Who invented the concept of the “Evil Twin”? This is not just a literary device. It is a byword, a running gag, a recurring theme in everyday life. When someone does something ridiculous, for example, they say, “That wasn’t me; it was my evil twin.” The motif of the twin, or double, stepping into the role of someone else provides endless possibilities for comedy or tragedy based on mistaken identity. But where did this idea get started? Perhaps, like so many other things, the answer is in the Bible:
And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:10-13 NASB)
When the Apostle Paul wrote those words, he quoted from the Prophet Malachi. Like Paul, Malachi was writing about the redemption of all Israel. Malachi’s prophecy begins like this:
The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi. “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have You loved us?” “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness.” Though Edom says, “We have been beaten down, but we will return and build up the ruins”; thus says the Lord of hosts, “They may build, but I will tear down; and men will call them the wicked territory, and the people toward whom the Lord is indignant forever.” Your eyes will see this and you will say, “The Lord be magnified beyond the border of Israel!” (Malachi 1:1-5 NASB)
Malachi and Paul refer to the account of our ancestors Jacob and Esau, twin sons of Abraham’s son Isaac. From the beginning, Isaac and his wife Rebekah knew not only that the boys would not get along, but that only one of them would succeed according to God’s plan:
Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived. But the children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is so, why then am I this way?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples will be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.” When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob; and Isaac was sixty years old when she gave birth to them. (Genesis 25:21-26 NASB)
It did not seem at the start that Esau would be the “Evil Twin”. They were not identical twins, being different in appearance, personality, interests, and talents. They differed as well in the esteem of their parents, as the Scripture tells us:
When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field, but Jacob was a peaceful man, living in tents. Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25:27-28 NASB)
There is little in this account of their childhood to explain why Jacob would be loved by God and Esau hated, but perhaps we can fill in the blanks with observations from our own lives. Here is my attempt at filling in the blanks – certainly not the definitive explanation, but an educated guess about how our ancestors would have grown into the men they became.
Esau would be the bigger and stronger twin, and perhaps the better looking. He would be the one to revel in his physical appearance and attributes, probably the first one to take notice of the pretty girls, and the first one they would notice. Perhaps he bullied his brother, to the point even of beating him up and then taunting him with the ancient Hebrew equivalent of, “You’re such a geek. You can’t even fight like a man!” And then he would be off, secure in his position as firstborn and in his father’s pride, to win new honors as the most skilled young hunter of the clan.
But Jacob had another path, another calling, even another spirit. He did not need to excel in the “manly arts” of combat and hunting because he came to recognize something more important in the wisdom of his fathers and mothers. He was not a lazy young man, but very industrious. His success in later years managing his father-in-law’s herds and flocks came from his upbringing among his own father’s herds. He learned the business of business by hanging around the tents and listening to the elders. Imagine Jacob as a bright-eyed youth, sitting just outside the circle of older men gathered around a platter loaded with rice and roasted goat. As the men feast, they talk. Perhaps they ask Grandfather Abraham to tell of the time he fooled old Pharaoh into thinking Grandmother Sarah was his sister. As Abraham unfolds the story, they double over with peals of laughter at the image of Pharaoh and his household unable to figure out why they were getting sick, and then learning that Abraham and Sarah had put one over on them. Then they laugh even more as Grandfather Abraham tells how he fooled old King Abimelech and the Philistines in the same way.
In the absence of television, such conversation provided plenty of commercial-free entertainment. Jacob and Esau both had the opportunity to participate in it, but only Jacob took full advantage of that opportunity. He must have listened closely, not only to the hilarious family adventures, but also to the serious, solemn talk of Adonai Elohim, the One Who had called Grandfather Abraham out of Ur, and Who had brought Isaac into this world against all human possibility. Jacob must have relished quiet moments to discuss these things with his grandfather and father. Imagine Abraham in those moments telling him, ”Yes, we laugh now at what happened to Pharaoh. But, my son, when your grandmother and I went to Egypt, it was because we had no choice. There was no food here; only in Egypt could we hope to survive. And there we would be in great danger from a people who believe their king is a living god. I had no desire to meet him, and certainly no desire to shame him. He is the most powerful man on earth! It would be foolish to make such a man my enemy. And yet it happened, and we did deceive him. And now we live with the consequences of my poor choices.”
Such words would have made an impression on the lad, but not initially in the way Abraham intended. The old stories contributed to Jacob’s discovery that he could gain far more by his wits than Esau could by his strength and good looks. He understood the importance of the firstborn blessing, but Esau did not, and did not care to learn. He lived for the moment, and for his stomach. Which is why, when Grandfather Abraham died and Jacob took it upon himself to prepare the traditional mourner’s meal of lentil soup for Isaac, something important happened:
When Jacob had cooked stew, Esau came in from the field and he was famished; and Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.” Therefore his name was called Edom. But Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?” And Jacob said, “First swear to me”; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:29-34 NASB)
The boys were only 15 years old at the time, but that transaction sealed their futures. Jacob grew into a fine young man, eager and quite able to carry on the legacy of his ancestors. He learned much from his father, and was there to observe and to help in the seemingly endless conflicts with the Philistines over the wells Abraham had dug. He saw his father make the same mistake Abraham had made by deceiving old King Abimelech about his relationship with Rebekah. But through it all he saw that Isaac remain true to YHVH, and YHVH respond by confirming the covenant with him.
Esau, however, continued to focus on what pleased him. He took wives, no doubt very pretty and very well-connected, but still women of Canaan who brought grief to Rebekah and Isaac. They were different from the Hebrews; they worshipped other gods, and quite likely turned Esau’s heart away from YHVH – if his heart had ever been inclined to YHVH in the first place. Seeing this, Isaac perhaps began to think that the family’s godly calling was in danger since the heir was a man of less-than-godly character. Such thoughts may have influenced him to bless Esau and transfer the inheritance while he was still able to guide him. Maybe the responsibility of being patriarch of the clan would cause Esau to mature at last into the position.
Maybe, but probably not. Rebekah understood that. She also understood what God had told her before the boys were born – that Jacob would be the heir. And so she schemed with Jacob to deceive Isaac and cheat Esau out of his favored position. The scheme worked, but it cemented a lasting enmity between the brothers and unmasked the hidden tensions in the family. Esau could no longer pretend that he was capable of inheriting the family fortune simply because of his birth order. He could no longer hide behind the fact that he had produced sons already from his Canaanite wives. His wives, his sons, and his lifestyle were odious to his parents, and his live-for-the-moment attitude had cost him his privileged position. He tried to make up for the deficit by taking a wife from Ishmael’s daughters, but instead of winning his parents’ favor, he widened the breach by allying himself with the other party in the blood feud between his father and his uncle. That feud was one of the evil consequences of Grandfather Abraham’s less-than-godly sojourn in Egypt. Uncle Ishmael was the son of Hagar, a slave Pharaoh had given to Abraham to make amends for almost committing adultery with Sarah.
And through all this Esau learned nothing. His intent to murder his brother and reclaim his lost inheritance attests to the fact that he continued to trust in his own flesh to gain things that satisfied his flesh, rather than to trust in God to provide the things that satisfy the soul. Jacob learned, though. He learned that living by his wits could still be a life-threatening proposition and could produce those life-long consequences about which Grandfather Abraham had spoken. It would be some time before he would learn to trust his God rather than his brains, but he was at least on the right path. Perhaps that was what Yeshua had in mind when He said this:
“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. For John [the Baptist] came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him. (Matthew 21:28-32 NASB)