Jacob and Esau were twins. The fruit of the beautiful love story of Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau entered the world with a stark warning that a war was brewing even in their mother’s womb (Genesis 25:23). The LORD’s prediction proved true, and the war was a family feud that lasted decades.
Do you know anyone named Esau?
How about Jacob?
Many of us know a Jacob. Perhaps that’s your name. If you’re an Esau, you’re unique. In fact, Jacob ranks 46th in name popularity while Esau comes in at 6142nd. This tilting toward a preference for Jacob is surprising, given that he was a liar and a self-serving jerk. His name even means “to supplant, grasp, overreach or deceive.”
Their family feud is recorded in Genesis chapters 25-33. A summary is warranted before we wrestle out its implications for our twenty-first-century selves:
- Jacob and Esau were already jostling in the womb – an ominous sign (Genesis 25:22-23).
- They become opposite parental favourites. Isaac favours Esau, and Rebekah favours Jacob. This will have serious repercussions (Genesis 25:27-28).
- Esau is a blue-collar redneck kind of guy who impulsively lives in the moment.
- Jacob is a homebody, not keen on getting smelly, conniving, and a long-term planner.
- Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s impulsivity and steals his firstborn birthright. Esau seems willing to disregard his rights and responsibilities, while Jacob is willing to overreach and overrun (Genesis 25:29-34).
- Jacob takes up his mother’s challenge to circumvent tradition and ensure the patriarchal blessing falls on him, even though he is the youngest, and that doing so requires devious deception of his blind father (Genesis 27:1-30).
- Isaac is crushed that his family has come to this (Genesis 27:30-40).
- Esau wants to kill Jacob (Genesis 27:41).
- Jacob flees to his mother’s homeland (Genesis 27:42-45). He won’t see his parents again. He must wish never to see his brother again. But a sliver of light emerges when the LORD meets him and promises to bless the nations through him. God’s purposes and presence will yet transform Jacob’s schemes (Genesis 28:10-15).
- Eventually, both brothers build strong tribes (Genesis 29-30). Both appear “successful” (though Jacob’s self-serving scheming doesn’t end), but a great inescapable truth remains: the broken relationship that haunts them both.
- God forces Jacob into a corner. Jacob’s material success becomes his nemesis. When he outgrows his mother’s homeland, God tells him to return home (Genesis 31:3). He will face his past. Jacob has everything but is living with a fundamental brokenness he can no longer run from. He quakingly pleads the promise of God: “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau…” (Genesis 32:11).
- The epoch reckoning approaches. Esau approaches with four hundred men (Genesis 32:6). Jacob is overmatched and can’t scheme his way out of this one. God has arranged this uncomfortable space. Jacob tries one last desperate scheme, dividing his family to give at least some a chance to escape. He spends what might be his last night on earth alone, facing his fears and demons, but instead meets God. Jacob encounters himself in a very personal encounter with God.
- Jacob is broken and reborn. The wrestling match with God (Genesis 32:22-32) leaves him limping (no longer able to run away) and transformed (with a new identity as “Israel” – no longer an over-reacher, but an overcomer).
- A limping and humble Jacob meets Esau (Genesis 33). Esau runs to embrace – the offended offering mercy. No one dies. Tears are shed. There is blessing and reconciliation as they part ways, with undeserving Jacob still carrying forward the promise of God to bless the nations.
What do we make of this roller-coaster ride of a man on the way to reconciliation? How does it apply to life today?
Let’s consider the answer to these questions with three simple words:
Both Jacob and Esau had character (in the best sense of the word), as well as character flaws. So do you. We all do. Behind “success” or losses lingers the influence and impact of character, particularly the character flaws shaped by our own sin and family issues. Character flaws will impact relationships negatively. Character that is shaped by the divine (even when that takes a long time) will have reconciling force. What is shaping your character? What is being impacted by your character?
So much of what was unravelled and reconciled in the story depended on how opportunity was used. The timing of an aged father’s ritual blessing was used to flip the script and bring about destruction. The reality of Jacob outgrowing his welcome in his mother’s homeland became the timely circumstance for an unexpected and unwanted journey toward reconciliation. In life, opportunities arise – sometimes only for a short time – that we must make something of. Will we use them to destroy or heal? Will we grasp, be impulsive, or swallow our pride and face our fear?
In reflecting on this story, John Paul Lederach notes three encounters: “the encounter with self, with the other, and with God. We must never shortcut the depth and challenge of these encounters.” The courage to reconcile requires these encounters. We know Jacob encountered all three because Scripture zeros in on his unique place in the plan of God for the reconciliation of all things. We see Esau’s run to embrace the brother he once wanted dead, but that surprising move hints at a profound encounter with his own soul and God. Have you had these encounters yet? The courage to reconcile when character meets opportunity depends upon it.
 John Paul Lederach, Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians (Harrisonburg, Herald Press, 2014), 40.