The relationship between the brothers Jacob and Esau is shot through with dramatic tension: manipulation and deceit, violence and forced separation, conflict and unexpected rapprochement. So it seems fair to ask: Where is God in all this? How do we recognize him in these often controversial and unsubtle human stories? Yet it is precisely on the stage of life that the Bible stages the drama of family relationships and the unexpected possibility of finding the face of God in the face of one’s brother (cf. Gen 33:10).
Struggling since the womb
The patriarch Isaac and his wife Rebecca cannot have children. After a long wait and much prayer, the Lord grants them offspring, the first recorded set of twins in biblical narrative. Rebecca’s pregnancy is difficult; in fact, the twins clash and wrestle in the womb (cf. Gen 25:22). Because of the troubled pregnancy, Rebecca consults the Lord, whose oracle presents an ambiguous and difficult to interpret response about the future of the twins, which can be translated either as “the older will serve the younger” or “the younger will serve the older” (Gen 25:23). This ambiguity will remain important for the events that follow, because the fraternal relationship will be marked not by solidarity but by competition and the desire for revenge, emotions fomented by their parents’ bias.
At birth, a portrait of the twins is presented that anticipates future events in the story and forms the reader’s impressions of the two characters: “The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment, so they named him Esau” (Gen 25:25).
The narrator offers a physical description of Esau, who has wild and animal-like features at birth. He is, in fact, a red and hirsute infant. The term “red,” used in the description, recalls “Edom,” a word that will recur a little later (cf. Gen 25:30) and refers to the nation that will be born of Esau, while the Hebrew word for “hairy” would sound like“Seir,” a place-name for the mountainous area where the inhabitants of Edom will settle (cf. Gen 33:16). Moreover, the child’s outward features anticipate what will happen later in the narrative. In fact, the epithet “red” also recalls that red soup for which Esau will sell his primogeniture (cf. Gen 25:30). Esau’s hairiness will inspire the stratagem of Rebecca, who will cover Jacob with a goat’s fleece so that old Isaac will identify him as the firstborn and accord him his blessing (cf. Gen 27).