The Esau Syndrome

The Supreme Court’s rulings on marriage and several other matters demand some immediate comment. In the next days, we will provide several such commentaries on what those decisions mean. But as is our usual practice, instead of just rushing in with just one more off-the-cuff reaction – something that’s a temptation for Internet sites – we’ll provide some deeper reflections over the next few days. Please come back and look for them. – Robert Royal           

In the 1980s, I received two Fulbright awards for research and writing in Germany on the philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel. I traveled there for a year each time with my wife and children. Considering travel and living expenses, and reduced salary, I decided to discontinue making payments toward my pension for those years, thus stretching my monthly assets somewhat.

Realizing that this decision would have an effect on my eventual pension after retirement, I joked that this was a situation where “young Howard” was borrowing from “old Howard” to make ends meet in the present. (Fortunately, these two Howards were the same person, so I wasn’t stealing sensu stricto.) I justified my action on the basis that I wasn’t planning to leave “old Howard” penniless, but just moderately reducing his future pension expectations.

Jacob’s twin brother, Esau, in Genesis took a much more radical step. Coming out from the fields, and feeling faint, he noticed Jacob by his tent cooking some red lentil pottage, and asked for a helping. Esau, according to Genesis, had appeared first, and was technically considered the “firstborn.”

But Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, to complicate matters, had received a revelation that the “elder shall serve the younger.” Jacob, perhaps privy to this mysterious prophecy, demanded Esau’s birthright as payment for the pottage. Esau agreed, without much thought, and without asking, “are you serious?” According to Genesis 25:34, he “made little account of having sold his first birthright, ate, and drank, and went his way.”

One wonders about the intensity of sibling rivalry in this story, but the most amazing thing is the insouciance of Esau. Esau seems to be absolutely intent on the here and now, with zero interest in his future. Apparently there were no complaints about the price he was paying, no counter-proposals.

Jesus in Luke 16:19-30 discusses an even more radical “bartering” arrangement in his parable about the rich man, “Dives,” in Hell, asking “Father Abraham” to send to him the beggar, Lazarus, who used to lie by the gate of Dives’ mansion. All he wanted was a drop of water to cool his tongue; or, as an alternative, for Lazarus to go back to earth to warn Dives’ five brothers to repent.

But Abraham answers that fulfilling such requests would be impossible because Lazarus could not traverse such a chasm. And, says Abraham, Dives’ brothers wouldn’t respond, in any case, to such a miracle. Finally, Abraham reminds Dives that, unlike Lazarus, he has forfeited happiness in the afterlife for “good things in his lifetime.”

On a cursory reading one might wonder whether this might be a tit for tat – God bestowing great wealth and good times on certain people in this life to make up for an eternity of suffering in the next.

      Esau Sells His Birthright by Hendrick ter Brugghen, c. 1627

Such was the sort of misplaced calculation made by Michael Pederson Kierkegaard, the father of the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. Michael Kierkegaard in his teens, suffering hardship and poverty as a farm laborer, had once raised his fists, shouting curses at God, for burdening him with so many difficulties.

Very shortly afterwards, he became rich. But steeped in Moravian Pietism, he interpreted his newfound blessings as divine revenge for cursing God, to be followed by family deaths. That his wife and the majority of his children died before him, became “evidence” for the evil bargain that he had made – riches instead of happiness, in this life or maybe even the next.

Of course, the most extreme example of the “Esau syndrome” would be a Faustian bargain – selling one’s soul to the Devil for a lifetime of worldly happiness. Presumably, legends aside, people would not be foolish enough to make such a bargain.

Or would we? In an era when so many people don’t seriously believe in a soul or an afterlife, the “prudential” calculations change considerably. If, for example, a tyrant actually believed he would bear responsibility after death for wrong committed in this life, it might check his ambitions and desires. Or – tyrants aside – owners of rickety factories in Bangladesh might think again about profiting from slave labor.

Today, we often see the Esau syndrome in couples who avoid having children in order to “have it all.” Aborting children as unwelcome guests at their ongoing “party,” they give little or no thought to the fact that one day they may be asked to account for these children. As Bishop Sheen used to say, on judgment day, we will be asked, “Where are your children?”

Esau was busy working in the fields. He didn’t have a good relationship with his twin brother – although they did eventually reconcile.  Pensions didn’t exist in those days, and Esau didn’t have the time or inclination to figure out how he would manage after his father, Isaac, passed away.  Besides, Isaac favored him over Jacob (Genesis 25:28).  Rebecca favored Jacob; but what influence would she have over the venerable patriarch?

Like Esau, the interests of the present loom large before us, while our ultimate destiny seems to be a cloudy mist out there somewhere. Esau did end up with a blessing of sorts, but missed out on the first-class patriarchal blessing that his solicitous mother, Rebecca, had procured for Jacob.

We, too, are embroiled in day-to-day affairs; many of us have a hard time keeping our heads above the water.  We tend to put off thinking even about things like retirement – let alone, ultimate questions about where we are going to spend the afterlife. But even in the most truly practical sense, isn’t that the most important investment of all?


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.