See to it that… no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 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 (Hebrews 12:15-17).
The passage above raises a question—why does the Scripture warn against being sexually immoral or unholy like Esau? Is there a relationship here between sexual immorality and the unholiness of Esau? Esau selling his birthright was hardly a sexual sin, so why does the sin of sexual immorality appear to be illustrated through Esau?
The story of Esau is one of the more difficult stories in the Bible. Esau is not a bad man, but rather one that appeared to be controlled by his appetites, and who suffered irreparably as a result. You remember the story from Genesis—Esau returns home famished from the field, sees Jacob cooking (apparently red) stew, and demands “The red, the red, cram it down me!”—a more literal rendering than the markedly more polite but less revealing ESV translation “Let me eat some of that red stew.” (Interestingly, the Scripture adds “therefore his name was called Edom,”—Edom meaning red—suggesting perhaps that this impulsivity was characteristic of Esau.) Jacob offers the stew in exchange for Esau’s birthright. Esau’s response is telling—“I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” What appeared useless in the moment, the birthright, would become tremendously important later, when Jacob stole what he and his mother likely determined was now his, the blessing that was the birthright of the firstborn. As we know from both Genesis and Hebrews, Esau in the end desired the blessing, but it was lost to him forever, even though he sought it with tears.
Sexual immorality is like that. God created man and woman for one another, sexual intimacy binding husband and wife together as one. That is what sexual intimacy is meant to do in marriage. Our birthright, as it were—that for which we are made, even (can we go this far?) to which we are entitled. When a man and a woman know one another in this way, and yet break apart, there is a tearing that happens, for a commitment is broken. Regardless of what we might think, and what our culture may say, sex is commitment. It is in the nature of the thing. Sex binds people together as one, regardless of our intentions. Therefore, when a man and a woman split up, a breaking happens. And we are not the same. Sexual freedom, as our culture preaches it, is a myth. In the end, it is bondage.
In sexual sin, we throw away our birthright. To satisfy an appetite, or a longing, we forsake the great blessing God created and intends for us. Perhaps if we held the long view, understanding the blessing that sexual intimacy is in a marriage, we wouldn’t throw it away in the short run. For sexual sin endures. Perhaps not the guilt, for the Lord forgives sexual sin, but the effects endure. We can heal, but perhaps like scar tissue, which is tough and yet vulnerable. But, again, we are not the same.
Some things cannot be taken back. Esau found out the hard way. The author of Hebrews calls us to learn from Esau, particularly in the area of sexual faithfulness, so that we might not do likewise. Hence the exhortation to see to it that no one is sexually immoral. The command does not say “don’t be sexually immoral” (though it obviously includes that), but rather exhorts us to look out for one another in this area. We are our brother’s keeper.