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Published Date: June 5, 2019

Published Date: June 5, 2019

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Jacob, Esau, and What It Means to Be a “Good Man”

Editor’s note: This is one of our Top 20 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy! 

Not too long ago, a Christian men’s group was established in my community. Its stated goal was to help men become “better men.” They planned to achieve this goal by providing men with opportunities for outdoor adventures and thought-provoking conversation. As the group was launching, I began to think more about masculinity and specifically what makes “a better man.” I wondered: what about all of the men who don’t get hyped at the prospect of camping, axe-throwing, or playing paintball? It seemed to me that if outdoor adventure is fundamental to becoming “better men,” those of us who enjoy cooking and volunteering in the church nursery miss the mark. Then, I read the story of Jacob and Esau.

Many of us are familiar with this tale. Genesis 25 is a story about the birth of twins. These two babies were in conflict with one another before they were even born. During her pregnancy, their mother, Rebecca, sensed the boys’ battle. Distraught, she sought answers from God who revealed that: “Two nations are in your womb, and two people from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Gen 25:23). It’s clear even from the beginning of the story that these two brothers are polar opposites.

Next, we learn the brothers’ names and some of their chief character traits. In Scripture, names are important. They not only reveal the circumstances of one’s birth but they’re often prophetic as well, anticipating who the child will become in the future. Verses 27-28 introduce the reader to Esau (the older brother) who would grow up to be a great hunter and a man of the open country. He was named “Esau” because he was exceptionally hairy when he was born.

Jacob, on the other hand, received his name because he was born grabbing the heel of his brother. He would be best known for deceiving his father to gain the blessing reserved for his older brother. His name, fittingly, means to “supplant, circumvent, assail, or overreach.”

Usually, interpreters peg the story of Jacob and Esau as primarily about the reversal of primogeniture – rights gained due to birth order. Scripture certainly illustrates God’s tendency to turn things upside-down and work in the most unexpected of ways. This is evident when Jacob, the younger brother, manages to steal his brother’s birthright and receive his father’s blessing. Jacob shouldn’t have been successful in any of these ventures, but he defied the social structure of the time and became a forefather to Jesus. Genesis 25 is a perfect embodiment of the oft-repeated Christian saying: God’s ways are not our ways.

This isn’t a bad interpretation, but it is by no means the only insight we can glean from the story. I think this story can also tell us something about what it means to be “good men.”

Jacob and Esau were two very different men. While Esau was known for his love of hunting and the open country, we’re told that Jacob preferred to stay home among the tents and help with household chores, including cooking.

If we compare our modern cultural definition of masculinity with the biblical description of each of these men, Esau was clearly the manlier of the two. He fits all of our modern masculine stereotypes—he was hairy (beard maintenance is all the rage these days); he loved to be outdoors; and he was a skilled hunter. Jacob preferred to stay home, help with the cooking and cleaning, and avoid getting his hands dirty. Based purely on this comparison, Esau is by far the “better man.”

But what if neither of these twins was the “better man”? What if we read this story through a different lens?

Jacob was not a model of godly character in his early years, nor was Esau. Despite one twin fitting our modern prescription for masculinity, neither was a “good man” or even a good person, really. But the story of these two brothers doesn’t end with them going their separate ways, along two very different paths. It ends with their reconciliation. I think there’s a beautiful lesson here.

Jacob and Esau competed, each seeking to outdo the other. It’s unlikely there was ever space for them to learn from each other because they were both trying get ahead, be accepted, gain the blessing of parents, etc. Similarly, men today compete with one another. Collectively, we judge who’s in and who’s out based on made-up parameters (like how much a man enjoys outdoor activities) and cultural stereotypes.

But what if—like Jacob and Esau—men with very different interests and natures could be reconciled to one another? What if, instead of narrowly defining what it means to be a good man and discrediting any man who falls outside of the lines of stereotypical masculinity, we embraced our differences? What if, rather than undermining each other, we sought to understand our unique passions?

We all have something to learn from one another. Some men could benefit from a lesson on how to change a tire. Others could contribute more to their families if they knew how to cook a tasty meal. Instead of getting stuck on gender roles and cultural prescriptions for masculinity and femininity, let’s focus on doing what we can with the gifts that we’ve been given. After all, God has a way of breathing new life into things, even archaic cultural fixtures.

I think the church’s passion for helping men become “better men” would likely be better served by encouraging men to become better humans and better Christians. Countless men feel ostracized in their own church communities because they’re more interested in the activities being hosted by the women’s ministry than they are in the “manly activities” offered for men.

Let’s change that. Let’s celebrate the diversity of men and all of our unique interests and characters. Let’s cast off narrow labels, and together focus on becoming better Christians and better people. And men: let’s be reconciled to one another—just as Jacob was to Esau.