Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Jacob's reconciliation with Esau

Jacob models for us a truth at the core of our faith: our relationships with God and people are linked. Esau runs to greet his brother. Intent on revenge, Esau threatened to kill Jacob for having wronged him. Jacob bows down before Esau and insists that Esau receive the gifts. Jacob can finally fulfill his promise to Esau, “I will eventually come to you,” and the world can be united under one G-d, with each nation serving in its own unique way.

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Jacob is telling Esau and all of us that there is much work to be done in resolving the inherent tension between the material and the spiritual. In the previous episode involving the two brothers, Jacob stole Esau's birthright and blessing by tricking their father, Isaac. Likewise, in that human reconciliation, we come to see and know God better. Our reconciliation with God makes possible our reconciliation with others. Esau showed forgiveness in spite of this bitter conflict. Genesis 32–33 tells of Jacob and Esau's eventual reconciliation. Christ alone can be our peace, but we are his ambassadors for it. Seeking to protect Jacob from his brother's wrath, their mother, Rebecca, sent Jacob to live with her brother Laban. Esau refuses the gifts, as he is now very wealthy and does not need them. With his brain working overtime (what would someone need four hundred men for?), Jacob first splits his caravan into two in the hope that one of the two of them might escape.

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We read only a short time ago, in Genesis 27, that Jacob stole the birthright and blessing of his brother, Esau. His hip is knocked out of joint but he keeps on wrestling and gains the name.

The ambiguous identity of Jacob’s wrestling opponent is a deliberate feature of the story. In a strange way, as the story comes to an end, Esau is still being generous, while Jacob is still trying to get away.

This encourages Jacob to send his own messengers (malachim) to Esau to announce his arrival with a hint that he is now rich, and that it might be in Esau’s interests to receive him. His benevolence towards Jacob is generous. In fact Jacob has to use all his rhetorical skills to make him accept anything. He wants nothing of Jacob’s, no restitution. “Just let me remain on friendly terms with you,” Jacob tells Esau.

The transformation of Esau is astonishing. Jacob does so and stays away until his brother's anger has subsided. In order to escape Esau's angry wrath and save Jacob's life, their mother, Rebecca, arranged for Jacob to leave home and go far away. (After this, God confirms his renaming of Jacob as "Israel".) Jacob gets the name Israel after he wrestles with the Angel of God as he is traveling to Esau. Jacob rejects even Esau’s offer to help by putting “some of my people at your disposal,” even that poses too great of a risk. The messengers return, and strike fear into Jacob’s heart: Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. And this work must be done with complete focus. Jacob had inflicted a wound on his brother that may never heal.

The encounter between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33:4 appears to be a friendly one. The work of reconciliation applies to families, friends, churches, companies, even people groups and nations. It is fortunate that Esau does not kill Jacob or even hold a grudge against him, but has Esau truly forgotten and forgiven Jacob's betrayal? Does real forgiveness take place between the two men? Although the brothers part unscathed from their encounter, is their relationship really repaired?

Today, after 3568 years of work, the world has become refined and the reconciliation can be completed. It highlights the inseparable elements of Jacob’s struggling with both God and man. Jacob sends his whole family and multiple wives of gifts to Esau as they approach each other in hopes that Esau will spare Jacob's life. However, shortly after their encounter the two part ways and do not meet again until their father's funeral. Springing from God’s initial promise to Abraham, this is a blessing that ought to touch the whole world.

The drama of Jacob and Esau is not over yet. He hugs Jacob and kisses him.

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