Genesis 32:4-22; 33:1-9
Esau was the first-born son, the child of privilege, a privilege he would never enjoy. For beginning in the birth canal, younger brother Jacob would grab and twist and steal Esau’s privilege, taking everything from his brother’s birthright to Father Isaac’s blessing. To Jacob, Esau was never a beloved older brother; he was one big, hairy step to climb over on his way to get whatever he wanted. Young Jacob would laugh his way to Uncle Laban’s house, leaving his fleeced brother behind.
Many years would pass and finally the reunion Jacob had always dreaded would arrive.
(Read Genesis 32:4-22)
4 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau . . . with these instructions, 'Say this to my lord Esau, " . . . I have been staying with Laban and have been delayed there until now, 6 and I own oxen, beasts of burden and flocks, and men and women slaves. I send news of this to my lord in the hope of winning your favour." ' 7 The messengers returned to Jacob and told him, 'We went to your brother Esau, and he is already on his way to meet you; there are four hundred men with him.' 8 Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people with him, and the flocks and cattle, into two camps, 9 thinking, 'If Esau comes to one of the camps and attacks it, the remaining camp may be able to escape.' 10 Jacob prayed, 'God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, [you] who told me, "Go back to your native land and I will be good to you," . . . save me from my brother Esau's clutches, for I am afraid that he may come and attack me, mothers and children alike. 13 Yet it was you who said, "I shall be very good to you, and make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which is too numerous to count." Then Jacob passed that night there. From what he had with him he chose a gift for his brother Esau: 15 two hundred she-goats and twenty he-goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 16 thirty camels in milk with their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male. 17 He put them in the charge of his servants, in separate droves, and told his servants, 'Go ahead of me, leaving a space between each drove and the next.' 18 He gave the leading man this order: 'When my brother Esau meets you and asks, "Whose man are you? Where are you going? Whose are those animals that you are driving?" 19 you will answer, "Your servant Jacob's. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau. And Jacob himself is just behind us." ' 20 He gave the same order to the second and the third, and to all who were following the droves. 'That is what you must say to Esau when you find him. 21 And you must add, "Your servant Jacob himself is just behind us. . . . The gift went ahead of him, but he himself spent that night in the camp.
As the story opens today, Esau and a great company await the arrival of Jacob after long years apart. You know what happens next. The pages of literature are lined with stories of mistreated kin lying in wait to get even. Shylock, in the Merchant of Venice, will not rest until he has his “pound of flesh.” The body count of revenge rarely gets higher than in Hamlet. Early in the play, Gertrude encourages Hamlet to “cast thy nighted color off,” but it is the ghost of Hamlet’s father who urges revenge, “If thou didst ever thy father love, revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I, v, 24-24). Many a classic is fueled by the thirst for revenge. That is what you expect to happen when at long last Esau meets up with Jacob.
As a second born son, I get Jacob. He has avoided Esau as long as possible and now that a meeting is inevitable, Jacob’s prayer life suddenly improves. He doesn’t ask God for guidance or forgiveness. Jacob does not pray “thy will be done,” no the crafty one reminds God that it would just not do for God to forget a promise. “Look God, I’m about to meet up with Esau who could well put an end to me, that is, if you allow it, if you ignore the promise you made to my granddaddy Abraham and my dad, Isaac, and through Isaac’s blessing – and my brother’s stupidity – to me.”
I get Jacob and not just because I am second-born. It is fine to trust that God will work the way we think God is supposed to work, but just in case, it is best to have a solid Plan B. Jacob never does anything without a solid Plan B. So, this scheming younger brother decides to be the Santa Claus that Esau never knew.
By this point, Jacob has accrued a considerable fortune and he divides it into two companies to meet Esau. Whichever company Esau meets first, the head of the gift-giving party is to say, “Esau, all these gifts are for you from your loving brother Jacob who has been temporarily delayed.” The strategy is simple. If Esau’s forces level one of Jacob’s companies, at least he can escape with much of his fortune and his life. Jacob knows exactly what he would do if he were in Esau’s shoes, so he plans accordingly. I get Jacob.
And yet the story takes a very unexpected turn.
Genesis 33:1 Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming and with him four hundred men. He . . . went ahead of them and bowed to the ground seven times, until he reached his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet him, took him in his arms, threw himself on his neck and wept as he kissed him. 5 Then looking up he saw the women and children. 'Who are these with you?' he asked. Jacob answered, 'The children whom God has bestowed on your servant.' . . . Esau asked, 'What was the purpose of that whole camp I just met?' 'To win my lord's favour,' he replied. 9 'Brother, I have plenty,' Esau answered, 'keep what is yours.'
Jacob, I get, but not Esau. After all these years, Esau gives Jacob a gift that Jacob could never anticipate – the gift of his forgiveness. Somehow time has not hardened Esau, making him hate his younger brother more each day.
We are not told how, but somehow Esau rises above understandable hatred and writhing vengefulness to forgive a brother who has done absolutely nothing to merit that forgiveness. While most of Genesis casts the spotlight on Jacob, especially on his Olympic style wrestling match with God set between the two readings today, for me, Esau is the most memorable brother in this story.
Well, you and I know that this is just a story. It simply does not work this way in real life; it cannot. It would never work in the dog eat dog world marketplace. It would not even work in our own families when we want our fair share of the inheritance.
Nearly 60 years ago, a young, African American preacher offered his own take on Esau’s gift, on the gift of a life lived in the rhythm of forgiveness and love. Martin Luther King, Jr, wrote, “We must in strength and humility meet hate with love . . . Maybe in some distant Utopia, you say, that idea will work, but not in the hard, cold world in which we live.
“My friends,” King goes on to say, “we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now . . . Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts . . .
“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering . . . Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you . . . Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory’” (Strength to Love, pp 54-55).
There is no question that Esau has every reason to hate his brother and to seek revenge. He had been victimized by his own family, by his own twin brother. Jacob may well have had a change of heart after his night long wrestling match with God, but Esau’s heart needed no change. What Esau cared about more than dealing with the wrongs done to him was seeking reconciliation with the one who had done him harm.
I remember first reading about Esau when I was a teen and the evening news was filled with footage of body bags of American soldiers returning from Vietnam. I thought of Esau again in those surreal days after 9/11, as I watched rerun after rerun of planes exploding into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and felt rage rising within me and within our nation.
I get Jacob, but I can only wonder about someone like Esau who has every right to retaliate and yet chooses to forgive. I wonder how King learned what Esau somehow knew – that hatred and vengefulness wreak havoc in the soul of an individual as well as the soul of a nation.
At the inauguration of Nelson Mandala as President of South Africa, his white jailer sat as a specially invited guest in a box seat. About his good friend, Nelson Mandela, the Archbishop Desmund Tutu writes, “Everything had been done to break his spirit and to make him hate-filled. In all this the system mercifully failed dismally” (No Future Without Forgiveness, p. 39).
I wonder if Jacob ever found the road to wholeness. I wonder if hatred and vengefulness ever serve any person or any nation well, if they ever result in peace and security and prosperity. I wonder if Esau not only confounded his twin brother, but confounds all of history by giving the gift of forgiveness that leads to reconciliation, just when Jacob is scheming for a fight.
Esau gets little attention in the long Jacob saga in Genesis.