What does Genesis chapter 36 mean?Genesis 36 consists of a list of Esau's offspring, focusing primarily on genealogy and the rulers of Edom, the nation that came from Esau. The chapter is inserted in Genesis between the generations of Isaac (Genesis 25:19), ending with his death in the previous chapter (Genesis 35:28–29), and the generations of Jacob, which follow Joseph's story through to the end of the book (Genesis 37:1–2).
Three of Esau's wives are listed as the mothers of his many sons. Strangely, the names of these wives and the fathers they came from are somewhat different from those reported in Genesis 26:34 and 28:9. It's possible Esau had other wives or that the names of his wives were changed. Esau took his wives from the Canaanite people of the land. Abraham had insisted that Isaac not marry a Canaanite woman. Isaac had directed Jacob to find a wife from their relatives outside of the land, as well. Esau's choice to marry these women may have contributed to his move away from the family.
Esau is associated with the name "Edom" due to his unique birth and an event earlier in his life (Genesis 25:25, 30). The land they come to rule also has a name with an ironic coincidence. Esau was known for being hairy (Genesis 27:11), and the word "seir" literally means "shaggy" (Genesis 36:1).
Esau's wives Adah, Oholibamah, and Basemath bore to him five sons, including Eliphaz, his firstborn. These sons were all born in the land of Canaan. Jacob's family was the reverse. All but one of his sons were born outside of the land before he moved back home. Esau's were born in the land before he moved his family and all that he owned away to the hill country of Seir (Genesis 36:2–5).
This territory was taken from the Horites (Genesis 14:6) during a period of conquest (Deuteronomy 2:12). Their choice to move away from Jacob fulfills prophecy about Esau breaking free from his brother's shadow (Genesis 27:39–40). It is driven by economics, since there aren't enough resources for both large clans (Genesis 36:6–8).
This chapter emphasizes repeatedly that Esau is Edom. That is, the Edomite people and nation all came from him. His grandsons are listed according to their fathers, and then listed again as the chiefs or tribal leaders in the land of Edom. One of the key names in this segment is Amalek: his descendants would become vicious enemies of Israel (Exodus 17:8, 16; Deuteronomy 25:17–19; 1 Samuel 15:2–3). Another part of this list mentions the kings of the Horites (Deuteronomy 2:12) who occupied the land (Genesis 14:6) before Esau's clans took over. The text also notes that Edom had kings long before Israel. This is because Israel will spend more than four centuries in slavery (Exodus 12:40), before an era under a series of "judges" (Judges 12:25), rather than under a king (Genesis 36:9–39).
Finally, the chapter lists another set of the chiefs of Esau, perhaps naming the regions in Edom by the original heads of the clans who occupied each area (Genesis 36:40–43).
Over time, the nation of Edom grew hostile towards Israel (Numbers 20:14–21; 1 Samuel 14:47; 2 Kings 8:20). This ultimately led to Edom's participation in Israel's defeat and exile, and the judgment of God on the Edomites (Obadiah 1:1–4, 10). Prophecy was fulfilled when the Nabateans overcame Seir and the nation of Edom was dissolved (Malachi 1:2–5). Survivors settled in Hebron, becoming known as the Idumeans. A notable member of this group was Herod the Great, who tried to have Jesus killed as an infant (Matthew 2:16–18). In AD 70, Idumeans tried to join the Jewish rebellion against Rome and were entirely obliterated. As a nation, and even as a distinct people group, they became extinct.