Reflections on Genesis 33 – By Common Consent, A Mormon Blog
Finally, there is the risk of embrace. . . . I open my arms, I make a movement from myself towards the other, the enemy, and I don’t know if I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated, or if my action will be appreciated, understood and reciprocated. I can become a savior or a victim, maybe both. The embrace is grace, and grace is a bet, always.
–Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation
One of the great things about the Hebrew Bible is that it never quite does what it’s supposed to do. Like many of its main characters, the text itself is a trickster. It serves its own ends and refuses to cooperate with our flannel versions of history (Kids, think of a really big iPad where you have to stick the pictures on the screen yourself). Every time we think we know what the text is saying, it changes the narrative and says something different.
Perhaps the most trickster of all the tricksters in the Hebrew Bible is Jacob, who became Israel and gave his name to the nation. Jacob deceives his brother, Esau, about his birthright by wearing animal skins and pretending to be hairy so that his nearly blind father, Isaac, gives him the wrong blessing. And then he manages to engage in early genetic engineering to swindle his stepfather, Laban, out of most of his cattle.
And yet, Jacob is the chosen one, the man chosen to become the patriarch of the entire Israelite nation. It represents the point at which the Abrahamic covenant ceases to descend only through the birthright son (leaving the descendants of Ishmael and Esau out of the picture) and becomes universal for all its descendants. He was also (we are told) a great prophet who, like all great prophets, does exactly the kind of things God wants to do.
The text harshly pushes back against this simplistic good-bad narrative, and most faithful modern interpretations of the story sanitize Jacob’s deceptions or focus entirely on the good parts. But that gets harder to do as the story progresses. And perhaps the most spiritually vital part of the text – Jacob wrestling with an angel, who changes his name to Israel and makes him the father of the Twelve Tribes – is related to Jacob’s most significant failure – his inability to return his brother’s embrace.
Let’s try to see history through the eyes of Esau. He was the eldest son (albeit by about two minutes) and he was destined to receive the birthright. At one point in his life, he was hungry, and rather than just giving him food because that’s what brothers do, Jacob forces him to give up his birthright in exchange for a soup. But this kind of agreement is not legally binding. Isaac can give the birthright to whomever he wants, and he wants to give it to Esau. But his brother and his own mother conspire against him and dress Jacob in furs to induce the father to give the birthright blessing to the wrong son. Jacob left town for 21 years, and now he wants to come back and claim his inheritance. What would you do? Esau forgives.
When Jacob learns that Esau is heading towards him with 400 men, he is terrified. He spends the night begging God to protect him and fighting the angels. But when Esau shows up, all he wants is to kiss his brother:
Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. He therefore divides the children between Leah and Rachel and the two servants. He placed the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and finally Rachel and Joseph. He himself walked in front of them, prostrating himself seven times on the ground, until he approached his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, kissed him, fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:1-5 NRSV)
In this passage, Esau engages in what the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf calls “the risk of the embrace”. The two brothers have been estranged for decades over an argument that, in many stories from the ancient world (and a few from the modern world), is said to have ended in bloodshed. Esau risks the embrace and offers the reconciliation of his heart.
What Jacob does next should shock us all. He doesn’t reject Esau’s offer – there’s no way he can – but he doesn’t return the hug either. Not really. Rather, he immediately turns the conciliatory embrace into a transaction by presenting Esau with a significant portion of his flock:
Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I have met? Jacob replied, “To find favor with my lord.” But Esau said, “I have had enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself. Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly seeing your face is like seeing the face of God, since you have received me with such favour. Please accept my gift brought to you, because God has given me grace and because I have everything I want. So he pressed it, and he took it. (Genesis 33:8-11)
Jacob here acts like someone who has received a surprise gift and, rather than appreciating the gift for what it is, insists on going out and buying something of equal value to avoid going into debt. As Esau himself points out, it is unnecessary and changes the whole nature of the relationship, from brotherly affection to economic transaction. Jacob cannot simply accept forgiveness as a free gift. He must try to buy it with the kingdom coin. And when Esau tries to engage his brother as a brother by saying: “Let us go on our way, and I will go by your side” (Gn 33, 12), Jacob pushes him away. Having escaped the vise, Jacob shows no interest in having a brother.
This is the trick the text plays on us. Esau, not Jacob, becomes the Christ figure in the story – the one who initiates reconciliation by offering unconditional forgiveness to someone who has wronged him. Jacob is the unrepentant sinner who doesn’t want to be punished, but can’t accept a simple offer of mercy and tries to buy his brother’s forgiveness with a herd of goats.
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