Like many people, when I’m confronted with a situation about which I have very little information, I immediately start to fill in the gaps. And more often than not what I fill them with are my own fears and worries, which then play out by me being victimized in some way. It seems we make stuff up when we don’t have facts. In the book of Genesis, this is what we find Jacob doing when he’s finally going to see his brother Esau again after a twenty-year estrangement precipitated by the theft of his brother’s birthright. Remember the scene in which he fools their father Isaac into giving him his blessing by pretending to be Esau? That’s what initiated Jacob’s flight from their father’s household.
What’s going on at this point is that Jacob has tired of being under the thumb of his father-in-law, so packs up his wives and children along with his servants and herds of animals, and makes his way back home. He was anticipating the inevitable reunion with his brother whom he had wronged. If smart phones had existed back then he could have sent a text to Esau letting him know of his plans and then waited for a reply. He would have then known what was up between them and what he’d be facing when they met. Or he could have Instagrammed a picture of himself with all his wives and kids in the hope of softening his brother up.
But there was really no way for them to communicate so Jacob assumes Esau will try to exact revenge upon him, creating a narrative in which the two of them would once again be at odds. He makes the assumption that Esau hated him. Jacob really runs with this scenario, creating a complex strategy of dividing his wives, children, and herds into groups so that if one were attacked the others might survive. His expectation is that Esau will try to do him harm, just as he had harmed Esau. When he hears that his brother is on the way to meet him with four hundred men he gets really scared so gathers together goats, sheep, camels, cattle, and donkeys to present as tribute to him.
But what is easy to miss in the reading of this scripture is that Jacob never reflects upon his actions. We never hear him express any remorse or to ponder how he’ll ask Esau’s forgiveness for what he did to him earlier in their lives. Instead, we are told that Jacob prays, “O God, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good’..deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother..for I am afraid of him.”
He realizes he’s in big trouble; that he’s made a mess of his relationships and has estranged himself from his family because of his actions. He doesn’t know what to do so decides to ask God for help! What an idea! I know that many of us, when we’re facing a life challenge and don’t know what to do, rather than keep trying to figure it out by ourselves, call a timeout, hit our knees, and ask God for help. However, sometimes that’s the last thing I think of doing. I think that it’s all up to me and that I have the power to figure everything out and to set things right. Wrong!
I once had to ask forgiveness of someone for something pretty rotten I’d done to him many years earlier. Like Jacob, I was filled with absolute dread at the thought of contacting him. I spent months anticipating the possible responses of the person and the various outcomes. I expected that when I called he would be filled with anger and would let me have it. Finally, the day came when I had enough courage to make the call. I dialed the number and waited anxiously as I listened to the phone ring before I heard a voice I recognized as his say, “Hello.” I almost hung up, but I knew what I had do. And you know what? I was completely wrong. He was so happy to hear from me and even though he acknowledged that he’d been hurt by what I’d done, had forgiven me years ago and had let go of it. He harbored no animosity towards me. And here I had been carrying so much guilt and shame around with me all those years!
So, imagine what it was like for Jacob to stand there and watch his brother approach him. The dread! The shame! The fear! But this is what we’re told: “..Esau ran to him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” They wept! In that moment all animosity, hatred, and resentment slipped away as the brothers were reunited, joined together again through the love of God, the God to whom Jacob had prayed for deliverance; not just deliverance from what he had falsely assumed would be the wrath of his brother, but deliverance from his transgression against him.
This is the power of prayer and the redemptive power of God.
Genesis 32, 33
Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him; and when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called that place Mahanaim.
Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’“
The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” Then 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, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.”
And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”
So he spent that night there, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. These he delivered into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me, and put a space between drove and drove.” He instructed the foremost, “When Esau my brother meets you, and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord Esau; and moreover he is behind us.’“ He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you meet him, and you shall say, ‘Moreover your servant Jacob is behind us.’“ For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.” So the present passed on ahead of him; and he himself spent that night in the camp.
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.
But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” But Esau said, “I have 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 to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it.
Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.” But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; and if they are overdriven for one day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”
So Esau said, “Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.” But he said, “Why should my lord be so kind to me?” So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house, and made booths for his cattle; therefore the place is called Succoth.
Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram; and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for one hundred pieces of money the plot of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.