After the death of Isaac in Gen 35:28, the writer of Genesis inserts a very clear demarcated section break surveying the genealogy of Esau (Gen 36) and Jacob (Gen 37). What is the point? What are we to make of it? Before we begin, we are reminded that we are to read Gen 36 in light of 2 Tim 3:16, fully recognising that it is Scripture breathed out by God, profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness.
(A) Esau's genealogy warns us against worldliness and calls us to holiness
The passage begins with Esau being referred to as Edom, and this is further repeated in verses 8, 19 and 43. The name of a person, become attached to the name of a group of people or nation. This was similar to Jacob, who was renamed as Israel, and this eventually became the name of a nation. Isaac has two sons, and from them come two different nations. This is important because it is the fulfilment of covenant promise to Abraham, where he was promised that his descendants would be abundant. As we read through this genealogy, we are to see that some of it comes to pass.
What can we learn? Simply, that God keeps his promises. Num 23:19 reminds us that "God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?". Do you know what other promises God has made?
The genealogy also offers us the following pieces of information about Esau (or Edom):
- His wives (Gen 36:2-5). He had 3 Canaanite wives (people of the land) and that did not please his parents and greatly grieved them (c.f. Gen 28:9). This was a man that married whomever he pleased whenever he wanted, clearly different from his father and Issac and brother Jacob.
- His place of residence (Gen 36:6-8). We are told that the land could not sustain his abundant possessions and livestock and he moved away to Seir, in the opposite direction from his brother and his father's home. Once more, we read of a man who acted largely based on the practical needs of the current situation. This confirms our deduction from earlier encounters that he did not believe in the covenant promise, which was also tied to the land. The pragmatics of his situation overrode the promise God made years ago.
- How Esau impacted his sons (Gen 36:9-14). His oldest son, Eliphaz, takes for himself a concubine. Like father like son. As Esau was, so was his son.
Verses 15 to 43 provide more lessons for us
- The people have grown to a sizeable population, and they have organised themselves into groups with chiefs (Gen 36:15-20)
- Some of the local chiefs in the land were not from his family, hinting at the complex relationship his family had with the people of the land (Gen 36:21-30).
- There were kings in the land, before Israel had any king. Gen 36 records for us king after king, and their deaths remind us that their reign was limited, because all human kings will die. Many of these kings were unable to hand over the throne to their family and the complicated web of kings highlight the unrest and instability in Edom.
What are we to make of these verses? Remember that genealogies serve to connect people (and the places they came from) and in this passage. Gen 36 clearly shows Esau's network and connections with the people around. Little asides like in verse 24 also serve to remind us that the Bible made sense to the original readers even though we struggle with the names and places today. But more importantly, we are reminded that an unholy life, a life not set apart for God, is a life of death. In Heb 12:16, the writer uses Esau as a warning against living an unholy life, and one that sought immediate gratification. When we read Gen 36, we are not to merely get caught up with the names and places. Rather, it should give us reason to consider what it means to live as God's people, not of the world, but living holy lives. Are we no different from the world or do we look just like the world? What changed when we became a Christian? How dies the gospel affect our decisions and actions?
(B) Esau's genealogy teaches us to look ahead to the judgment and salvation God has in store
The family of Esau (Edom) continued to play a hostile role to the people of Israel, constantly warring against them. One clear example of this is in the book of Obadiah. The book of Obadiah records for us the prophesy against the nation of Edom. At that point in history, the Israelites have been plundered by the Babylonians and taken into captivity. Edom, though they were related to Israel, did not help them but instead captured those that were fleeing Israel and turned them to Babylon.
Obadiah spoke honestly about God's judgment and destruction of Edom for their actions (Obadiah 1:15). Yet, this God who judges also promises restoration for Israel. He will bring them back and give them back their land. Elsewhere, we read of how he used people like Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah to preseve his people.
What does this mean for us? Kent Hughes puts Gen 36 and Obadiah in a larger context, in the bigger story of God's redemptive plans following from Gen 3:
“Some 500 years after Esau’s departure when Moses was leading Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, the Edomites refused the peaceful overtures of Moses and would not allow Israel to pass through their territories (c.f. Num 20:14-21). When Saul became king of Israel, he had to fight the Edomites (c.f. 1 Sam 14:47). King David subdued them for a time. The most infamous abuse came during Israel’s deportation to Babylonia when the Edomites blocked the crossroads…and delivered them back to the Babylonians (c.f. Oba 14)…And finally, the tragic poetry of redemptive history is this: it was an Edomite king, Herod the Great, who exterminated the babies of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill the King of kings (c.f. Matt 2). The ultimate sons of Esau and Jacob (Herod the King and Christ the King) testified to the significance of the path we take up.”
The family conflict between the sons of Isaac -- Jacob and Esau -- escalated into a war between nations, and eventually signified two paths and choices in life. From Obadiah, we are warned of the judgment that comes from an Edom-like path. But, also from Obadiah, we are also told of the promises of a Savior and refuge for those who escape.
Which path will we take today?
“For every generation, the challenge is the same – to see that there is more to life than a meal…or a party, or a movie, or an indulgence of some kind – to see, as Paul put it, that the “things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:18). The challenge is to “to seek the things that are above…not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:1-2). The challenge is to forego the lazy brain death that comes so easily to the young who ignore the teaching and preaching of God’s word – and to listen with all you have. Do not sell what God has given you through his word, your church and your family for a cheap pleasure.” *(Kent Hughes, Genesis Commentary)