Descendants of Esau (Genesis 36)

Genesis 36 gives us the genealogy of Isaac's older son Esau. Esau spurned his birthright, but God did not forget him. He was still Jacob's brother.

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Genesis 36 gives us the genealogy of Isaac’s older son Esau.

Esau spurned his birthright, and never did he show any spiritual perception or interest. But God did not forget him. Esau was still the son of Isaac. He was still Jacob’s brother. He became the father of Israel’s “brother” nation, Edom.

For these reasons, and perhaps for others, the entire thirty-sixth chapter of Genesis is about Esau and his descendants. Remember what God had prophesied to Rebekah in Genesis 25:23a.

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated;

The phrase “these are the generations of…” occurs 8x in the Genesis 1-35. It appears twice in Genesis 36 in verse 1, and repeated again in verse 9. The two occurrences apply to the same man, Esau. The first account is the history of Esau when he was still living in Canaan, the land of promise. The second introduces Esau’s history when he is living in Seir.

I’m not going to read Genesis 36. I will likely mispronounce 80-90% of the names listed. This chapter lists the names of 70 people, 5 of whom are women.

I will summarize what I think is most significant about this chapter.

  • Just like with Ishmael and Isaac in Genesis 25, the son who is not the direct heir of God’s covenantal promises to Abraham appears first before the son who is the heir of that promise.
  • The genealogy in the first 5 verses is based on Esau’s two Canaanite wives, Adah and Oholibamah and his third wife Basemath who was Ishmael’s daughter.
    • Together, they have five children.
    • Notice that two of Esau’s wives had different names back in Genesis 26, but it’s likely one name was given in the Canaanite culture, and the second was given in the Hittite culture.
  • Esau took his family and settled in the hill country of Seir, or Edom (Deut. 2:4–6, 12, 22; Josh. 24:4).
    • According to 36:6, Esau separated from his brother Jacob because he did not think that the land of Canaan was able to support both of their clans.
    • Esau was insightful, taking steps to avoid conflict with Jacob.
    • Esau’s settling in Edom is paralleled with Jacob’s settling in Canaan (Genesis 37:1).
    • Jacob could settle in Canaan unhindered by the size of Esau’s family and herds, thus avoiding the need for them to separate as did Abraham and Lot (13:5–6).
  • If you don’t count Amalek who was a son of a concubine, Esau had 12 grandchildren resulting in twelve tribes.
    • We see this pattern of 12 descendants with Nahor (22:20–24), Ishmael (17:20; 25:13–16), and Jacob/Israel (35:23–26).
  • The list of chiefs in verses 15-18 among Esau’s descendants introduces each grandson as the chief of a clan.
    • This list is almost identical to the genealogy in verses 11–14
    • It is possible that these differences reflect changes in the standing of the tribes in Edom.
  • In verses 20-30, we read the genealogy of the three generations of Seir the Horite.
    • The sons of Seir the Horite were early inhabitants in Edom who were conquered by Esau as recorded in Deuteronomy 2:12.
    • We also read the story about Anah who was able to find water in such a dry region in verse 24.
  • In verses 31-39, we read about the 8 kings that reigned in Edom before Israel had its first king. According to Numbers 20:14, Edom had a king while Israel was still wandering in the wilderness.
  • Finally, in verses 40-43, we read another list of chiefs who trace their lineage back to Esau.

Esau was not the son of promise. Jacob was. Yet God prospered Esau and made him into the great nation of Edom, the strength of which is indicated by the lists of kings and chiefs in this chapter.

At the same time, remember that Esau did not prosper spiritually. His life was a long process of decline, and the nation he founded eventually became a special object of God’s judgment (described prophetically in the Book of Obadiah).

Hebrew 12:16-17 says, “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.”

In dramatic contrast to the expanding, powerful line of Esau, 37:1 notes that Jacob was dwelling in the land of Canaan still just a family. Jacob had a very late start.

If we were to only look at God’s material blessing at this juncture, we would call Esau the chosen and Jacob the one passed over. Remember that Jacob reunited with Esau with a fledgling family. Esau was accompanied by 400 armed men. It takes the entire 36th chapter to list Esau’s descendants. Jacob’s life was summarized in the first verse of Genesis 37.

But we would be wrong. God does not look on the outward appearance but on the heart, and in God’s evaluation as recorded in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, Esau was “unholy” (Heb. 12:16), while Jacob was a man of true faith (Heb. 11:21).

Let me briefly summarize what happens to Esau’s descendants, the Edomites after Genesis 36.

  • The Edomites prevented Israel’s passage in Numbers 20:14-21 even though Moses promised no harm and even offered to pay whatever water the Israelites drank.
  • David conquered Edom in 2 Samuel 8:13-14, and Edom was subject to Israel during the reign of David and Solomon.
  • After Solomon’s death, Edom remained under the control of Judah, though unattested until the time of Jehoshaphat.
  • Near the end of Jehoshaphat’s reign, Edom joined with other enemies of Judah for a raid on En-gedi (2 Chr. 20).
  • Edom successfully revolted against Jehoram (849–842), gaining freedom from Judah (2 Kgs. 8:20-22).
  • The book of Obadiah is almost exclusively addressing Edom, speaking of Edom’s sins and coming judgment. Jeremiah 49 does the same.
  • The end of Edom is shrouded in mystery. We know only that Edom lost its independence in the fifth century B.C., and from about 312 B.C. it was controlled by the Nabateans.

This concludes our look at Genesis 36.

In our next episode, we will begin our study of the life of Joseph, one of my favorite stories. So stay tuned.