Was Esau sexually immoral?

Like most of us, I sometimes get to reading the Scriptures so fast that I miss key evidences and clues to deeper meaning. When reading the Scriptures we ought to be like Crime Scene Investigators, who carefully comb over the evidence to determine exactly what the author was saying in his context and then to find out how it applies to us today. Recently, while reading Hebrews 12, I found a key piece of evidence that I have never taken to the lab to look at closer. In verse 16, Esau is referred to as “sexually immoral”. I stopped and thought about the story of Esau. I couldn’t think of a reference when he was accused of being sexually immoral. Where did this come from? What evidence is there for the author (preacher- since the book reads like a sermon, see A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, Hebrews by Gareth L. Cockerill) to call Esau sexually immoral?

The word that is used in Hebrews 12:16 to describe Esau is the Greek word pornos. This is the word from which we get our English word pornography. To study the life of Esau further, one needs to delve into the Genesis account of the story. We find the story of Esau in chapters 26-27. In the Genesis account, we find nothing that is an outright description of Esau as sexually immoral. It is important at this point to go back and look at the context of the Hebrews passage.

In the Hebrews passage, the preacher is trying to encourage his audience to stay on guard for their faith. They are becoming tired and worn down in their Christian walk. The first word of verse 14 is the strength of the following three verses. The first word is “strive” or “pursue” which is not a subjective understanding of the word but an objective one. This means that peace and holiness have already been given to them since they have been saved from sin. The word “strive” also strengthens the first word of verse 15 “see”. Here again in the Greek it is more obvious that the word means more than “see”, but it means “continually watch over one another”. The reason to watch over one another is so that the community doesn’t lose its identity. What identifies a Christian community? “Holiness” is the characteristic of a Christian community! The next three things to watch for are progressive: Continually watch that no one forfeits God’s grace, that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up, and that no one is sexually immoral or unholy. This is where Esau is contrasted to the audience, in that, we ought to be “holy”. The epitome of unholiness is Esau. Why?

There are two beliefs as to why Esau is called pornos. The first is the belief that several times in the Old Testament the metaphor of adultery is used for idolatry. Pagan worship often included some type of sexual immorality. Others say that Esau is called sexually immoral because he married two Hittite women (26:34) which brought bitterness to the family. I believe that it is a combination of the two and that they both point to Esau as an “apostate”. He is even called a proto-apostate. Like the metaphor used of adultery for idolatry, Esau gave up his first love. He was impulsive and motivated by selfishness, self-interest, self-will, materialism, and physical appetite. He became a bitter root in his family and they were forever broken as a unit. When he was deceived by Jacob, his brother, over their father Isaac’s blessing, he never repented of his sin of selling his birthright. He only wanted the blessing. Esau lived in the present and not in the future. The message here is “Don’t give up the eternal for the immediate”.

Why do you think that Esau was called “sexually immoral” in Hebrews 12:16? Let’s dialogue.

9 thoughts on “Was Esau sexually immoral?

  1. I enjoyed your commentary on that trouble passage in Hebrews 12. I tend to believe the writer is speaking in Metaphorical terms. It is very reminiscent of Old Testament Language, where one has been unfaithful to their first love. In this case, impulsive Esau is pornos because he chose to satisfy his temporal physical wants with Hittite women, stew and so on. Ultimately, this leads to “adultery,” Esau “needs” these things (wants) more than God; therefore, forsaking his first love. He is pronounced as immoral and godless.

    In addition, how do we apply this metaphor today in American culture? It is obvious that we live in a very consumer oriented culture, and it seems like daily we “sell our birth rites” for a new car, a cell phone, buckeyes football, and even NASCAR. How do we avoid the trap of becoming pornos in the eyes of God?

    Jedi Master

  2. Ron,
    Again, great post… and an interesting passage. I think you’ve done a great job answering your own question.

    I suspected from the beginning that his marriages to his Hittite wives might be the cause of the charges weighed against him.

    However, he lived before the Mosaic law was given, so there were no civil laws forbidding such marriages. I’m not sure how the charge of immorality could stick? Moreover, marrying a pagan was not equivalent to adultery was it? (I don’t know, maybe it was?)

    Perhaps the writer of Hebrews knew something we didn’t? Doesn’t Peter also describe Lot as “righteous man” where the Genesis account gives little impression of godliness?

    I wonder (and this is purely speculative–and probably wrong) if there were are any verbal or writen traditions about the lives of these men circulating within the Jewish community during the Early Church period that have since been lost? That’s probably a little over the top, but where else could the charge come from? Although, I think your first explanation is a sound answer. What did Cockrill say in his commentary?

  3. Doug,

    I think your “over the top” comment may not be so over the top. Peter, along with any other N.T. writer, didn’t possess secret knowledge of the lives of those in the O.T. Didn’t Peter read the same Scripture as you and I? Unless there was some informal oral tradition (or some “secret knowledge” from the Holy Spirit — now THAT’S a good conspiracy theory) how else would Peter know something about men that lived so long before his day that wasn’t recorded in the Scriptures?

    Back to the topic, I think Ron has done a superb job with this text. I think that as we skim across the text it would be easy to miss out on how heinous of a sin is was for Esau to sell his birthright. I agree with Doug, you have answered your own question quite well.

  4. dksthomp,
    Thank you for challenging me with your intellect and questions. I will look at some early church fathers tomorrow (7/6). I quickly want to refer to one point at this time and that is the issue of sin/paganism/culture/marriage practices. These are important issues, but why is it that in Genesis 26:35 it says that Esau’s marriage to these Hittite women made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah? There was obviously some kind of sin happening here even if it was disobedience to one’s parents.

  5. Jedi Master,
    Let’s have a duel just like in the movies–just don’t cut off my feet and leave to burn to ashes–metaphorically, of course!

    Seriously, I thought your commentary was good, and your application could preach in any church–but I wondered why you believe the Hebrews writer is speaking metaphorically? If he is why use “adultery” as a metaphor? Particularly when Ron quotes the text as saying he was “sexually immoral” (emphasis on sexually). It seems to specific to be metaphorical. Since I’m just itching for a good debate here let me sign off as…
    Anonymous Q

  6. Anonymous Quelle,

    I would suggest you dust off your Greek New Testament and examine the text closely using your inductive methods. After some initial research, you quickly learn that most common rendering of pornos is an “immoral person.” We must be careful not attach our American understanding of pornography to the meaning of this word. Immorality is much larger than simply the sexual. An immoral person can be one who habitually lies or cheats on exams.

    Now, am I saying that Esau was a sexually moral person? No. In the Genesis account, we know very little in regard to his sexuality, but we do know that he put his physical appetites before everything else – even His God! He cheated on his first love (God) with these other things (food, Hittite women or what have you) and therefore becoming adulterous in his relationship with God. My use of the word metaphorical was solely into how we are to interpret the mystery writer’s use of the word pornos.

    Jedi Master

    PS – Are all your alter Egos confusing you yet?

  7. Jedi,
    I haven’t looked at the Greek or the text… as I noted I was quoted from Ron’s post where he wrote,

    “Recently, while reading Hebrews 12, I found a key piece of evidence that I have never taken to the lab to look at closer. In verse 16, Esau is referred to as “sexually immoral”.

    But having examined six translations–but not the Greek–I noticed that the adjective “sexually” is never included–it’s a presumption on our part. I agree with you that the word “immoral” does not necessarily denote sexual sin. As you’ve pointed out we may very well be mistaken in our presumptions thus far.

    I am, as always, your humble pupil. Too bad it couldn’t have been a better debate. I think I’d need to resurect an old persona for that. Maybe if I search the internet I can find a liberal blog to debate on! As far as my personas go, have you ever known me to be confused?

  8. anonymous, anonymous-q, Jedi master, dksthomp, etc.,

    The exegetical question is very intrigueing: “Was Esau sexually immoral (pornos- Greek)?” I wish more people read Greek, so that we could go further in our debate. Never-the-less, what really seems to be at the heart of verses 15 and 16 of Chapter 12, is a progression of the nature of sin that can creep into a believer’s life. The first word in verse 15 is “See” which literally means “continually watch over one another”. First that no one forfeits the grace of God. What is the grace of God (remember the audience)…”salvation” is the grace of God. Salvation initially brings peace and holiness to our lives, verse 14. The warning goes out not to forfeit these by being discouraged by persecution and the worries of life. Second, let no bitter root spring up. Where as the first is the very entertainment of selfish desires (sin) the second is a picture of a person who has begun to practice such desires and their sin is effecting the community. The third thing that the community is to continually watch for is that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau. Esau was a slave of his desires. He was a slave to his stomach in one scene. He brought about the break-up of his family unit, he brought bitterness to his father and mother when he married two Hittite women (Gen. 26:34-35), and he lost all future inheritance and lineage by which the Messiah would come from.

    Jedi Master was very correct in his application of this metaphor:
    “In addition, how do we apply this metaphor today in American culture? It is obvious that we live in a very consumer oriented culture, and it seems like daily we “sell our birth rites” for a new car, a cell phone, buckeyes football, and even NASCAR. How do we avoid the trap of becoming pornos in the eyes of God?”

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