The Gospel of Esau

You know the feeling. You’ve set your New Year’s resolution to read through the Bible in one year and you’ve already hit the first of many road blocks. You’re tired, discouraged, and yet still excited to open up your Bible to get some biblical caffeine to jumpstart your day. Other than the Bible, there are multiple theology online courses than can feed you some knowledge.

But then your heart sinks.

Your Bible Reading Plan directs you to Genesis 36, a full 43 verses of little more than obscure, difficult-to-pronounce names like Oholibamah and Manahath.

Here’s a short section of the full chapter:

These are the generations of Esau the father of the Edomites in the hill country of Seir. These are the names of Esau’s sons: Eliphaz the son of Adah the wife of Esau, Reuel the son of Basemath the wife of Esau. The sons of Eliphaz were Teman, Omar, Zepho, Gatam, and Kenaz. (Timna was a concubine of Eliphaz, Esau’s son; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz.) These are the sons of Adah, Esau’s wife. These are the sons of Reuel: Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah. These are the sons of Basemath, Esau’s wife. These are the sons of Oholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon, Esau’s wife: she bore to Esau Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. These are the chiefs of the sons of Esau. The sons of Eliphaz the firstborn of Esau: the chiefs Teman, Omar, Zepho, Kenaz, Korah, Gatam, and Amalek; these are the chiefs of Eliphaz in the land of Edom; these are the sons of Adah. These are the sons of Reuel, Esau’s son: the chiefs Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah; these are the chiefs of Reuel in the land of Edom; these are the sons of Basemath, Esau’s wife. These are the sons of Oholibamah, Esau’s wife: the chiefs Jeush, Jalam, and Korah; these are the chiefs born of Oholibamah the daughter of Anah, Esau’s wife. These are the sons of Esau (that is, Edom), and these are their chiefs. (Gen 36:9-19 ESV)

What do we do with such passages? We can grit our teeth and skim through the chapter to check off the next box in our reading plan, or we can skip the chapter altogether. But how can we read this chapter in a way that echoes the heart of the Psalmist, who says, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps 119:97).

The Meaning of the Scriptures

In Luke 24:44-47, Jesus tells his disciples that “everything” in the Scriptures is about him:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luk 24:44 ESV)

This passage is astounding for its scope. Jesus includes here all the major sections of the Old Testament – The Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (wisdom literature). Surely, Jesus meant to include Genesis 36 in that list? If so, then in some way, Genesis 36 can teach us something about Jesus. As he continues in the passage:

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luk 24:46-48 ESV)

The central message of all of Scripture is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, but how can this be true of Genesis 36, a long list of obscure names that seems to say nothing about Jesus?

In Gen 36, we have a long genealogy of the descendants of Esau. If you read carefully, you’ll notice the author mentions several times that the descendants of Esau are related to “Edom” (10x in the chapter). This emphasis is key to understanding the purpose of the chapter and how it points to Jesus.

Who are the Edomites?

The Old Testament is a story about the nation of Israel. It’s about the birth of the nation, their entrance into Canaan, and the fall and rise of their kingdom. But Israel isn’t the only character in the story; God is of course the main character, but there are other characters, too.

In addition to Israel, there is one nation that shows up again and again. In fact, they are listed in every prophetic book in the OT as enemies of Israel – that’s the nation of Edom.

To us, Gen 36 might seem like nothing more than an obscure genealogy, but to Moses’ original audience and the Israelites of old, this list served as a record of the the Edomites, the sworn enemies of God. This list undoubtedly would have been read with feelings of bitterness, anger, and hate.

In the book of Exodus, the Edomites refuse to let Israel pass through their land on their way to Canaan. Instead, Israel has to take a very long detour around their country (Num 20:19). Edom is not mentioned again until they are defeated by King Saul, the king of Israel in 1 Samuel 14:47. King David defeats the Edomites again later in 2 Samuel/1 Kings.

Psalm 137 even records how the Edomites helped Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, plunder Jerusalem and slaughter the Judaeans, the people of Israel. The prophets also cry out against Edom (Isaiah 34:5-8) and speak of a day of great judgment coming upon them.

Strangers to the Covenants of Promise

Genesis 35, the previous chapter, also gives us a hint as to how we should read chapter 36. In Gen 35:11-12, God once again affirms his original promise to Abraham, now passed on to Jacob:

And God said to [Jacob], “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” (Gen 35:11-12 ESV)

This is the gospel message in seed form (Gal 3:8). It’s the covenant God made with Abraham, the “covenants of promise” mentioned in Eph 2:12. Jacob, the father of those who would inherit this gospel promise, is set in direct contrast with Esau, the father of those who would stand in opposition to God’s promise.

Our Place in the Story

One way then to look at how Gen 36 shows us the gospel is to realize that God’s purposes prevailed, despite the fact that Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, became the sworn enemies of Jacob’s descendants. Though this long list of Esau’s descendants in Gen 36 is impressive, the rest of the story tells us that Israel (and the entire world through her) overcame her enemies and received her long-awaited king – Jesus.

And yet this way of reading the passage only tells part of the story.

When we read this list of Esau’s descendants, which no doubt caused any Israelite’s blood to boil with anger and hate, we need to realize that we belong on this list.

Ephesians 2:12 says we were at one time “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” We did not follow God’s appointed king, Jesus, but like the Edomites, we were “following the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2). We were once “enemies” of God (Rom 5:10). We too were set against the promises of God and had no place in his inheritance.

“But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13). But now in Christ Jesus, you who were once enemies of God have become children of God. But now in Christ Jesus, you who were like the descendants of Esau have become descendants of Jacob by faith (Gal 3:7). But now in Christ Jesus, your names are not on this list, but are instead written forever in the Book of Life (Rev 3:5).

Even for the Edomites, there is gospel hope. They are only mentioned in the NT in Mark 3:8, where it says that “Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea (Greek for “Edom”) and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon…” The nations, including Edom, are flooding into the kingdom. Even Israel’s sworn enemies, the Edomites, are drawn to Jesus’ teaching!

So rejoice in the gospel today as you reflect on Genesis 36, a puzzling passage with rich layers of gospel significance. Rejoice knowing that you who were once an enemy of God have become an heir to his promises by the blood of Christ.

Mark Jeong

Mark was born in South Korea, but grew up in the humble state of New Jersey. Mark's passion is to grow in his love for God and his neighbor as he learns to read both the Bible and the world in light of each other. He and his wife currently reside in New York City.

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