By Jean McCurdy Meade
Esau gets a bad rap in the Bible. St. Paul quotes the prophet Malachi, “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated,” when speaking of the mysterious election of Israel as God’s people. Hebrews also mentions Esau twice: “By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau” (Heb. 11:20); but also warns “that no one be immoral or irreligious like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.” The Old Testament narrative concerns the descendants of Jacob, whom God chose over Esau while they were still in the womb. So naturally Esau fades into insignificance as soon as his encounters with Jacob are over. He is considered the ancestor of the Edomites, who are not included in God’s covenant with the children of Israel and later are rivals of the Israelites for territory. But the Genesis account nevertheless shows him as a true hero of forgiveness, in his unexpected and generous reception of the returning liar and deceiver Jacob. Although Jesus never mentions him, he seems to be the Old Testament prototype for the forgiving father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Esau’s story begins with his conception. Isaac’s beloved wife Rebekah is barren, so Isaac prays to the Lord for her. Then Rebekah becomes pregnant — with twins. They cause her so much distress fighting in the womb that she laments, “If it is thus, why do I live?” and goes to inquire of the Lord. The Lord says to her:
Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples, born of you shall be divided;
and the one shall be stronger than the other;
the elder shall serve the younger. (Gen. 25:23)
Esau is born first and Jacob next, with his hand holding Esau’s heel (he is already trying to supplant his older brother). Esau is named for his hairy body; Jacob, for his hand on his twin’s heel. When the boys grow up, Esau becomes “a skillful hunter, a man of the field,” while Jacob “was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.” Esau is favored by his father; Jacob, by his mother. One day Esau comes back from the field famished and asks Jacob for some of the pottage he has cooked. It is hard-hearted for Jacob to refuse food to a starving person, much less his own brother, but he realizes his chance and demands that Esau sell him his birthright. Esau does so, and thus “despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:31-34). One wonders, did Rebekah ever tell her favorite child about the prophecy? Was he trying to make it come true by his own disgraceful behavior when he got the chance?
When Isaac is almost blind and thinks he is about to die, he sends for Esau, and asks him to bring some game he has killed so he can eat it and bless his eldest son. Esau goes forth to hunt immediately. Rebekah is listening outside the tent and goes into action for her favorite, Jacob. At her urging he dresses in Esau’s clothes, takes savory food she prepares, deceives his father into thinking he is Esau, and receives the blessing intended for his brother. It seems Rebekah definitely remembers the prophecy and is taking it into her own hands to fulfill it by tricking her husband! When Esau returns, his father can only say, “Your brother came with guile and he has taken away your blessing.” Esau is enraged and vows to kill his brother once the mourning for their father is over. Rebekah quickly tells Jacob he needs to flee for his life, so he does.
After serving his uncle Laban for 20 years, the Lord tells Jacob to return home. Jacob sends messengers before him to Esau, “hoping to find favor in his sight.” When they tell Jacob that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob is terribly afraid. He obviously has a very guilty conscience for his deceitful and dishonorable treatment of both his father and his brother. He decides to send servants ahead with gifts, instructing them to tell Esau they are from “your servant Jacob,” thinking, “I may appease him with the present that goes before me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me” (Gen. 32:20).
That night “a man” comes and wrestles with him until daybreak. As day is breaking he says, “Let me go” but Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The mysterious person asks, “What is your name?” and, in direct contrast to his reply to his father all those years ago when he lied and said, “I am Esau,” he answers truly, “Jacob.” Then the “angel” gives him a new name, Israel, “For you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” When Jacob then asks his mysterious visitor-opponent his name, the person only says, “Why do you ask?” and then gives him his blessing. Jacob now realizes just whom he has encountered and names the place Peniel (pen=face, iel= of God) “for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
The next day Jacob-Israel goes before his wives and children to meet Esau, bowing down to the ground seven times as he approaches. “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and they wept.” When Esau insists he has enough already and asks Jacob to keep the gifts he has offered, Jacob pleads, “No, I pray you, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God, with such favor you have received me.” This is from a man who had seen the face of God hours before — then, it looked like a stranger he wrestled with all night; now, it looks like the forgiveness in the face of the brother he has grievously wronged. Their father Isaac, moreover, is still alive; but when he does die, “[h]is sons Esau and Jacob buried him” (Gen. 35:29).
In the parable Jesus told about two brothers and their father, it is the father who runs to meet and embrace the younger son who has been away in a far country after insulting his father by requesting his inheritance. That son is destitute, while Jacob is rich; but both have had to come to terms with their own sin, accepting their responsibility for their actions against family and love, and return home contrite and asking for forgiveness. Esau is the example in the Torah of the loving, forgiving one, who like the father in the parable, welcomes home the returning miscreant without reservation.
So it is Esau who shows the face of God to his deceitful but chosen brother. It is Esau’s forgiveness that restores Jacob to his place in the land to which God has led their grandfather Abraham. Perhaps it is time to call him St. Esau and pray that we can also be “the face of God” to someone who seeks our forgiveness, even if that person has been chosen instead of us for some great thing.