Readings, Genesis 32 - 33:11 and Luke 15:11-24
Image, Peter Gorban, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau (1990)
Having parted with Laban and received a summons from God, Jacob returns to his homeland… there’s just one issue, what will Esau do?
We remember that Jacob had to flee because - after stealing his older brother’s blessing - Esau sought to kill him. And so, it is of little surprise that Jacob sends messengers ahead to ascertain Esau’s feelings, and even less surprising that – upon hearing that Esau rides toward him with four hundred men – Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.
Now, to our ears the following statement might be hard to believe (particularly as we can often feel like the Bible is effusive in its prosaic descriptions of the preparation of animals for sacrifice, measurements of buildings, or various genealogies) but the writers of scripture are efficient with language and do not like to waste words. And so, it is notable when – as in this instance – additional adjectives are employed. Why, faithful readers have long inquired, is Jacob described as being afraid and distressed – surely “afraid” is sufficient, given that fear naturally engenders distress?
Jewish scribes, considering this passage, were drawn to the conclusion that two words must indicate two different things, namely that Jacob is greatly afraid that he will be killed by his brother, and thus – as a result – greatly distressed that he might have to kill his brother.* After all, the first great sin following the expulsion from Eden was fratricide. And thus Jacob (who from the womb has been in conflict with his brother) is filled with fear that he might be another Able, and filled with distress that to avoid this, he must become another Cain.
Jacob springs into action to avoid either of these outcomes. He sends servants with gifts ahead to Esau, telling them to refer to him as Esau’s servant, hoping humility and bounty will curry favour with his estranged brother. He then separates his livestock, so that should Esau attack one set, half will be preserved. Finally, resting alone having sent his emissaries and sorted his camp, we have one of the most enigmatic and evocative stories in all of Scripture. Jacob wrestles with a man.
Many of us will have experienced the palpable feelings, the anxious struggle in body and mind that comes before a possible confrontation. The jitteriness and unease that precedes an encounter with someone with whom there is animosity, unresolved tension, or outright hostility. Perhaps you’ve known this in a workplace, in the family, with a friend, or in a community org. We can feel flush and hot, uneasy on our feet, sweaty in the palms – while internally we are going through the various possibilities the upcoming conversation or confrontation might take – imagining, that is, what they might say, and then what incredibly witty and precisely brilliant response we will come up with that wins the day…
Without getting in the weeds as to the nature of this figure that comes upon Jacob in the night, we can imagine that it is a manifestation of a similar internal struggle. The wrestling is an externalisation of what Jacob is battling internally – the fear and the distress. Jacob wrestles with the horizon of Esau and the paucity of choices he faces as each passing hour brings their confrontation closer. This is Jacob’s dark night of the soul. The figure and the conflict and the desire for blessing is not only a striving and pleading that he (and his brother) might have more life, but also that Jacob’s whole life to this point (marked time and time again by literal and figurative wrestling to gain blessing and life) might be brought out of struggle and into a place of peace and rest.
At the end of their struggle, though wounded, Jacob prevails. He receives a new name and declares, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” With that the sun rises, and the moment of truth approaches with the footsteps of Esau: will Jacob be Able, or Cain, or will there be the blessing of new life?
Some millennia later Jesus will tell a story about two brothers, the younger of whom leaves their homeland with a blessing and inheritance secured in an untimely and unseemly manner. A story where, once again, this younger brother seeks to return to his homeland, a return also marked by fear and distress as to the kind of welcome he will receive… a fear and distress he seeks to mitigate by deciding ahead of time to appear not as lord, but as a humble servant. And yet, we know how this younger brother, this prodigal son is received.
Jacob went ahead of his wives, maids and children, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. Fear and distress evaporate. Jacob will neither be killed or kill, for he has received blessing once more in the act of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation with one he had wronged. And, as he did at Peniel, Jacob declares that in this moment, he sees in Esau’s face the face of God. Esau delivers on the hopes of Jacob’s mythic struggle.
Esau’s act determines that these brothers shall claim blessing from the mouth of violence, life from the clutches of death, a new future from the sins of the past. And this is why Jacob sees the face of God, for this is what God offers to all. All who turn from the far country back to their homeland – whether in rags or riches – God meets us on that road, before we have a chance to speak, before we have a chance to bargain, and embraces us in restorative love, and calls for celebration!
There is another beautiful parallel between our two stories today: This whole time Jacob has been positioning himself, declaring himself as Esau’s servant; and yet, when Esau responds to Jacob, he dismisses such humbling, by referring to Jacob as his brother. So too, the young sin returning from the far country declares himself a servant, a worker, not fit to be called son… his father however, does not even address this claim, instead declaring to all who can hear this son of mine was dead and is alive again. For through Christ we have received a spirit of adoption, co-heirs with the Son, we are friends, not strangers, children not servants, and this is how we are received by God, no matter how long it has been since we turned to face our home.
From the dazzling beginning of creation, all are called to bear the image of God. To live – we might say – in such a way that the face of God might be visible behind our own. This is what Esau exemplifies in this moment. He so perfectly embodies God’s prodigal and restorative love, and abounding and steadfast mercy, that Jacob sees his God in his brother’s visage. And this, which Esau exemplified in this one moment, is what Christ, as the image of the invisible God, exemplified in perfection in every moment of his life. Christ, who repaired the image of humanity fractured by generations of sin, is the one to whom we look to see God face to face, it is Christ we look to for inspiration and example as we seek to bear God’s image in the world, and it is Christ to whom we look when we have lost the way and need to come home – because in the face of Christ we see our brother, and through Christ our Father, running toward us, arms flung wide, and the promise of joyful and unqualified restoration on his lips.
*Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah, vol.1 (Jewish Publication Society, 2017), 69-70.
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