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Theological Footnotes 20 - The Ghost of Esau Yet to Come

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Theological Footnotes

I am a pastor-theologian and author creating resources to help you grow as a disciple of Jesus. My goal is to make Christian theology comprehensible so that it will build up the church. I write and publish books through Peniel Press.

Hello Reader,

I didn't start thinking of writing about biblical genealogies after the first one I studied and preached. Not even after the second or third. It wasn't until I went through a week wrestling with Genesis 36 (my fifth or sixth genealogy, I think) that the idea for a book began to form in my mind. Most of the biblical commentaries were unhelpful, but after days of reciting these names over and over again, suddenly the connections began to form between this chapter in Genesis and a series of other passages in Scripture. The joy I experienced when the lightbulbs began to go off in my brain was something I wanted to be able to share with others. What if I could help others see in the Bible what I was coming to see so clearly?

In this issue of Theological Footnotes, I want to show you a bit of what I first saw in Genesis 36. If you want to read the chapter ahead of my reflections, feel free to do so. The section below is part of a larger chapter on the genealogy of Esau in my upcoming book, The Sinews of Scripture, where I notice connections between Esau and Lot, Esau and Jacob, and then - as you will see - between Esau and Saul.

I hope this material is edifying for you. If you enjoy it, please share it with others and check out all the other updates below. If someone shared this issue with you and you would like to receive it in your own inbox, you can sign up by clicking here.


The Ghost of Esau Yet to Come: Saul

“These are the sons of Zibeon: Aiah and Anah, he is the Anah who found the springs in the wilderness as he pastured the donkeys of his father Zibeon” (Genesis 36:24)

The most significant connection in Esau’s genealogy is not backward or sideways, but forward. Esau is like Lot, separating from God’s people and leading to ruin. He is the child of Abraham that has lost his identity and blended into the nations of the world. But Esau is also King Saul. Perhaps, more accurately, we learn in Genesis 36 that King Saul is a new Esau.

Looking for Donkeys in the Wilderness

There are three different details in the genealogy of Esau that connect him to Saul. The first is found in a curious detail in Genesis 36:24, “These are the sons of Zibeon: Aiah and Anah, he is the Anah who found the springs in the wilderness as he pastured the donkeys of his father Zibeon.” There are no wasted words in the Bible. Perhaps Anah was well-known for this incident, but there is a deeper explanation. There are plenty of stories of people pasturing sheep in the wilderness, but there are very few stories involving donkeys. In 1 Samuel 9, Saul’s father’s donkeys get lost. Saul travels a long distance through the lands of Ephraim, Shalishah, Shaalim, and Benjamin, but cannot find the donkeys. He is about to turn back when the boy who is with him tells him that a man of God is in the town ahead. Along the way, he meets women at a well who direct him to the prophet Samuel. Samuel had been told by the Lord that a man from Benjamin would come that day and Samuel was to anoint him king over Israel. Saul is anointed and the donkeys are proclaimed found.

The placement of this detail regarding donkeys in the wilderness in the genealogy of Esau helps us to see how God wants us to understand not just Esau, but Saul. Saul is an Esau-like character. David and Saul’s story runs along the same lines as Jacob and Esau. David is the younger who is chosen by God over Saul. Saul, like Esau with Jacob, desires to kill David, but God protects David. David, like Jacob, has to flee the land and serve foreigners to avoid being killed by Saul.

Agag & Amalek

But the connection runs deeper. There is another name in the genealogy of Esau that connects directly to Saul: Amalek. Genesis 36:12 tells us that “Timna was a concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz.” The descendants of Amalek - the Amalekites - show up at multiple points in the biblical story. The Amalekites attacked and harried Israel when they left Egypt. In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel tells Saul that the Lord has declared judgment on the Amalekites for their treatment of Israel and that Saul is to attack them and destroy them utterly - to a person. Saul musters an army and attacks, defeating the Amalekites, but taking their king, Agag, alive as a captive. Contrary to God’s command, Saul spares Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle of the Amalekites. This disobedience is pivotal in the reign of Saul, for God says afterward, “I regret that I have made Saul king” (1 Sam 15:11). Amalek is a child of Esau, the son of Abraham who lost his way and his identity. Saul is supposed to wipe them from the earth, but - like Esau before him - he compromises with the people of the land. He refuses God’s call to be holy, to be set apart, and this failure eventually leads to the downfall of Saul and will haunt his people for generations.

Agag, the Amalekite, does not go quietly. His name shows up again at another time when the distinctiveness of God’s people is in question. In the book of Esther, Mordecai of the tribe of Benjamin (the same tribe as Saul), runs afoul of Haman, a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite. In response, Haman plots to destroy not just Mordecai, but the entire Jewish people. By the grace of God, through the shrewd wisdom of Esther, Haman’s plot turns back upon him and he is killed. Through Amalek, Esau connects to Saul all the way to Esther. Saul follows along the same path as Esau by losing his distinctiveness and setting aside his calling. Esther reverses the path of Esau and Saul by living into her distinctive calling and rescuing her people. She does not set aside her Jewish identity, but risks herself in solidarity with her people.

A King Like the Nations

There is one last connection between Esau and Saul: they are connected to the kings of the nations. After the period of the judges, God raised up the prophet Samuel. Samuel served the Lord and led the people to serve the Lord as well. Throughout his long life, he led the people of Israel. As he grew old, he appointed his two sons - Joel and Abijah - to serve as leaders. However, these sons did not walk in the Lord’s ways. “They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam 8:3). So the elders of Israel came to Samuel to ask for a king. In their request were two contradictory desires. They wanted a king because Samuel’s sons did not follow God’s ways. “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways” (1 Sam 8:5). They had leaders who dishonored God through their leadership and would inevitably lead the people astray. They wanted a leader who would be different, who would help them to walk in God’s ways, unlike Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abijah.

Yet, there was a second reason for asking for a king: they wanted to be like every other nation. They said to Samuel, “Now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (1 Sam 8:5). Samuel pointed out just what such a king would do. He will conscript their sons as soldiers, force them to farm the soil for the king and force still others to make weapons. He will take their daughters into his service and take the best of their fields. The king will demand the best of all that they have so that they will eventually cry out to the Lord for relief. Yet, the people’s mind remained firm: “But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:19-20). Though the Lord reveals that Israel is rejecting him as their king, he tells Samuel to anoint a king. That king — the one like the nations — is Saul.

Israel wanted a king so that they would not be led astray from the ways of God, but they also wanted a king so they could be just like everyone else. They wanted a “king like the other nations.” Despite their requests, they could not have both. Either they would have a king after God’s own heart or a king like the other nations. Either they would have a king who would lead them in God’s ways and help them to live out their distinctive calling in the world, or they would have a king who would lead them away from God and make them indistinguishable from the rest of the world. One way to read the history of Israel is that the people desperately need the first kind of king — one after God’s heart — but what they really wanted most of the time was the second kind — a king like the nations. They needed David, but they really wanted Saul.

In Genesis 36, we see the pattern of Esau tracing down toward the kings of the nations. Esau sells his birthright for a pot of stew, abandons his distinctive calling as a child of Abraham, and become indistinguishable from the nations around him. So much so that the genealogy of Esau contains within it a list of the kings of Edom. Instead of being after God’s own heart, Esau chose to be like the nations and the fruit of that is the Edomite kings. However, tucked into that list of kings are two names that deepen this connection between Saul and Esau: Shaul and Baal-Hanan. Shaul is a form of the name Saul. Saul’s oldest son was named Jonathan, which means “The LORD is gracious.” The king who came after Shaul was named Baal-Hanan, which means “Baal is gracious.” The similarity of names and the parallel meaning is striking.

Though not literally the same Saul who was the first king of Israel, the inclusion of Shaul should be like a warning flag for Israel. If we go the way of Esau instead of Jacob, we will end up with Saul instead of David. The result of Esau’s path is Shaul and Baal-Hanan. These are worldly kings, kings who demand their rights, who take the best from their people for their own use. They are kings who use their people’s labor to fashion weapons of war, not songs of praise to the Lord. When Israel longs for a “king like the other nations,” they are walking the path of Esau, not Jacob. When they actually get what they ask for, the result is Saul.

Esau’s refusal to take up his birthright and live as a child of Abraham lead to his people being indistinguishable from the nations and lead to the likes of Shaul and Baal-Hanan. In a similar way, when Israel refused to live as God’s distinctive people and wanted to be just like all the other nations, it lead to the likes of Saul.

The genealogy of Esau serves as a preview and warning concerning the period of the kings. Though full of names we barely recognize, the genealogy of Esau tells a story. It begins with Esau losing his distinctiveness and joining himself to the nations around him as he married Adah, Oholibamah, and Basemath. The genealogy ends with a certain form of elevation. From Esau comes a line of kings and a series of chiefs. However, that worldly elevation is actually a descent from the glorious calling of the children of Abraham. By the end of the story, Esau is no different than the world around him. He is salt that has lost its saltiness. It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

This story repeats itself as Israel demands a king and gets one like the nations — Saul. Though in some ways Saul’s coronation is the culimination of generations of Israel wanting to “do what was right in its own eyes” (Judges 21:25), it is also, in many other ways, the beginning of Israel walking down the path of losing its distinctiveness. In placing Esau’s genealogy in the Bible and preserving the connections to the life of Saul, God uses this genealogy to call us to consider the path of Esau and the path of Jacob and where they finally lead.

“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.” (Psalm 1, NIV)

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Writing Updates

My goal for 2024 is to write or edit 100,000 of my own words for our work here at Peniel Press. At the time of writing this, my word count sits at 57,058 for the year, well above pace! Thanks for all the support. Here are some updates on a couple projects:

The Sinews of Scripture - Beta-Reading Phase - I finished the second draft of this book a couple weeks ago and sent out the draft to a series of beta-readers last week. I have already started to hear some feedback and I am so grateful for their work. Once through the beta-reading phase, we will move to proof-reading, typesetting, and cover design in fairly quick succession. The hope is still to have this book out sometime later Summer 2024.

The Body of Doctrine - Draft 2/Beta-Reading - This translation of the first section of Zacharius Ursinus' commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism is in editing. I have a friend and mentor doing some legwork on some interesting possibilities with the book, but I will keep you posted once I know something definite.

Under the Broom Tree - Outlining/Research - I am sitting next to around 30 books on pastoral ministry as I work to outline and do the initial research for this book on Elijah, Elisha, and the shape of Pastoral Ministry. We will see how all the other projects work out, but I hope to be able to do some significant writing on this book during the summer and fall of this year.


Thank You

I am always way more ambitious about what I can accomplish than is reasonable. I have far more ideas than I have time and energy, but we are still hoping to put out another two books this year, and begin planning for our inaugural theology conference in 2025.

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Theological Footnotes

I am a pastor-theologian and author creating resources to help you grow as a disciple of Jesus. My goal is to make Christian theology comprehensible so that it will build up the church. I write and publish books through Peniel Press.