Genesis 33 and 36: Jacob and Esau
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 25, 2006
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that you had a good week. It was a busy one for my daughter Sarah and the other youth from Home Church who were part of the Mission Camp at Laurel Ridge. It is wonderful to see the enthusiasm of our youth as they work to make this world a better place for those who have not prospered in our economy. Madeleine was in a day camp at B’nai Shalom, the Jewish boarding school in Greensboro. She had a great time at the camp, and she was able to keep Kosher by not bringing any meat in her lunch. This past week the Northern Province had its synod and re-elected Dave Wickmann as president of the PEC. Our thoughts and prayers are with our northern brothers and sisters. In other news, the Episcopal Church chose an oceanographer as the presiding bishop. Apparently she was a controversial choice for the Anglican Communion worldwide, but I don’t think it will affect the Moravian – Episcopal dialog. Moravians have no problem with scientists or women as bishops.
We have come to the end of the story of Jacob and his brother Esau today. In this week’s lesson the estranged brothers reconcile. It is an important moment in the book of Genesis, and the reconciliation is told with great detail and passion. Remember, this story follows the story of Jacob wrestling with God and receiving a limp.
Read: Genesis 33
Jacob’s Humility: After sunrise, Jacob limped across the Jabbok stream and joined his family. We do not know if he explained to his wives and children why he was limping, but he was different in other ways as well. He saw Esau advancing with hundreds of men. Instead of running away or looking for a ruse, Jacob humbles himself. First he set up his wives and children in increasing order of importance to him. First there were the servants and their children, the Leah and her sons; and last of all Rebecca with her only son, Joseph. Jacob stands at the front of this family. Having wrestled all night, he was no longer afraid to face his brother, whom he had wronged.
Notice that Jacob did push his claim to leadership based on the birthright or the blessing. He does not demand that Esau accept him. Instead he kneels before seven times, bowing with his forehead to the ground each time as came nearer to his brother. This was a remarkable sign of humility for Jacob the heel-grasper. He displays his trust in his brother by standing vulnerable and defenseless before him. We might dismiss this as a mere ploy on Jacob’s part. It was just a show of humility in the face of an overwhelming force, but the important thing is that he did it. Jacob humbled himself as a step toward reconciliation with his brother.
Overcoming Pride: It is remarkable how many times brothers or sisters, wives and husbands, and friends cannot bring themselves to do what Jacob did. There has been a disagreement, a fight of some sort. Both people are angry, perhaps justly angry. Both people want to bring an end to the conflict, to restore their broken relationship, but they cannot because both are too proud. Each is too proud to be the first to say “I was wrong. I am sorry.” Each is too proud to bow their heads and ask for forgiveness.
Often it is our pride that keeps us in isolation; that alienates us from our neighbors and our families. It is our pride that makes us call lawyers and sue over petty grievances. It is our pride and our desire to be proven righteous that keeps us from admitting our mistakes and being forgiven. It is pride that leads people and nations down the path to war. Pride says that we must pay back insults and injuries. We must stand tall and resolute. We cannot back down. We must win at all costs. Too often in our personal lives and our national life, we prefer violence to humility.
Not Jacob. He bows to the ground seven times before Esau. He literally offers his neck to his brother who could have easily removed his head from his shoulders. Each bow was an apology; a request for forgiveness; a recognition of the bond of brotherhood. We might choose to doubt Jacob’s sincerity and motivation in humbling himself, but there is no doubting Esau’s desire for reconciliation. There are few passages in Scripture like this one where Esau runs to his brother, hugs him, kisses him, and weeps. Even in a culture where men are allowed to display affection and emotion more freely than ours, this is a touching scene of reconciliation. Twenty years of anger were washed away in a few moments of tears. All of the hurt; all of the wounded pride; all of the hatred were swept away in a moment. Jacob and Esau recognized that they were still brothers.
Gifts: Esau was also magnanimous. He did not press his claims against his brother. He did not bring up the old offense. The past was past. Sometimes there is no need to speak the word of forgiveness. It just happens. I think we sometimes work too hard to solve all our problems instead of just moving on. Instead of finding peace and reconciliation, we merely keep rehearsing past offenses and nursing old grudges. When the danger had passed, Jacob presented his wives and children to his brother. They also bowed to honor Esau, and he was again moved. Esau simply accepts the respect his given and acknowledges that his brother has been blessed.
He then asks Jacob about the animals that he had sent ahead. Clearly, Jacob’s gifts had an impact on Esau. Jacob even admits that the gifts were intended to make Esau think better of him. But Esau does the right thing again. “Keep them,” he says. “I have plenty.” He does not want his brother to think he is greedy or needy. “Keep them, we’re brothers.” In a way, the two were playing roles in a social play, but such roles are not meaningless. It seems that we are no longer teaching our children the right things to say in these situations.
Jacob also did the right thing by insisting that his brother keep the animals. They are playing a social game. Both men knew that Jacob was actually offering a repayment for what he had stolen 20 years earlier, but it would have been wrong to say so. That would have robbed the moment of its power. Then it would have become a business transaction, an insult. Now, it had to be a gift freely given and freely accepted. Then the past could be buried. What Jacob had offered first as a bribe to appease an angry brother had became a gift of gratitude for his brother’s forgiveness.
The Face of God: Jacob says something interesting in this exchange, though. “For to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” I’m not sure what to make of this sentence since Jacob had just seen the face of God during his struggle the night before. In that story he was surprised that he looked God in the face and lived to tell about it. Perhaps he had that same feeling of surprise when he looked in Esau’s face and lived. But we might look at this a different way and ponder the face of Esau in this scene. He has embraced Jacob with tears running down his cheeks. This is an image of God that we often neglect, but it is in Scripture. Think of the waiting father who cried for joy when the prodigal son returned.
Think of how we try to hide from the face of God, either because of our guilt, or pride, or fear, or laziness, or ignorance. Think of how hard it is to come before God. We long for reconciliation with our Creator, with our truest self, but we delay. Finally, the time comes for the encounter that we have long dreaded. We turn toward God, limping in our brokenness, bowed in our shame and grief, but what do we see? A brother rushing to welcome us home; a sister with tears streaming down her face; a father or mother whose face is alight with joy.
This is the message of reconciliation that we can learn from Jacob. This is one of the most important messages of our faith. We Christians look to Jesus Christ as the one who reconciles us with God. This is why we call him our Savior, because he makes it possible for us to turn toward God, and in the face of Jesus we see the tears shed for us. But that is not the end of the work of reconciliation. The Bible teaches us the art of reconciliation between humans as well as between humans and God. As John Amos Comenius once wrote, “You are Christians, sworn to unite and not to separate, to expand and not to contract, to enlighten and not to obscure, to cure anxiety and defend the Kingdom.” We are called to humble ourselves for the sake of others; to make peace when others want war; to speak the truth in love.
In some ways, we wish the story of Jacob and Esau ended right here. If Genesis was a Hollywood movie script or an episode of Oprah, it would have. But Genesis reminds us that life goes on after the peak moments. We face up to our defining moments; we meet the crisis; and then we discover that we have to go on living. And we find that reconciliation does not mean that all issues are resolved. I am sure that the two brothers did some catching up. “Whatever happened to mom and dad?” Things like that, but then it was time to go back to daily living.
Jacob and Esau have grown, but they are still human beings. They are still flawed. Jacob has learned caution through the years. Esau assumes that Jacobs is planning to live with him and be part of the tribe again. Esau naturally assumes that he will be the clan leader since Jacob has humbled himself. He expects Jacob to go with him back to the land of Seir, but Jacob is hesitant. He tells his brother that the children and the flocks cannot travel so fast. “Go ahead. I’ll catch up,” he says. But the truth is, he has no plans to live with Esau. One day he might go and visit his brother in Seir, but he is not going to take his family and flocks there. It would be wrong to be rude to his brother, but it might be unwise to go with him, too.
Esau tries to leave some of his men to help Jacob. Commentators are divided over whether Esau is being sincere here in wanting to help Jacob or if he was trying to force Jacob to come to Seir. This could have been a strong-arm tactic to assert control and authority over Jacob. Even though they had reconciled, they still did not fully trust one another. That might have been wise. For his part, Jacob refuses Esau’s offer as nicely as he can. Esau rides off to the east, and Jacob chose a different path. He settled at Succoth not Seir.
We are going to skip ahead a bit in order to finish the story of Esau. We’ll save chapter 34 and the rape of Dinah for next week. When we come to the end of chapter 35 there is a brief statement about the death of Isaac. We’ve pretty much forgotten Isaac during the course of the Jacob story. It is a little odd that no mention of the father is made during the reconciliation with Esau. It appears that Isaac had stayed at Hebron, the home of Abraham, while his two sons went their separate ways. He lived a long life. 180 years, according to the text. We know nothing about his life after Jacob fled from his tent, but we are told that he was buried in Hebron in the cave where his mother was buried. The key part of this little passage, though, is that “his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.” Though they had gone their separate ways after the emotional reconciliation, they were no longer enemies. Together they buried their father, just as Isaac and Ishmael had buried Abraham.
Chapter 36 then gives the genealogy of Esau. It is rather boring reading and there is no need to go into in detail, but there are some observations that we should make about the 200 names listed. One is that the author of Genesis has probably collected three lists of names associated with the kingdom of Edom and compiled them here. Some scholars speculate that the lists themselves were written down in the days of King David when Israel subjugated Edom. Since Esau was considered the patriarch of Edom, it made sense to list the names of the kings as well as the names of his descendents. A second thing to note is that the information in this chapter does not agree fully with information elsewhere in Genesis, such as the names of his wives (e.g. 28:9/36:3), but in general it paints a reliable picture of how the family of Esau developed into a tribe and then a nation.
36:6-8 are interesting because they give a different picture of the relationship between Esau and Jacob than we just read about. According to chapter 36, Esau moved away from Jacob, taking with him all of his family and flocks, much like Lot moved away from Abraham. They left Canaan and settled in Seir because the two families had grown so large. In chapter 33, as we saw, Esau was already living in Seir before Jacob returned from Haran. How do we explain this discrepancy? The easiest solution is to recognize that the Priestly account of Jacob and Esau was different from the J account. In the Priestly story, Jacob was sent by his mother to get a wife in Haran and returned shortly after. He settled down as head of the family, and then his brother decided to move away peacefully. That version of the story is quite different from the one we’ve been discussing. It might well have been that there were elements of truth in both versions. The important thing for the author of Genesis was that Esau ended up becoming a mighty prince in Edom and Jacob was the patriarch of Israel in Canaan.
The most important observation to make about the genealogies of Esau and the kings of Edom is that they are included in the Bible at all. An entire long chapter is devoted to Esau and his family even though they are not Israelites. The Old Testament is the story of the family of Israel or Jacob and God’s covenant with them, but a great deal of ink is used here to tell the story of Esau. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, the people of Edom are said to be brothers to the Israelites and are to be welcomed in the assembly (Num. 20:14, Deut. 23:7-8). This is not what we expect from the Old Testament. We expect the sacred book to tell only the story of the Chosen People, the Chosen Race of the descendents of Jacob, but here the Edomites are treated as brothers. We are accustomed to viewing the story of the covenant as being passed down from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to the 12 tribes, but it is not that simple. We’ve already seen that the genealogy of Ishmael was included in Genesis, and here we have the descendents of Esau.
This observation becomes more significant when we realize that Esau is portrayed quite positively in Genesis. Centuries later, Jewish and Christian interpreters will turn Esau into a negative character who was rejected by God, but we saw little of that in Genesis. In fact, it is often Jacob who is portrayed more negatively. Esau was a hairy man and not as shrewd as his twin brother, but he is portrayed as a good and noble leader of his clan. He was faithful to his father and he was forgiving to his brother. He became a powerful sheik, but he is not portrayed as warlike or violent. The ties of family continued to unite the Edomites, Ishmaelites, and Israelites and other tribes of the ancient Near East for centuries. Sometimes they fought each other, but they also dealt peacefully with each other. We forget that the word Semitic refers to many Middle Eastern peoples whose stories and bloodlines are interwoven.
There are no stories of Esau’s dealings with God like there are of Jacob, but that does not mean he was rejected by God. We should not be too quick to assume that Esau was not included in the covenant, either. The later phrase the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” was used by the descendents of Jacob to describe the God of their ancestors, but it does not mean that the rest of the family was excluded from the covenant or had no knowledge of God. We should not be too quick to assume that the OT is exclusive and the NT is universal. Repeatedly in Genesis, we have seen clues that point to a broader understanding of God and his working with people in the world. Walter Brueggemann wisely draws attention to the fact that “this awareness has important implication for the faith community in the context of the human community. While God has a particular and precious relation to this chosen community, it is not the Lord’s only commitment. In other ways and on other grounds, these others are also held in his care and kept in his promise.” (Genesis, 287). That is a useful insight for Christians and Jews and Muslims alike. God’s work is always greater than our ability to perceive, and his mercy is wider than our hope.
Next week we’ll look at Genesis 34 and the story of Dinah and Shechem.