In the Morning Manna class (the adult Bible study class that meets at 10am on Sundays at Friends Church), we are going through some of the stories in Genesis: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood. This week we’re looking at the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25-28, focusing on chapter 27, where Esau’s younger fraternal twin brother Jacob swindles him out of his birthright, and then steals his blessing from their father, Isaac.
Being the eldest of three boys, my younger self can relate to the tales of sibling rivalry spun from the Esau and Jacob story, but I especially love when the brothers reconcile with each other. After years of Jacob living on the run for fear of his big brother’s bitter wrath, Esau finally catches up with his younger sibling and does not greet him with vengeance, but with love. In response to Esau throwing his arms around Jacob’s neck and kissing him, Jacob tells the brother he had feared for so long, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
What a beautiful turn of events. Whether we have siblings or not, that kind of reconciliatory moment with someone, where past transgressions—real or imagined—are washed away by tears of joy like water flowing under a bridge and on into eternity, is the nearest we might come to perfection in this life. Why is it, then, that the story of Jacob and Esau is remembered and retold from generation to generation across our Abrahamic faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as more about deception that yields resentment than about forgiveness that renders new possibilities?
Noam Zion, Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, who identifies “personally as an American Jew and then as an Israeli,” comments on the story of Jacob and Esau (and Isaac and Rebekah): “The clear lesson is that those who live by deception suffer by deception.” Zion explains that for Jews who read the story of Jacob and Esau annually, guilt and shame are themes that take hold for them as the children of Israel who identify with Jacob, named Israel after his wrestling match with God (Genesis 32). Our Muslim neighbors identify with Esau, nicknamed Edom, meaning “red,” and the name of a kingdom east of the Dead Sea that was constantly at odds with the Israelites. For Zion, being in sibling relationship with Islam and Christianity is something that terrified him growing up, as he learned that they (we), abiding by the resentment narrative of Jacob and Esau’s story, were out to displace the chosen people, our Jewish siblings in the faith.
It’s easier to cling to messages of deception that pit us against one another as “us and them” than to embrace messages of reconciliation that interweave our destinies in a single garment (as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would call it) of God’s mutual affection for us all. The latter is the underlying and ultimate message that stands to liberate us into near perfection on this side of eternity, where competition, greed, and resentment are washed away, debts are forgiven, and love is how we relate to one another.
Zion concludes, “I hope that Jews, Christians, and Muslims will come to echo the words of Esau: ‘I have enough, my brother, let what is yours remain yours’ (Genesis 33:9). When Christians stop dreaming of Jewish conversion to Christianity, and Muslims and Jews stop dreaming of exclusive control of Abraham’s blessing, then there will be hope for mutual recognition among siblings.”
Prayer: Good and gracious God, Loving Parent of us all, I pray for mutual recognition among my siblings…all my siblings. Open my eyes to see my neighbor as kin to whom I am bound by your love that is showered on us both with equity. Open the eyes of those who don’t see me because of how different I am from them. Help us as siblings in this complicated thing called life to run toward each other like Esau ran toward Jacob instead of walking away from one another when disagreements and differences appear insurmountable. As we pray to know you more, O God, help us to understand your love more that we might live it in relation to all of your children that you love with a tenacity that never walks away. Let this be the way we live and the story we tell. Amen.