Esau was the son of Isaac and Rebekah and the older twin brother of Jacob (Gen 25:26). He is remembered particularly for two dramatic episodes: his selling of his birthright for a plate of stew (Gen 25:24-34) and the dramatic story of how he was deprived of his father’s blessing and inheritance through the devious scheming of his mother and brother (Gen 27). The two brothers are eventually reconciled, however, in a very poignant and dramatic scene in Genesis 33 and, together, they attend the burial of their father (Gen 35:29).
He was given the name Edom (red) and is regarded as the ancestor of the Edomites (Gen 36:1). The stories of Esau and Ishmael – with whom Esau shares more than a passing resemblance – intertwine when Esau travels to meet Ishmael and marries his daughter, Mahalath (Gen 28:9).
A much despised figure in Judaism and Christianity, Esau is depicted as sinful and sensuous while the Qur’an includes no mention of him. In the New Testament, he is associated with all that is ungodly and with sexual immorality (Heb 12:16). Augustine identifies Esau as the Jewish people, representing all those who do not believe.
The deception of Esau (Gen 27) was a hugely popular subject in art: Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi, 16th-century Dutch art, and several illuminated Jewish Bibles all interpret the episode in very distinctive ways, many concentrating on the pathos of the scene.