Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau: a sacred story of restorative justice

This week’s Torah portion is about the story of Jacob and Esau–not the best brothers to each other as we know.  And, from Charlie Pillsbury, we have the lessons from how the two finally reconcile.  In addition, this week our MU students are heading up to Green Bay maximum security prison as part of our restorative justice program, so the timing of this story is particularly apt.  Thanks Charlie.

One of the great peacemaking stories in scripture relates the remarkable resolution of the mortal conflict between the first born twin Esau and his younger brother Jacob, who came out of the womb “with his hand gripping Esau’s heel.” Gen. 25: 26. Indeed, Jacob’s name comes from a play on the Hebrew word for “heel”, e.g., “he takes by the heel” or “he supplants”. Gen. 25: 26, FN26.

When they grow older, Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricks his father Isaac into blessing him, instead of his older brother. Discovering this duplicity, Esau then swears that he will kill his brother after their father dies. So Jacob flees, again with help from his mother, to live with his Uncle Laban in Haran. There Jacob marries Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel, takes concubines, and has 12 sons and one daughter. Jacob prospers, but finally, at God’s behest, Jacob leaves, actually “flees” (Gen. 31:20-22), Haran to return to the land of his birth, where he must confront his brother.

Fearing that Esau will “kill us all, the mothers with the children” (Gen. 32:11), Jacob places his trust in God and decides to reconcile with his brother. To do this, he first sends a series of peace offerings to Esau, hundreds of goats, sheep, camels, cows, bulls and donkeys. That night, after dispatching these peace offerings, Jacob wrestles famously with an unnamed man, whom Jacob does not release until he’s blessed and given a new name: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Gen. 32: 28-29. After deciding to reconcile with and pay restitution to Esau, “Jacob,” the supplanter, becomes “Israel,” the victorious, blessed, god-wrestler.

The next morning, Israel, limping because of his hip, injured during the night, finally meets his brother. Before greeting him, Israel bows seven times. Esau embraces him, and they both weep. What happens next is even more astonishing. Esau initially refuses his brother’s peace offerings, saying that he already has enough. Israel insists, replying: “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….” Gen. 33:10.   Israel now sees “the face of God” in the face of the very brother who had sworn to kill him.

This sacred story shows just how difficult reconciliation is. It involves risk; comes with sacrifice, even injury; and takes faith and trust in one’s God. The “Israel” of Torah teaches us, however, that when we do this; and are finally able to see “the face of God” in the face of our enemy and reconcile with our brother; we will be blessed.

*Quotations from the New Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible. See generally Genesis 25:19 – 33:17.

6 thoughts on “Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau: a sacred story of restorative justice”

  1. In Genesis, Jacob really acted poorly toward his brother. Jacob stole Esau’s birthright, and then stole the blessing from their father Isaac. When Jacob heard his brother was coming with 400 men, he thought Esau would surely take his life, and seek out vengeance for all the previous wrongs. However, Esau forgave “Israel,” and the two brothers embraced and wept together. Jacob even needed to convince Esau just to take his gifts, which were brought there in supplication. Although the Prodigal Son gets a lot of press, and deservedly so, the story of Esau and Jacob is a story of equal forgiveness and growth. Most people do not have the same exposure to this story because Genesis is a daunting task for most Biblical readers, myself included, and the lineage of Adam is really hard to get past.

    1. Like Mike said, the stories of Jacob and Esau and the Prodigal Son deal with the topic of forgiveness and growth. Regarding forgiveness, I’m reminded of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:21-35) and that we’re called to forgive “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” and, in effect, somewhat pay a price for the actions of others. For that reason, C.S. Lewis considered forgiveness to be the least popular of the Christian virtues in his chapter on the topic in Mere Christianity.

      And in the ADR context, I think it’s probably easy to overlook the price someone pays for forgiving someone else, especially when one is on the receiving end of forgiveness. Again referring to C.S. Lewis, he wrote, “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive . . . .” Therefore, we would be well-advised to keep Lewis’ quote in mind, especially when being forgiven.

  2. While I disagree with the notion that reconciliation requires faith and trust in a higher power, I do believe reconciliation requires faith and trust in oneself. I base this belief off of the Restorative Justice presentation from Justice Janine Geske in class earlier this semester. During her presentation, Justice Geske spoke about the process leading up to the meeting between the victim’s family and the person who wronged them. It was apparent to me that both parties must fully believe they are ready to meet with the other person. Absent this faith and trust, the meeting will be unsuccessful and possibly more harmful.

    It was also apparent to me from Justice Geske’s presentation that seeking reconciliation with others will likely be difficult emotionally, mentally, or even physically. However, despite these difficulties, the process of reconciliation will often be met with great reward once it is accomplished; that reward being a sense of inner peace when the person who has been wronged is able to forgive the wrongdoer. This reward is likely not one-sided, as the wrongdoer may find solace in their forgiveness. Again, while I don’t believe that “seeing the face of God” or more broadly that any religious belief system is required to reconcile with those you have wronged or who have wronged you, I do agree with the underlying idea of this passage.

  3. Faith and forgiveness go hand in hand. I will even take it one step further and say that faith is the most essential factor that drives forgiveness. Sure, there are other factors that may play a role in our decision to forgive others, but at the core of our decision to forgive, we must have faith. While I believe faith to paramount to forgiveness, I do not necessarily believe that it has to come from a higher power. In order to forgive, we need to have faith in ourselves, faith in the other person we choose to forgive, and faith that our decision to forgive is the right decision.

    We as humans have a tendency to lean towards retribution instead of reconciliation. That seems to be easiest way for most people to address a given situation. People often find it easier to retaliate or punish someone else, then to forgive past actions. This is particularly true for our criminal justice system. Punishment is the underlying factor that drives most punishments in our criminal justice system. While I agree that punishment is needed to deter future criminal activity, punishment in and of itself will not always bring peace to our hearts. This is why initiatives such as the restorative justice program, are so important in our modern legal world. These programs provide an avenue for criminals and their victims to come together and embark on a new journey in the healing process. While Restorative Justice may not be the best scenario for everyone, it has certainly been proven to be an effective tool in helping the participants forgive the past actions of their aggressors.

    As I come to a conclusion on my thoughts about faith and forgiveness, I will leave you with an aptly fitting quote that my father always told me as a child “An eye for an eye, leaves the whole world blind”.

  4. It is a true shame that most do not know this story or the impact it would have on the rest of the Biblical history. While it is, on the one hand, the story of two brothers and their reconciliation, it is also much more than that; it is the story of true divine intervention in the bringing back together of a house torn apart. While it took great humility and grace for Esau to forgive his brother, Jacob had to take the first steps by trusting in his faith to lead him back home. Knowing full well that his brother should, and ought to feel anger and rage, Jacob still took the plunge and left everything, returning home to what he legitimately believed could be a death sentence. The entire line of Jacob would eventually become the nation of Israel, and it is daunting to think it could have been snuffed out before it even began had one brother not decided to forgive the other. Forgiveness can change the landscape of history, just ask the Israelites.

  5. The most profound part of the story was just mentioned in the previous comment: the nation of Israel and I believe that this whole drama of the two sons is concerning the Arabs and the Jews. They fought even in their mothers womb (Gen. 25:22-23). Their reconciliation is a part of this great drama that has yet to play-out in the healing of these two great nations. But…the final unfoldment is when we learn to see the unfoldment within ourselves. And that is obvious the spirit/mind (which Israel symbolizes and the body/soul that the Arab nations represent within us. Until these two great part of us make peace and reconciliation, there can be no peace within or without!

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