We are far more comfortable with his brother Jacob despite the tricks he played on his twin.
Perhaps the birthright transaction – in which the first-born son’s privileged status was traded for a mere bowl of lentil soup (Gen. 25) – was part of an elaborate ruse by Jacob to show his ailing father how unreliable Esau was and how little Esau valued his status.
There may be something in this when we think of how many first-born sons in the Bible prove themselves unworthy. Jacob’s own son Reuben is an example: doesn’t the Torah say a number of uncomplimentary things about Reuben?
Yet Reuben does not lose his first-born status and he continues to be enumerated at the top of the list of Jacob’s children (Gen. 35:23).
The problem with Esau is a question of lifestyle and priorities. Lifestyle – Esau is a hunter. Priorities – what matters to him is the chase and the prey.
Birthright issues are for studious historians like Jacob who stay at home and draw up family trees. Esau says, “My occupation as a hunter is dangerous. I can die any day. What interest do I have in history and heritage?” (this is how Rashbam and Ibn Ezra (on Gen. 25:32) read him). The crude Esau could never be a role model for Judaism.
Jacob fits the Jewish value system much better. But even so, how can we justify what seems like a mean trick played by Jacob in which the birthright is sold for a bowl of soup?
Rashbam and Sforno (on verse 33) have an answer. The soup is merely a token, they say. It is part of the Jewish law of property in which a transaction has its ceremonial requirement, a kinyan or symbolic transfer of a token which is not the quid pro quo, the substance of the subject of the deal.