1. He Was the Son of Isaac

Isaac, the son of Abraham, was married to Rebecca for many years before being blessed with children. Finally, after 20 years of marriage, they were blessed with twin boys, Jacoband Esau.

Read: Esau’s Autobiography

2. He Had Three Names

When Esau was born, he was fully formed and had hair across his body like a full-grown man. This prompted all those present to give him the name Esau (Esav in Hebrew), which translates as made or formed.1

At the age of 15, Esau was given a second name, Edom, Hebrew for red. The impetus for this name was his foolhardy decision to sell his birthright to Jacob in turn for a pot of red lentil soup (see below).2 This name was also associated with the reddish complexion of his skin, which symbolized his propensity for violence.3

Some say that Seir, Esau’s residence (see below), was yet a third name of his, after his hairy appearance (hair is se’ar in Hebrew).4

3. He Was the Eldest

Esau was the older twin. Scripture relates that when leaving their mother’s womb, Jacob grasped Esau’s heel, as if to delay his birth.

The Midrash relates that Jacob was actually created from the first drop of semen, while Esau was created from the second. Similar to two spheres in a tube, in which the one inserted last exits first, Esau exited Rebecca’s womb first, and Jacob exited second. From this perspective, Jacob was essentially the firstborn. This is why he tried to delay his brother’s birth, so that he would be born first just as he was created first.5

Read: Jacob and Esau

4. He Was a Hunter

While Jacob was an ardent student, Esau was more inclined to spend his days in the fields, hunting animals and birds.6 It is told that Nimrod, a master hunter himself, was in possession of a cloak that had been passed down from Adam, which attracted wildlife when worn, facilitating his hunting abilities. Esau strongly desired this cloak, to the extent that he plotted against Nimrod, murdering him and securing the cloak for his personal use.7

5. His Father Loved Him

While Rebecca favored Jacob, Isaac showed a preference to Esau, as Esau would prepare him delicious meals.8 The Midrash adds that Esau tricked his father by leading him to believe that he was pious. One way he did this was by asking Isaac detailed questions involving Jewish law, such as whether it was necessary to separate tithes from salt and straw.9

Read: Why Did Isaac Love Esau?

6. He Sold His Birthright

One day, 15-year-old Esau returned home after a long day of hunting. (Our Sages add that it was the day he had murdered Nimrod—see above.) Weary and hungry, he encountered his brother cooking a pot of red lentils. Jacob was planning to give the dish to his father, who was mourning his father Abraham, who had passed away that very day.

When Esau asked Jacob for a portion of stew, Jacob stipulated that he would only share it with him if Esau would sell him his birthright. Knowing the special status Judaism accorded the firstborn, he did not want it to be bestowed upon a wicked person like Esau. Esau agreed. He sold his birthright and was duly given a lavish meal of bread and lentil soup.10

Read: Beans and Birthrights

7. He Married at 40

At the age of 40, Esau married two Canaanite women: Adah, daughter of Elon the Hittite; and Ahalivamah, daughter of Tzivon the Hivite.11 His wives made his parents miserable, blatantly sacrificing incense to pagan deities.12

Twenty-three years later, he married a third wife—his first cousin, Basmat, daughter of his uncle Ishmael.13

Read: Esau and His Wives

8. Jacob “Stole” His Blessings

The friction between the two brothers escalated one spring day, when the elderly, blind Isaac instructed Esau to hunt some game and prepare it for him, after which he would bless him. Wanting Jacob to receive the blessings, Rebecca prepared a dish of goat meat and instructed Jacob to masquerade as Esau. Jacob did as he was instructed, and indeed received his father’s blessings.

When Esau discovered what had happened, he was furious at Jacob and wanted to kill him, forcing his brother to flee the home. Jacob spent 20 years at the home of his uncle Laban in Haran, who also became his father-in-law when Jacob married his daughters Leah and Rachel.14

Read: Was Jacob Right to Take the Blessings?

9. He Later Made Peace With Jacob

After many long years, Jacob finally made his way home, only to be told that his brother was marching towards him with a large army. Alarmed, Jacob prepared for war, prayed to G‑d, and sent gifts to appease Esau. When they finally met, Esau fell on his brother’s neck and kissed him, and finally the brothers were at peace—or at least so it seemed.15

There are various opinions among the Sages as to what truly happened. Some say that he was overcome with compassion—at least temporarily—and kissed Jacob wholeheartedly, while others say that the kiss was half-hearted. Yet others say that his real intent was to bite him at the neck, but G‑d miraculously thwarted his plans by causing Jacob’s neck to become stiff like marble.16

Read: Why Does Esau Hate Jacob?

10. He Lived on Mount Seir

While Jacob was in Haran, Esau acquired an estate in the land of Seir, then inhabited by the Horites. After his brother’s return, he decided to employ more drastic measures. Taking his family with him, he returned to Seir and waged battle against the Horites, conquering their land. From then on, Mt. Seir became the homeland of Esau’s descendants, known as the nation of Edom.17

On their way from Egypt, the Israelites wanted to cross Mt. Seir on their way to the Promised Land, but the Edomites stubbornly refused, forcing the Jews to take a circular route.18

11. His Head Is Buried Near Jacob

The fates of Esau and Jacob merged even at death. Jacob passed on in Egypt, and his body was taken by his sons to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah in the Land of Canaan. To their consternation, however, there was Esau, laying dubious claims to the last remaining plot in the cave. While the quick-running Naftali was dispatched to retrieve the bill of deed, Hushim, the hard-of-hearing son of Dan, inquired as to the cause of the delay. When he was informed that it had to do with his uncle Esau, he dealt him a mighty blow that brought about his demise.19

Midrashic sources further state that Esau’s head (severed from the blow) rolled into the Cave of Machpelah until it reached the bosom of his father Isaac, and was buried there.20

Read: The Beheading of Esau

12. He Is Considered the Progenitor of Rome

Esau’s offspring split into various groups, each one led by a chieftain. One of these groups was named Magdiel, which is identified as Rome.21 Indeed, there is a longstanding tradition that the Romans were descendants of Esau, and as such, Jewish literature refers to the Roman Empire as the Kingdom of Edom.

13. Obadiah Compared Him and His Brother to Straw and Fire

Esau was Jacob’s antithesis even while still in their mother’s womb. Experiencing a difficult pregnancy, Rebecca consulted Shem son of Noah, who conveyed to her the word of G‑d:

Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your stomach. One nation will [alternatingly] be stronger than the next, but [ultimately] the older one will serve the younger one.22

The friction between the brothers continued with their descendants for millennia. The prophet Obadiah foretells how this twin-brother drama will conclude:

The house of Jacob will be likened to fire; the house of Joseph, to a flame; and the house of Esau, to straw. They will ignite them and consume them…. Saviors will ascend the mountain of Zion to judge the mountain of Esau, and sovereignty will be to G‑d.23

14. He Had Deep Spiritual Potential

Chassidic thought gives deeper insight into Esau’s personality and Isaac’s seemingly misled favoritism. Isaac was aware of Esau’s true character, but he also knew that he possessed deep spiritual powers waiting to be unleashed in a positive way. This is also why he planned to bless Esau, hoping this would draw out his hidden potential.24

Although the time was not yet ripe, in later generations Esau’s lofty spiritual source would come to fruition. A number of famous converts traced their lineage to him, among them the prophet Obadiah, Onkelos, and Rabbi Meir. (In fact, Esau himself had the status of a Jew, albeit one who rebelled against G‑d.)25 Moreover, Kabbalistic texts teach that in the Era of Moshiach, Esau and his descendants will be transformed and embrace goodness and holiness.26

Read: The Cosmic Twins