A Dreaded Confrontation
Genesis 27:1-41 (CEV) Genesis 33:1-11 (CEV)
Talk about pulling a fast one! And, on a twin brother, no less. But that’s what the story’s about: a well-orchestrated conspiracy in which Jacob stole his brother, Esau’s full share of the family inheritance. You see, mother Rebekah always loved Jacob best. He was delivered just seconds after Esau. But Jacob was the weaker; the more vulnerable; the fair-haired child who, in his weakness and vulnerability, captured his mother’s heart. Today, we’d pejoratively call Jacob a “mama’s boy.”
Esau on the other hand was the strong one; growing up into the rugged outdoorsman; tough; rough-skinned, matted with thick, red hair. He was a man’s man; the kind of son who would lead armies and win wars; the one who would do a father proud on the football field or wrestling mat. In terms of birth order, the blessing of the father was rightfully his.
As this morning’s episode begins, Isaac is very old and very frail. His eyesight has failed. He’s probably bedfast. And he’s perceived it’s time to confer the family blessing and pass along the mantle of wealth and power to his elder son Esau. So he calls him and asks that he go out and hunts a critter which could be used to prepare his favorite stew. In the context of this ritual meal, Isaac would bestow the coveted blessing.
Meanwhile, mom Rebekah is listening quietly just outside the room. When Esau leaves, she hatches a plan which will put the blessing right where she wants it. So she gives her favorite son instructions: ‘Now Jacob, go out in the field and bring me a couple of goats so I can make your father some savory stew. Then when you take it to him, he’ll grant you the family blessing.’ But Jacob protests that even without his eyesight, Isaac will know this is a scam. “Look, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a man of smooth skin. Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him, and bring a curse on myself and not a blessing.” Not to worry. Mama has a plan. So Jacob dressed up to dupe Isaac into thinking he was Esau. Jacob, with some reservation, goes along with the sinister scheme. And old dad gets punked. Jacob receives the once spoken, irrevocable promise of blessing, along with prosperity, power and lordship over his elder
A little later, Esau returns hot and sweaty from the hunt. And he himself prepares his father’s favorite vittles. But when he comes to Isaac – who’s already had his fill, and granted his blessing which could not taken back – it’s too late. The conspiracy succeeded, and Esau is left empty-handed. Is Esau angry? He is livid! The author of Genesis puts it this way: “Now Esau hated Jacob……and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.’” So upon the wise advice of his mother, Jacob straightaway packs his bags and gets out of Dodge.
Now that’s as diabolical a storyline as we’re bound to find in any modern soap opera, or dramatic serial, or Jerry Springer. We definitely want to catch the next episode. Will Esau go out into the
desert after Jacob? Will he keep blood off his hands by sending a hit squad to take out his scheming brother? How will Esau get his revenge?
We now rejoin the saga some twenty years later. Isaac is long dead. Jacob and Esau have not yet encountered each other. Jacob has prospered materially thanks to his ill-gotten blessing. He has a large family; lots of servants; tons of oxen, goats, sheep. Jacob seemed to have it all. But the time had come for Jacob to re-enter the Promised Land, which meant traveling through the region of Se’ir where Esau had settled. Even with all his success and prosperity, I tend to think that Jacob had accumulated a twenty-year debt of guilt for what he had done to his brother and father. Even so, just the very thought of seeing his big, hairy brother’s face again brought butterflies to his stomach. After all, what he had done was as close to unpardonable as one could get.
So Jacob sends a messenger ahead of him to feel Esau out. The messenger returns with the alarming news that Esau along with four hundred men are on the way. Jacob’s blood runs cold. And he does what most of us do in the face of great threat: He prayed to God for deliverance from the one who had every reason to bring vengeance. Then he proceeds to prepare an enormous peace offering which he sends ahead. We catch up with Jacob as he’s about to face his moment of truth. (Read Genesis 33:1-11)
In an act of humble submission, Jacob limps out to his brother. You may remember that Jacob had been crippled the night before during a wrestling match with an angel at Jabbok. He bows himself to the ground the whole way. Then what a shock! Esau runs out to Jacob, and instead of breaking his brother’s neck, he “fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Following this tender reunion, Jacob offers his brother a substantial portion of the scammed inheritance. Esau initially refuses because he has plenty of his own. But in the end, he graciously accepts Jacob’s gifts. After the most underhanded of schemes, and twenty years of fearful uncertainty, Jacob and Esau are brothers again.
This is a great Old Testament story. And within it lies a deep spiritual lesson for the people of God. On the surface, the saga of Jacob and Esau speaks to us about reconciliation of even the most fractured relationships. At the end of the first part of the story, we’re hard-pressed to believe that these brothers could ever be reunited; Esau burning with intense hatred for the one who stole from him his very birthright; Jacob consumed with guilt and frightened for his life.
Do any of us here today have a person or persons in our lives whom we fear ever facing again? Maybe the very thought of them brings butterflies to our stomach; a brother or sister; an in-law; an ex-friend. Perhaps they’ve done something so rotten to us that the possibility of reconciliation is nil. Or maybe we’ve done something so nasty that it would be too much to bear to even be in the same room with the one we’ve wronged. The same God who orchestrated the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau can do the same for us. But we need to come to God with a genuine desire to have relationship restored.
If we’ve been hauling around a burden of guilt for something we’ve said or done to someone who was once very close to us, we can go through life, like Jacob, dreading the thought of ever seeing that person’s face again. So we figure out ways to avoid them. We miss family gatherings. We stay out of their neighborhood. We don’t shop where they shop; eat where they eat. We may even miss church for fear of running into them. OR, we can come to them with a genuinely repentant heart, asking forgiveness and meaning it; offering ways to mend the damaged fences, and trying to somehow make it up to them. In short, we seek reconciliation.
If we were the person wronged, we can continue to let this eat us up inside; thinking all those thoughts of vengeance; planning ways we can somehow get back at the perpetrator and even thing up. OR, we can open our heart to a forgiving spirit which will allow us – difficult as it may be and uncomfortable as it may feel – to let bygones be bygones. All this is easier said than done. But who-ever said the right way is the easy way? And such forgiveness is the right way. For it is God’s way.
Now let’s go a level deeper. Commenting on the Jacob and Esau saga, commentator Terence Fretheim writes that, “Jacob seeing Esau’s face so graciously turned toward him works as both a parallel to and as an extension of God’s face, which Jacob finally saw.” In plain language, Jacob saw in Esau – as we see in Esau – the surprising, unearned, unwarranted, undeserved, divine forgiveness of God. Grace became incarnate in a wronged brother.
There are a lot of reasons folks don’t attend church. And for most of them, it’s not because they don’t believe in God. In fact, I’ve heard no small number of God-fearing people say they don’t go to church for that very reason. They fear facing God. Perhaps there are things they’ve done in their lives – or continue to do – which make them feel unworthy; undeserving; even condemned. They believe they’ve gone too far, and the possibility of reconciliation is nil. Some feel they’ve somehow committed an unpardonable sin which has forever disqualified them from restoration of relationship with the Almighty. So rather than risk some imagined act of vengeance on God’s part, they avoid church, believing that doing so may keep them out of the line of fire.
The good news – and, may I go so far as to say the very gospel of Christ – is revealed to Jacob, and to us – as Fretheim writes, in the face of Esau. This saga of conspiracy and confrontation – as juicy as anything on daytime or evening television – shows us a parallel and an extension of God’s face; the face of Divine forgiveness. Like the father in Jesus’ parable who runs out to meet the son who had caused him such pain and sorrow; like Esau who “ran” out to meet his brother who had cheated him of his birthright, God in God’s way runs out to meet us. In a mystical and spiritual sense, we embrace one another; fall upon one another’s necks, and weep the tears of genuine reconciliation. No matter what we’ve done, we come forward for that long-dreaded meeting; in humility; with a repentant spirit; seeking true restoration, bringing the offerings of our heart. We will be happily surprised to find God more than willing to greet us with open arms.