This week's question comes from a distraught brother. He writes, "My brother and I have been estranged for years. I draw hope from the story of Jacob and Esau and their reconciliation in the Old Testament. But a PBS program I watched [Genesis with Bill Moyer] made me wonder. Did they really reconcile?"
The story of Jacob and Esau is found in Genesis 25-33. It begins with the birth of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau. Jacob was the youngest and from the beginning there was an intense sibling rivalry. By and by, Jacob stole the inheritance blessing from Esau and had to flee for his life. Esau didn't pursue him, but Jacob knew if he returned his life was in peril.
About 20 years later Jacob decided to return to his homeland. To do so meant he had to face his brother and this filled him with terror. But he was determined to return to the land of his home and we read the account in Genesis chapters 32 and 33.
When we read the story of their meeting we read a touching account: "Jacob himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept" (Genesis 33.3-4). For all the world, it looks like they had a great reunion and offers hope to all those siblings and families that have suffered estrangement. But if we carefully examine the story of their coming together we could get a different view of the reconciliation.
First, the good news. Esau did not kill Jacob when they met and this is the first step towards true reconciliation! The bad news is the rest of the story. In chapter 32, before Jacob approached Esau, he sends a message on ahead to measure the temperament of his brother. In response, Esau gathers 400 men and sets out to meet Jacob. Jacob was terrified and so sent an extravagant gift ahead of him. "He selected a gift for his brother Esau: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, 'Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.' He instructed the one in the lead: 'When my brother Esau meets you and asks, "To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?" then you are to say, "They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us."(Genesis 32.13-18).
A cursory read suggests Jacob might have been trying to make amends by restoring the fortunes he had tricked his brother out of earlier when he stole his inheritance. But verse 20 reveals Jacob's true motive for the extravagance: "For he thought, 'I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me."Jacob wasn't counting on his brother's goodwill, instead he counted on a bribe to soften his brother's heart.
Another clue to the lack of reconciliation is seen in how the brothers addressed each other. Throughout the account, Esau calls Jacob, "My brother." But Jacob never acknowledges Esau's words of affection. Instead, he insists on calling Esau, "My lord", a title of honor, to be sure, but certainly not a term of endearment. Beyond the names they use, it is significant to note that though the brothers kiss in greeting, they never eat together. In the Middle East, both then and now, the sharing of a meal is an acknowledgment of relationship (notice we see Netanyahu shake hands with Arafat, but they do not eat together). Even though Esau repeatedly invites Jacob to his home, Jacob refuses each time.
In the end, after the greeting and charade of reconciliation, Jacob and Esau never again meet until after their father dies, and then only to bury him. Though Esau never made good on his threat to kill his brother, reconciliation doesn't seem to have taken place. In the words of Lewis B. Smedes in the PBS Genesis series resource guide, "Sometimes peaceful coexistence is as good as reconciliation can get" (p137. Talking About Genesis: A Resource Guide. New York:Doubleday. 1996).
A careful reading of the scriptures reveals that the rivaling brothers never actually reconcile. Though Esau's actions show he may have forgiven his brother, it seems Jacob was unable to accept Esau's forgiveness and so reconciliation was never possible - which shouldn't remove hope for us, but it may help us to deal with the eventualities.