Isaac or Esau?

Randy Leedy Rleedy at
Fri Aug 24 10:15:13 EDT 2001

Steve Lo Vullo wrote to me off-list (intending but failing to get the message on-list). First, a copy of his message. (Lines beginning with ">" are quoted from MY original message):


> Since I get only the digest, I don't know what other answers may have
> been offered, but here's mine. I'm firmly convinced that the
> "repentance" referred to is Isaac's, not Esau's. Why? Because whatever
> this repentance is, it is something that Esau "sought diligently with
> tears."

This assumes (wrongly, I believe) that AUTHN has as its antecedent
METANOIAS. Rather, I think the antecedent of AUTHN is EULOGIAN (cf. NAB,
NRSV). Note that both are feminine. It was the *blessing* Esau was seeking
with tears, not a change of mind (on his part or Isaac's), as you yourself
indicate below. Note that in the Genesis passage Esau wasn't asking Isaac to
change his mind, i.e., take back the blessing he had given Jacob in order to
give it to him; rather he was asking Isaac to bless him *in addition to*
blessing Jacob (Gen 27.34-38). He seems to know that a blessing once given
could not be taken back.

I think it makes better sense to take METANOIAS GAR TOPON OUC hEUREN as
parenthetical. It is not unusual for the author to interpose parentheses
that are at times syntactically confusing. For example, in Heb 2.9 we read,

> When you read the Genesis account, you see Esau weeping and
> begging for Isaac's blessing. But Isaac responds that he has already
> blessed Jacob, implying that no change is possible (in spite of the
> fact that Isaac certainly WANTS to bless Esau!). I take "repentance"
> here as a simple change of mind. When Esau sought to inherit the
> blessing, he was rejected, because (notice the GAR) there was no
> possibility that Isaac could change his mind, withdraw Jacob's
> blessing, and give it to Esau, no matter how much Esau wept and begged
> for that blessing.

As I mentioned above, Esau nowhere asks Isaac to take back the blessing from
Jacob and give it to him; rather he asks for a blessing *in addition to* the
one Isaac gave Jacob (Gen 27.34-38). In fact, in v. 36 Esau exhibits the
realization that the blessing given to Jacob was irretrievable. He is asking
Isaac to bless him *too*.
> The picture of Esau, then, is not that of a person who has come to
> recognize the error of his ways and desperately wants to repent of his
> wrongdoing and experience a change of heart but finds it impossible to
> do so, as though God were unwilling to let him repent in the religious
> sense. Someone who cries to God for repentance has ALREADY repented!
> The picture is rather that of a sensual, materialistic man who now
> faces the consequences of his ways and begs for a reversal of the
> consequences apart from any reversal of his attitudes. The Genesis
> account shows Esau concerned only about the blessing, not about his
> own character.

This again assumes that it was METANOIAN that Esau was seeking, rather than
THN EULOGIAN. If the blessing, this negates the point regarding the
absurdity of someone wanting to repent, but God being unwilling to let him
repent, etc. Also, the two other times METANOIA is used in Hebrews, it is in
a religious sense (6.1, 6). In fact, Heb 12.17 fits quite well with the idea
of 6.6, namely, the impossibility of renewing to repentance those who have
fallen away.

> This interpretation also fits the context in Hebrews very well. The
> warning is that those who persist in a lifestyle of resistance to
> God's ways will one day face consequences that no amount of begging
> and crying will succeed in changing.

As I mentioned above, Esau's not finding a "place" for repentance, even
though he sought the blessing with tears, fits in very well with an idea the
author has previously proposed: the impossibility of people who have
received spiritual privileges and have subsequently fallen away to be
renewed to repentance (6.6). The idea is that, even though Esau sought the
blessing with tears, these tears were not indicative of repentence, since
the act of despising his birthright for a single meal sealed his fate and
rendered him incapable of repentence. He found a place for worldly sorrow,
but not for repentance. This also fits in well with the overall theme of
Hebrews: The author's audience was contemplating the compromise of their
faith in order to gain relief from persecution. But to trade their spiritual
birthright and inheritance for temporary ease in this world would deprive
them of Christˆs blessing, and, as Heb 6.6 indicates, would entail an
apostasy from which they could not be renewed unto repentance. Esau serves
as a very practical example of one who for relief from temporal discomfort
forfeited his inheritance and then found repentance impossible. The readers
were to take this into account and fear.

In accord with the above comments, the meaning "possibility" for TOPOS is
offered by Louw & Nida: "possibility, chance, opportunity.... METANOIAS GAR
TOPON OUC hEUREN 'for he did not find the possibility of repenting (of what
he had done)' He 12:17."



Randy here again:

Steve, I will go with you part of the way in your reasoning. I definitely erred in writing as though METANOIAS were the antecedent of AUTHN. I was going from memory and failed to recall the detail that the antecedent is EULOGIAN. However, the fact that it was the blessing, and not repentance, that fits in the object slot after EKZHTHSAS does not change the basic force of the passage as I read it. 

As you said, the whole concept of the patriarchal blessing is that it is "irretrievable," and, furthermore, its provisions apply exclusively to the son who receives it. So you say that Esau wasn't asking for a reversal; he just wanted a blessing, too. Again, I can go along with you this far. But Isaac's blessing upon Jacob was exceedingly broad, including rulership over his brothers (compare the more restricted individual blessings that Jacob gave his sons at the end of Genesis). Given the exclusivity of this all-encompassing blessing (it was for Jacob only), there was very little left over that Isaac could do for Esau (see Gen. 27:36b-37). Esau's only hope to receive a meaningful blessing, then, would be that somehow Isaac might change at least some of the provisions of Jacob's blessing. But no such change of mind was possible, which of course, Esau knew even as he weakly sought it.

So let me give an expanded rendering of the passage to clarify my understanding. "Afterward, when Esau wished to inherit the blessing, he was rejected (for he found no possibility that Isaac could change his mind), even though he sought the blessing intensely, with tears." I could also read it just fine this way without the parentheses, with the "even though..." clause modifying "he found no possibility that Isaac could change his mind" rather than "he was rejected."

Your argument also correlates this passage with Hebrews 6, which denies the possibilty of repentance after apostasy. I understand those passages as signifying that the apostate will have no desire for repentance, and those who try to bring him to repentance (PALIN ANAKAINIZEIN EIS METANOIAN) will fail. I take ANAKAINIZEIN as transitive, with that long string of participles (governed by the initial article) as the object. The situation in Hebrews 12 appears different to me: nobody in the Genesis account is attempting to renew Esau to repentance (unless, as I said earlier, we are expected to read between the lines and see God at work). Whatever the repentance is, it is something that Esau himself found no possibility of, implying that he himself was seeking it in at least some small degree. Different situation altogether from chapter 6.

At this point I'm also addressing comments made on the list by Bryant Williams, who wants to understand the passage to mean "no change of attitude could be found in Esau." I can't go along with this rendering, because "found" (hEUREN) is an active voice verb, with "place" (TOPON) as its object. Esau himself is the one who was looking for something, and the possibility of change is what he did not find.

Along this line I wonder what Steve and Bryant might be thinking about what would have happened if Esau HAD repented. If we render the passage "...he was rejected (for he found it impossible to repent), though he sought the blessing with tears,"  then it would seem that we must be assuming that if Esau HAD repented when he learned of Jacob's blessing, he would then have received a blessing himself. Why else include that parenthesis "for he found no place of repentance?" I find it difficult to accept that this is what the author of Hebrews is trying to say here, though. Who was looking for Esau to repent so that he might then bless him? Certainly not Isaac. Isaac is as distraught about the whole matter as Esau, because he desparately WANTS to bless him. Are we saying that the writer of Hebrews assumes that we are to read between the lines of Genesis and see GOD as the one who is looking for repentance in Esau, and that if He had seen a repentant spirit, He would then have revealed to Isaac an appropriate blessing for Esau? I have no problem at all with this concept theologically; it is actually appealing to me. But I can't really square it with the language of Hebrews, in which the verb "found" seems to me clearly to imply at least some small desire for METANOIA on Esau's part, and once you grant that desire, it become very difficult to explain why it remained impossible unless God simply chose not to allow it, which you yourself label an absurdity. By contrast, the way I'm reading the passage presents me no problems.

Steve, you said that Esau "found a place for worldly sorrow, but not for repentance." I do understand the distinction you are drawing between these attitudes, but "Esau found a place for worldly sorrow" doesn't make sense to me in context. No search for worldly sorrow was required; his sorrow was spontaneous. So I can agree that Esau manifested worldly sorrow but not repentance, but I can't see that "he found no place for..." is a natural way for a writer to lead a reader along the lines you're seeing here.

The best argument I can see for taking "repentance" in a religious sense with Esau as the repenter is your observation that the other two uses of the word in this book are clearly religious in sense. But we're working with a mighty small sample here, and I hardly think that it's a sufficient basis for such a generalization to act as a control on the interpretation in this passage when there are so many contextual indicators that seem to me to point in the other direction.

Steve, I much appreciate your pointing out my obvious error, but I still can't go with you to your conclusion on the interpretation of the passage.

Randy Leedy
Bob Jones University Seminary
Greenville, SC
RLeedy at

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