One of the benefits of studying a book in the Bible as a whole piece is the ability to see its themes and aim. In the case of the Book of Hebrews, the writer was seeking to enjoin believers to lean into maturity. The road to maturity is fraught, as we all know, sometimes requiring grit and determination, sometimes patient endurance, sometimes humility and resilience.

The writer’s original Jewish audience was warmly familiar with their spiritual heritage in the Lord, with their scriptures and festivals, their temple and its practices, God’s promises to them, and the prophecies given to them. The writer drew from this rich treasury to teach on the new covenant made available through God the Son, Messiah, often called “the Word” in Greek, for He is the Living Word of God.

Our church has been studying this book for a number of months, and one week we contemplated the question, “Why does the writer of Hebrews use a reference to Esau at this point in the letter?”

Here is the passage:

“Continually pursue peace with everyone, and the sanctification without which no one will [ever] see the Lord.

“See to it that no one falls short of God’s grace,

“[see to it] that no root of resentment springs up and causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.

“[see to it] that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal.  For you know that later on, when he wanted [to regain title to] his inheritance of the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance [change of mind], even though he sought for it with [bitter] tears.”

Hebrews 12:14-17 (NRSV plus my translation)

We came up with some answers to that question, among them that

  • There was no way for Esau to repair what he had done, no chance to recall the choice he had made.
  • There was no way for Isaac to take the blessing back from Jacob, especially since It was God’s intention Jacob should have it.

But people kept thinking about the writer’s intentions, and one person drew back to view this book as a whole. Here are her insights:

The Book of Hebrews as a Whole

I read all of Hebrews in The Source New Testament translation …

… with my own related question “how is the writer using Old Testament narratives in all of Hebrews? 

It was so refreshing to be able to put aside the ways I have been taught “this verse in Hebrews teaches X,Y,Z theoretical doctrine.”

Pattern Within Hebrews

As I read through all of Hebrews, I felt like I saw this pattern emerge. The writer seems to in a way be shifting their way of looking at the whole of Old Testament Scriptures in order to help their readers continue to participate in God’s newest way of interacting with humans.

In Hebrews 1, Jesus is the one “who made all of the periods of time that exist”. 

In Hebrews 2, Jesus is one of Abraham’s descendants who paradoxically came before Abraham and also from Abraham.

In Hebrews 3 Jesus’ faithfulness can be understood through the life of Moses … and the story of Moses can be more deeply understood through the lens of Jesus.

In Hebrews 3-4, The writer of Hebrews defines unbelief with a story of the readers’ ethnic ancestors. The core problem was them sitting in the place of seeing if God measured “up” to THEIR standards. This after God had rescued them. They were unable to participate in the new way God wanted to have a relationship with them because they had not come to know God through what God had done for them. Instead, they expected to be able to interact with God according to what they learned about interacting with the gods in Egypt.

Jesus, the Living Word

Though Hebrews 4:12 is a favorite proof text to refer to the Bible (which did not exist at the time), the writer references Creation, Joshua, and David in this section. Hebrews opened with Jesus and creation through God’s Word.

God’s rest does not mean everything is finished and static.

God’s creating Word is still at work and God’s people still need to approach God.

But relating with God is now done through Jesus. This means that the readers of Hebrews are meant to learn a new way of relating to God—

  • Just like Abraham did,
  • Just like Moses did,
  • Just like Joshua did,
  • Just like David and the people did with the shift from tabernacle to temple.

This is what the people in the wilderness failed to do.

The readers of Hebrews have the epically hard task of learning a new way of relating to God by looking at the entire sacrificial system through the lens of Jesus, the Word of God who spoke through His life, death, and resurrection. It is faith that enables people to follow God when God makes a big shift. 

A Fresh Look at the Scriptures

The readers of Hebrews had to take a fresh look at their Scriptures, their stories, and their sacred rituals. They were the ones following God’s heart, by faith, with their shift away from the sacrificial system. The writer of Hebrews comforted the readers and affirmed that they were suffering for following God’s latest shift.  Comforted them that they served a God who would avenge the harms visited on them for following Jesus. (Deuteronomy 32)

Just as the writer of Hebrews had defined unbelief through an Old Testament narrative, now they define faith through a bunch of narratives more deeply interpreted through a specific lens. It is interesting to me that in this telling Sarah is lifted up as equal to Abraham in faith, and that many English translations obscure that. The narratives span all of the recorded history of God’s interaction with God’s people. 

To re-examine their entire ethnic and religious identity and expand their understanding of God and all of Scripture while experiencing persecution they could avoid by simply maintaining the status quo must have been incredibly painful and exhausting! 

God’s Education

I found it helpful that in The Source New Testament, it is translated as “God’s education” rather than “God’s discipline” in Hebrews 12. Also, the footnote points out that Hebrews 12:11 is literally “gymnastics training.” This makes so much sense leading into the second part of Hebrews 12, where the writer’s reference to Esau appears. There is a need to actively care for the parts that are exhausted (because of choosing faith and growth over unbelief in this context, not sin).

Without proper care, it seems like we as a community can turn God’s teaching, training work into crippling of people and serious damage.

Why Is Esau’s Story Here?

It also gave me a more satisfying answer to the question “why this Esau story here?” than any of the answers I heard during our study time.

Esau was godless and an idol worshipper from the beginning of his story to the end. What he regretted was his loss of position and prestige.

From an outside-of-the-people-of-God perspective, Esau ended up fine after Isaac refused to take back the blessing and give it to him. He prospered financially and his descendants became a major people group.

But from a faith perspective, Esau missed out on a relationship with God and being part of God’s kingdom work for restoration in the world. What powerful warning AND encouragement to the readers of Hebrews. Like Esau, the true fruit of their choice to follow God’s movement by faith or not would be seen well after their lives had ended. 

—Joy Rodriguez

Esau and Jacob | By Matthias Stom – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain

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