He’s such a tall, dark, strong, and handsome brute.
—Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast
Once in a while we mishear the words of a song. “Olive, the other reindeer” and “José, can you see?” come to mind. Sylvia Wright calls these mistakes “mondegreens” from a mistake of her own. Writing for Harper’s Magazine (1954), she said, “When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.”
The words in the last line were actually “and laid him on the green.”
An odd mondegreen seems to pop up in the opening song of Disney’s classic, Beauty and the Beast (1991). The three town beauties are singing about the manly Gaston. The lyrics on the sheet music have them say he’s a strong and handsome “brute.” But if you listen closely to the film’s soundtrack, the word sounds like “prince.” Certainly, “brute” rhymes with “cute” from the preceding line, but “prince” carries out the irony of the whole film with a keener touch. These superficial young women—the credits call them “bimbettes”—think that Gaston is a prince; in reality, he’s a brute, a beast. While the Beast in the film’s title is a prince by right and eventually becomes one in character, Gaston never changes. He’s bestial to the end—to his final fall into the abyss.
When we meet Gaston, he is standing in shadows, a deliberate hint from the gang in animation. He has just shot a passing duck out of the sky. Gaston is obviously a hunter, a pretty good one. But he knows little else. He is violent by nature and when force of personality fails him, he resorts quickly to his fists or weapons. He is shallow, vain, arrogant, and treacherous. He abhors thinking and can’t understand a book without pictures. He is sensual, ruled by his eyes and his appetite. He’s burly and brawny, for what that’s worth, but every last inch of him is “covered with hair”—like a beast. For those familiar with the Bible, all of this should sound oddly familiar.
A Tale of Two Brothers
Genesis tells us that Isaac and Rebekah had twin boys. The firstborn came out of his mother’s womb “red all over like a like a hairy garment.” (Gen. 25:25) His parents named him Esau meaning… hairy. Esau grew up to be a cunning hunter. He spent his time far away from his family’s herds and flocks, looking for game. The second twin was Jacob. Like his father and grandfather, he “dwelt in tents,” and basically took up the family business and followed the livestock.
The first account of these twins “come-to-manhood” is telling. Esau had been out hunting. He came in from the fields physically spent. It had been a long day, and he had apparently caught nothing. He came into the kitchen tent where Jacob was cooking up a tasty red lentil stew. Esau asked for some of “that red… red… whatever-it-is.” (In the Hebrew text, the adjective is repeated without a noun.) an outrageous deal: “Sell me your birthright first.”
The birthright, as the word suggests, normally went to the firstborn son. It included the right to succeed one’s father as chieftain, the privilege of acting as priest for the family, the duty of caring for one’s parents in their old age, and an extra share in the family inheritance to provide the necessary funds for all of these responsibilities. In the line of the patriarchs, the birthright was also wrapped up with the promise of the Messiah. The son with the birthright would be the ancestor of the Savior of the world. Pretty important stuff.
Jacob’s offer was obviously ridiculous. And yet Esau accepted it:
And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me? (Gen. 25:32)
We don’t know whether or not Jacob saw this coming. But whether his offer was made in sarcastic jest or as a serious business proposal, Jacob jumped on Esau’s response. He immediately asked for an oath. Esau said “no big deal.” Jacob gave him the stew and threw in some bread to boot. Once Esau gulped it all down, he got up and went his way. Obviously, he was nowhere near death’s door. Scripture says, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.”
What’s Really Going On In This Story
This story and the ones that follow have suffered horribly at the hands of commentators and Bible storybooks. Esau comes off as the manly outdoors type who fell into a trap set by his scheming, cruel hearted, kitchen-bound brother. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
To set the character of each these two men in proper perspective, we must remember that their grandfather, Abraham, who had 318 “trained servants” at his command, had ruled a sheikdom of some three thousand people. Isaac had inherited all of this and added to it. Jacob ran the family business as Esau spent the days hunting.
Esau’s hunting expeditions couldn’t have contributed much to the family business. He wasn’t bringing home stacks of caribou or heaps of wild bore. Game was scarce after all. Remember, Esau was a cunning hunter. Game was hard to find and even harder to catch. Esau had to sneak up on his prey or snare it with carefully set traps. Some days he came up empty. So what was Esau really doing out in the fields? He was playing. All the real responsibilities in the family business fell on Jacob.
The Profane Man
The New Testament’s attitude toward Esau is wholly negative; it calls him a fornicator and a profane person, “who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.” (Heb. 12:16) A closer look at Genesis makes this point as well.
• Esau was irresponsible. There was work to be done, and he ran away from it. No doubt his hunting was demanding, even exhausting, but his contribution to his family’s welfare was minimal. He was great at disciplined sport, poor at disciplined work.
• Esau was present-oriented. He lived for the pleasures and passions of the moment. He knew nothing of delayed self-gratification. He wanted everything now. He bargained away the promise of Messiah for a bowl of fast red food.
• Esau was profane and a stranger to the sacred. He had no interest in the things of God. He had no concept of spiritual reality, no concern for matters eternal. His god was his belly (Phil. 3:19). He only gave a nod to religion when it seemed there might be something in it for him.
• Esau was ruled by his passions. His tears came easily. So did his threats. And though he could be moved to deep regret, he never discovered repentance (Heb. 12:17).
• Esau was a poor husband. He married two women, Hittites, and then, in what was apparently a misguided attempt to gain parental approval, married a cousin as well (Gen. 26:34-35; 28:8-9). Whether this polygamy exhausted his lusts, the text does not say.
• Esau could not face life with manly integrity. He pushed his way through life with posturing, exaggerations, emotional tantrums, and violence. He wallowed in self-pity, self-righteousness, and self-approval.
• Esau’s mind and mouth were undisciplined. When he thought it, his lips moved. Scripture says that he spoke in his heart, and yet those around him heard him mutter his murderous intentions (Gen. 27:41-42). He couldn’t keep his own counsel or control his own tongue.
Just A “Plain” Man
Jacob was a “plain” man the text says (Gen. 25:27). Yet the Hebrew word means “morally upright,” and it is translated “perfect,” “upright,” or “undefiled” everywhere else in the Old Testament. It is the word God used to describe Job when He wanted to highlight his godly integrity (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3). And while Jacob had his faults, we will badly misunderstand his motives and actions if we don’t begin with God’s description of his character. (A point my daughter Tracy makes often.)
Jacob dwelt in tents we’re told. For the writer of Hebrews, this means that Jacob shared the faith and vision of his fathers (Heb. 11:9). He refused city life and by faith he looked down the road for the New Jerusalem. As an economic consequence, he followed the cattle, sheep and remained a pilgrim in a land that was his by promise.
Jacob worked long, hard hours—many of them outside in all kinds of weather. He was a shepherd and cattleman, after all. This is how he sums up the demands of his job: “Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes.” (Gen. 31:40) This is not whining. Jacob wasn’t soft. When he first came to Haran (Gen. 29), he found some shepherds waiting for others to uncap a well so they could all water their sheep. But when Jacob saw his cousin Rachel appear with her flock, he went to the well and single-handedly rolled away the huge stone. This, when he was in his 70s.
Jacob could also use a sword and a bow (Gen. 48:22), but he preferred peaceful negotiation and evangelism in his dealing with the surrounding people (Gen. 34). When he was returning from Haran and about to face Esau, he resorted to prayer and strategic precautions rather than violence.
Jacob loved one woman and worked seven years to win her. When he was tricked into marrying her sister instead, he stood his ground and accepted seven more years of indentured service for the sake of his true love (Gen. 29). His love endured. (Bigamy was forced on Jacob: he was an alien in a strange land with no legal recourse. His later acceptance of the two maidservants as concubines is another matter.)
It is hard to say how well Jacob fared as a father. He seems to have done well with Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn and not so well with his other sons (Gen. 37). He certainly played favorites. On the other hand, most of his sons turned out to be fairly responsible men in the end. They loved their father and mourned his passing. They went on to become the patriarchs of God’s new nation, Israel.
Israel. That was the name that Jacob received after a night of wrestling, literally, with God. But Jacob had been wrestling with God all his life, and in giving him a new name, God pronounced Jacob not only a player, but a winner. He had become a real man, a prince with God (Gen. 32:24-32).
Vanishing Manhood in America
Today most American males, like Esau, are fixated on the sensual and immediate, on gadgets, speed, and things that explode. Very few seem interested in disciplined living, self-sacrifice, or practical godliness. Responsibility and commitment are dull, stale, and maybe even scary for most. Hooking up is in. Romance and marriage are out. We have a nation of Esaus and Gastons. We need a nation of Jacobs – a nation of “plain” men. But as Belle discovered, it takes resurrection power to turn a beast into a prince. It takes the power of the gospel. It takes a Christ event.
For Further Reading:
James Jordan, Primeval Saints, Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001).
Weldon M. Hardenbrook, Missing from Action, Vanishing Manhood in America (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987).
Gary North, The Dominion Covenant: Genesis (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1982).
Rousas J. Rushdoony, Revolt Against Maturity, A Biblical Psychology of Man (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1977).