The Difficulties of Forgiveness (1): Jacob and Esau

220px-Rubens_Reconciliation_of_Jacob_and_EsauWe are commanded to forgive by the teaching of Jesus and Jesus taught us to pray that we forgive those who wrong us as we forgive them for their wrongs against us. The petition in the Our Father for forgiveness suggests that accepting forgiveness can be at least as difficult as forgiving. Remaining oblivious to this latter difficulty reflects our prior difficulty in forgiving and I suspect it makes it all the harder for us to forgive. The two stories that conclude the book of Genesis help us move through our own difficulties by following through the difficulties experienced by Jacob and his son Joseph. We all know how difficult it is to forgive. We tend to overlook how difficult it can be to accept forgiveness.

The story of Jacob and Esau is a telling illustration of the difficulty in believing in forgiveness, let alone accepting it. Jacob had patently wronged his brother Esau in stealing Esau’s blessing and Jacob fled for his life with a guilty conscience. Years later, after similar wrangling with Laban, Jacob returns with his wives, his children and his flocks which had all grown too plentiful for Laban’s taste. Jacob has every reason to fear what will happen when he meets up again with Esau. Hearing that Esau is coming with four hundred men was not reassuring. The nighttime struggle with a dark figure seems to project Jacob’s combatant personality. Still the shifty coward he’s always been, Jacob puts the wives and children he cares about least in the most vulnerable positions in the front so that he can escape with his favored sons if need be.

What happens is an amazing surprise. Esau embraces Jacob with no reservations and not the slightest sign of resentment. No matter how many times one reads or hears the story, it is hard to believe. Jacob doesn’t believe it. Repentance and forgiveness aren’t really Jacob’s things. Jacob’s words: “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God” are among the most profound words in the entire Bible for the ultimate revelation is Divine Mercy in a human face. But, as I said, Jacob can’t believe it even after this warm greeting. Jacob turns down the invitation to travel with Esau, using the excuse that he can’t drive his flocks too hard in one day. (Benedict quoted this verse in his Rule to illustrate the need for the abbot not to drive his monastics too hard!) Jacob, still shifty and cowardly, manages to avoid ever meeting up again with his brother for the rest of his life. Think of the years of friendship and companionship they missed out on!

The story is complicated by the later history of Edom, the people descended from Esau which reach a climax in Paul’s quoting, In Romans, Malachi 1:3: “Yet I have loved Jacob, but hated Esau.” In spite of Esau’s forgiveness narrated in Genesis, Edom has not been forgiven by Israel for its siding with their enemies in several wars. That Edom never recovered from the Assyrian invasion seemed to confirm that. The unflattering portrayal of Esau as a stupid, hairy oaf who sells his birthright for a pot of soup is perhaps another way of expressing Israel’s grudge against Edom. And yet this stupid hairy oaf suffered a terrible wrong from his unrepentant brother, moved on and built up his own flocks rather than spending his life in resentment, and forgave his brother. The story of these two brothers is often presented, including by Paul, to illustrate the mystery of God’s election. Jacob is the one chosen to carry on the Covenant, but the rejected brother, Esau, is the one much more in the place of Christ both in his rejection and in his forgiveness. Can repentance and forgiveness be strong enough in our lives for us to believe forgiveness when we see it?

See also Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (2)

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