Today for Sabbath School it was my task to talk about Jacob’s reunion with Esau. For several reasons, this is among the most awkward stories in scripture, and precisely for that reason, among others, I am very fond of the story myself. While the story can be explained in ways that go over the heads of an audience, particularly an audience between the ages of 6 and 12 like that I am dealing with here, the story also has a lot that many of my students would be able to relate to, given that many of them can relate to issues with siblings and to the importance of knowing where you stand. Of course, knowing where you stand is not always a good thing, as this story reveals in many of its ways. Before we discuss at least three different ways this matter is discussed in the story, it is worthwhile to set up some context first, and so it is to that task that we will first turn.
We find the setting up of the reunion between Esau and Jacob, and it’s not quite something out of a classic Peaches and Herb song. As it is written in Genesis 32:3-8: “Then Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. And he commanded them, saying, “Speak thus to my lord Esau, ‘Thus your servant Jacob says: “I have dwelt with Laban and stayed there until now. I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight.”’” Then the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he also is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” So Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies. And he said, “If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the other company which is left will escape.”” Upon entering the area near the Promised Land, in what is now Jordan, Jacob lets his brother know he’s on the way in coming home and that God has been good to him, and hears the unwelcome news that his brother was on the way to meet him with four hundred armed men. Considering that the last time he had seen his brother, many years ago, his brother had promised to kill him for stealing the birthright and promise that God had ordained for Jacob to receive rather than Esau, this was definitely not good news. Jacob, thinking he might still stand as a thief for his brother, then resolves to send presents in a cascade to his brother as a way of appeasement, given that he didn’t have the means to fight off 400 armed men intent on massacring him and his family, or so he feared.
In the midst of all of this, Jacob wrestles with God. While Jacob is sorting out where his family stands, in ways that are impossible to ignore, and trying to see where he stands in the eyes of his formerly homicidal brother, God lets him know where he stands as well, by wrestling with him on a night where he wasn’t going to get any sleep anyway. As it is written in Exodus 32:22-32: ” And he arose that night and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed over the ford of Jabbok. He took them, sent them over the brook, and sent over what he had. Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.” But he said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!” So He said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob.” And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked, saying, “Tell me Your name, I pray.” And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” And He blessed him there. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Just as he crossed over Penuel the sun rose on him, and he limped on his hip. Therefore to this day the children of Israel do not eat the muscle that shrank, which is on the hip socket, because He touched the socket of Jacob’s hip in the muscle that shrank.”
Here we see that the wrestling itself was awkward in several ways, for both God and for Jacob, but that Jacob, who is here renamed to Israel because he has struggled with God and with men, and prevailed, knows where he stands with God as a result of all his wrestling. What is remarkable here is Jacob’s sheer persistence despite the pain of a dislocated hip, a dislocation he kept to the end of his life. Jacob had prevailed with God and with men, but it had cost him wounds, and it would continue to cost him throughout the rest of his life. He would lose his beloved wife Rachel within a short time as they made their way towards the south of Canaan, his son Joseph to the jealousy of his brothers some years hence, but he would prevail. And his hobbling around his hip left a lasting impression on his family as well, leading the children of Israel to establish a tradition of not eating the hip shank bone that shrank when God put his hip out of place in their memorable wrestling all those years ago. Despite his wounds and brokenness, though, Jacob never forget that God had blessed him, and that he knew where he stood with God at least after all of the striving and all of the supplanting that he had done over the course of his life.
Not long after this, his children know where they stand too, and they are likely to have been less pleased about it. When we speak about the favoritism of Joseph compared with his brothers, it is common to think about the coat of many colors and Joseph’s dreams of greatness tactlessly expressed by a cocky and talented teenager. But that is likely only the final straw to a resentment against him that had likely been building for a very long time. As it is written in Genesis 33:1-5: “Now Jacob lifted his eyes and looked, and there, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men. So he divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maidservants. And he put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children behind, and Rachel and Joseph last. Then he crossed over before them and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And he lifted his eyes and saw the women and children, and said, “Who are these with you?””
Jacob’s children knew exactly where they stood with him, organized clearly into various groups. In the most expendable group were the children that Jacob had with the maidservants of his sister wives, the closest to danger. The second group was made up of Leah and his children, and in the most protected space were Rachel and Joseph. For the rest of their lives, if they were so inclined, they would be able to visualize exactly where they stood on that day where their family faced death from their crazy uncle, and it would likely not be a pleasant sight. Joseph would have the privileged place, the children of Leah would be second-rate, and the children of the concubines would be fairly expendable altogether. It was the sort of memory that would not likely give anyone any comfort, except perhaps Joseph, in the years ahead, and was likely something that contributed to the resentment that Joseph’s brothers had for him, even apart from his own lack of wisdom in dealing with them.
And what was the end of all of this fretting and worrying, the wrestling with God and the showing of his children where they stood, and not as one group of equal importance but three clear divisions of descending importance? Truth be told, the ending of this crisis, like the ending of many such matters, is a bit anticlimactic. Esau and Jacob meet, Jacob discusses the blessings that God has given him in children and in animals through his time with Laban, and Esau invites Jacob to come down to Seir where he is, and Jacob prudently but politely chooses to entirely avoid the area altogether, and dwell in a different part of the land far from his brother. One wonders if his less favored children ever fully forgave him for letting them know where they stood in his eyes. People can hold on to that sort of family grudge for a long, long time. Those who are closest to us can cut us very deeply when they show their lack of regard for us, after all, and it is clear that Leah and especially the children of his wives’ maidservants were far less dear to him than he was to God.