"Esau's Descendants"
Genesis 36:1-43
August 8, 1999

Text Comment

As we have said before, Genesis is divided into ten "toledots." Toledot is the Hebrew word and it is variously translated "family record" or "family history" or "generations", or simply, perhaps too simply, as in the NIV, "account." The first of these toledots begins in Genesis 2:4, with the account of creation in Genesis 1 serving as a prologue to the entire book. The last of them begins in 37:2, the toledot of Jacob, which will be, as we have seen, not the story of Jacob but of his sons, as, for example, the toledot of Terah was about Abraham and the toledot of Isaac was about Jacob and Esau. A toledot is an account of one's descendants. The passage before us this morning is the ninth of these ten toledots. We will have the same word again in v. 9, but in this one instance in the Book of Genesis, this is a repetition not a new division or toledot.

A family history or a genealogy of Esau is expected here, in any case, because the genealogy of the rejected line is characteristically given first in Genesis. We have the genealogy of Cain in Genesis 4 and then of Seth in Genesis 5. Ishmael's toledot comes before that of Isaac. And, now, we have Esau's before Jacob's. In each case the genealogy of the rejected line is much shorter, mostly a list of names only.

v. 1 Esau has a national name just as Jacob does (Israel).

v. 8 This statement is balanced with 37:1 where we read that Jacob remained in the Promised Land. It is a deliberate contrast and shows us again, as we have seen in other ways before, that Esau did not have Jacob's taste for God's covenant; he didn't care about the things of God as his brother did. Esau moved out of the Promised Land without a thought and so moved out of salvation history. And he didn't move because there wasn't room for him. In 34:21 we learned that there was plenty of room. He could have found somewhere else to live within the Promised Land. The same attitude lying behind his decision about a place to live lay behind his decision to marry Canaanite women rather than women of the covenant family, as we have read in vv. 2-5.

v. 11 Did Job live in Edom in this early period? Note Eliphaz and Teman. There is an Eliphaz the Temanite among Job's three friends.

v. 12 Amalek would become Israel's sworn enemy.

v. 15 In vv. 15-19 the list of chiefs is almost identical to the list of sons already given.

v. 20 Once again you have a similar repetition. The sons are mentioned first. That they were also chiefs is mentioned in v. 21 and confirmed again in vv. 29-30. These Horite sons or chiefs were inhabitants of Seir that were not dispossessed by the sons of Esau but who remained in the land and eventually intermarried with Esau's descendants. In other words, vv. 9-19 give us the predominantly Edomite clans and 20-30 the predominantly Horite clans. Together they comprised the principle families of the nation of Edom.

v. 31 You will notice that in these verses that give us the Edomite kings, we do not have a father-son succession. The capital city regularly changes with the king. It is a situation more like what we find in the book of Judges.

v. 32 The interesting question is whether this Bela, son of Beor, is the same man as Balaam, son of Beor, whom we encounter in Numbers 22-24.

v. 40 In this case there is no overlap of names. These chiefs are not the same men as the kings already listed.

Now, my first instinct, as you may imagine, was to pass by this material altogether. What could be less interesting and less spiritually helpful than a genealogy? Aren't genealogies the standing joke about the dull parts of the Bible? Some of the commentaries, including one that I have found very valuable, did exactly that, brushed by chapter 36 with hardly a comment.

But I have been reminded many times over these past months in Genesis of the literary and theological sophistication of this first book of the Bible. Nothing is here by accident, nothing to no purpose. And more and more scholars have realized that and are helping us to see all that the author intended us to see in each succeeding paragraph of this great story of the beginning of the world and of the salvation of mankind.

When I was in seminary, a very different view of Genesis was abroad in scholarship. It was thought, building on the work of some 19th century Germans, that Genesis was a kind of patchwork, a variety of sources stitched together not always in a very skillful way. Chapters, it was thought, were quite easily broken down into what were thought to be their original parts -- this one from this source dating from this century, that one from some other source much later -- before the editor, whomever he was, rather clumsily stuck them together. If anything was said twice, for example, it was always a sign that the editor had simply stuck two different accounts together, and so on. Evangelical scholars wrote their books defending the unity of Genesis and attacking the theories that underlay this view of the origin of the book.

Thankfully, that patchwork view of Genesis is largely disappearing. Ironically, it has not been evangelical, Bible-believing scholarship, by and large, that has produced this change. But more and more scholars now realize that Genesis is a masterpiece of narrative art. They realize that the book is teaching the highest and deepest theology by means of its narrative. Further, they now see that, whether or not there are identifiable sources underlying the finished product, and no one ever denied that entirely, the final product is a remarkably cohesive, seamless, and sophisticated employment of those various sources to present theological truth in narrative form.

Nothing appears in this book that does not have a purpose. Every part of the narrative serves some important purpose. The book itself, from the general divisions to the specific details, reveals the hand of a master communicator as well as a practiced theologian. And that is all besides the fact that, as Christians have always believed and as we believe, the whole of this great piece of human literature and theological writing was the achievement not merely of the human author but of the Holy Spirit himself, superintending the process until what at last was written was precisely what God intended to say to the church and the world in this first and most important book of his Holy Scripture.

That fact ought to convince us that chapter 36 is worth our paying some attention to. It is worth our asking: Why is it here? What did the author of Genesis want to convey to us by this means? What truth for our lives are we to find in this account of Esau's descendants? And, as soon as the question is put that way, certain answers immediately begin to emerge.

1. For example, you remember that the Lord had promised Rebekah, before the birth of her twin sons, Esau and Jacob, that two nations were in her womb. Now we see that it was so. Jacob became the nation of Israel and Esau the nation of Edom. It isn't simply a family history, but a national history that we are given in chapter 36, the history of Edom.

2. That leads to a second point. The fact is, the genealogy takes us far beyond the time of Genesis itself. As verse 31 explicitly indicates, the genealogy stretches over a time that takes us up to the time of the Israelite kings, centuries after the time covered in Genesis itself. The developed structure of vv. 9-43 has suggested to many scholars that all of that material was a secondary insertion into an original narrative that ended at v. 8. Anyone can easily see that 36:8 would have naturally led directly to 37:1. Esau settling in Seir would have led immediately to the statement that Jacob remained in the Promised Land. What is more, 36:1-8 as the genealogy of Esau would be roughly parallel in size and scope to the genealogies already given of Cain and of Ishmael. Finally, the fact that the heading "This is the account or toledot of Esau" is repeated at v. 9 and that the material in 36:1-5 about Esau's wives and sons is also repeated in vv. 10-14 further suggests that 36:9-43 was a separate account, inserted as a whole, later, perhaps, the very last part of the Book of Genesis to be added to it.

Genesis, you may remember, is formally anonymous. No author is identified. No author of the first five books of the Bible is ever mentioned in those books themselves. We know that it is generally the work of Moses, for we are told that elsewhere in the Bible. But we know that there were later additions made after the time of Moses. The account of Moses' death and burial, for example, was not by Moses. And no one disputes this. The final form of the book may not have been reached until some time later, as v. 31 indicates, during the time of the Israelite kings.

By that time, of course, Israel and Edom had a long history of bitter rivalry and antagonism. They were not only two nations, they were two nations often at war with one another. Indeed, if vv. 9-43 were written during the days of David or Solomon, when Edom had been incorporated into the Israelite empire, it would be a further demonstration of the fact that, as God had promised, the older of Rebekah's two sons did, in fact, serve the younger. Remember, the original readers of the Book of Genesis, the readers for which the Book was first written were the citizens of the nation of Israel, who were being taught the origin and the meaning of their national history. They knew the nation of Edom as an ancient enemy.

3. But, clearly, there is a greater theological purpose in this genealogy than simply to demonstrate that God's promises had come true or to explain how the bitter relations between Israel and Edom had come about. For Edom and Israel do not simply represent two families, or even two nations. They represent, as Cain and Seth and Ishmael and Isaac before them, the only two peoples that exist in the world, the only two nations that have ever existed in this world: the kingdom of this world, of the devil, and of unbelief on the one hand, and the kingdom of our God and of his Christ on the other.

From the very beginning of the book, in chapter 4, we have seen this division of mankind into the communities of faith and unbelief. Already at the beginning of human history, right after the fall, men in rebellion are found seeking to build the city of man and men who have faith in God are found building his city in the world. The story of Genesis, and so the story of the world and all of its history as it unfolds, is, primarily, the story of God calling a people out of rebellious and fallen humanity to be his very own, bearing with that people through all of their ingratitude and disobedience, and using them to bring light and life to the rising generations until finally God's people as a whole will be regathered in the paradise from which they were driven by sin. But alongside of that story is its mirror-opposite, the story of the kingdom of man -- born in rebellion against God, marked by violence, pride, and, at last, futility. They build their towers of Babel, but always in the end, God frustrates their hope to find peace and life apart from him. They trouble the saints, they carry out their rebellion against God by seeking the harm of his kingdom and people and city. But God is seen, through it all, protecting his people and securing them in his salvation. This was, as you remember, the great theme of the toledot of Isaac, the story of Jacob and Esau.

Consequently, all through the book, the challenge of this divinely inspired author to his readers is this question, over and over again: to which line, to which nation, to which kingdom, to which people, do you belong? And though it puts it in the terms appropriate to its time -- Esau and Jacob; Edom and Israel -- the question is exactly the same today.

Think of this genealogy of Esau. It could be the genealogy of any nation at any time. It is the bare-bones history of a people, a nation, in the names of its most prominent citizens. Bela, or Jobab, or Hadad might just as well be Joseph Kennedy Sr. No doubt you saw, in your newspapers or newsmagazines, the various genealogies of the Kennedy family provided as background for the stories about the death of JFK Jr. Well, the Kennedy name will be found in America's genealogy just as Hadad's name was found in Edom's. But like those Edomite enemies soon it will be old news and then forgotten except by people who read the ancient history.

Like the Kennedy's, these families listed here in Genesis 36 no doubt had their stories to tell, their triumphs and their tragedies. There were young princes who turned out well and others who turned out badly. Some who lived to old age, others who died young. We know there were assassinations and intrigue. These families too had their followings and, like all great families before and after them, their sun rose and then set and, though they were the greatest conceivable news at the time in their land, they are remembered by almost no one. But not so Jacob and his family. His name will be hallowed forever; the names of his sons will be storied names until the end of time. This family history, Jacob's toledot, which begins at 37:2, has been read with eager interest and attention by generations of human beings who have read it, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether Eastern or Western, whether primitive or modern, have read it as their own family saga, their own personal story. No one thinks of Hadad or Jobab as his ancestor, his forebear. But multitudes upon multitudes of Christians think of Jacob and Joseph and Judah as the patriarchs of their own family tree.

And this division is made still clearer by the antagonism that existed between Edom and Israel when this part of Genesis was written, and so by the antagonism that has always existed between these two lines and these two peoples. It existed in the days before and after there were kings in Israel and it has existed ever since. The subsequent history of the two nations is dotted with fierce wars between Edom and Israel culminating in some of the bitterest denunciations in all of the prophets and some of the severest prayers for judgment upon the enemies of God to be found in the Bible.

      "Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. 'Tear it down,' they cried, 'tear it down to its foundations!'" [Psalm 137:7]

      "'The house of Jacob will be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame; the house of Esau will be stubble, and they will set it on fire and consume it. There will be no survivors from the house of Esau.' The Lord has spoken.'" [Obadiah 18]

      "'I have loved Jacob,' says the Lord, 'but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.'" [Malachi 1:2-3]

You know and I know that this antagonism still exists. It is, however, often papered over in silence. To any Christian, it had to be the single most noteworthy thing about the orgy of media attention devoted to the recent tragedy off Martha's Vineyard. The one question never raised, never mentioned, never even hinted at, was the only question of real importance to the author of Genesis. To what nation, to what people, to what kingdom, to what city, did these three young people belong? All of us who live must die, sooner or later. But do we live, did we live, as citizens of the city of man or the city of God? That is the question. That is why Genesis continually sets before us the existence of these two nations, these two peoples. We are always forgetting that this division exists. The media completely forgot, if it ever knew, and so missed the only story really important to tell about three young people who died in the prime of their lives. But, imagine the howl of protest, the hatred, the bitterness, if that question had been raised, if an effort had been made to discover if the three belonged to Edom or Israel.

And it is so easy to neglect this division and so much more comfortable to ignore the antagonism that exists between the two nations and peoples. After all, the generations come and go in Edom just as in Israel. There are good kings and bad kings in both places. We have seen over and again in Genesis so far that, in terms of outward behavior, often there is little to choose between the people of God and the people of the serpent. The lines are not easily drawn between the two peoples. There are people of the world who live undetected in the city of God. It is not always so, of course. Sometimes the line is or becomes very clear. The young man, the new Christian, whose wedding service I conducted Friday evening, turned to me shortly before we entered the church to say that over the last two days the line -- that was his term -- between the Christians and the non-Christians had become very obvious to him.

But all the while the author of Genesis, brilliant theologian as he is, forces upon us over and over again the recognition, however unwelcome, that everyone in the world belongs to one line or another, to one people or another, to one master or another, and, so, to one future or another -- to live in Eden remade and renewed, or forever to live outside of Eden, to live in the Promised Land or to live in the desert wastes of Edom among the Edomites. The world desires to unite all people in one kingdom, one family. It refuses to acknowledge the antithesis between the two very distinct and different peoples who in habit the world. The Bible, on the contrary, is forever reminding us of it! The world's philosophy is monistic; the Bible's dualistic.

I thought it revealing and very interesting that in the commemorative issue of Time magazine, the issue devoted to the life and death of JFK Jr. one had only to skim the "letters to the editor" section to be powerfully reminded of the depth of the division that exists, whether or not any attention is paid to it in the coverage of the main story.

"The ignorance and hatred of the 'good' Christians who are so disturbed over Wiccans in the military (or anywhere else) is much more frightening than the Wiccans and their beliefs or rituals. The scary thing is how much they substitute thumping the Bible for thinking, investigating truth and getting to know and love their neighbors" wrote one Steve Brudney of Trinidad, Calif. [July 26, 1999, 11]

There it is again, and a thousand times over in a single issue of a single magazine. Perspectives on life, on the meaning of life, so utterly at odds, so profoundly contradictory that there is no way to bridge the chasm between them.

But, then, there should be nothing surprising about that for a Christian and a reader of the Bible. It has been so from the very beginning of the human story. Cain had an utterly different view of God, of himself, and of the world than did Abel, Lamech had a perspective on life at polar opposites to that of Seth. The Bible does not deny that people of this world, that unbelieving people can be immensely gifted and sophisticated and, even in a certain narrow sense, admirable. The Bible tells us straight out that it was the descendants of Cain who were the fathers of animal husbandry, metallurgy, and musical instruments. No doubt, some of these men from Edom, whose names we read in Genesis 36, were gifted men, scientists, warriors, political geniuses, and the like.

And so it remains today. There is a new book by Richard Dawkins, the Oxford professor and high priest of atheism in our day. It purports to debunk the religious, what he calls the superstitious view of life, and to rebut the charge that atheism is a cold, dark, bleak, and hopeless view of life and the world. And it is a very learned book, a very clever book, without a doubt. Well written also. The argument of the book, Unweaving the Rainbow, is basically that science has revealed the basis of the wonders of nature that, heretofore, people thought had to be explained by the existence of a Creator of infinite power and genius: the sonar system bats use to see, the way a cricket's chirping is 'cunningly pitched and timed to be hard for vertebrate ears to locate but easy for female crickets, with their weathervane ears, to home in upon,' and so on. But, as one reviewer points out, "what people object to in Dawkins is not the science but the atheism. Because he cannot see the difference, he writes a book that is a 300 page non-sequitur." That is, it misses the point. No one denies that there is wonder in nature that science has disclosed or explained to some degree. What is denied is that we have nature to thank for that wonder, or science, and not the God who made all things with such beauty and perfection in them.

Dawkins is an Edomite and that explains everything. He doesn't know God, he doesn't know the Promised Land. He cannot see them. He has no taste for the life of God in the soul or the world to come. He has no fear of God. The Bible never says Edomites are stupid, even that they cannot be, in many ways, very impressive people. But, at the last, they belong to a people who are in rebellion against God and that lack of faith and submission to God colors and warps and twists everything they think, say, and do. So it has always been, so it will always be until the end of the world.

Chapter 36 of Genesis is a powerful reminder to us of what we are always tempted to forget or, at least, to neglect bearing much in mind. There are two peoples occupying this world, two and only two: the people of Edom and the people of the Promised Land, the people who live their lives in rebellion against God and the people who walk with God.

And you and I are to spend our lives faithful to this fact, careful to live as becomes the children of God, eager to draw those who are still in the world into the family of God before it is too late for them to get their names out of the list of Esau's descendants, and, above all else, grateful, always grateful beyond words, and demonstrating that gratitude in life and worship and service, that of all the people of the world, of all those people so many more clever, more gifted, more interesting, even outwardly more virtuous than I, God, my heavenly father, numbered me, me of all people, among the descendants of Jacob instead of the descendants of Esau. That God, the God of all grace, put into my heart, a desire to live with Christ in the Promised Land. There are a great many people, multitudes without number, who, like Esau, had an opportunity to live in that land and chose to go elsewhere. And I would have, and you would have as well, were it not for the grace and mercy of God. "Jacob have I loved; Esau have I hated."

Here is the great lesson of this long list of names. Read them one by one. Think of the lives they lived, the children they bore, the things they accomplished. Just like countless other human beings. And then remember: there, but for the grace of God, go I.


[Home]