By Jason Herring
“Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; lest there be any person like Esau.” — Hebrews 12:15-16
Esau was the oldest son of Isaac and Rebekah. Born only moments before his twin brother, those seconds entitled him to patriarch status in a promised lineage of descendants that was only decades in the making. Esau couldn’t have been more different than his younger brother Jacob.
Jacob was a momma’s boy who grew up to be a mild man preferring the comfort of tent life. Favored by his father, Esau was a skillful hunter who preferred the outdoors. He craved his father’s approval, and nothing brought more accolades from his dad than when he brought home a fresh kill and made his father a meal from his wild game. The difference in appearance between the twins was striking as well. Esau was a hairy man. Jacob was smooth skinned. Esau was a man’s man. Jacob was not. Esau was also a ladies’ man who seemed to get around with the local women. Jacob was anything but.
There doesn’t seem to be much sibling rivalry between the two brothers growing up. Jacob never tried to outhunt his older brother, and Esau never competed for his mother’s affection. The rivalry would develop later over the family legacy. The boys both grew up hearing the same stories of how their grandfather had left the Ur of the Chaldees to live a nomadic life away from the comforts of civilization.
Isaac had the same visions that their grandfather had. They were the beginnings of a great nation through whom all other nations of the earth would be blessed. But Esau never quite saw it that way. The family tree was a sapling and Esau probably discounted the stories he heard as a kid as family folklore and legends. He didn’t seem to give much credence to these divine revelations, and it didn’t help that he preferred the company of the local pagans.
One afternoon after a long exhausting hunt, Esau returned home empty-handed. Famished, he was greeted by the smell of the red stew that his brother was preparing to go along with their evening meal. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of red stew and this transaction would mark his descendants as the nation of Edom, which means “red” from the stew that he so coveted. Esau embraced this name and it would burn for centuries like the fires that warmed his brother’s kettle. Like all blame-shifters, Esau refused to take responsibility for his actions.
Years passed and the young men grew up into middle age when it came time for their aging father to pass on the second most important inheritance: the family blessing. Once again, a bowl of stew becomes pivotal in the story as Jacob goes to his father disguised as his older brother with a bowl of his favorite meal. Unconvinced at first, Isaac interrogates his son, but as Jacob leaned in to kiss his father, Isaac smelled his clothes and decided that it was indeed his oldest and gave him the blessing of his father Abraham that had been passed on to him. The ruse worked. The prophecy given to the mother was fulfilled. Jacob would carry on the legacy of his father and grandfather, and the older would serve the younger.
When Esau returned from his hunt and learned what Jacob had done, he vowed that he would kill his brother as soon as his father passed away. Jacob fled to live with his uncle and twenty-one years passed before the brothers would see each other again. At their reunion, Esau pretended to forgive Jacob and move on from the past. But his forgiveness was only superficial and never penetrated the surface of appearance into the depths of his heart.
As Esau settled in his wilderness fortress near Mount Sier, Jacob lived in the Land of Canaan before eventually moving to Egypt. Over time, Jacob’s descendants would return to Canaan and build a mighty and prosperous kingdom. From across the way, Esau’s descendants would look at Israel in spite and envy. Those blessings belonged to them. That kingdom was rightfully theirs. Edom became the sworn enemies of Israel.
Seven of the Old Testament prophets prophesied judgment on Edom for their desire for vengeance. The prophet Obadiah informs us that when Jerusalem was besieged and ransacked by the armies of Babylon and the inhabitants of Judah were carried to captivity in Babylon, Edom not only refused to come to their aid; they rejoiced. The Edomites went into the city and took of the spoils of war, plundering the homes of their brothers who were now in exile. And it gets worse. They stationed guards at the crossroads to stop any Israelites trying to escape. The refugees were then returned to the Babylonians to show their solidarity with the empire and satiate their lust for vengeance. “For violence against your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you will be cut off forever,” the prophet would inscribe. The prophet Amos said:
Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, Because he pursued his brother with the sword, And cast off all pity; His anger tore perpetually, And he kept his wrath forever.” (Amos 1:11)
Their anger tore perpetually from generation to generation, and eventually, the unresolved anger brought forth wrath and the desire for vengeance. And it all started with a root of bitterness.
Our minds are like a lawn or garden which must be constantly attended to. Every summer I engage in the Battle of the Lawn. The sprinkler heads have to be checked, the lawn mowed and fertilized, and weeds pulled up and sprayed. It never ends. Dandelions are the worst. No matter how many times I spray and spread fertilizing granules that contain weed killer, they still manage to pop up – pesky little seeds brought in from the wind and birds and who knows what else.
Our mind works the same way. Past trauma lies buried deep within our brains, and we are hardwired to respond to verbal assaults no differently than we respond to the physical. This is why letting go is such a hard process that can take years. We can profess forgiveness and attempt to move on only to have latent feelings emerge at random moments like a dormant volcano turned active in our lives. You don’t even have to be thinking about it. You could be sitting in traffic or working out at the gym or watching a TV show when suddenly and inexplicably a memory pops into your head with all of the connected emotions.
Just like a weed.
A weed of bitterness allowed to take root will choke the life out of your carefully cultivated lawn and drain the nutrients from your garden, robbing you of its fruit. Like the dandelion, it looks pretty to the undiscerning eye, which is why kids will enthusiastically bound into the house with: “Look! I picked you flowers, Mommy!” Or they blow the dried florets over the lawn to watch them float like little parachutes not knowing that they are spreading the noxious weed all over the lawn. In immaturity, ignorance or indignation, we can do the same thing. We become attracted to the false bloom of bitterness and then spread the seeds across the landscape by rehearsing our narrative to everyone who will listen, including our children. And ultimately, we are left with desolation.
Esau never comprehended what his bitterness would produce in his descendants. His anger tore perpetually until it tore him and his descendants apart. When we cling to a narrative of bitterness and anger and pass that on to our children, it brings calamity and a curse. Bitterness is a toxic weed that will choke out the fruit of the Spirit and alienate us from the True Vine of which we are the branches.
Erwin Lutzer wrote: “Nursing an offense quite literally blinds us to our own faults, forces us to have skewed relationships, and warps our self-perceptions.” And it not only destroys relationships and our self-worth, unresolved anger has a devastating effect on our health. Studies show that it results in high blood pressure, heart problems, skin disorders, and can affect our digestive health. It weakens our immune system and leaves us vulnerable to a heart attack. Bitterness and unresolved anger damage the individual spiritually, mentally, physically and relationally, and it has generational consequences. And what makes this so hard, according to author Janis Abrahms Spring, is that “anger always feels justified.”
Just as our minds keep record of trauma and past hurts, we need to erect a reminder of forgiveness and our decision to move on. When Jacob had a falling out with his Uncle Laban, he erected a heap of stones (Galeed: heap of witness) to keep watch (Mizpah: watch) between the two families for peace. No such memorial existed between Esau and Jacob. Go to a craft or hobby store and buy a bag of rocks and glue them together in a stack like a kairn. Write Scripture references of forgiveness on the stones with a marker and place the memorial in a visible location as a reminder that you have forgiven “even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.”
Jason Herring is a husband to an amazing wife and father of five incredible kids. He enjoys hiking, mountain climbing and freelance writing in his spare time, but mostly spending time with his family. He has resided in Idaho for 20 years.