Friday, January 20, 2023

Jacob, Esau, and Peace-Making


Today, I’m going to tell you a story about someone who is mostly a negative example of peace-making, Jacob from the book of Genesis. I encourage you to look at chapters 24-33 of Genesis for the detailed story, which is unsparingly honest about this man.

Jacob was born one of twins, but his brother Esau was born first. Esau meant Rough and Hairy and Jacob meant Trickster, or Heel-Grabber. Their characters were also different— Esau was the outdoorsy type, Jacob liked being indoors. Also, each of their parents had a favorite child: Esau was his father’s favorite, and Jacob was his mother’s. And the custom of the time gave first-born sons highly preferential treatment in the distribution of property and power over the other children. So from childhood, Esau and Jacob were set up to be at odds with each other.

As their father Isaac aged, he became blind, and he felt he was nearing his death, so he sent for his favorite Esau and said, Go hunting and bring me a savory meal from the meat you kill, and I will bless you as my first-born son.

Their mother Rebekah overheard this, and she said to Jacob, You go kill a couple of kid goats and I will make your father the kind of meal he loves, and then you can have the blessing meant for Esau. So Jacob did what she said.

Jacob was worried that his father would detect him as an imposter; his mother suggested putting the hairy skins on his arms and the back of his hands and his cheeks and she brought him some of Esau’s well-worn and not recently laundered clothes.  He dressed in the clothes and fixed the goat hair on his smooth skin, and went in to his father Isaac.

His father was puzzled. He brought Jacob near and smelled him, then he felt his arms and hands, and then he muttered, “The voice is Jacob’s, but the smell and hairiness are Esau’s.” Nevertheless, he accepted the savory meal and ate it, and then he blessed Jacob with the blessing he had prepared for Esau. This blessing, besides promising prosperity, also promised that the other son and his offspring would serve the son being blessed.

Esau came in several hours later with his savory dish of game he had hunted and prepared. Isaac was distressed, and they both realized the trick played on them by Jacob and Rebekah. Esau wept and begged for a blessing, and Isaac did what he could, telling Esau that he would be a nomad, that he would serve his brother, and that at some point, his descendants would rebel and throw off that servitude.

In his anger, Esau let it be known that when Isaac was dead, he would kill Jacob. Again, Rebekah stepped in to protect her favorite. She told Jacob he would have to leave home, and she arranged it so that it appeared he was traveling to relatives in order to find an appropriate wife.

Jacob left on the run, with almost nothing but the clothes on his back and some small provision of food (undoubtedly). The blessing for which he had betrayed his brother had instead resulted in his running for his life.

We can see from the lofty distance of time and psychology several things that killed the willingness of Esau and Jacob to live at peace with each other.  The uneven inheritance of children prescribed by their culture, the preferential love of each parent for one of them, with the all-important father’s love going to Esau—these made for a relationship of competition and envy.  Add in that they were very unlike in their characters.  Jacob played the long game, and Esau lived more in the moment, and Jacob took advantage of that.

Even though Jacob himself acts as if everything depends on his wiliness, we find that God has not abandoned him  As Jacob sleeps, he dreams of a ladder between earth and heaven and angels going up and down. In the dream, God tells Jacob: “I am the God of your father and grandfather; I will give you and your descendants the land where you lie; I will give you many descendants and will bless the whole earth through you. I am with you, and I will keep you wherever you go, and bring you home again. I will not leave you until all my promises to you have been fulfilled.” 

When Jacob wakes, he says, “Whoa, God is here ,” and sets up a memorial stone.  Then he says to God, actually ignoring the grace God has offered him: “If you take care of me, providing food, clothing, and keeping me safe until I return to my father’s house, then you will be my God and I’ll pay you 1/10 of all I have.”  

We can see from this that Jacob wants to strike a bargain with God. His understanding seems pagan, in that he locates God in that place and then thinks that offering God material things will ensure God takes care of him. Craftily, Jacob requires God to go first with the bargain before Jacob pays him the tenth. And we learn that God is immune to such nonsense as Jacob proposes.  God has already promised to take care of Jacob despite Jacob’s untrusting character. As, in fact, God is also taking care of Esau despite Esau’s vengeful character.

We can also see that God reaches out to people in conflict to remind them that God’s grace and love are available. The love of God is not scarce but instead infinite.

I skip over the next 20 years except to note that Jacob connives a genetically improbable method to increase his flocks at his father-in-law’s expense, causing his brothers-in-law to be resentful and angry. Jacob decides to run for it, though this time he is encumbered by wives, children, flocks, and employees. Now he is running for home.

On the way home, Jacob hears news that Esau is coming to meet him accompanied by 400 men.  Jacob reasonably assumes this is a fighting force, and he is caught. Going forward is dangerous, and he has promised Laban not to go back.

He sets up wave upon wave of livestock gifts to Esau. Then he arranges his belongings in two companies in case Esau massacres one of them. Then he sets up his children and their mothers in groups and places himself before any of them, in case by killing him, Esau will be satisfied and Jacob’s family will live on.  

Jacob spends a lonely anxious night before his meeting with Esau. While he is alone, a man wrestles with him until daybreak. The anonymous wrestler does not win, so he dislocates Jacob’s thigh and lames him.  Still Jacob holds on, and the wrestler says, “Let me go.” Jacob says, “Not until you tell me your name.” The wrestler says, “What is your name?” Jacob admits his name, which means trickster, and his character. The wrestler says, “Your new name is Israel because you have striven with God and with me and have prevailed.”

When Jacob (now Israel) meets Esau, he bows before Esau. To his surprise, Esau dismounts, runs to meet him, and kisses him, and they weep together.

God has also been with Esau, as it turns out, and Esau has plenty and clearly has forgiven his trickster brother.  Perhaps that is the unexpected way he threw the yoke of Jacob off his neck.

What do we learn from these brothers about conflict? 

  1. 1.All conflict is essentially between siblings—all humans are fundamentally related.
  2. 2.Conflict often begins in the perception of one party that the other party has more of something—love, food, material goods, freedom, charisma.  In other words, the deadly sin of envy is in the heart of conflict, with the related deadly sin of greed, resulting in the third deadly sin of bitterness, which allows the aggrieved party to justify deceptive, violent, cold-hearted actions.
  3. 3.Conflict intensifies when one party’s legitimate rights are taken away by trickery or force. It continues because the deprived party wants justice and even revenge.  It also continues because the oppressive party begins to fear and then hate those they have wronged. Hatred, another deadly sin.

What do we learn from these brothers about making peace?

  1. 1.Each must set aside fear of the other—fear of trickery, fear of violence, fear of loss.
  2. 2.This is enormously helped along by each recognizing God’s infinite love is for all, and there is enough for all. (I have plenty, says Esau.)
  3. 3.Making amends is helpful for the party who has deprived the other. (Jacob needed to give gifts to Esau.) Justice and generosity meet and embrace. 
  4. 4.Acknowledging that God is actively involved in the lives of all those in conflict, that they are all under God’s loving and disciplinary care, helps us set aside the desire to control events and other people.
  5. 5.Sometimes, it helps to let some time pass.
  6. 6.There is no way to bribe God, and no need either.

Charles Wesley wrote a song about how Jacob’s experience spoke to him personally, and I’ll close with that.

Come, O thou traveler unknown, whom still I hold but cannot see;

My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee.

With thee all night I mean to stay, and wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell thee who I am, my sin and misery declare;

Thyself hast called me by my name, look on thy hands and read it there.

But who, I ask thee, who art thou? Tell me thy name, and tell me now.

In vain thou strugglest to get free; I never will unloose my hold!

Art thou the man that died for me? The secret of thy love unfold;

Wrestling, I will not let thee go, Till I thy name, thy nature know.

Yield to me now; for I am weak; but confident in self-despair;

Speak to my heart, in blessings speak, Be conquered by my instant prayer.

Speak, or thou never hence shalt move, and tell me if thy name is Love.

‘Tis love! ‘Tis love! Thou diedst for me; I hear thy whisper in my heart;

The morning breaks, the shadows flee; pure universal Love thou art.

To me, to all, thy mercies move, thy nature and thy name is love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey; Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome;

I leap for joy, pursue my way, and as a bounding hart, I run

Through all eternity to prove thy nature and thy name is love,

Thy Name is Love.

May we each be visited and overwhelmed by the infinite love and care of God, and may we allow that experience to change our hearts toward others, particularly toward those with whom we are in conflict.

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