The birth of Esau and Jacob, as painted by Benjamin West

Esau (play /ˈsɔː/; Hebrew: עֵשָׂו; Standard Hebrew: Esav; Tiberian Hebrew: ʿĒśāw; ISO 259-3 ʕeśaw; Greek: Ἡσαῦ; "Hairy"[1] or "Rough"[2]), in the Hebrew Bible, is the oldest son of Isaac. He is mentioned in the Book of Genesis, and by the minor prophets, Obadiah[3] and Malachi.[4] The New Testament later references him in the Book of Romans[5] and the Book of Hebrews.[6]

Esau is the progenitor of the Edomites and the twin brother of Jacob, the patriarch of the Israelites.[7] Esau and Jacob were the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, and the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. Of the twins, Esau was the first to be born with Jacob following. Isaac was sixty years old and Rebekah is believed to have been much younger when the boys were born. The grandfather Abraham was supposedly still alive, being about 160 years old at that time.

Esau, a "son of the desert" became a hunter [1] who had "rough"[2] qualities that distinguished him from his twin brother. Jacob was a shy or simple man, depending on the translation of the Hebrew word "Tam" (which also means "relatively perfect man").[7] Throughout Genesis, Esau is frequently shown as being supplanted by his younger twin Jacob (Israel).[8]


Esau in Genesis

Birth of Esau

Genesis 25:25 narrates Esau's birth, "Now the first came forth, red all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau." In Hebrew, the name Esau means "hairy" (Heb: se’ir) a wordplay on Seir,[8] the region he settled in Edom after being 40 years of age where he became the progenitor of the Edomites. The name Edom is also attributed to Esau, meaning "red" (Heb: `admoni);[8] its location being a mountainous region abundandant with red rock.[citation needed] Genesis parallels his redness to the "red pottage" that he sold his birthright for.[1] (Genesis 25:30)


In Genesis, Esau returned to his brother Jacob being famished from the fields. He begged his twin brother to give him some "red pottage". (paralleling his nickname, Hebrew: אדום`Edom, meaning "Red". Jacob offered to give Esau a bowl of stew in exchange for his birthright (the right to be recognized as firstborn), and Esau agreed. Thus Jacob fairly buys/exchanges Esau's birthright.

In Genesis 27:1–40, Jacob uses deception, motivated by his mother Rebekah, to lay claim on his father Isaac's blessing that was inherently due to the firstborn, Esau.

In Genesis 27:5–7, Rebekah was listening while Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for venison to bring home, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, "Behold, I heard thy father speak to thy brother Esau, saying: 'Bring me venison and prepare a savory food, that I may eat, and bless thee before the Lord before my death.'" Rebekah then instructs Jacob in an elaborate deception through which Jacob pretends to be Esau, in order to steal from Esau Isaac's blessing and birthright—which in theory Esau had agreed to give to Jacob. As a result, Jacob becomes the spiritual leader of the family after Isaac's death and the heir of the promises of Abraham (Genesis 27:37).

Esau, naturally, is furious and vows to kill Jacob (Genesis 27:41). Once again Rebekah intervenes to save her youngest son Jacob from being murdered by her eldest son, Esau.

Therefore, at Rebekah's urging, Jacob flees to a distant land to work for a relative, Laban (Genesis 28:5). Jacob does not immediately receive his father's inheritance after the elaborate deception aimed at taking it from Esau. Jacob having fled for his life, leaves behind the wealth of Isaac's flocks and land and tents in Esau's hands. Jacob is forced to sleep out on the open ground and then work for wages as a servant in Laban's household. Jacob, who had deceived and cheated his brother, is in turn deceived and cheated by his relative Laban concerning Jacob's seven years of service (lacking money for a dowry) for the hand of Rachel, receiving Leah instead. However, despite Laban, Jacob eventually becomes so rich as to incite the envy of Laban and Laban's sons.

Francesco Hayez: Esau and Jacob reconcile (1844)

Genesis 32–33 tells of Jacob and Esau's eventual reconciliation. Esau showed forgiveness in spite of this bitter conflict. Jacob sends multiple waves of gifts to Esau as they approach each other in hopes of Esau sparing his life. Esau refuses the gifts, as he is now very wealthy and does not need them. Jacob never apologizes to Esau for his actions through the sending of these gifts. Jacob nevertheless bows down before Esau and insists on his receiving the gifts. (After this, God confirms his renaming of Jacob as "Israel".


Genesis 26:34–35 describes Esau's marriage at the age of forty to two Canaanite women: Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite. This arrangement grieved his parents.[9] Upon seeing that his brother was blessed and that his father rejected the union of a Canaanite, Esau went to the house of his uncle Ishmael and married his cousin,[10] Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, and sister of Nebajoth. Esau's family is again revisited in Genesis 36, this passage names two Canaanite wives; Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite and Aholibamah the daughter of Anah daughter of Zibeon the Hivite, and a third: Bashemath, Ishmael's daughter, sister of Nebajoth. Some scholars equate the three wives mentioned in Genesis 26 with those in Genesis 36[11][12]. Casting his lot with the Ishmaelite tribe, he was able to drive the Horites out of Mount Seir to settle in that region.[1]

Esau had five sons. (Genesis 36:4–5)

By Adah:

  1. Eliphaz

By Aholibamah:

  1. Jeush
  2. Jalam
  3. Korah

By Bashemath:

  1. Reuel

Other references

Minor prophet references

Esau was also known as Edom, the progenitor of the Edomites who were established to the south of the Israelites. They were an enemy nation of Israel.[13] The minor prophets, such as Obadiah, claim that the Edomites participated in the destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. Exactly how the Edomites participated is not clear. Psalm 137 ("By the waters of Babylon") suggests merely that Edom had encouraged the Babylonians: The Lord is asked to "remember against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said 'raze it, raze it to its foundations'" (Psalm 137: 7). But the prophecy of Obadiah insists on the literal "violence done" by Esau "unto your brother Jacob" when the Edomites "entered the gate of my people..., looted his goods..., stood at the parting of the ways to cut off the fugitive,... delivered up his survivors on his day of distress." (Obadiah 10, 13-14). By the intertestamental period, Edom had replaced Babylon as the nation that actually burned the Temple ("Thou hast also vowed to build thy temple, which the Edomites burned when Judah was laid waste by the Chaldees" [1 Esdras 45]).

New Testament references

Hebrews 12:15–16 depicts Esau as unspiritual for thoughtlessly throwing away his birthright.

Jewish tradition

Jewish commentaries have shed a negative view on Esau because of his rivalry with Jacob. He is considered to be a rebellious son who kept a double life until he was 15, when he sold his birthright to Jacob. According to the Talmud, the sale of the birthright took place immediately after Abraham died.[14] The Talmudic dating would give both Esau and Jacob an age of 15 at the time. It is also suggested that the death of Abraham on the same day was appropriate, so that he would not witness the demise of his grandson Esau. The lentils Jacob was cooking were meant for his father Isaac, because lentils are the traditional mourner's meal for Jews. Jacob coerced Esau to sell his birthright, because he knew that Esau was not sufficiently responsible to receive it.[citation needed]


In the Book of Jubilees, Esau's father, Isaac, compels Esau to swear not to attack or kill Jacob after Isaac has died. However, after the death of Isaac, the sons of Esau convince their father to lead them, and hired mercenaries, against Jacob in order to kill Jacob and his family and seize their wealth (especially the portion of Isaac's wealth that Isaac had left to Jacob upon his death). In the ensuing battle, then the brothers come and make peace.


  • Metzeger, Bruce M. (ed); Michael D. Coogan (ed.) (1993). The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-504645-5. 
  1. ^ a b c d Easton, M. Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (ISBN 1596059478, ISBN 9781596059474 ), 2006, p.236
  2. ^ a b Mandel, D. The Ultimate Who's Who in the Bible, (ISBN 0882703722, ISBN 9780882703725), 2007, p. 175
  3. ^ Obadiah 1:8-21
  4. ^ Malachi 1:2,3
  5. ^ Romans 9:13
  6. ^ Hebrews 11:20,12:16
  7. ^ a b Metzger & Coogan (1993). Oxford Companion to the Bible, pp. 191–2.
  8. ^ a b c Attridge & Meeks. The Harper Collins Study Bible, (ISBN 0060786841, ISBN 9780060786847 ), 2006, p. 40
  9. ^ Genesis 26:34-35
  10. ^ Mandel. Ultimate Who's Who, p. 176
  11. ^ Phillips. Exploring Genesis, p. 284
  12. ^ Jamieson-Fausset-Brown. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible
  13. ^ Peter Ackroyd, Exile and Restoration: A Study in Hebrew Thought of the Sixth Century B.C., 1968, p. 224.
  14. ^ Bava Batra 16b.

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