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Jacob and Esau: Short Sighted Decision Making


Jacob and EsauWe typically think of Jacob—the homebody—as a crafty decision maker and of Esau—the hunter—as a primitive fellow dominated by his instincts. Let’s think about Jacob’s decision making. He too is a hunter of sorts. His quarry is his brother’s birthright, and he devises the perfect snare to obtain it. Like Esau, Jacob studies his prey and observes its vulnerabilities. And he waits for just the right moment to spring his trap. Jacob’s cunning wins him the birthright.

You can think of this as a fair exchange. After all, Jacob and Esau each walk away satisfied from the transaction. But if you’re concerned about the future, you might think twice about suggesting the kind of trade Jacob offered his brother. In this light, Jacob’s decision to acquire Esau’s birthright seems as shortsighted as Esau’s decision to sell it. Taking advantage of a weaker rival does not always produce a long-term victory. The robber barons prompted the Sherman Antitrust Act. Amazon’s squeeze of publishers may lead to similar pushback.

The sale of the birthright sets the stage for an even more dramatic scene: Jacob’s stealing of Esau’s blessing. The lure of the blessing prevents Jacob from fully considering the consequences of his deception. To escape his brother’s murderous rage, Jacob will flee and stay away for twenty years. Aside from a single visit, the brothers meet only to bury their parents. Beyond this, what are the consequences of Jacob’s decisions? Except for a passing reference in Hosea (12:3), the Bible doesn’t directly condemn Jacob. But the stories it tells about his later life illustrate the costs. Jacob, the deceiver, is deceived over and over again—first by his father-in-law and then repeatedly by his children. He reaps what he has sown.

Jacob and Esau epitomize two faults in decision making. Esau doesn’t bother to look before he leaps. Jacob is a bit too smart for his own good. Jacob and Esau were twins struggling within their mother’s womb. But the struggle between the tendencies they represent lives on within each of us. Sometimes you act like Jacob, sometimes like Esau. When you face a big decision and feel tempted to act impulsively, slow down—sleep on it. If you press your advantage to the utmost, the cost might be higher than you think, because no matter how smart you are, you can never foresee all the consequences.


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