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The NASB20 (other translation are similar) has:

that there be no sexually immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal.

My interlinear rendering:

                  μή       τις     πόρνος           ἢ  βέβηλος ὡς Ἠσαῦ, 
     [that there] not [be] someone sexually immoral or profane as Esau, 

     ὃς  ἀντὶ         βρώσεως μιᾶς   ἀπέδετο τὰ  πρωτοτόκια ἑαυτοῦ.
     who over against food    of one sold    the birthright of himself.

Could it be that πόρνος (“sexually immoral”) should be thought of as metaphorical; as in, “hooking up with the world”? And then βέβηλος (“impure, profane”) is an “irreverence for the sacred”? And so, selling a birthright (πρωτοτόκια) was a “spit in the eye” to the one giving the birthright?

Or, is it more like πρωτοτόκια (“birthright”), when sold so cheaply, is to be thought of as being in the same class as sexual immorality and godless people? And so, selling a birthright was just simply wrong?

Or, something else, or some combination?

How are we to connect the "birthright selling" to "sexually immoral" and "the profane"?

I don't want to constrain the answers, but I tend to think the answers will have to, in some way, address the vast difference in cultural practice reflected by the language. That is, we don't have 'birthright'. So, what helps span the linguistic chasm?

See the Jewish Encyclopedia (birthright) for a relevant definition of 'birthright'.

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  • Wonder if Esau struggled with his sin, like David did? Well, we don’t know if he eventually did or not, because everything that happened may not have been written down. However, there seems to have be peace between the two brothers when they after many years met again. If so, it is possible that the early skirmish between the two brothers were written down to teach posterity a lesson about the value of crucifying one’s flesh in situations of temptation. Something we all have to learn by trial and error. Nobody is a lost case. Commented Jun 18 at 23:27
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    Although rabbinical tradition tends to see him largely as a ne'er-do-well the fact that he eventually complied with parents wishes and married within the clan (Gen 28:8-9) show that he did possess a spark of filial piety. In Gen 32 he was moved to embrace Jacob. Finally In Gen 35:29 he also performed a son's crucial duty of burying his father. Esau clearly had a conscience Commented Jun 19 at 3:31

4 Answers 4

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The author of Hebrews tells us
Chapter 12

12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

"Therefore" - verses 12 - 15 - the author lists actions that the followers of Jesus should be engaged in. Lifting drooping hands, strengthening knees, making straight paths so that the followers of Jesus can endure in their faith.

"see to it" - verses 15 - 17 the author lists examples of things that defile. Failing to obtain the grace of God, root of bitterness, sexual immorality, being unholy - like Esau are in the list of things that separate people from God and prevent people from being followers of Jesus.

When Esau sold his birthright it was an action that demonstrated his unholiness. Sexual immorality, bitterness, refusing God's grace are all actions that demonstrate unholiness. They are examples of what Hebrews 12:1 talks about that must be rejected because they prevent people from being followers of Jesus. In the struggle against sin (Hebrews 12 verses 3 and 4) followers of Jesus will endure as Jesus endured, not reject God's grace and holiness.

How did selling a birthright demonstrate his unholiness?
This wasn't just any birthright. An explanation of ancient birthright traditions will explain the mechanics of birthrights in the ancient world but it does not explain the importance of the birthright that Esau despised.

The birthright that God said Jacob was to inherit (Genesis 25:23) - not Esau - carried with it a covenant promise from God that started with Abraham. The context for this starts in Genesis 12:1.
According to the birthright tradition people assumed that the birthright would go to the oldest. God had other plans and Esau's actions demonstrate why he was unworthy.

The context for Esau selling his birthright can be found in Genesis 25:29 and following.

29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

By despising his birthright Esau was demonstrating that he cared more about the cravings of his stomach than the things of God just as sexual immorality is caring more about hormonal urges than the things of God.

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  • I wrote in the question, "Could it be that πόρνος ('sexually immoral') should be thought of as metaphorical; as in, 'hooking up with the world'? And then βέβηλος ('impure, profane') is an 'irreverence for the sacred'?". With your answer, I now see that both those words align quite closely with 'unholiness'. A meaning I understand as "treating or being profane that which is to be set apart for God." So, very good answer! Commented Jun 19 at 20:46
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The author of Hebrews was apparently familiar with Jewish traditions that are not directly in the Bible itself. These stories were not recorded for another two centuries but it is likely that they go back much farther. Indeed, Esau was infamous for his immoral lust. For example according to Bereshit Rabbah 63, Esau was already attracted to idol worship in his mother's womb:

Rabbi Berekhya in the name of Rabbi Levi: “The children were agitated within her (Rebekah)” – when she would stand adjacent to synagogues and study halls, Jacob would convulse to emerge. That is what is written: “Before I formed you in the belly I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5). When she would pass houses of idol worship, Esau would run and convulse to emerge. That is what is written: “The wicked are corrupt from the womb.”

The idolatrous shrines of this period were associated with ritual sex and sacred prostitution in which a priestess would act in the position of the goddess. Esau was infamous for visiting these shines.

Rabbi Levi said: When they grew and blossomed, this one produced its fragrance and that one produced its thorns. So, all thirteen years, both of them would go to school and both of them would come from school. After thirteen years, this one would go to study halls, and that one would go to houses of idol worship.

Genesis Rabbah 63:12 is very explicit, alleging that on the very day that he sold his birthright, Esau committed the cardinal sin of adultery with - and probably raping - a young virgin woman:

"Esau came from the field” – (several ancient rabbis are cited): He consorted with a betrothed young woman, as it is stated: “For he found her in the field” (Deuteronomy 22:27); “and he was weary.”

This propensity for idolatry and unbridled lust eventually led Esau to take foreign wives rather than seeking his parents' blessing, and event that is confirmed in the biblical record. One tradition that it was from trying not to see Esau's sins that Isaac became blind. Another says that his parents had planned to arrange for him to marry Leah, who became Jacob's wife only because Esau had strayed so badly. 1

Conclusion: Although the above-mentioned sources are later that the Book of Hebrews, we can presume that stories of Jacob's immorality were well known by the time Hebrews was written. There may have been word play as well, as this is a common phenomenon in biblical literature; but there was no need for it.

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  • Thanks, Dan. Can you tell me about how much later these writings are? In fact, if you know, I think you should add that to the answer. Commented Jun 18 at 20:55
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    Genesis Rabbah was compiled in the third-fifth centuries c.e. Rabbi Levi and others quoted in it lived in the 200's. There are few written Jewish sources for the period when Hebrews was written. Commented Jun 18 at 21:18
  • (+1) Agreed, even if you discarded every single one of these quotes as later tradition or dispute their origins, they point strongly to an ancient tradition slating Esau in such a manner that most likely goes back much further than the text in question here.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Jun 19 at 7:18
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There are several features of Esau's action that make his birthright sale an ideal metaphor for sexual immorality as per Heb 12:16.

Alienation of Birthright

It was feature of ancient Israelite culture that what they inherited could not be permanently sold or "alienated "(to use the technical commercial term). For example, if an Israelite sold his land it would revert to the family sometime later such as at the year of jubilees.

However, Esau permanently sold his birthright, and all it entailed, forever, ie, never to be recovered.

Descendants

The act of selling the birthright affected Esau's progeny - they would never enjoy the benefits and blessing that should have come from Esau's inheritance.

Royal Line of Christ

One of the prized aspects of the birthright was to be part of the ancestry of the future Messiah, as Jacob became. (This part of the birthright was inherited by Judah.) This was the spiritual aspect of the birthright that also involved being the spiritual leader of the family and clan.

Cheap Price

It is clear from the wording of Heb 12:16 that the author emphasizes the very low price for such a hugely valuable birthright. All the benefits for a single meal!

Uncontrolled Passion

Esau did this transaction based purely on his desires (hunger in this case) and Jacob exploited it. He sold a valuable commodity for a very low price and regretted it later.

Sexual Immorality

Sexual immorality has the same causes and similar consequences as Esau experienced - a cheap price for the loss of a valuable spiritual commodity of purity; alienation from Christ; consequences affect the person and their family and children for a long time afterward; etc.

The example of David's crime with Bathsheba is a perfect illustration of these effects - David's crimes alienated God and his family, caused four deaths (apart from Uriah's); he lost control of his wayward sons and lost the moral leadership of his family and almost the nation, etc. The consequences were ghastly!

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  • Thanks. Regarding your last paragraph, that brought immediately to mind the Matthean geneology. It starts at the height of the patriarchs, and with David, it turns a corner toward the Exile. Each pack of 14 generations illustrates a different chapter in the Israel story. Commented Jun 18 at 23:15
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How are we to connect the "birthright selling" to "sexually immoral" …?

Two possibilities:

1.) Perhaps the word was used as a pun on its root word, and simply meant selling oneself cheaply, since losing a birthright is giving up something that belongs not only to oneself but to all one's descendants.

G4205 Strong's Greek Lexicon says:

πόρνος
Root Word (Etymology)
From pernemi (to sell, akin to the base of πιπράσκω (G4097))

2.) Perhaps the word wasn't meant to apply to Esau:

Some translations (e.g. NIV) bind the "like Esau" to the birthright but not to the sexual immorality:

See that no one is
  sexually immoral,
or is
  godless like Esau, who
    for a single meal
    sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.

How are we to connect the "birthright selling" to … "the profane"?

What Esau traded was something sacred, holy to God, for something profane.

Had he retained it, he would have become Israel, the patriarch of the twelve tribes.
Instead he got to eat an ephemeral bowl of soup.

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  • Interesting. Perhaps combine the two: "See that no one sells themselves, or is godless like Esau, who ... sold..." The concept of 'selling' creates coherence. Also, βέβηλος (godless) carries connotations of "trodding under foot as if the object has no value". That connects, too. Commented Jun 18 at 20:22

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