Genesis 25:19-26 “The Birth of Jacob & Esau”

Posted on February 20, 2011. Filed under: Genesis: Answers to Life's Crucial Questions |

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bryan E. Walker

 Read Genesis 25:19-26

19 These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. 21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?”  So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you  shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the older shall serve the younger.”

24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob.  Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.


Introduction: This morning we shall begin by wrapping up last week’s overview of the Isaac toledoth, Gen. 25:19-35:29, then we will move into the first part of this exciting history of chosen family, 25:19-26. We will begin with a brief literary analysis of 25:19-28:9 which is the broader section this passage is a part of, then we will focus on the 8 verses that tell the story of the struggles Isaac and Rebekah had with barrenness, being pregnant with the twins, and the birth of Jacob and Esau. The main ideas that we gather from this text include: (1) perseverance in prayer, (2) the sovereign, electing will of God, and (3) we should expect trouble and division between the elect and the non-elect.

  1. I.                   Literary Analysis of Genesis 25:19-28:9
    1. A.     These are the generations of Isaac, v.19
      1. 1.      This is the 8th toledoth or book in Moses’ Genesis and extends from 25:19 to 35:29 and Isaac’s death.
      2. 2.      This verse begins the subsection of 25:19-28:9 which covers the period from the barrenness of Rebekah and the struggles of the twins to the departure of Jacob towards Padan-aram and the household of his uncle Laban.
      3. 3.      Moses uses an unusual construction with this toledoth. Wenham writes, p.174, “It is quite unusual for the toledot formula, ‘This is the family history of X,’ to be followed by a reference to X’s father; it is usually followed by a reference to X’ descendants. The retrospective reference to Abraham here and in 25:12 reminds the reader both of the drama surrounding Isaac’s birth and of the promises that will find fulfillment through him.”
    2. B.     Geographical Boundary- Canaan
      1. 1.      The action in 25:19-28:9 takes place in Canaan from Isaac’s marriage to the flight of Jacob.
      2. 2.      Moses gives us the bookends of the unit with mentioning Padan-aram in 25:20 as the home of Rebekah and in 28:5.
    3. C.     Conflict is the theme.
      1. 1.      This section is marked by the conflict between Jacob and Esau, beginning in Rebekah’s womb in 25:22, building up by the prophetic word received by Rebekah in 25:23, and the birth in 25:26. This conflict expands within the family by the favoritism by both parents shown in 25:28 and rapidly escalates in 25:29-34 and the selling of Esau’s birthright. In 26 there are some of the same conflicts with the Philistines that Abraham experienced: a conflict over a beautiful wife and a source of water. The final conflict is over the stolen blessing in ch. 27-28:5.
      2. 2.      The prophecy of 25:23 is fulfilled by the stolen blessing in 27 and Jacob’s flight in 28:1-5, “two peoples…divided”.
      3. 3.      The reference to Esau being a man of the field and Jacob being a quiet man foreshadows the events of ch.27.


  1. II.                Literary Analysis of Genesis 25:19-26
    1. A.     Structure
      1. 1.      The Age of Isaac is given in both vs.20 and 26, thus setting the bookends of this first story in the toledoth of Isaac.
      2. 2.      The Outline would be (1) Introduction to the toledoth, vs.19. (2) Isaac’s marriage at age 40 in vs.20. (3) Isaac’s intercession and God’s answer, vs.21. (4) The struggle in Rebekah’s womb, her prayer and the answering prophecy, vss.22-23. (5) The birth of the twins, vss. 24-26.
      3. 3.      There is a chiasmus with the prophecy of vs23 at the center, bracketed by the struggle of the twins in Rebekah’s womb in vs.22 and the birth struggle in 24-26. (Mathews, p.385). Or, as Ross develops it (p.436):

A Isaac’s age was 40, vs.20

   B Prayer for Barren Rebekah and prayer is answered, vs.21b

       C Rebekah conceives and the children struggle within her, 21c

           D Rebekah seeks the LORD, v.22

           D1 The LORD answers her, v.23

       C1 Her days to be delivered fulfilled, there were twins, v.24

   B1 Jacob and Esau contrasted in birth and appearance, 25-26a

A1 Isaac’s age was 60, v.26b

  1. B.     Foreshadowing
    1. 1.      The struggles between the twins in Rebekah’s womb points forward to all the other struggles through Jacob’s long life.
    2. C.     Back-referencing
      1. 1.      In vss.19-20 Moses links the present story with what he has told us before in chapters 22 (Nahor’s genealogy) and 24 (marriage of Isaac to Rebekah).
      2. 2.      Notice that “Abraham fathered Isaac” in v.19 but in v.13 it was, “Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s servant, bore to Abraham.”


  1. III.             Exposition of Genesis 25:19-26
    1. A.     Isaac’s Marriage, v.20
      1. 1.      Isaac was 40 years old when he took Rebekah, v.20. There is little doubt that Rebekah was but a teenager at the time of their marriage in ch.24. In our day and culture this raises definite issues of morality and appropriateness, but apparently not in their culture. These kinds of arranged marriages still exist in the Middle East among the muslims.
      2. 2.      Abraham is 140 years old at this point.
    2. B.     Isaac prays for Rebekah who is Barren, v.21
      1. 1.      “And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife”- How did Abraham and Sarah handle the problem? Yes, Abraham prayed to the LORD for a son, but ultimately they compromised and followed the culture by taking Hagar. Keep in mind that Abraham and Sarah were infertile for a much longer time that Isaac and Rebekah. But Moses is here probably drawing a contrast between Isaac and his father Abraham in order to show Isaac’s faithfulness here.
      2. 2.      The word for pray here is ‘atar, and is also used of Manoah for his wife’s barrenness in Judges 13:8, God answered his prayer and Samson was born. The word means to bring before the Lord a supplication, an earnest request, an entreaty, for a healing or alleviating a terrible situation.
      3. 3.      Mathews writes, p.385, “Unlike his parents, who chose a substitute wife, Isaac turned to prayer, perhaps spurred on by the heartache his family had experienced by giving Hagar to Abraham.”
      4. 4.      Isaac was the only monogamous man of the Patriarchs.
      5. 5.      Derek Kidner writes, p.151, “God’s way of prefacing an exceptional work with exceptional difficulties was often to take this form: such men as Joseph, Samson, and Samuel came into the world only after sorrow and prayer.”
      6. 6.      From vs. 26 we know that Rebekah was barren for 20 years. The implication is that Isaac prayed for twenty years as well. So here is a woman who has a husband who prays faithfully for her for 20 years, and the Lord answers the prayers. This is true perseverance and longsuffering. This is faith!
      7. 7.      As Isaac prayed for his wife, he very likely included God’s covenant with Abraham as a part of his prayer. Isaac knew that God had made a covenant with his father and that it included descendants who would become a nation. Isaac knew that HE himself was a miraculous answer to prayer. His praying was informed by the covenant and the miracle of his own birth.
      8. 8.      And the LORD granted his prayer– the LORD answered Isaac’s prayer for Rebekah with a healing miracle.
      9. 9.      Application: how many of us give up on a prayer project after a couple of weeks? We should commit to praying for some things for the rest of our lives, or until the Lord answers. Do you have a long term prayer project? Let’s take time to share some long term prayers!

10.  Application: And the LORD granted his prayer. God is a God who answers prayer. Can you give a testimony of some long term prayers that God has answered?

11.  Similarly, those who are born again are born in a miraculous way, by the work of the Holy Spirit. We should be praying for the lost to be saved every bit as earnestly as Isaac prayed for Rebekah to conceive.

  1. C.     The children struggled together, v.22
    1. 1.      The word used for struggled together is a harsh word in Hebrew, rasas, meaning to crush, abuse, and in this context it means “reciprocal blows occurred between the children” (Mathews, pp.386-387). Contrast this with John the Baptist leaping for joy in the womb of Elizabeth as the pregnant Mary came into her presence bearing Jesus in her womb in Lk.1:41.
    2. 2.      Wenham’s translation is, “The children smashed each other inside her” (p.171). “The verb ‘smash, crush’ is most frequently used figuratively of the oppression of the poor. Literally it is used to describe skulls being smashed (judges 9:53; Ps 74:14) or reeds being broken (e.g. Isa 36:6). The use of such a term here vividly indicates the violence of the struggle within Rebekah’s womb” (p.175).
    3. 3.      “Why is this happening to me?” Wenham translates it, “If it is like this, why am I here?” (p.171, 175). Apparently Rebekah’s pregnancy with twins was so difficult, violent even, that she was questioning whether it was worth it. Remember she had been barren for 19 yrs. and now she is so miserable that she basically wants to die, or is questioning her existence. In 27:46 Rebekah is so distraught over Esau’s Hittite wives that she says, “I loathe my life because of these Hittite women!”
    4. 4.      This situation introduces tension into the story. Here is a real human need that has already been intensified by Isaac and Rebekah knowing the promises given to Abraham by the LORD and being passed down to them, yet facing the obstacle of barrenness still. THEN, after years of praying, the miracle happens and she is pregnant, but the pregnancy is so difficult that she fears for her life and is utterly miserable in the midst of God’s sovereign will.
    5. 5.     Waltke, p.358, writes, “This anguished question spread across the pages of human history finds its answer in accepting that God’s wisdom and sovereignty stands behind all things (Rom.11:29-36) 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now  receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

  1. 6.      she went to inquire of the LORD- Rebekah sought the LORD’s will in this difficult pregnancy, probably at an altar her husband had constructed. I imagine that there were many nights when she could not sleep due to the babies inside her wrestling and kicking her. Ladies, you know the struggles she was having!
  2. 7.      Application: There are many times when we find ourselves absolutely in the middle of God’s will but are awash with uncertainty, fear, pain, and despair. Do we continue to seek the LORD and rest in him?
  3. 8.      This is the first part of the centerpiece of the text: Rebekah is seeking the LORD for an oracle and she will receive it. This is the main idea Moses is telling us is that here are Isaac and Rebekah, both praying and seeking the LORD for the fulfillment of the covenant and the meaning of the covenant. The covenant must be passed down through them as Isaac was the chosen son and Rebekah is his wife. But the struggle! Being in the covenant, the bearer of the covenant, is not easy.
  4. D.    Two nations…two peoples…shall be divided, vs.23-
    1. 1.      See Numbers 20:14ff; Deut.23:7f; Obadiah 10.
    2. 2.      This helps fulfill the promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations in 17:4-7.
    3. 3.      This prophecy explains ahead of time the story of conflict between Jacob and Esau, Israel and Edom.
    4. 4.      In Romans 9:10-3 Paul uses the conflict between Jacob and Esau in the womb to assist us in understanding God’s sovereign election. They were not born yet, and neither had done good or bad yet, but still God chose the younger over the eldest. Why? “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue.
    5. 5.      Ross writes, p.439, “By sovereign election, God declared that the promised line would belong to Jacob, the younger son. Jacob thus owed his supremacy not to natural order or to human will but to divine election. The theological motifs of creation and election thus figure prominently in the development of the chosen people of God.”
    6. 6.      Here once again we see the doctrines of God’s sovereignty, grace, election and predestination. You quite simply cannot look at the covenant with Abraham and the patriarchs in any other way, and thus, it sets the doctrinal tone for salvation throughout the whole of the Scriptures. The sinner in us complains, “It’s not fair!” But if you take the sovereign will and grace of God out of the picture what do you have? Blind chance? Fate? Power to the strong as in evolution? You either have a God-centered universe or a man-centered universe that is based upon blind fate, luck, chance. We know the Lord to be all-wise and loving. I will trust in the Lord’s sovereignty, not fate from an impersonal, self-created universe. Creation, God’s Sovereignty, and Grace come together in this prophecy, this oracle, to Rebekah about her twins.
    7. 7.      Did Rebekah share this oracle with her husband? I think so else how would it be passed down to Moses? Then we are faced with the fact that Isaac, came to love Esau more due to his hunting skills in direct opposition to what he knew was the Word of God! This ignoring of God’s Word, perhaps because it came to a woman, led Isaac to favoritism and put Rebekah on the defensive and led to her trying to “help the LORD” with her scheming later on in ch. 27.
    8. 8.      Application: when a family, a married couple, is not on the same sheet of music spiritually, there will be family strife. Family strife describes this family through the rest of Genesis.
    9. E.     “her days to give birth were completed…” vss.24-26
      1. 1.      “there were twins…” the oracle is true.
      2. 2.      “the first came out red…hairy” the first born came out all red and hairy so they named him Esau. Waltke says, p.358, “This symbolizes Esau’s animalish nature. The Hebrew word sounds like Seir, where Esau will live (see 32:3; 36:8).
      3. 3.      “holding Esau’s heel…Jacob” Jacob’s name, yaqob, is related to “El protects, recognizing the Lord’s sovereign election. However, the name in Hebrew is a pun with ‘aqab, meaningto seize someone by the heel, from behind, in a treacherous manner, to betray. Jacob lived his life in a manner that would prove the latter, until God changed him.


Conclusion: Here we see that the Covenant is always, ultimately in God’s hands as he is proven to be Sovereign and Gracious. Those in the covenant must exercise faith by seeking the Lord and trusting in him for the answers to life’s crucial questions in difficult times. Inside the family of the covenant are those who are not redeemed, right alongside those who are redeemed much like Jesus’ parable of the tares in Matt.13:24-30. The Kingdom of God is being born, is growing, and it continues to be a struggle and a controversy within the Church, the Covenant Community, and with those outside.


Hamilton, Victor P. New International Commentary on the Old Testament, The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI., 1995 (pp.173-179).

Kidner, Derek. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Genesis: an Introduction and Commentary. Inter-Varsity Press: Downers Grove, ILL. 1967 (pp.150-152).

Mathews, Kenneth A. The New American Commentary,vol.1B Genesis 11:27-50:26. 2005 (pp.365-390.)

Ross, Allen P. Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, MI. 1996 (pp.433-443).

Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis: A Commentary. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI 1991 (pp. 354-360).

Wenham, Gordon J. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 2, Genesis 16-50. Word Books: Dallas, TX 1994 (pp.170-181).


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