In my attempt to read through the Bible again this year I’ve been reading lately through the book of Genesis. It always amazes me that I notice things that had been invisible to me before.
I’m in that part of the story that focuses on the life of Isaac and then his son, Jacob. He’s the younger twin of Isaac and Rebekah. His parents name him heel-grabber because of how he was born gripping the heel of his older brother, Esau. Some translations of the Bible throw in the caveat that his name could also mean ‘He cheats’ or “He deceives.’ (Just as an aside, I’m glad I wasn’t named for how I was born.)
As the story continues we see that Jacob soon lives up to his name. The first example is how he bargains for Esau’s birthright by withholding a bowl of stew. The next time he’s able to pull off a major deception for his father’s blessing—with some help from mom.
By the time these couple of chapters play out, Jacob has secured himself as the only recipient of the blessing and inheritance of his father. He cheats Esau out of what had been rightfully his. And by the time Esau becomes aware of it all, he’s raging and ready to kill his younger brother.
Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”
At this point, Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, steps in again. She overhears Esau’s words and sends Jacob away to his uncle Laban to wait it out while his brother’s rage settles.
And then the story fully shifts from focusing on the life of Isaac and his sons, to focusing on Jacob and how God continues to carryout His plan to fulfill the promise He had made to Abraham. Jacob spends 20 years with Laban and goes from being a single man on the run to having children from four different women, two of whom are Laban’s daughters. He has become not only successful, but a shrewd threat to his uncle. And having become a threat God tells Jacob to leave and to return to the land of his fathers.
At this point we’ve all but forgotten about Esau . . . but Jacob hasn’t. As he got near to where his brother would be, Jacob created an elaborate plan to assuage his brother’s anger. The plan included splitting his whole company and family into two separate camps as well as sending a gift (read bribe) to Esau. Jacob has not forgotten his name, even if the LORD Himself has changed it. He has not forgotten how he cheated his brother out of his rightful blessing. And he is fearful. Rightfully so.
And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two female servants. And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.
Jacob is afraid. He is sure that his brother will kill him and his entire family.
But here is the part that is amazing: Esau is changed. We aren’t told that explicitly in the text, but when we see his attitude and behavior, we cannot think otherwise.
But Esau ran to meet him and embrace him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
Esau shows no intention of taking Jacob’s life. He seems genuinely overjoyed at seeing Jacob. At first Jacob doesn’t seem to believe it, but nothing in the text indicates anything other than genuine love on Esau’s part.
What I find peculiar is this: we never read the story of what happened to Esau in those 20 years. Certainly we learn about how his family has grown, but we aren’t given any details about what had been happening in his heart.
I find great encouragement in this. God was at work in Esau’s life. Even though the intent of the narrative is to track Jacob’s life and how God would fulfill His promise to and through him, it doesn’t mean that God wasn’t working in Esau, too.
Sometimes we find ourselves tempted to think that God is only busy in certain people and places. The reality is that God is sovereignly working everywhere at all times. And though those 20 years of Esau’s life are an untold story, we are given a glimpse of the grace of God that had been at work. There is simply no other explanation.
God is at work whether the spotlight is on us or not. He is at work in our lives and the people around us. We can expect to see changes and they can only be attributed to the goodness and grace of God.