Reading: Genesis 33:1-11
Last week, the lesson was about Esau and Jacob. If you recall, they were twin brothers, but Esau was the older, and thus would become the family Patriarch when their father died — and along with that position he would gain the bulk of the inheritance. Rebekah, their mother, favored Jacob and encouraged him to try to cheat his brother out of his position. Esau, who despised his birthright sold it for a meal; and Jacob tricked his father Isaac into blessing him with becoming the authority in the family, to the point that Issac said that Jacob’s brother would be his servant.
Now, the first thing that I’ll observe is that I would also despise my inheritance. Let us ignore that my family does not have land, or livestock, or huge piles of money to inherit; When I got a lawyer letter asking if I would contest my grandfather’s will, I, of course, signed that I wouldn’t — and I wondered why anybody would do that. My cousins and I would have much rather play chess with our grandfather at the next Christmas gathering than receive what was left after his final medical bills. I’d like to think this would still be true if there were billions to inherit. You can’t look forward to inheriting without looking forward to a family member’s death — I’d despise my inheritance too.
The thing is, you might not care to fight over your family’s wealth while they are alive — but, when you have got a greedy family member who tries to grab everything, that causes more than a little resentment. When Isaac sent Jacob to his father in law so he could marry one of his cousins, there is a reason that Jacob didn’t return home as soon as he paid the bride price; he knew that he earned quite a bit of resentment — when he left his brother was angry enough to kill him, so Jacob stayed where it was safe for decades.
The thing is that Laban cheated Jacob in the same sort of way that Jacob cheated his brother. When Jacob went to Laban, he had no bride price. For those who don’t know, a bride price is kind of like life insurance, but it is held by the bride’s family. If something happens to the husband, the bride price belongs to the bride. Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, and they negotiated a bride price of 7 years of labor.
Jacob somehow went through the wedding without noticing that he was marrying Rachel’s sister Leah. Since this was not the girl that he had in mind, he agreed to work an additional 7 years, so that there would be a 7-year bride price for each one of them. Jacob thus worked for 14 years. After these 14 years were over, Jacob, not really wanting to face the deserved wrath of his brother, stayed and worked for wages. Laban offered to pay Jacob in livestock, so Jacob worked another 6 years and was paid in sheep and goats.
After 20 years had passed, a family situation formed that would make holidays quite uncomfortable. Laban’s son’s, or Jacob’s in-laws felt that Jacob was overpaid and that they were cheated out of what should be their inheritance. The daughters, Jacob’s wives, realize that when their brothers take their inheritance, the bride price will simply vanish; their father did nothing to protect their money so they are left unprotected if anything should happen to their husband. This fight between siblings and in-laws grows to the point where Jacob and his family are not safe, and Jacob has a dream where God apparently warns him to run away to somewhere safe, so Jacob gathers what he has and prepares to flee.
When he is explaining what he has to do to his wives, Rachel and Leah say, according to Genesis 31:14:
“Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? 15 Hasn’t he treated us like foreigners? He not only sold us, but completely wasted the money paid for us!”
While Jacob and his family are preparing to take all they have and leave secretly, Rachel goes to her father’s house and steals her father’s idols. Now, there are several theories about why she does this, such as she stole the idols because she prays to them, or she stole the idols because the head of the family is the keeper of the idols, and this symbolically takes the patriarchy of the family away from the greedy and envious brothers. The theory I subscribe to is that Rachel is trying to take back what is stolen from Leah and her. Laban took the bride price in labor, but instead of setting apart the bride price, he cheated his daughters — when he died, his sons would inherit the money intended to support the women; the sons who are eager to steal Jacob’s wages are not likely to protect their sister’s property. My guess is that the idols were something that could easily be sold — and Rachel saw them as something she could hold on to, in place of the stolen bride price.
Laban, of course, notices that he was robbed and that Jacob, his daughters, and his grandchildren are gone — so Laban chases down Jacob to complain. Jacob has some complaints of his own, such as Laban changing his promised wages 10 times and trying to cheat him. Jacob further complains that whenever something happened to one of the animals, he had to eat the loss himself — even though the wages kept changing, Laban put the risk to Jacob while he reaped the reward.
Jacob, not knowing what Rachel did tells Laban to look for his property and put to death whoever stole it — Rachel sits on the gods and tells her father that she’s having her period, so she can’t stand; Laban, embarrassed apologizes and lets him go. They make a covenant with each other, Jacob agreeing to take care of his wives, and both of them agreeing not to harm the other as long as each stayed on their own side of a pile of rocks; needless to say, when Laban kissed his daughters and grandchildren goodbye, this was the last goodbye.
When Jacob returned, the first thing he did was sent messengers to his brother Esau, and he was quite scared when the response was that Esau and 400 of Esau’s men started moving to meet Jacob. Jacob was convinced, after the way he acted, that Esau nursed a grudge and was coming to take revenge. Jacob responded to this by splitting into two camps, so that half of his family, flocks, and servants could escape. Jacob ordered his servants to take a tribute of livestock to his brother, and offer them as a gift, suing for peace between them.
Esau went to Jacob’s camp, and Jacob bowed to Esau — and Esau responded by giving his brother a hug, and asking “Why did you send me livestock?”, Esau told his brother that he didn’t need anything more than he had, and then asked about Jacob’s family; so Jacob introduced his wives and his children to his brother.
When Esau returned home, he left some of his men with Jacob as a guard, letting Jacob travel at more comfortable pace for the children — so they both went to their homes, and Jacob settled and made a home for himself back in Canaan.
Sometimes family is a tricky thing. Jacob deserved his brother’s wrath — but, as soon as Esau learned Jacob was coming home, he went to greet his brother and meet his sisters in law and nephews. Jacob’s in-laws should have nothing but gratitude for him, as he worked with his father’s livestock — and if Jacob prospered, Laban prospered as well; but they became jealous that Jacob also prospered. Esau had much to forgive, but after 20 years it seems clear he didn’t hold a grudge. In spite all the drama that came over Isaac and Rebekah fighting over who’s favorite twin would become the head of the family, in the end, both sons were in Canaan when Isaac died; both were there to mourn and bury their father.
Jacob, played the trickster and cheated his brother making his brother into an enemy. Esau forgave his brother and brought him back into the family. Our sinful behavior breaks relationships. Forgiveness can go a long way to repair what was broken. If Esau kept that grudge going, the family would have never been reunited. Isaac would have never met his grandchildren, the two brothers would not be together to bury their father. It is hard, but family is family. When we are Jacob, and sin breaks our family, we have to repent and grow up. When we are Esau, sometimes we have to forgive and trust that repentance is sincere and that they can change. Forgiveness is a big part of the Gospel — and, not only are we shown God’s radical forgiveness, but we are to forgive as well. When I read the story of Esau and Jacob, I see the good news that repentance and forgiveness can repair what sin destroys.