American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
God’s primary purpose for mankind is that we love Him, and that we love one another. Living joyfully in community can be one of the greatest blessings that God provides for us as part of a promised “abundant life” (John 10:10). Living in community involves multiplying our joys when we share them with one another. Living in community also involves dividing our grief as we also share them with one another. In this manner our relationships with each other grow as we strengthen one another and develop a greater love for one another.
Living in community also has an inherent risk: a risk of being hurt by others who we choose to become close to. When we choose to love one another we are choosing to make ourselves vulnerable to injury as we also share one another’s shortcomings.
Our own imperfections can make the task of living joyfully together in community a complex and constant challenge. Whether that community is in the close relationships of immediate family or the more extended relationships of close friendships and church fellowships, that very state of closeness usually engenders conflict.
All of us have probably experienced hurt and conflict that came at the hands of someone who is close to us. We may exercise our own selfish desires and demands in ways that hurt one another, many times creating wounds that are deep and difficult to heal.
Some people avoid this risk by shutting themselves off from other people, usually as the direct result of an unresolved conflict of the past. Often people will harbor anger towards one another, an anger that always degrades to bitterness and broken relationships. We find our families in states of brokenness as siblings estrange themselves one from another; married couples separate and divorce, each carrying the burden of bitterness for the rest of their lives. We also find our church fellowships in similar states of brokenness when conflict in the body erupts, driven by the selfish demands of its members. Churches often split when individuals demand their own way and are quite willing to break fellowship with those whom they disagree. Such splits result in long-term disruption in the ministry of the church, and they often create life-long bitterness in its estranged members.
Many of us have been on both sides of the conflicts that so vex community. Our memories are filled to the brim with the sights and sounds, the words and feelings surrounding past conflicts. That abundance of joy that God has promised us in life can sometimes seem like a distant dream when we respond to the conflicts of this life with anger and bitterness, the products of unforgiveness.
God’s purpose for us in our families, and his purpose for us in His church is thwarted when we harbor unforgiveness one for another. Our joy in the LORD and the joy we have in community can be utterly overwhelmed by bitterness when we turn our focus upon an individual or individuals to whom we harbor resentment. This is one of the areas in our lives where demonic forces are at work to diminish the quality of our lives as we submit to the sinfulness of our own pride and our uncaring attitude toward one another.
However, we do not have to submit ourselves to the ravaging consequences of unforgiveness. God is aware of our need, and literally commands us to forgive one another. The greatest and most important gift that God has given us is forgiveness. Likewise, the greatest and most important gift that we can give one another is forgiveness. As God’s forgiveness for us is total and complete, our forgiveness for one another is also to be total and complete. Imagine what our relationships would be like if we could fully apply this one simple truth?
We find an example of conflict and forgiveness in the relationship between Jacob and Esau, an example that may be worth exploring.
1. Caution Born of Fear (Gen 33:1-2)
As so often happens in close relationships, the appearance and personalities of the two brothers were dramatically different. These differences may have been promoted by the sin of their own parents: Isaac showed significant preference for his older son, Esau, who had a primary interest in outdoor physical activities, including hunting. Rebekeh showed significant preference for her younger son, Jacob, who preferred to stay at home, near to his mother. Of the two, Esau seemed to be more outgoing, and not so tending to be concerned about domestic matters. Esau seemed to be one who thinks with his heart more than his brain (more emotion than logic). Esau probably would have been fun to be around. Jacob, whose name came to mean “deceiver,” was more of a thinker, a logician who tends to think with his brain more than his heart (more logic than emotion).
The stage for conflict was already set long before the differences in Jacob and Esau were pitted against one another by their parents. It was Isaac’s determination that the blessing, the role of family leader and patriarch, be passed down to Esau, the first-born. It was Rebekah’s choice that Jacob receive the blessing. Though it was God’s purpose that the blessing be passed down through Jacob, Rebekah took the matter into her own hands and worked with Jacob to deceive Isaac into blessing Jacob. Esau did not particularly desire the birthright, evident in his willingness to trade it for a meal. This also demonstrates the appropriate selection of Jacob, one who would indeed draw himself close to God later in life. However, the act of deception created no little anger in Esau, and Jacob feared for his life. Jacob ran from his household to Rebekah’s brother Laban, waiting the ebbing of Esau’s fury. However, the days turned into years as Jacob worked for Laban, married his two daughters, amassing a collection of livestock and possessions greater than that of his host.
After many years of separation, perhaps as many as thirty, God called upon Jacob to return home. Being the planner that he is, Jacob put together a strategy to win his brother’s confidence. Jacob sent messengers ahead to Esau with a statement seeking restitution and restoration. He also sent ahead four waves of gifts that included over 500 head of livestock and their tenders. However, Esau’s response was rather disconcerting to Jacob:
And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids.
Jacob knew that reconciliation with his brother would be difficult, but he probably never imagined that Esau would come to him with an army of four hundred men. As difficult as reconciliation may appear, few of us have ever had to face an army of soldiers.
Assuming the worst, Jacob designed an emergency exit strategy by separating is family into groups, allowing the latter groups to escape if the first group is attacked.
And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost.
Jacob set up the group just the opposite of what would be normally expected. If you and your family were to meet some long lost relatives, you would have the primary family members be first to greet the visitors. Jacob sent them to the rear of the group where it would be easiest for them to escape. Furthermore, he organized the children with their mothers so they might not become separated.
Further still, he organized the family in the reverse order of his preference for them. He places his favorite wife and son in the rear, with Leah and her sons in front of her, and then the handmaids and their sons in front of them. It would seem that Jacob did not learn any lessons from the consequences of that same favoritism that was demonstrated by his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac.
Fear of the unknown can be a difficult barrier to overcome when we face the necessity of reconciliation. It is natural for us to assume the worst when we truly do not know the heart of the one with whom God calls us to reconcile. The responsibility for the estrangement of Jacob and Esau is shared by both of them, as they both acted in ways that were unloving and uncaring toward one another, and this is typical of the conflicts that drive us apart. Yet Jacob did clearly recognize his responsibility. He felt personally responsible for the estrangement and understood why his brother had the motivation to bring an army down upon him, so his fear was real.
2. Humility Born of Contrition (33:3-4)
And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.
After organizing his family for the best protection possible, he went out to meet Esau. As he came towards Esau he first bowed to his brother when he was a safe distance away. Then, approaching his brother he continued this pattern of contrition and humility until he came near to him. Jacob knew that he had wronged his brother; he knew that his brother had the power to destroy him, so his only hope of survival was to hope for his brother's mercy. Was Jacob’s behavior sincere, or was it simply a part of his own plan for survival? Knowing Jacob’s personality we might assume that his behavior was more strategic than heartfelt, but at least Jacob knew that a demonstration of humility was the wisest approach to finding reconciliation with his brother.
And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept.
Esau's response was clearly not what Jacob expected. Why, do you suppose that Esau came out to meet Jacob with 400 men? Like Jacob, Esau did not know what to expect from this meeting and he also prepared for the worst. Thinking that he may be facing an army, instead Esau was greeted with the presentation of gifts, and a quite contrite Jacob coming out alone to meet him. Where Jacob expected his brother to be seeking revenge, instead Esau had already forgiven him and also desired reconciliation. We get the impression that while Jacob was away from home, suffering from the anxiety of his guilt, Esau went on with life and simply missed his brother.
We, as Christians, can suffer additionally when we wrong others. The Holy Spirit reveals our sins, and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. When we resist God’s call to reconciliation we pay the consequences. Often those whom we may wrong will forget the event while we suffer the guilt long afterward.
Jacob made no verbal request for forgiveness. His need for forgiveness was obvious, and his demonstration of humility and contrition broke down the walls that had stood between the two brothers, and they both responded with an emotional testimony to the years of hurt and anger that now could finally be laid to rest.
3. Introductions Born of Wonder (33:5-7)
And he lifted up his eyes, and saw the women and the children; and said, Who are those with thee? And he said, The children which God hath graciously given thy servant. 6Then the handmaidens came near, they and their children, and they bowed themselves. 7And Leah also with her children came near, and bowed themselves: and after came Joseph near and Rachel, and they bowed themselves.
When the rest of the group caught up with them, Esau wanted to know who these people were. Note the manner of the introductions. Jacob did not refer to them as his wives and children, but rather as gifts of God. Why do you think Jacob answered this way? Jacob’s heart had changed. He was no longer the conniving, self-centered person that Esau had known. Jacob had by this time experienced an encounter with God, an encounter that changed his heart. His very vocabulary showed Esau that he had changed; he was showing his recognition of the blessing of God in his life.
The family members also greeted Esau in a similar manner. As each member came, instead of coming up and greeting him, embracing, or any other typical response, they came up and bowed down. Esau found himself standing there having come prepared for battle. Instead he found himself, the recipient of a large herd, and there in front of him were Jacob and his family all bowed before him. This was really a Kodak moment. This is certainly not what Esau expected of his brother either.
4. Gifts Borne in Hope (33:8-11)
And he said, What meanest thou by all this drove which I met? And he said, These are to find grace in the sight of my lord. 9And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself. 10And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me. 11Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough. And he urged him, and he took it.
Consider for a moment where Esau has been for the last twenty- to thirty- something years. Though Jacob took his birthright and inheritance, he left Isaac, Rachel and Esau without taking many possessions. This left Isaac and Esau to continue their lives together, amassing their own fortune. By the time Esau met Jacob, it is apparent that he has amassed enough wealth to support an army of 400 men. While serving as a slave to Laban, Jacob had little opportunity to amass such wealth. It was only in the latter years of their association was Jacob able to build his own flocks, instead working is first fourteen years as a servant in order to win the hand of Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel. We can probably assume that Jacob's gift to Esau was a real sacrifice, intended e to atone for the wrong he had done. Consequently, he probably owned a few thousand animals, and a few servants. Not only was Jacob no match for Esau, Esau's wealth had grown so large that he had little or no need for Jacob’s gift.
Yet, Jacob insisted that Esau receive this gift, understanding that some sacrifice was necessary to serve as a symbol of his atonement for past sin towards Esau. By accepting the sacrifice, Esau has a means to demonstrate forgiveness. Jacob felt that the sacrifice was necessary to seal the reconciliation. He was glad to have something to give in return for this. The word that Jacob used in verse 11, present, or blessing, is the word used for an offering made to God. He really wanted to give back to Esau some of the blessing he had taken from him.
Reconciliation can often require sacrifice. When we have wronged another, we have taken something from them. Atonement is in many ways the returning of something that has been taken. We may need to return possessions, but more likely we need to return the respect, the dignity, and the love that we have withheld during our time of estrangement. We return these with the hope that reconciliation will truly take place, and depend upon the LORD to work in the hearts of all concerned.
5. Independence Born of Confidence (33:12-15)
And he said, Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before thee. 13And he said unto him, My lord knoweth that the children are tender, and the flocks and herds with young are with me: and if men should overdrive them one day, all the flock will die. 14Let my lord, I pray thee, pass over before his servant: and I will lead on softly, according as the cattle that goeth before me and the children be able to endure, until I come unto my lord unto Seir. 15And Esau said, Let me now leave with thee some of the folk that are with me. And he said, What needeth it? let me find grace in the sight of my lord.
Esau accepted Jacob's gift. In return, Esau offered Jacob the protection of his armed men. However, Jacob declined because his flocks, and those gifted to Esau, would not be able to keep up the pace of travel. When many people would have opposed the brother returning to the family, sharing again in the family property, possessions, etc., Esau showed his sincere desire to help him return. Certainly, after being away for over twenty years, Jacob could use the help.
Note too, that as Esau continues to refer to Jacob as "brother," yet Jacob continues to refer to Esau as “lord.” Though Jacob's words may have been polite language, meant to communicate his humility and contrition, they also may have been an indication that though Esau had forgiven him, Jacob was still struggling with forgiving himself.
Jacob may see that it would still be best that the brothers go separate ways, since the two large groups would certainly come into conflict if forced to live together. So, Jacob asks Esau to return to his home Seir (Edom), and Jacob will continue at the slower pace to his destination to his homeland of Canaan.
6. Worship Born of Faith (33:16-20)
So Esau returned that day on his way unto Seir. 17And Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built him an house, and made booths for his cattle: therefore the name of the place is called Succoth. 18And Jacob came to Shalem, a city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padanaram; and pitched his tent before the city. 19And he bought a parcel of a field, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for an hundred pieces of money. 20And he erected there an altar, and called it Elelohe-Israel.
When we harbor unforgiveness and live with the consequences of un-reconciled relationships, our relationship with the LORD also suffers. Up to the point of this event, Jacob had spent his entire adult life burdened by his estrangement from his family. His guilt and separation impacted his relationship with others, and his relationship with God. It was the restoration of his relationship with God that prompted the reconciliation with Esau. This is an important point. Our joy will never be full as long as we reject God’s call to reconciliation with others in our lives. The scriptural call to forgive others is clear, with many verses leaving little doubt. For example,
Matt. 6:12. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
Matt. 6:14. For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
Matt. 6:15. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Mark 11:25. And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.
The scriptural call to reconciliation with others is also clear:
2 Cor. 5:18. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;
• It is God’s purpose for us to love Him and to love each other. That purpose is thwarted when we allow conflict to divide us.
• God calls us to reconcile (2 Cor. 5:18ff, et. al.).
• The way of caution often is the way of wisdom. Jacob took caution and thought out his response to meeting with his brother.
• We should humbly seek forgiveness from the people whom we have wronged. What is the nature of a relationship when one individual has wronged another? Often that relation is strained at best, or estranged at worst. What happens when forgiveness and reconciliation take place? Often the longer we wait for reconciliation, the more difficult it becomes. This certainly was the case with Jacob, as he had waited for twenty to thirty years.
• Often the people who have been wronged seek reconciliation as much as the other. Likewise, we should be willing to forgive and to seek reconciliation with those who have wronged us.
• Other people are almost always affected by our reconciliation or separation.
• We must first forgive ourselves. Sometimes we may need to make amends before we can do this.
• As we forgive one another we seek forgiveness from God. Like Esau running to Jacob, and the father of the Prodigal running to his son, God runs to us with open arms and forgiveness if we will seek him.