An Old Testament Hero part 2: And Esau ran to him

So far, in my posting about Esau, I have concentrated on the case for the defence – Esau’s alleged sinfulness, and God’s choice.

And of course it’s very reassuring that God can still “choose”, and certainly use and bless, someone like Jacob.  Someone whose life from beginning to end is a catalogue of manipulating and being manipulated, someone whose family is dysfunctional, someone who struggles, perhaps in every sense.

But let’s move on.

Let’s accept that, whatever Jacob’s moral failings, he does have a very interesting spiritual life.  (My friend Malachi, in his comment on last week’s post, praises Jacob as an investigator and a proto-scientist, in contrast to his brother the businessman, but also mentions his spiritual side.)

Few characters in Genesis have so many direct conversations with God. I don’t think Joseph, for instance, more virtuous and with a longer story, has any.  And Jacob’s spiritual experiences, most though not all initiated by God Himself, are dramatic, and theologically fascinating.

In particular, we have first, the dream of the ladder to heaven, in which God promises His favour, and Jacob is understandably filled with awe.  Then we have his prayer of confession years later (apparently motivated by fear of Esau, Gen 32:9-12); then the wrestling with a “man” in Gen 32: 24-32), and then

Well.  To pick up where we left off last time, Jacob angers his brother, and runs off to his uncle Laban.  Over the next twenty or so years he and Laban and Leah and Rachel play their little power games, games which victimise not only each other (and the children?) but also the two maidservants who didn’t ask to be involved, Bilhah and Zilpah.

Meanwhile, Esau is managing his animals (query: where did he get them if he sold the birthright to Jacob?), building up a force of 400 male employees, and fathering children.  He doesn’t pursue Jacob; also he doesn’t seem to make any threats or commit any violence against his mother, who has wronged him (and Isaac) just as badly, and whose actions might have been even more hurtful.  He just gets on with life, maybe praying, maybe not, until he hears that Jacob is coming home.

Jacob is scared.  He prays; he sends lavish presents/bribes to his brother, and he arranges his convoy so that some at least may escape Esau’s justified wrath.

And the night before they meet, “a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.”  This is a very odd and famous passage.  God seems unable to win; God cheats, like Jacob; Jacob demands a blessing; Jacob gets a new name (Israel) because he has “striven with God and with men, and… prevailed.”  The whole passage reads like a dream… yet Jacob gets up in the morning with a limp.

It seems obvious that “the man” is God or God’s angel… but surely in Jacob’s mind he must also represent Esau.  Jacob’s wife Rachel called her maid’s son by Jacob Naphtali, “because I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed” (Gen 30:8).  Wrestling with siblings is a family thing.

Anyway, the next morning Jacob and Esau meet.  Jacob grovels.

God took the trouble to talk to Jacob’s vengeful father-in-law Laban (Gen 31:24) to tell him not to hurt Jacob.  Does he do the same with Esau?

It seems he doesn’t need to, for Esau’s response, unlike Laban’s, is ungrudging.  “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” (Gen 33:4)

For the second time Esau is the centre of one of the most moving passages in Genesis; indeed, in Scripture.

Who else in the Old Testament behaves anything like this?

David spares Saul in the cave (he had some strategic reasons); Hosea buys back his unfaithful wife at God’s command; Joseph eventually forgives his brothers, with tears, after putting them through a few years of moral purification.

But Esau doesn’t wait for strategy or command or moral improvement.  He runs to meet Jacob with love.  He has barely noticed his brother’s gifts, and only accepts them after argument.

No wonder Jacob says, “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God, with such favour have you received me”, verse 10.

Does any other person in the whole Bible behave like this?

Yes.  Luke 15:20 – “while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

I was pondering writing about Esau some days ago, and it occurred to me in a flash that surely Jesus must have had this passage in mind when he composed the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

(This was a very exciting thought, which I had never come across before.  So it was with a mixture of awe and chagrin that I opened my SU notes for 28th July and saw that the writer, one Fran Beckett, had the same idea.  It just goes to confirm, after two thousand years, anything you think about the Bible someone else has thought.)

Jacob’s third great encounter with God is to see the face of God in his brother, to be a sinner receiving totally unmerited grace.  Compared to the ladder dream and the wrestling man, this is less often described as an encounter with God, despite Jacob’s words, because… well… it’s Esau.

Let us be charitable and assume that when the writer to the Hebrews tells us not to emulate Esau, he/she has forgotten Genesis 33.  And so do a surprising number of other people.  Theologians are fond of finding “types” of Christ in the Old Testament, characters in whose life elements of Christ’s character, role and fate are foreshadowed.  Favourite examples are Job, David and Melchisedeck.

Is not Esau here the greatest of them all?  But is he ever mentioned in this context?

Jacob gets to be the patriarch.

(Of course, sadly, Jacob still mistrusts and deceives Esau, and does not follow him to their father as promised.  His detour to Shechem in chapter 34 has horrific consequences for his daughter Dinah and the people of Shechem, but that’s how it is.)

As we’ve seen, Esau’s fate in the Bible is to be condemned as immoral by centuries of Bible expositors, and to have descendants who are nasty and hated, and reviled by the prophet Obadiah.  But maybe when the brothers get to heaven, God will redress the balance.

Love from the PPI Blogger


  • Penelope Wallace

    7th August 2016 at 10:55 pm Reply

    You have made a convincing case that Esau should be rehabilitated as a biblical role model of someone who is prepared to keep on forgiving and who doesn’t bear grudges. God does seem to have blessed him with wealth and descendants at least and so he does better than someone like Saul.

  • Malachi Malagowther

    7th August 2016 at 11:04 pm Reply

    Perhaps next week you could give the profile of the perfect Vicar and ask for comments on which would be the most important for Christ Church Chilwell. Anne Willmot thinks we basically want someone who emulates Jesus but what does she mean by that? I inadvertently signed my previous post as Penelope again. That’s what comes of sharing the same home computer!

    • Clint Redwood

      9th August 2016 at 3:50 pm Reply

      Hopefully, in emulating Jesus, the new vicar would knot together chords and drive out the people selling overpriced fair-trade goods in church;
      they would challenge many of the deanery and diocesan hierarchies, perhaps calling them “whited sepulchers”;
      they would spend most of their time with just the types of people the congregation distrust or disapprove of;
      they would preach in a thoroughly confusing way, using very strong imagery that would overturn everyone’s preconceptions;
      they would care in a way that challenged everyone, and then suddenly disappear up a mountain for prayer and solitude.

      Actually, that sounds great!

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