The popular culture’s influence through media such as fairy tales, comic books, and movies has impacted how we understand stories from God’s word. For many, as we read popular Old Testament stories like Jacob and Esau we automatically look for a hero and a villain. We look for actions to imitate from the “good guy” and actions to avoid from the “bad guy.” Vanessa explores how this approach to biblical stories is misguided and gives context and insight to the complicated and messy, yet redemptive relationship between Jacob and Esau.
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As we try to apply the teachings of the bible to our lives, especially in the narrative genres, we often unconsciously classify characters in the story as heroes and villains – those whose actions we try to mimic and those whose actions we try to avoid. We often read biblical stories much the same as we would a fairy tale or comic book, where characters are usually either completely good or completely bad. This approach misses the messy reality that people are a complex mixture of good and bad choices. The characters from the biblical narratives were real people just like us influenced by their fallen nature making real choices. God worked with people right where they were at bringing their transformation and His kingdom through their situations.
It’s helpful to understand the story of brothers Jacob and Esau by understanding the family context they were born in to. Their grandfather Abraham had entered a covenant with God in which God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be many, become a great nation, and be God’s witness to the world. Abraham’s son Isaac and his wife Rebekah had twins Esau (meaning hairy) and Jacob (meaning heel grasper). Esau loved the outdoors and won Isaac’s admiration as a great hunter. Jacob on the other hand preferred the indoors, made his own clothes, and became Rebekah’s favorite son.
On two occasions Jacob fulfilled the prophetic meaning of his name (heel grasper was associated with deception, trickery, or metaphorically tripping someone up). The first came with his brother Esau as he opportunistically took advantage of Esau’s hunger and impulsive nature to trick Esau in to giving Jacob his birthright in exchange for a meal. This birthright the oldest son carried now entitled Jacob to a double inheritance.
The second instance was a joint venture by Jacob and his mother when Isaac grew old and prepared to give his sons their blessing and inheritance. While Esau was out hunting a meal for his dying father, Rebekah helped Jacob cook a meal, put on Esau’s clothing, and attach goat hair to his body to take on Esau’s appearance. As Isaac had lost his sight, Jacob’s deception worked on his father and he received Esau’s blessing and inheritance. Upon Esau’s return he became very angry realizing he had lost his inheritance and plots to kill his brother Jacob. Realizing his life is in danger; Jacob flees home and ends up getting married, having 11 sons, and becoming wealthy in livestock. After a decade away Jacob and his family return back home. Much to his surprise, Esau forgives Jacob and welcomes him back in to the family.
Instead of asking who the hero is, and who the villain in the story is, Vanessa proposes a couple more revealing questions that get to heart of the biblical narrative as a whole:
- What does this story tell us about God?
- What does this story tell us about God’s relationship to His people
In the end we realize that both Jacob and Esau could be either the good guy or the bad guy because both took actions rooted selfishness and self-centeredness. We learn that God keeps His promises even when peoples’ lives get messy. God works with us right where we’re at and brings good out of broken people. Through Esau’s forgiveness God is bringing transformation to both boys, by releasing Esau of the burden he has carried and freeing Jacob up to become a great leader of Israel. This story is an invitation to all of us to do God’s work right where we’re at.
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