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Esau the Fornicator?


Hebrews 12:16 “Make sure that no one is [sexually] immoral or godless like Esau, who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal.”

This verse could link Esau to fornication. This fornication could be linked to his Gentile wives. In K Harpers’ paper, Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm, he said this verse called Esau sexually immoral, "probably referring to exogamy". Jason Whitlark said if the writer calls Esau sexually immoral because of these unions, it implicitly warns the audience not to enter marries with pagans. “If this is the case, then such a warning against mixed marriages might also stand behind the exhortation in 13.4 to keep the marriage bed undefiled."

However, this verse can't prove mixed marriage is fornication.

The Greek

Firstly, we can't know whether both terms refer to Esau. John Chrysostom said Hebrews didn’t call Esau fornicator, but only profane.

The Greek word translated as OR could describe Esau as sexually immoral and godless, or “just” godless. For example, the NIV renders the verse: "See to it that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau." A comma separates sexually immoral from Esau, meaning the term didn't apply. said a copulative conjunction means “the second word, phrase, clause, or sentence contains an additional fact that is related to the earlier word, phrase, clause, or sentence.” Does the Greek word connect Esau to both sexual immorality and godlessness? Then it would be a copulative conjunction. If, however, it is a disjunctive, then Esau was only godless, not a fornicator.

David Allen claimed he, along uwith most commentators, didn’t believe only godless referred to Esau. “BDF §446 classifies [or] as predominantly copulative, rather than disjunctive.” William L. Lane said the Greek word for OR is “never strictly disjunctive; in fact, it frequently has the force of a copulative conjunction in negative clauses that include synonyms like fornicator and godless.”

Stanley Porter suggested although the verse could refer to Esau as only a godless person, it most likely included both because of Esau’s connection with sexual immorality in extra-Biblical literature.

However, not all scholars agree. F. F. Bruce concurred with Westcott that Hebrews probably only referred to Esau as godless.



Even applying the term fornicator to Esau, it needn’t be literal.

In The New American Commentary, David Allen suggested that the word is figurative. He said Hebrews compared Esau with the wilderness generation in Numbers 14:33. Those people committed fornication, but in a metaphorical sense.

Allen also wrote a paper, Deuteronomic Re-presentation in a Word of Exhortation. He said, “the covenantal context of 12:18-24, coupled with the prior warning against apostasy (12:15a), make it more likely that [pornos] denotes here ‘spiritual,’ rather than ‘physical,’ fornication. Esau’s rejection of his birthright was tantamount to spiritual prostitution and de facto idolatry.”

Some scholars hold to the literal meaning. Hebrews 13 said the marriage bed must be undefiled because God would judge the sexually immoral and adulterers. Paul Ellingsworth said since Hebrews used fornication in the literal sense there, it likely has the literal sense when talking about Esau, as well. However, it also included overtones of porneia as unfaithfulness to God.

Jewish Tradition

Some Jewish traditions relate Esau’s fornication to his mixed marriages. In the book of Jubilees, Rebecca called all deeds of the Canaanites fornication and lust, so she warned Jacob not to take a wife from them. Jacob responded that Abraham warned against lust and fornication.

Philo also seemed to portray Esau’s mixed marriages as sexual immorality. William Loader said, “Rebecca’s concern with Esau’s Canaanite wives receives both allegorical treatment when he depicts them as symbols of senseless and ‘unrestrained impulses’ ....and comment at a literal level about intermarriage.”

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However, other acts besides intermarriage may have given Esau the reputation as a fornicator. Robert Hayward asserted, “Already in the first century CE, Josephus had signaled that Esau’s family was unsatisfactory, informing us that Amalek was a bastard born to Esau of a concubine.” [sic]. Amalek wasn’t Esau’s son but his grandson.

There is a set of books called the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. Leonhard Rost said perhaps all the Testaments besides those of Naphtali and Levi may not have appeared until the first century.

Harm Wouter Hollander and Marinus De Jonge’s translation of the Testament of Benjamin 10:10 says that God “convicted Esau through the Midianites who refused to be their brothers through impurity and idolatry.” They said, “the Midianites contrast favorably with Esau or his descendants.” William Loader noted, “power [in the statement] is evident in having even the Midianites, notorious for sexual wrongdoing and idolatry (Num 25:6-18) reject Esau’s people on grounds of sexual immorality.”

However, some translations of this verse say that either the Midianites loved their brothers or deceived their brothers, so they fell into immorality and idolatry. I couldn’t find much info on it.


Rabbi Akiva (50 AD- 135 AD) may have been the first rabbi to associate Esau with Rome. Catherine Hezser said rabbis connected Rome with vices, including sexual immorality. Sacha Stern said that Romans embodied the vices of non-Jews, prone to many evil practices, including homosexuality. “Esau, identified as the Biblical ancestor and forerunner of Rome, is similarly described in the Midrash...”

Later Jewish Rabbis (born from 180 to 300) said Esau committed many kinds of sexual immorality. Although the sayings were attributed to Rabbis living in that time, the sayings could come from the first century. Even if the midrashim attributes a saying to a specific rabbi, John Barton said the idea can often be traced back to earlier sources. Jonathan L. Reed stated opinions attributed to later rabbis might come from the first century. Keener said, “if sayings or ideas rapidly became the property of the community, their sources could be more ancient than the specific rabbis who first cited them or to whom they were attributed….”

The rabbis accused Esau of:

1. Committing five sins the day he lost his birthright, which exhausted him. One transgression included sex with a married woman. This story comes from Targum Pseudo-Yonathan, (no attribution), Talmud Bava Batra 16B (Rabbi Yochanan, who lived between 180-279 AD), and Midrash Tanchuma Shemot 1:5 (no attribution). One source, Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Toldot 3:11 (no attribution), only names three. Rabbi Abbahu (who lived in the late 200s and early 300s) said in Pesikta Rabbati 12 that Esau raped a woman the day he got his birthright

2. He would hunt and rape married women Genesis Rabbah 65:

3. He committed homosexual acts according to R. Hiya Bar Abba (born 180) in Genesis Rabbah

4. In Genesis Rabbah 82:12, some rabbis interpreted Jeremiah 49:10 about God laying Esau bare. Rabbi Simon said God pealed him as an onion to disclose his secrets to reveal the illegitimate children among them. Three rabbis discuss this, Rav [Abba Arikha], born 175, Rabbi Levi, and Rabbi Benjamin.

5. His sons practiced incest. Some Rabbis taught God concerned Himself with Esau’s genealogy in Genesis “to disclose their [Esau’s descendents] degeneracy." Esau had a son named Eliphaz. Midrash Tanchuma Vayeshev 1 explains Tima was both Eliphaz’s daughter and concubine

6. Incest ran in Oholibamah’s, one of Esau’s wives, family. Zibeon had sex with his mother and gave birth to Anah. Anah was both Zibeon’s son and his brother. Zibeon also had sex with Anah’s wife, and she gave birth to Oholibamah.



In the end, the verse in Hebrews remains cryptic. It doesn't prove intermarrying is a sin. For one, we dont know for sure that the verse calls Esau a fornicator. Even if it does, that doesn't prove that was meant in the literal sense. Even if it is, other acts besides mixed marriage could have given Esau the reputation.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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