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Michael Gowen

Esau – Success?

How will we use the gifts God has given to us? What will be remembered for in the way that we have used these gifts?

Photo: Matt Le (Unsplash, CC)

When David Cameron was told that the result of the Brexit referendum was definitely to Leave the EU, he is reported as remarking, “Every political life ends in failure.”

But what is failure and what is success? Mr Cameron is a very gifted and successful man: he has many strong personal qualities; he has a good wife and family and a beautiful house; he will earn more money from speaking engagements and non-executive directorships than he will ever be able to spend; and he has friends and contacts galore. Yet he will probably be forever remembered as the man who took Britain out of the EU. Whether that will be a badge or honour or a badge of shame, only time will tell.

Tony Blair, another ex-Prime Minister of Britain, has also been very much in the news recently, with the publication of the Chilcot Report on Britain’s involvement in the war in Iraq. Although the painstakingly researched conclusions of the report were highly critical of his government, he was not disposed to accept that he had been wrong in any way. He wanted to be a man of destiny; and he is – but not for the reasons that he wanted. Almost universally he is remembered in Britain, with emotions ranging from sadness to hatred, as the man who took the country into a futile war which has left 150,000 people dead, 1 million displaced and the world a lot less safer place. He too is a very gifted and rich man; but all the successes of his premiership are forgotten, overwhelmed by this one catastrophic failure.

Esau, the older son of Isaac and Rebekah, lived in a completely different era. He too was a highly successful man: when his brother Jacob wanted to give him a peace offering of 220 goats, 220 sheep, 30 camels, 50 cattle and 30 donkeys, he told him, “I already have plenty, my brother, Keep what you have for yourself” (Genesis 32:13-16, 33:9). Esau became the father of a vast number of tribes and rulers, so much so that they take up a whole chapter of the Bible (Genesis 36). This was a seriously rich, influential, powerful man; though not a greedy one.

But what is Esau remembered for? The New Testament actually warns us not to be like him because he was sexually immoral and godless, and sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son for a single meal (Hebrews 12:16). Not a word about his wealth, his descendants, his power. His sexual immorality and godlessness, which we catch glimpses of in the Old Testament narrative, overwhelmed all these positive things – so much so, that the territory where his descendants ruled, Edom, became a byword for godlessness and opposition to the purposes of God (e.g. Isaiah 34 & 63, Obadiah). How did it all go so wrong?

Gifted but lacking good character: that sums up the Bible’s assessment of Esau’s life. He was a great hunter, which was very important in those days; he seems to have been a very sociable person – his father Isaac preferred him to his brother; he was good at accumulating wealth, but material possessions did not seem to be particularly important to him. He was probably one of the first people you would invite to any party that you were holding, as he loved having a good time and would be the life and soul of the party.

But there was a fault line of sexual immorality and godlessness running through all this. Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure (Hebrews 13:4); yet Esau married two Canaanite women against his parents’ wishes (a serious moral lapse in those days), and then married a third wife (Genesis 26:34-35, 28:8-9). That verse in Hebrews goes on to say, God will judge the adulterers and all the sexually immoral people; and we see that judgment culminating in God’s devastating statement, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland” (Malachi 1:2-3).

God does not give his gifts to us because we have good moral character – if that were so, they would be rewards, not gifts. Indeed, if we look around us in the world today we see many people who are highly gifted and of dubious moral character – for example, in the criminal world electronic crime is becoming ever more sophisticated. It is moral character that guides the way in which we use the gifts that God has given to us. Just before the verse in the letter to the Hebrews where Esau’s life is assessed, we are told, Make every effort to be holy; without holiness, no one will see the Lord (12:14). Without good moral character, our gifts will not be used for God’s purposes, for if we do not see him he cannot guide us.

The chief priests and leaders of the Jews in Jesus’ day were highly gifted people – they could recite the whole Old Testament verbatim, whereas I struggle to learn one chapter of the Bible by heart! However, they had no sight of the living God, and they used their gifts to have Jesus crucified.

How will we use the gifts God has given to us? What will be remembered for in the way that we have used these gifts?




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Opinions expressed are those of their respective contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of Evangelical Focus.