Why do siblings fight?

Sibling rivalry is not new. Consider these ancient examples:

Gen. 4:8b And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.

Gen. 21:8-9 The child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. Now Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking.

Gen. 27:41 ¶ So Esau bore a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him; and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”

The third example, Esau and Jacob, is a great lesson on sibling rivalry. It doesn’t teach us everything about sibling rivalry, but it illustrates some of the causes of it. Some of the causes are avoidable, but there was one factor that caused tension between Esau and Jacob that was not avoidable, and we can’t avoid it in our lives, either. Let’s start with Genesis 25.

What caused the rivalry between Esau and Jacob? One cause of the friction was parental favoritism.

Gen. 25:27 ¶ When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field, but Jacob was a peaceful man, living in tents.

Gen. 25:28 Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Another cause was a struggle over possessions and rights.

Gen. 25:30 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.

Gen. 25:31 But Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”

Gen. 25:32 Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?”

Gen. 25:33 And Jacob said, “First swear to me”; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.

Gen. 25:34 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.

A third cause was deceitfulness.

Gen. 27:15 Then Rebekah took the best garments of Esau her elder son, which were with her in the house, and put them on Jacob her younger son.

Gen. 27:16 And she put the skins of the young goats on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck.

Gen. 27:17 She also gave the savory food and the bread, which she had made, to her son Jacob.

Gen. 27:18 ¶ Then he came to his father and said, “My father.” And he said, “Here I am. Who are you, my son?”

Gen. 27:19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn; I have done as you told me. Get up, please, sit and eat of my game, that you may bless me.”

The deceit “worked” and Isaac blessed Jacob. This was the act that caused Esau’s grudge against Jacob; however, the parental favoritism and possession of the birthright were also factors.

Gen. 27:30 ¶ Now it came about, as soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, and Jacob had hardly gone out from the presence of Isaac his father, that Esau his brother came in from his hunting.

Gen. 27:31 Then he also made savory food, and brought it to his father; and he said to his father, “Let my father arise and eat of his son’s game, that you may bless me.”

Gen. 27:32 Isaac his father said to him, “Who are you?” And he said, “I am your son, your firstborn, Esau.”

Gen. 27:33 Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, “Who was he then that hunted game and brought it to me, so that I ate of all of it before you came, and blessed him? Yes, and he shall be blessed.”

Gen. 27:34 When Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!”

Gen. 27:35 And he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and has taken away your blessing.”

Gen. 27:36 Then he said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted me these two times? He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” And he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?”

Gen. 27:37 But Isaac replied to Esau, “Behold, I have made him your master, and all his relatives I have given to him as servants; and with grain and new wine I have sustained him. Now as for you then, what can I do, my son?”

Gen. 27:38 Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” So Esau lifted his voice and wept.

Gen. 27:39 ¶ Then Isaac his father answered and said to him,
“Behold, away from the fertility of the earth shall be your dwelling,
And away from the dew of heaven from above.

Gen. 27:40 “By your sword you shall live,
And your brother you shall serve;
But it shall come about when you become restless,
That you will break his yoke from your neck.”

Gen. 27:41 ¶ So Esau bore a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him; and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”

These three causes were mistakes and bad decisions made by people. You could argue that if Isaac, Rebekah, Esau, and Jacob had made better decisions, then the sibling rivalry may not have happened. That is true to an extent, but there is another cause of the friction between Esau and Jacob that is beyond human control because it was a decision that God made. Let’s go back to when Esau and Jacob were conceived.

Gen. 25:21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived.

Gen. 25:22 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.

Gen. 25:23 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.”

Yahweh decided that the older would serve the younger. No matter what Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, or Esau ever did or didn’t do, Esau was destined to serve his younger brother. Yes, Isaac’s favoritism led Esau to expect the blessing. Yes, it was bold for Jacob to ask for the birthright in exchange for one meal (although Esau agreed to sell it). And yes, Jacob deceitfully stole the blessing. However, since Yahweh had decided that Esau would serve Jacob, at some point Jacob would have had more than Esau, and Esau had to accept that fact or spend his life being bitter and envious. Consider these verses from Romans.

Rom. 9:10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac;

Rom. 9:11 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,

Rom. 9:12 it was said to her, “THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER.”

Rom. 9:13 Just as it is written, “JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED.”

Rom. 9:14 ¶ What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!


Rom. 9:16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.


Rom. 9:18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.

Jacob received more than Esau. So too with us. Some people have more talent than their siblings. Others have more beauty. Still others have more intelligence, more opportunities, or more wealth than their siblings. This can cause envy and bitterness within those who receive less, but ultimately, those with less just need to learn to live with it. As parents, we can help by treating our children as fairly as possible, by loving each child equally, and by being honest with our children. However, we also need to teach our children that life is not fair. Just as Esau had to accept his lot in life, so too each of us need to accept the fact that life is not fair. We need to accept who we are and what we have, even if our siblings (or friends) appear to have a better lot in life then us.


Further Reading

Do you want revenge?

What is the best inheritance we can leave our children?

How do we become satisfied with life?

Do you ever wonder where life went wrong?


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“Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.”