This event – the reconciliation of Esau and Jacob – has long captured my imagination. The rupturing of their relationship was overflowing with emotion. So, it should be no surprise that the reconciliation here is also full of emotion. There is also a large measure of raw, burly physicality in the reconciliation of these two men – strong, successful, in the prime of their lives.
The one, Jacob, has really committed an inexcusable betrayal against his brother. There is a tendency among pious Bible readers to assume that those who are God’s chosen ones must always be the “good guys” in the stories. That is often seen in the way this story is presented. Jacob, we know, is the one whom God has chosen to bear the covenant and to father the covenant people. Esau is not. Also, it cannot be denied that Esau acted impetuously and irreverently in the earlier event of trading his birthright for bowl of stew. Yet, even so, in that event, Jacob acted in a self-serving, cunning, and most unbrotherly way to take advantage of Esau’s impulsiveness.
But whatever foolishness and downright boneheadedness Esau may have shown in the earlier loss of his birthright, the loss of his father’s primary blessing can in no way be blamed on Esau. Jacob, at the devious instigation of his mother, stole it from Esau plain and simple. (See Genesis 27) In that event, Esau and Isaac, too, were simply victims. Jacob was without mitigation the guilty party. Esau was justly indignant.
The level of disrespect that Jacob shows toward his father in this act is quite breathtaking and strangely not often commented on. And it is impulsive Esau who, out of respect and honor for his father and his father’s feelings, restrains himself in his fury. “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41) He will spare his father and wait until his father has died before he exacts his revenge on his wicked brother, Jacob.
Certainly, without recognizing what she was doing, Rebekah imposes on Jacob a revenge more creative and ultimately perhaps more redemptive than Esau could have imagined. Having gotten wind of Esau’s unsurprising fury, Rebekah sends Jacob away to spend some time with her brother Laban, where she hopes also he will find a wife. In Laban, Jacob meets someone more self-serving, unscrupulous, and nasty than even he himself is.
We’ll pass over the long years that Jacob spent under Laban’s manipulative abuse, which must have stretched to maybe three decades or more. With much difficulty and risk, Jacob manages to extract his wives, his children, and the enormous wealth that he had accumulated while working for Laban. And at God’s insistence, Jacob returns to Esau. His parents are still living at this point. But Jacob cannot return to his family without returning to Esau, and so that is his announced destination – facing Esau.
Jacob sends messengers ahead of him to Esau to alert him to the fact that he – Jacob – is returning. He has to know that for him to simply suddenly show up on Esau’s doorstep could prove to be a fatal act. Jacob instructs his messengers to plead his humble desire to “find favor” in Esau’s eyes. When the messengers return to Jacob they bring what sounds like ominous news. Esau is coming to meet him, and he is bringing 400 men with him. Certainly, Esau is not bringing these men in order to help carry Jacob’s luggage. So, why is he bringing them?
Jacob believes he know. He is convinced that Esau means to attack him and so exact his avowed revenge. And in my experience, most Bible readers are inclined to simply assume that Jacob is right about Esau’s intentions. Let me say that I am not so convinced that Jacob’s assumption is correct. The facts of the events don’t add up to that conclusion. At no point ever does Esau initiate any threat toward Jacob. Let me suggest that Esau didn’t bring those four hundred men to attack Jacob. He brought them to protect him and his interests against a man who had never given Esau any reason to trust him. Let’s look at the situation from Esau’s perspective.
Jacob’s messengers arrive at Esau’s home to announce that Jacob is coming and hopes to meet with Esau. Why is Jacob coming back? Esau surely must assume that Jacob is returning to assert his birthright. In those twenty-five or thirty years, Esau has prospered greatly. The apparent ease with which he is able to assemble four hundred men in his service is testament to that. So, now, Esau must be wondering, will Jacob try to claim that two-thirds of Esau’s possession belong to him? That’s how the birthright worked. In the case of a family with two sons, the estate would have been divided into three parts. The elder son would receive two parts and the young one part. With that bowl of stew, Jacob had bought the right to the two parts share. Would Jacob try to assert a claim to Esau’s possessions? Esau had to be wondering that. Could he trust Jacob? Would you have trusted Jacob? In all their years growing up together, Jacob had shown himself to be a crafty, greedy, grasping, self-serving man.
We can imagine Esau looking long and hard into the eyes of Jacob’s messengers. He would have had some questions.
“How is Jacob traveling? Who is with him?”
“Our master, Jacob, is traveling here with all of his vast possessions. He is a very wealthy man.” Judging from the gifts that Jacob would soon be sending to Esau, we can gather that Jacob was traveling with huge herds of camels, donkeys, and cattle and flocks of sheep and goats. His wives and children were not managing those herds and flocks. We know that he was traveling with many servants, herdsmen, and shepherds.
“Who is traveling with him?”
“Our master, Jacob, is traveling with his wives and children.”
“And men? How many men are traveling with your master?”
“Why, of course, our master, Jacob, has many men traveling with him to manage the herds and flocks, and to see to the baggage.”
“How many?” Esau surely would ask.
“There are some several hundred servants and herdsmen with our master, Jacob.”
And now, Esau’s eyes would have narrow further, his gaze hardened. “Are they armed, these men?”
“Well . . . yes, of course, most of them are armed.”
And now, the tension must have grown very thick indeed. Esau has just learned that this brother of his, who has taken advantage of him and deceived him and stolen from him, is now approaching with several hundred armed men. What is Esau to think? Jacob’s messengers claim that their master is coming in peace. But how can he trust Jacob to tell the truth?
Esau wisely decides to assemble a large company of armed men. Larger, Esau hopes, than Jacob’s company of armed men. They will not allow Jacob to bring his men into Esau’s camp. Rather, they will go out to Jacob and meet him and his company out in the desert. There they will see what Jacob’s intentions are.
All of that is, of courses, speculation, but it is speculation based on some known facts and some plausible inferences. For me, this explanation makes it much easier to understand Esau’s actions when he finally meets Jacob. I believe that emotionally impulsive Esau has long ago let go of his grudge against his brother. He’s prospered greatly over the years. The importance of those things he has lost to Jacob in his youth has now faded. But he certainly did not trust his brother. He no longer wanted to kill his brother. But could there be a reconciliation? That depended on Jacob and his intentions.
Esau, we might imagine, positioned his men on some high ground as Jacob and his company approach. The day before, Jacob has sent several groups of flocks and herds on ahead of him as gifts for Esau. But on the day of the meeting, Jacob wisely keeps all his flocks and herds and more to the point all his men far to the rear. Jacob organizes his wives and children into groups. They will follow behind him. But Jacob himself alone approaches Esau first. Jacob is exposed, vulnerable, unaccompanied. As he approaches his brother, he prostrates himself over and over.
I used to have a dog that would come with me on my early morning cross country ski ventures in the local town park a few blocks from our house in central New York state. There were several miles of trails running along the Chemung River, and I would take Emily with me to keep me company and to give her some exercise. She was a very reliable dog. I could let her off leash in those pre-dawn hours and know that she would return to me at a sprint whenever I called her. Emily was a very submissive dog with other dogs. When we would occasionally meet someone else with a dog off leash, she would immediately crouch down and often roll onto her back exposing her belly to the other dog. In that way, Emily communicated to the other dog that she was submitting to them and that she posed no threat.
Jacob’s approach to Esau was the human version of Emily’s doggy submission. Esau has seen enough. Jacob has come in peace. Decades of life under Laban’s abuse have chastened Jacob. He has not come to threaten Esau. He has come for reconciliation. Esau breaks into a run. There is not flashing blade. The sword stays in its sheath. They embrace – these two strong, sweaty men. And they weep. They weep tears of joy and regret.
Jacob has returned to Esau as the guilty party. There is no justification for the theft of his father’s blessing. All he has to hope in is the grace and forgiveness of the offended party – his brother. Jacob has not come in force to demand peace from his brother. Perhaps his could have done that. Jacob was wealthy and prosperous. He could have put together his own company of armed men to force Esau to receive him back. But Jacob instead chooses not to rely on his own power but rather to trust in Esau’s forgiveness and acceptance.
The burly, sweaty, muscular embrace that marks the moment of reconciliation is a wonderful expression of physicality turned toward peace rather than toward violence. Esau came inclined toward the former but prepared for the latter. Jacob had chosen peace and humility. There is a rich prophetic power in Jacob’s words to Esau as they held each other in their arms and looked into each other’s face after long, angry, anxious years apart. “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me.” (Genesis 33:10 ESV)
All of us come like Jacob before God as the guilty party – exposed, vulnerable, unaccompanied. We have only the grace and forgiveness of the Offended Party to rely on. Yet, there he comes, like Esau to Jacob, like the father to the returning prodigal. Jesus runs to us, picks us up from the dust, and embraces us with his nail scarred hand pulling us to his spear pieced body. We now can look into the face of Jesus and say a version of Jacob’s words, “For I see your face, Lord Jesus, which is the face of God, and you accept me.”
© 2019 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.