-bound Covenant made God hate him – disapprove and disesteem him; and no wonder that Jacob’s faith and desire for God’s favor and blessing made God love him – approve and esteem him. In the light of this oriental custom, Jacob stands vindicated and Esau condemned, just as the Scriptures set forth the matter.