“But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” Genesis 33:4
Fairy tales famously end “and they lived happily ever after.” Biblical stories rarely end that way.
Moses’ story ends as he looks down with longing on the Promised Land. Abraham dies with one son lost to him, another who doesn’t talk to him, and no homeland in his control.
The story of Jacob and Esau might seem to end happily. For twenty years Esau had wanted to murder his twin brother, who had deceived their father into giving him the blessing of the first-born son.
Jacob had fled from Esau, arriving at the home of relative named Laban. He settled with Laban, eventually marrying Laban’s daughters and gathering significant wealth.
A Fateful Meeting
Now he was bringing his families back to his homeland. En route he is met by Esau. Rather than carry out his vengeful promise, however, Esau reconciles with Jacob. They meet, exchange words, embrace. Is this happily ever after?
No. While the picture above makes us feel good, I am not sure it is accurate.
I imagine Jacob and Esau looking at each other wearily, questioningly, with a tinge of fear and expectation. Their experience is more real-world than fairy tale, more human than angelic. They reconcile, but they do not become instant best friends.
Their humanity makes them more relevant and instructive for us. We can learn from they way they reconciled.
1. They grow: It has been said that time heals all wounds. It would be more accurate to say time helps us heal ourselves.
By the time they meet again, Jacob and Esau are twenty years older. They have married, fathered children, built families and livelihoods. They are not the same people they once were.
They had once been competing brothers with opposite interests. Esau was a man of the fields and Jacob a man of the tents (Gen. 25:27) Now they are more alike than different, brothers rather than rivals.
2. They feel God’s presence: Martin Buber once wrote that when two people experience an “I-Thou” relationship, God dwells between them. We see this phenomenon between Jacob and Esau, and Jacob expresses it in words. “To see your face,” Jacob says to Esau, “is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen. 33:10)
These are more than words. They heal and reshape a relationship. As Rabbi Sam Karff puts it, “Here, God appears in the face of another person. A person who appears in our lives when we most need help and heals, rather than hurts, becomes a mirror of the face of God.”
3. They go their separate ways: Jacob and Esau may be twins, but they are not the same. They accept themselves and each other, and pursue their unique paths. Their reconciliation does not erase their history. Rather, it lets them live with eyes focused forward.
It lets them realize the truth expressed so beautifully by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. This day is all that is good and fair. It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the yesterdays.”
As did Jacob and Esau, so may we.