See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
The first case on record of sibling rivalry between twins in the Bible is the account of Esau and his brother, Jacob. Their rivalry practically began before they were born. Their mother, Rebekah, was barren until the Lord granted the prayers of her husband, Isaac, and she conceived (Genesis 25:21). According to Moses, 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. 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’” (vs. 22-23). When the twins were born, the first “came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob” (vs. 25-26). Moses then writes, “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob” (vs. 27-28). No doubt their parents’ favoritism deepened the rivalry and division between the brothers.
The biblical record continues: “Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!’ (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright now.’ Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me now.’ So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright” (vs. 29-34). It is this episode to which the Hebrew author refers in Hebrews 12:15-17.
Under Mosaic law, possession of the birthright entitled one to a double portion of the inheritance (Deut. 21:17). If this standard had been in place during Esau’s day, it would have caused him to become very wealthy. Several Bible scholars point out spiritual benefits that would come from owning the birthright as well, such as holding the office of patriarch and priest of the family. By giving the birthright to his brother, Esau showed a clear disregard for both spiritual wealth and a lack of foresight for his future. As Hebrews points out, even later when he wanted to receive the blessings that would come from the birthright, he was unable to receive them (Hebrews 12:17; cf. Genesis 27:34-38). To add insult to injury, he did all of this for a single bowl of stew. No wonder the Hebrew author called him “unholy!” Esau was one who had “set his mind on the things of the earth” rather than that which is “above” (Colossians 3:1-2).
This lack of spiritual prioritizing and foresight exemplified by Esau, along with other sins sexual immorality and any “root of bitterness,” can lead to one “fail(ing) to obtain the grace of God” (Hebrews 12:15-16). Sexual sins do not make one holy in the sight of God (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8). Indeed, they cause one to miss out on heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21). The “root of bitterness” is one of Satan’s favorite weapons. Esau felt extremely bitter towards Jacob, with that bitterness leading to a hate so intense it caused Esau to want to murder his brother (Genesis 27:41). Bitterness destroys peace and, as the Hebrew writer brings out, causes many to “become defiled” and thus not attain the holiness which God wants for us all (Hebrews 12:15). God’s grace is a wonderful blessing…but these kind of sins can keep us from it.