Reselling the Birthright
Biblical Historical Studies: The Biblical Covenants
"To Esau religion came to mean nothing; to Jacob everything."
In the Scriptures we are presented with the story of Esau selling both his birthright and blessing to his brother Jacob. Although Esau's sale of his birthright is given only in a brief account, allotted only 94 words in the Hebrew text (Gen. 25:27-34), it was an event of major significance in biblical history. Through his act, all of the wonderful and important covenant promises were "in one fell swoop" transferred for all time directly from Esau's descendants, the Edomites, to Jacob's Israelite posterity.
What happened to these Edomites (Greek, "Idumeans")? Funk and Wagnall's Jewish Encyclopedia (V:41), has documented the absorption of Edom into Jewry a century before the arrival of Yahushuah. The Edomites were "subdued by John Hyrcanus (c. 125 B.C.), by whom they were forced to observe Jewish rites and laws. They were then incorporated with the Jewish nation." Similarly, the Messianic "Jewish New Testament Commentary" (David H. Stern) says, "in the second century B.C.E. the Idumeans were forcibly converted to Judaism." (p. 70) Today, modern Judaism is more and more reverting back to an Esau-like attitude of casting off their religious heritage, and is suffering religious decay as a result. An article in Detroit Jewish News (8-4-2011) reported, "rising levels of secularism that...stands to bring Reform and Conservative Judaism to a state of obsolescence" (p.26). The article referred to a widespread problem of "general discontent with and resulting departure from Jewish life."
A more recent article in Jewish News lamented the closing of the last Jewish Conservative Synagogue in Wayne County, Michigan, at the end of October, 2011. The reason given was that the congregation's members were all growing old and younger Jewish people were not supporting the synagogue or coming to worship. The motivation for this attitude of Jewish youth is not hard to understand. Much of Judaism today emphasizes liberal social and political action rather than worship and torah observance. The popular maxim within Judaism is "tikkun olam," a Hebrew phrase meaning, "repair the world." The problem is that this "repair work" is accomplished as a secular pursuit entirely outside of Elohim's Word or congregational worship.
The seeds of this secularization of Judaism were planted over a century ago. Well-known Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk, considered the greatest Jewish Talmudist of the 19th century, defined their task as, "To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor." This agenda, although full of high aspiration, is entirely secular and extra-biblical in content. One might also say that it is an innovation with no real grounding in historic biblical teaching and commandments, or even ancient religious tradition. It is an entirely new secular tradition in the making. Rabbi Eric Yoffie has complained of a Jewish secularization that is "a total misunderstanding of what Judaism is about." (Detroit Jewish News, 8-11-2011) Others have warned that social justice is "a secular pursuit meant to compensate for the absence of 'God-based' Jewish experience." (ibid.)
Could all of this relate back to Father Esau? Remember that Esau, having callously tossed away his religious birthright, pleaded with Isaac for another blessing to replace it. Isaac relented, but Esau was left with what Professor George Robinson, in his classic book on Edom, termed, "a second-rate blessing." (The Sarcophagus of an Ancient Civilization, p.313) We read about this "Edomite prophetic blessing" in Genesis chapter 27: "And Esau said unto his father, Hast thou but one blessing, my father? bless me, even me also, O my father. And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept. And Isaac his father answered and 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." (Verses 38-40)
Professor Robinson pointed out, "Indeed the name of the deity does not occur in it. The silent implication is that Esau will enjoy God's gifts without God." (p.313) Do we see this being fulfilled in our day in the secularization growing within modern Judaism? As Rabbi Joel Alperson warns, "If Jews continue to prioritize these social/political efforts over proven religious practices; we must have the courage to acknowledge that we have substituted all these secular causes for Judaism." (Detroit Jewish News, 8-4-2011, p.26)
In Hebrews 12:16 we are told that Esau was a "profane" man. Today when we hear the word, profane, we think of someone uncouth who uses a lot of swear words and "blue language." Yet this is not the meaning the Bible intends to convey. Professor Robinson says, "Esau was a 'profane man', that is, secular, not blasphemous...The Greek word means 'that which may be trodden', being applied by ancients to public ground outside sacred enclosures; hence, as our English word, 'profane' etymologically suggests, that which is 'in front of the fane', or temple; in other words, territory unconsecrated and unfenced...To Esau religion came to mean nothing; to Jacob everything." (p.306) Professor Robinson perhaps sums up Esau best by saying, "He was a genuine heathen at heart, for in despising his birthright he was despising God." (ibid. p.310) How ironic that this professor also then remarks concerning Esau's casting off the birthright: "What a tragic foreshadowing of the future!" (p.313)
Judaism has historically recognized the loss of Esau's birthright as of eternal religious significance. According to ancient Jewish legend, Abraham died on the day that Esau sold his birthright. Perhaps this legend intended to convey the idea that it was the utter shock and dismay accompanying the casting off of the birthright that sent Abraham, father of the faithful, to his grave.
Personally, we should feel much of the same shock and dismay at reading the plethora of articles on the world-wide-web that demean and belittle the idea that we, the faithful Messianic believers, could have any part in the inheritance of these Biblical covenants. The claim is often made that when accepting Yahushuah as Messiah, one is no longer Jewish and thereby loses all claim to the covenants! Yet the New Testament affirms instead that all believers in Yahushuah are "grafted in" to the stock of Israel (Rom. 11:17-23) and are "heirs of the promise" (Gal. 3:29) When you consider it, there is, in fact, an "Esau attitude" among many of our believing brethren of the various denominations. It is as if they would wish to resell the birthright all over again, failing to learn from the lessons of history and loath to place any value at all upon what we have received. Recently, while witnessing to a Christian man concerning our Messianic message, I was met with the exclamation that "it is of no importance to be an Israelite." How much like Esau this is in spirit!
Christianity can only serve as good leaven in the world by having knowledge of our heritage and responsibilities as part of the election by grace. As Rabbi Joel Alperson aptly expressed it, "we must repair ourselves far more urgently than we must repair the world." Modern believers in Yahushuah should take note of this sage advice as well.